An Essay: Exploitation Cinema

by Angelique Jones

Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! by Alice Carman

The term ‘exploitation film,’ first coined in 1930, is a complex genre to define. Initially marketed as a ‘public service,’ or ‘warning to the people,’ exploitation films are typically over the top, and explore the seedier aspects of humanity, say  SYSK. They usually have a quick turnaround, cheap production, and are designed to create a fast profit by exploiting “contemporary cultural anxieties” and topical issues: drug use, violence in society, xenophobia, nudity, sexual deviance, rebellious youths/gangs, alien invasions, terrorism and so on. This didn’t fit into the Hollywood production code which restricted any presentation of crime, profanity, murderous, sexual or “vulgar” act. Originating from the now defunct burlesque houses, these films were initially shown in the ‘backstreet theatres,’ away from mainstream studios. In modern-day terms, think Sin City, Inglorious Basterds, or Taken. Exploitation filmmakers, or auteurs, were supposedly giving people what they really wanted.

 

Yet, as Professor Ernest Mathijs highlights, although exploitation films “claim to warn viewers about the consequences of these problems… in most cases their style, narrative, and inferences celebrate the problem as much as critiquing it.” Ever wonder why naked, model-like women have continued to abundantly pervade film for the best part of a century?

 

Some of the most influential exploitation originals like Tod Browning’s revengesploitation Freaks (1932) and Russ Meyer’s sex/women/drugsploitaiton Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965) were initial flops, due to the controversial themes and representations of marginalized groups. Browning used “real circus freaks” to perform as actors and it was actually banned in the UK for its repulsive, “outrageous” content.

 

Meyer, ‘King of the Nudies,’ meanwhile, hatched a new school of filmmakers underpinning female subjugation and violence in mainstream films. “Female nudity put customers in theatre seats” says Meyer, who also advocated that regardless of Pussy!’s pornographic nature, it’s “not derogatory to women,” since the three, very naked, women go on a vengeful killing spree of the men who did them wrong. It’s a “humorous… provocative” “put-on” he says, “it’s all a joke” – but is it?

In 1948, when the supreme court voted that film studios could no longer own their own movie theatres (eg. Paramount Studios) the production code began to fall apart, and this meant that exploitation films became more legitimate. Combine this with the extremely low morale felt after World War II, and you’ve got people (men) wanting a boost. The answer? Women in suggestive, sexualised clothing, and a more “loose” attitude towards sex. From pin-up girls to unexplainable naked situations on screen, sub-genres of nakedness kept blossoming: nudist colony films pawned off as documentaries legitimized the proliferation of pretty naked women on screen, and the distinction between the explicit and the norm becomes very distorted. Mainstream film producers began to explore more ‘adult themes’ as studios realised that shock, drugs, violence and, mainly, sexuality sells – big time.

"We’ve been numbed to the abundance of violence, nudity, sex, crime, and sadism [...]There's naked women everywhere."

Flash-forward half a century and you’ve got an Oscar-nominated, Martin Scorses, blockbuster, Wolf of Wall Street – a film that glamourizes drugs, screwing people over and the blatant objectification of women. It “exploits” a true story, the real con-man Jordan Belfort, and it’s an undeniably attractive film; but what stereotype is it perpetuating? And who is really being exploited here? Is it the millionaire con-man or the beautiful women?

 

Is the 21st century blockbuster franchise Fast and Furious (alarmingly aimed at teenagers) any different? With inconsequential violence, crime, bad guys and gals, these films are simply a “deafening orgy of explosions” void of any cultural subtext, to quote Mark Kermode. So why are Furious and films alike such hits with mainstream audiences? It seems like filmmakers really are giving the people what they want - or what they have been conditioned to want: violence, naked women… oh, and expensive cars apparently.  

The success and proliferation of these types of “excessive” films must reflect our own desires, and some indie classics (like Donnie Darko, an intelligent teensploitation) are also incredibly entertaining, and perhaps on the constructive scale of what the niche market has to offer: smaller scale production and an openness to explore without big studio restrictions. But could this freedom to explore the ‘unacceptable,’ also present problems, specifically, when it comes to the treatment of women on screen?

We’ve been numbed to the abundance of violence, nudity, sex, crime, and sadism. All the more reason to take a look at our viewing practises as a 21st-century society. The film industry has embraced a more open relationship with sex and the complex nature of relationships. This has somewhat enabled the integration, and even confusion, of pornography through more liberal exploration of sexual ‘taboos’ and graphic content. There’s naked women everywhere.

Kill Bill by Alice Carman

In 2013, writer-director Lars von Trier gave us his controversial two-part sex epic, Nymphomaniac - the artful porn with a narrative. Subgenres include Sexploitation, Nymphosploitation, and Pornsploitation. This visceral show follows self-diagnosed nymphomaniac Jo, who unapologetically details her erotic and emotionally charged sexual encounters with numerous lovers throughout her life via flashbacks. Underscored with themes of domestic violence, guilt, shame, desire and obsession, the film’s excessive and explicit sex mainstreams pornographic aestheticism, disrupting any clear definitions as to whether this is a homage to the genre or is in fact itself a very artistic porno.

In 2013, writer-director Lars von Trier gave us his controversial two-part sex epic, Nymphomaniac - the artful porn with a narrative. Subgenres include Sexploitation, Nymphosploitation, and Pornsploitation. This visceral show follows self-diagnosed nymphomaniac Jo, who unapologetically details her erotic and emotionally charged sexual encounters with numerous lovers throughout her life via flashbacks. Underscored with themes of domestic violence, guilt, shame, desire and obsession, the film’s excessive and explicit sex mainstreams pornographic aestheticism, disrupting any clear definitions as to whether this is a homage to the genre or is in fact itself a very artistic porno.

Is von Trier’s desire to make such a shocking film simply to satisfy audience’s needs? Art has always pushed the limits of ‘acceptable behaviour,’ and so the question becomes about how far is too far. Perhaps films like Nymphomaniac are just symptomatic of human nature and our intrinsic sexual habits? Is it easier to watch someone else’s sexual fantasies play out on screen as a form of catharsis for our own repressed, perhaps ‘shameful’ desires? Steve McQueen’s Shame comes to mind for its uncomfortable exploration of private addiction. Sex and nudity are “normality... there’s nothing graphic about it” says McQueen. So, is it the manner in which these “normal” things are approached? There’s something very different to seeing a middle-aged man masturbate in the shower to seeing a (again, I reiterate, a conventionally beautiful) woman do the same (see Black Swan) - women are typically sexualised for the male gaze.

Just as sexploitations must go further to shock, horror films (which commonly tell a version of a twisted killer) must not be predictable in order to shock the increasingly anesthetized audiences of today. We know we already like sex, but what about murder? The latest version of slasher-horror Maniac, by Franck Khalfound, is a 21st-century Jack the Ripper-style tale of a sadistic male killer who scalps his female victims to place on mannequins. Shot in first-person, it employs an empathetic, realistic directorial approach. Like many ‘exploitations’ the original 1980 film was banned in the UK under the ‘video nasties’ act; the 2012 version was not.

With less gore and more artsy filming, there is room for emotional investment - in the villain, played by Elijah Wood, with his big eyes and petite stature. The audience is invited inside his head, to almost understand, even feel sorry for, his ‘maniac’ behaviour; “it’s the movie version of a first-person shooter” wrote the Guardian’s Phelim O'Neill. Contemporary auteurs employ new shock-tactics, utilising people’s need to understand the psychology behind the ‘madness.’ We are exposed to less danger on a day-to-day basis, we seek thrill elsewhere: we’ve have been there, done that with the slasher-sploitations. We now seek something deeper to shock us. In the same way that we read novels for escapism, or turn to porn to explore sexual fantasies, horror films can offer a platform in which audiences can play out darker desires inside the safety of it not being real. The worry is that it still has the capacity to perpetuate cultural anxieties and violence against women, in an age of media-worthy extremism.

"Violence and sex sells. What a great marketing tool then for filmmakers to latch onto. Would Sin City have been so appealing had there not been lots of beautiful, sexual, albeit powerful (but undeniably objectified) women?"

Neon Demon by the notorious auteur Nicolas Winding Refn, starring the young Elle Fanning, grotesquely pulls apart and devours the female body in an exploration of the damaging consequences of jealousy in pursuit of beauty and youth. Presented in a neon, disco-tech manner, this film is largely appealing to audiences from a visual sense.

A mainstream, perhaps less obscure, example of our attraction to the visual, regardless of content, is the seductive aesthetic of the noir, black-and-white world of Sin City. It’s a film that simultaneously glamourises ultraviolence and then dehumanises the female sexual body, as the female characters participating in sex are violently killed. Look at Ava Lord’s character, played by the innately French actress Eva Green, whose nipples and feline figure were deemed too explicit for the movie poster – yet the gun in her hand was not.

 

On the one hand we have naked women smeared across screens, and then the other, they are still regarded as the fame fatal, too dangerous to be taken seriously. But, then even more dangerously, there is the normalisation of guns

Django Unchained by Alice Carman

Violence and sex sells. What a great marketing tool then for filmmakers to latch onto. Would Sin City have been so appealing had there not been lots of beautiful, sexual, albeit powerful (but undeniably objectified) women?

 

It seems that filmmakers gave audiences what they wanted them to want, and the more excessive, and arguably less intellectual the film, the more money it makes. A century later and exploitation cinema never really went away, says Rolling Stone, “it just started playing different venues and took on slightly morphed, occasionally more ‘respectable’ forms.”

 

This is the danger of giving audiences what they supposedly want… we don’t know what we want because we are just being fed the same story in different masks.

Art by Alice Carman. Alice is currently living in London, UK. She finds inspiration in the everyday person. 

  • Facebook - Black Circle
  • Instagram - Black Circle

Words by Angelique Jones. Angelique is a freelance writer working in film, with a passion for travel and yoga She is starring in a feature film this summer which she has also co-written. As well as being Film Editor for OTB, she is also Art Director for Last Maps and is a qualified Hatha Yoga Teacher. You'll find Angelique working on a film somewhere, practising yoga and doodling sketches.

  • Facebook - Black Circle
  • Instagram - Black Circle

Sign up to our monthly newsletter for information about upcoming events, exclusive interviews with industry artists, directors, writers, creatives and a run down of our latest reviews. 

On the Beat 2018   |    Online Culture Magazine    |    on-the-beat@hotmail.com