A Love Letter to Exploitation Films

Looking back, I think my interest in the exploitation films of the late 20th century can probably be traced to a certain day in the spring of 2017, when my dad inexplicably mailed me a copy of a book called Sleazoid Express: A Mind-Twisting Tour Through the Grindhouse Cinema of Times Square. The book, in which Bill Landis lovingly explores the schlockiest of schlocky cinema, opened my eyes to an entirely new—and fascinating, and hilarious—dimension of film. Thank goodness! As a New Yorker, and more importantly, as a film student, it’s shameful how long I had gone without experiencing the joys of grindhouse movies, and so I have decided to enlighten you as my dad enlightened me.

To understand exploitation movies you first need to understand an aspect of New York City culture that’s about as removed from today’s 42nd Street as it can possibly be: Times Square wasn’t always the camera-ready, tourist-friendly spot that it is today. It used to be dirty (well, dirtier) and packed with hustlers, prostitutes, con artists, drug addicts, and sleazy stores. It was also once home to grindhouses, movie theaters that showed mostly low-budget B-movies, the majority of which were exploitation films. You could get in for cheap, stay there for a long time, and feast on a buffet of bargain-basement entertainment.

If mockbusters and direct-to-video sale bin DVDs had to be given a 1970s counterpart, the closest thing would probably be the exploitation film.

It’s important to remember that not all B movies are exploitation films: while both are low-budget and low-quality, exploitation films tend to be made with a very specific trend in mind. Some examples include “sexploitation” (a vehicle for showing as much nudity and as many scantily-clad women as possible), “blaxploitation” (think ’70s Pam Grier), “cannibalsploitation” (which cashed in on wariness of different cultures and the desire for blood and gore), and “carsploitation” (think Death Race 2000 or the original Gone in 60 Seconds). The point is that most of the artistic direction, if it could be called that, came solely in the form of “let’s find our demographic and play directly to the lowest common denominator”.

On the surface, this doesn’t seem like a style of filmmaking that holds much value. I mean, who’s going to give any sort of serious consideration to something like Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! or Blood Sucking Freaks? But I think Bill Landis was on to something, not least of all because these films are hilarious. With a few exceptions (I’m looking at you, Cannibal Holocaust), many of what were perhaps not originally comedies are worth watching if only for their wildly-entertaining cheesiness. Where else are you going to see a man get partially-digested by a sentient, man-eating bed, or a baby with the hairy hand of a fully-grown man attack and kill a woman from its stroller?

As with many B movies, comedy wasn’t what the filmmakers were going for, but a combination of cheesy dialogue, dated special effects, and often-bad acting makes for some outrageously funny late night popcorn material. It’s no wonder that as a result we’ve begun seeing modern homages to this very specific cinematic period, such as Jason Eisener’s Hobo with a Shotgun and Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof.

There’s another reason we shouldn’t forget about exploitation films, however—possibly the most important reason of all. In this age of YouTube, digital editing software, and cell phones capable of shooting feature-length productions, it’s easy to forget that filmmaking hasn’t always been a universally-accessible craft. The filmmakers of the late ’60s and ’70s didn’t have access to the technology we have today, nor did they have the filmic vocabulary that we do. The Motion Picture Production Code had only recently gone by the wayside, and in carving out their sleazy niche, grindhouse movies were making history. Film as a medium was no longer limited by common social standards of what was acceptable, and this was a beautiful thing.

You didn’t need a big budget, or a big studio backing you; if you had the means, you could make your film. Even better: thanks to grindhouse theaters, you could put it out in the world.

I believe that as filmmakers and artists we can learn something from exploitation movies: we are not—nor should we be—constrained by society’s definition of a worthwhile project. It doesn’t matter if your subject matter is taboo or unsavory or boundary-pushing, because it’s your movie. At the end of the day, the exploitation filmmakers of the late 20th century made the films they wanted to make, and with the technology and outlets we have access to now, we have no excuse not to do the same. Whether your artistic vision is Schindler’s List or Night of the Lepus, it’s possible, and it’s valid. So go grab your phone and make good movies. Make bad movies. Make movies.

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A Love Letter to Exploitation Films

Looking back, I think my interest in the exploitation films of the late 20th century can probably be traced to a certain day in the spring of 2017, when my dad inexplicably mailed me a copy of a book called Sleazoid Express: A Mind-Twisting Tour Through the Grindhouse Cinema of Times Square. The book, in which Bill Landis lovingly explores the schlockiest of schlocky cinema, opened my eyes to an entirely new—and fascinating, and hilarious—dimension of film. Thank goodness! As a New Yorker, and more importantly, as a film student, it’s shameful how long I had gone without experiencing the joys of grindhouse movies, and so I have decided to enlighten you as my dad enlightened me.

To understand exploitation movies you first need to understand an aspect of New York City culture that’s about as removed from today’s 42nd Street as it can possibly be: Times Square wasn’t always the camera-ready, tourist-friendly spot that it is today. It used to be dirty (well, dirtier) and packed with hustlers, prostitutes, con artists, drug addicts, and sleazy stores. It was also once home to grindhouses, movie theaters that showed mostly low-budget B-movies, the majority of which were exploitation films. You could get in for cheap, stay there for a long time, and feast on a buffet of bargain-basement entertainment.

If mockbusters and direct-to-video sale bin DVDs had to be given a 1970s counterpart, the closest thing would probably be the exploitation film.

It’s important to remember that not all B movies are exploitation films: while both are low-budget and low-quality, exploitation films tend to be made with a very specific trend in mind. Some examples include “sexploitation” (a vehicle for showing as much nudity and as many scantily-clad women as possible), “blaxploitation” (think ’70s Pam Grier), “cannibalsploitation” (which cashed in on wariness of different cultures and the desire for blood and gore), and “carsploitation” (think Death Race 2000 or the original Gone in 60 Seconds). The point is that most of the artistic direction, if it could be called that, came solely in the form of “let’s find our demographic and play directly to the lowest common denominator”.

On the surface, this doesn’t seem like a style of filmmaking that holds much value. I mean, who’s going to give any sort of serious consideration to something like Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! or Blood Sucking Freaks? But I think Bill Landis was on to something, not least of all because these films are hilarious. With a few exceptions (I’m looking at you, Cannibal Holocaust), many of what were perhaps not originally comedies are worth watching if only for their wildly-entertaining cheesiness. Where else are you going to see a man get partially-digested by a sentient, man-eating bed, or a baby with the hairy hand of a fully-grown man attack and kill a woman from its stroller?

As with many B movies, comedy wasn’t what the filmmakers were going for, but a combination of cheesy dialogue, dated special effects, and often-bad acting makes for some outrageously funny late night popcorn material. It’s no wonder that as a result we’ve begun seeing modern homages to this very specific cinematic period, such as Jason Eisener’s Hobo with a Shotgun and Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof.

There’s another reason we shouldn’t forget about exploitation films, however—possibly the most important reason of all. In this age of YouTube, digital editing software, and cell phones capable of shooting feature-length productions, it’s easy to forget that filmmaking hasn’t always been a universally-accessible craft. The filmmakers of the late ’60s and ’70s didn’t have access to the technology we have today, nor did they have the filmic vocabulary that we do. The Motion Picture Production Code had only recently gone by the wayside, and in carving out their sleazy niche, grindhouse movies were making history. Film as a medium was no longer limited by common social standards of what was acceptable, and this was a beautiful thing.

You didn’t need a big budget, or a big studio backing you; if you had the means, you could make your film. Even better: thanks to grindhouse theaters, you could put it out in the world.

I believe that as filmmakers and artists we can learn something from exploitation movies: we are not—nor should we be—constrained by society’s definition of a worthwhile project. It doesn’t matter if your subject matter is taboo or unsavory or boundary-pushing, because it’s your movie. At the end of the day, the exploitation filmmakers of the late 20th century made the films they wanted to make, and with the technology and outlets we have access to now, we have no excuse not to do the same. Whether your artistic vision is Schindler’s List or Night of the Lepus, it’s possible, and it’s valid. So go grab your phone and make good movies. Make bad movies. Make movies.

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