Exploitation Films

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Exploitation Films


Exploitation movies have been a part of the motion picture industry since its earliest days. The term "exploitation movie" initially referred to any film that required exploitation or ballyhoo over and above the usual posters, trailers, and newspaper advertising. Originally this included films on risqué topics, documentaries, and even religious films. But by the 1930s it referred specifically to low-budget movies that emphasized sex, violence, or some other form of spectacle in favor over coherent narrative.

Exploitation films grew out of a series of sex hygiene films that were made prior to and during World War I in an effort to stave the scourge of venereal diseases. Using movies as a modern educational tool to convey the dangers of the diseases and their potential treatments, movies like Damaged Goods (1914) drove home a moralistic message about remaining clean for family and country. Following the war several films commissioned by the government for use in training camps were released to the general public. Fit to Win (1919) and The End of the Road (1918) did not have the same level of moralizing of pre-war films, but they did include graphic clinical footage in many situations. These elements left the films open to severe cuts or outright bans by state and municipal censorship boards. In 1921 a meeting of top motion picture directors adopted a self-regulatory code, The Thirteen Points and Standards, that condemned the production of movies that were susceptible to censorship. Sex hygiene, white slavery, drug use, vice, and nudity led the list of disapproved topics. The same topics were among the list of forbidden subjects of the MPPDA's "Don'ts and Be Carefuls" when it was approved in 1927 and the Production Code when it was written in 1930. With a collection of salacious topics off-limits to mainstream moviemakers, low-budget entrepreneurs quickly moved in to fill the gap and reap the profits. Just as the bizarre sights of the sideshow had been segregated from the big top in the circus, the subjects of exploitation films were shunted aside by the mainstream movie industry.


From the late teens through the late 1950s classical exploitation films operated in the shadow of the classical Hollywood cinema. The men that made and distributed exploitation films were sometimes called "the Forty Thieves," and several came from carnival backgrounds. Some companies were fly-by-night outfits that produced a film or two and then disappeared. However, many individuals and companies were around for years: Samuel Cummins (1895–1967) operated as Public Welfare Pictures and Jewel Productions; Dwain Esper (1892–1982) used the Road Show Attractions name; J. D. Kendis (1886–1957) made films under the Continental and Jay Dee Kay banners; Willis Kent's (1878–1966) companies included Real Life Dramas and True Life Photoplays; and Louis Sonney's Sonney Amusement Enterprises dominated West Coast distribution.

Exploitation movies were invariably low budget—usually made for far less than the average B movie. Most exploitation films were made for under $25,000 and some for as little as $5,000. Shooting schedules were less than a week, with some films being shot in as little as two or three days. (Unlike B movies, which were used to fill out the bottom half of a double feature, exploitation films were often expected to stand on their own.) Their low budgets and accelerated shooting schedules meant that exploitation films featured stilted performances, poor photography, confusing plots, and startling gaps in continuity. On almost every level they were bad films. Many of these movies have a delirious quality, shifting between long passages of expository dialogue and confusing action. But what they lacked in narrative coherence they made up for by offering audiences moments of spectacle that could not be found in mainstream movies. That spectacle might come in the shape of scenes in a nudist camp, footage of childbirth or the effects of venereal diseases, prostitutes lounging around in their underwear, or women performing striptease dances. These scenes of spectacle often brought the creaky narrative to a grinding halt, allowing the viewers to drink in the forbidden sights. As a result of such scenes exploitation movies were always advertised for "adults only."

In addition to the forbidden sights on the screen, exhibitors were often provided with elaborate, garish lobby displays. Sex hygiene films could be accompanied by wax casts showing the process of gestation and birth or the effects of VD. Drug movies came with displays of drug paraphernalia. In many instances the films were accompanied by lectures, which were little more than excuses to pitch books on the subject of the film. For a dollar or two the audience could buy booklets with titles like "The Digest of Hygiene for Mother and Daughter." Pitchbooks provided an additional source of income to the distributor.

A small core of urban skid row grindhouses played exploitation films constantly. But the best market for these films consisted of regular theaters, in cities or small towns, that periodically took a break from Hollywood product to play a racy—and profitable—exploitation movie. The movies cloaked their suggestive stories and images in the mantle of education. Almost all exploitation films began with a square-up—a brief prefatory statement that explained the necessity of showing a particular evil in order to educate the public about it. Given the difficulty of getting information on such issues as childbirth and birth control, some of the movies did have a legitimate educational component. But they were produced primarily to make a buck. Exploitation movies were often available in "hot" and "cold" versions to accommodate local censorship or taste, and to extend the potential of pocketing that buck. And if audiences did not get the spectacle that they had been led to believe they would see from the lurid advertising, a roadshowman could always throw on a "square-up reel" of nudist camp footage or a striptease dance to sate the crowd.

Because only a handful of prints of any film circulated around the country at any one time, many classical exploitation films were in release for decades. It was a common practice to re-title a film to extend its life on the road; some movies were known by as many as five or six titles over time. Among the perennial hits on the exploitation circuit were sex hygiene movies such as The Road to Ruin (1934) and Damaged Goods (1937); drug movies like Marihuana (1936), The Pace That Kills (1935), and She Shoulda Said No (1949); vice films such as Gambling with Souls (1936) and Slaves in Bondage (1937); nudist movies like Elysia, the Valley of the Nude (1933) and The Unashamed (1938); and exotic movies (often featuring nearly naked natives) such as Virgins of Bali (1932) or Jaws of the Jungle (1936).

The most successful exploitation film of the classical era was Mom and Dad (1944). Producer Kroger Babb (1906–1980) had toured with earlier sex hygiene films and in 1944 decided to make a more up-to-date film. The story of a high school girl who discovers that she is "in trouble," Mom and Dad included films within it that showed childbirth, a Caesarian operation, and venereal diseases and their treatment. Babb sold the film aggressively and at one point after World War II he had more than twenty units on the road with the film, each with its own "Elliott Forbes," an "eminent hygiene commentator" who provided the lecture and book pitch. Millions of men, women, and teenagers saw Mom and Dad and it soon had competition from several direct imitations: The Story of Bob and Sally (1948), Because of Eve (1948), and Street Corner (1948). Eventually the owners of the four films joined together in a consortium to distribute the movies in a way that minimized direct conflict. Mom and Dad was still playing drive-in dates into the 1970s and some estimates have placed its total gross over the years at $100 million. But as the 1950s progressed, the Production Code was relaxed and many of the old topics that had been grist for exploitation movies—drug use, unwed motherhood—were folded back into the list of acceptable subjects for Hollywood films.


The post–World War II years saw the continued production and rerelease of classical exploitation films. But other types of exploitation movies were on the horizon. Following on the heels of the Supreme Court's Paramount decision (1948) and declining output from the majors, American theaters were forced into bitter competition for product during the 1950s. Hungry theater owners had to look beyond the majors for movies to light up their screens. James H. Nicholson (1916–1972) and Samuel Z. Arkoff (1918–2001) founded American Releasing Corporation in 1954, soon changed to American International Pictures (AIP). AIP specialized in making cheap genre pictures geared toward the growing youth market and often developed a colorful title and eye-catching advertising for a film long before a script was written. AIP offered favorable terms to exhibitors, and many theater owners found that the prepackaged AIP double bills brought in more money than major studio releases. Working with producers like Roger Corman (b. 1926) and Herman Cohen (1925–2002), AIP released dozens of low-budget films with titles like Day the World Ended (1956), I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), Dragstrip Girl (1957), Reform School Girl (1957), and High School Hell Cats (1958). The term exploitation

b. Roger William Corman, Detroit, Michigan, 5 April 1926

Roger Corman has been a major force in exploitation filmmaking for half a century. His career spans an era from the earliest days of American International Pictures (AIP) in the mid-1950s through the exploitation golden age to the rise of home video.

While in his teens Corman moved with his family to Los Angeles, where he developed an interest in the motion picture industry. Following a stint in the Navy, he completed his engineering degree at Stanford, then broke into the film business by selling a script. He soon signed a three-picture deal with the newly formed AIP. Producing and directing all his films, Corman worked in a variety of genres, although his science fiction films are the most fondly remembered. Some of those films, such as Attack of Crab Monsters (1957), Not of This Earth (1957), and X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes (1963), feature genuinely chilling moments despite their low budgets. The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), a horror-comedy about a ravenous plant, developed a cult following because of its quirky humor and legendary status as a film shot in just two days. During that same year Corman and AIP initiated a series of bigger-budget, widescreen, color adaptations of the works of Edgar Allan Poe, many featuring Vincent Price. House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), and The Masque of the Red Death (1964) established him as a director of considerable style. Some critics have ascribed an apocalyptic vision to Corman, and many of his films he directed begin or end with some sort of cataclysmic event.

Corman continued to look to hot-button issues to exploit, including integration in the South with The Intruder (1962), one of his few financial failures. For The Wild Angels (1966) he worked with members of The Hell's Angels, and prior to his film about the drug culture, The Trip (1967), Corman experimented with LSD. Both films initiated long-lived exploitation cycles.

In 1970 Corman broke with AIP to form New World Pictures. Its first effort, The Student Nurses (1970), established the company formula: R-rated nudity and sex, action, some laughs, and a slightly left-of-center political stance. New World's brand of exploitation films became drive-in staples for more than a decade, during which Corman discovered, or gave a major boost to, a number of filmmakers such as James Cameron, Joe Dante, Jonathan Demme, Ron Howard, Gale Ann Hurd, and Martin Scorsese. In an effort to diversify, New World also distributed several European art films, including works by Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman.

Corman sold New World in 1983 and formed Concorde-New Horizons. As theaters increasingly booked big-budget blockbusters, Corman has concentrated on making exploitation movies—many remakes of his earlier hits—for cable television and the direct-to-video market.


Not of This Earth (1957), Teenage Doll (1957), House of Usher (1960), The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), The Intruder (1962), The Wild Angels (1966), The Trip (1967)


Corman, Roger, with Jim Jerome. How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime. New York: Random House, 1990.

Frank, Alan. The Films of Roger Corman: "Shooting My Way Out of Trouble." New York: Batsford, 1998.

Gray, Beverly. Roger Corman: An Unauthorized Biography of the Godfather of Indie Filmmaking. Los Angeles: Renaissance Books, 2000.

McGee, Mark Thomas. Roger Corman: The Best of the Cheap Acts. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1988.

Morris, Gary. Roger Corman. Boston: Twayne, 1985.

Will, David, and Paul Willeman, eds. Roger Corman. Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh Film Festival, 1970.

Eric Schaefer

film was expanded to encompass these "teenpics" and virtually any ultra-low-budget movie. Throughout the 1960s AIP was always on the cutting edge of exploitation: The Wild Angels (1966) initiated a long string of nihilistic biker films and movies such as Riot on Sunset Strip (1967), The Trip (1967), and Psych-Out (1968) that explored the blossoming counterculture.

Budget and content were not the only markers of what constituted an exploitation movie. In the late 1950s former B-movie director William Castle (1914–1977) produced a series of fairly conventional chillers that graduated to exploitation status through their use of elaborate exploitation gimmicks to secure an audience. Macabre (1958) promised to insure the lives of all ticket buyers for $1,000 against death by fright. The House on Haunted Hill (1959) featured "Emergo" (a plastic skeleton that swung out over the audience at an appointed time during the film). And in what was perhaps Castle's most audacious gimmick, The Tingler (1959) was presented in "Percepto," with some seats in theaters wired to give select audience members a mild electric shock.

Other theaters hungry for product turned to art films—foreign films sold as a highbrow alternative to Hollywood fare. But many of these films also approached sex and nudity in a franker fashion than mainstream movies. The term "art film" became synonymous with nudity for a large segment of American audiences. One film was most responsible for cementing this equivalence in the minds of the public—Et Dieu … créa la femme (And God Created Woman, 1956) by Roger Vadim (1928–2000). The film, with its nude shots of French sex kitten Brigitte Bardot (b. 1934), played in both art houses and the existing exploitation theaters. Films imported by Radley Metzger's (b. 1929) Audubon in the early 1960s, such as Les Collégiennes (The Twilight Girls, 1957) and Nuit la plus longue (Sexus, 1964), capitalized on a similar dual market. While they had a patina of art films as a result of their foreign—usually French—origin, they also included racy inserts, filmed by Metzger in New York, that made them marketable as sex exploitation, or sexploitation as it came to be known, as well.

American-made films capitalized on this hunger for racy fare by continuing a tradition of adults-only movies. With the first generation of exploitation producers retiring or dying, new filmmakers moved in to take their place with movies that approached sex in a more direct fashion and without pretense to education. In 1959 cheesecake photographer Russ Meyer (1922–2004) made The Immoral Mr. Teas. The film, about a deliveryman who can see through women's clothes, spawned dozens of so-called nudie-cuties—a filmic equivalent to Playboy magazine. Although the nudity in the films was only above the waist and from the rear, films such as The Adventures of Lucky Pierre (1961), Mr. Peter's Pets (1962), and Tonight for Sure (1962)—directed by a young Francis Ford Coppola (b. 1939)—were extremely popular with their predominantly male clientele.

Sexploitation films were soon pushing into new territory with a series of black-and-white psychosexual dramas. Some, such as The Defilers (1965), were similar to the lurid paperbacks that crowded the shelves of bus stations. Others, like Sin in the Suburbs (1964), directed by the prolific Joe Sarno (b. 1921), made a more sincere effort to blend drama with sex. Hundreds of sexploitation movies were made or imported over the ensuing decade with companies such as AFD (American Film Distributing Corp.), International, Cambist, Distribpix, and Mitam releasing dozens of films. Several distinct subgenres developed. Among the most popular were those about bored housewives and sexually frustrated commuters, and exposés about changing morals and sexual practices, including The Sexploiters (1965), Moonlighting Wives (1966), and The Commuter Game (1969). Some films featured heavy doses of sadomasochism, like the series about the sadistic Olga, initiated with White Slaves of Chinatown (1964). Other movies operated as thrillers about the dangers of the urban environment such as Aroused (1966) and To Turn a Trick (1967). Rural or hillbilly movies such as Country Cuzzins (1970), Sassy Sue (1972), and The Pigkeeper's Daughter (1972) were popular, as were films set on college campuses like Campus Swingers (1972). By the late 1960s some exploitation movies, notably Meyer's Vixen (1968) and several of Metzger's films, were achieving play dates in showcase cinemas in major cities.

In 1963, successful nudie producer David F. Friedman (b. 1923) and director Herschell Gordon Lewis (b. 1926) cast about for a genre in which they would have less competition. They settled on gore. Blood Feast (1963) was a grand guignol farce about a cannibalistic caterer in Florida who disembowels his victims and lops off their limbs. The Eastmancolor effects seemed remarkably realistic at the time and moviegoers challenged themselves and their stomachs to sit through the film. Although gore had occasionally been a form of spectacle in classical exploitation films, the unblinking violence of Blood Feast elevated the gore film to a whole new subgenre of exploitation, populated by machete-wielding maniacs, bloodthirsty butchers, and flesh-eating zombies. Around the same time the Italian-produced Mondo Cane (1962) was released. The "shockumentary" combined real and staged footage of bizarre, violent, and erotic behavior in the human and animal worlds. It was followed by a parade of other "mondo movies" that blurred the line between authenticity and fakery.

In the climate of auteurism of the 1960s and early 1970s several sexploitation filmmakers were singled out for their distinctive styles. Topping the list was Meyer, whose sharp cinematography and rapid-fire editing made his tales of amply proportioned yet sexually frustrated women and their square-jawed, dimwitted men instantly recognizable. Metzger's films were slick, languid exercises in European eroticism, exemplified by Carmen, Baby (1967) and Camille 2000 (1969). Companies often developed distinct niches. Friedman's Entertainment Ventures turned out amusingly leering genre send-ups: Space Thing (1968) lampooned science fiction, Thar She Blows (1969) played with sea story conventions, Trader Hornee (1970) roasted the jungle adventure. Robert Cresse's (1936–1998) Olympic International was known for making and distributing films that focused on sadism such as Love Camp 7 (1968) and Hot Spur (1968). More recently other filmmakers have received attention, including Michael and Roberta Findlay, who made a series of grim, gritty films that fetishized torture and degradation. Andy Milligan's (1929–1991) movies, such as Vapors (1965), The Degenerates (1967), and Fleshpot on 42nd Street (1972), became an outlet for his personal demons. And Doris Wishman (1920–2002) is recognized for her films like Bad Girls Go to Hell (1965) and Double Agent 73 (1974), which feature her quirky mise-en-scène that concentrates as much on set décor, shoes, and pigeons strutting in the park as it does on characters.

Although sexploitation films saw some decline in business as hard-core pornographic features began to achieve public exhibition in 1970, other types of exploitation movies continued to thrive. In 1970 Corman formed New World Pictures, which produced and distributed a variety of exploitation films, often featuring the adventures, sexual and otherwise, of assertive career women, such as Private Duty Nurses (1971), The Student Teachers (1973), and Cover Girl Models (1975). Women in prison films became another staple at New World with The Big Doll House (1971), The Big Bird Cage (1972), and Caged Heat (1974), directed by Jonathan Demme (b. 1944). Crown International, Dimension, Group 1, Hemisphere Pictures, Independent International, Monarch, and a long list of other companies cranked out similar films that combined nudity, sexual situations, violence, and some laughs for drive-ins around the country.

Among the theaters most consistently in need of product were inner-city movie houses. In 1971 Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song by Melvin Van Peebles (b. 1932) launched the "blaxploitation" cycle. Most of the films featured black characters, usually in an urban environment, battling for independence, against injustices, or for a good score—and always with a hefty dose of violence and skin. Although the major studios contributed films like Shaft (1971) and Superfly (1972), it was AIP, New World, and other exploitation companies that milked the cycle with Slaughter (1972), Blacula (1972), The Mack (1973), Hell Up in Harlem (1973), and Black Mama, White Mama (1972), among others. Among the most popular films were those staring the beautiful but tough Pam Grier, including Coffy (1973), Foxy Brown (1974), and Friday Foster (1975).


Exploitation films had always found success in the aisles of struggling theaters. By the 1980s the marginal exhibition sites that had sustained exploitation movies were disappearing. Crumbling inner-city movie palaces gave way to urban renewal projects. Neighborhood theaters were bulldozed for parking lots and acres of suburban drive-ins were converted to shopping malls as the number of drive-ins in the US dropped from more than 3,000 in 1980 to fewer than 1,000 in 1990. Exploitation movies were less desirable in a new era of saturation bookings, national advertising campaigns, and blockbuster films. However, they have not entirely disappeared.

Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz's Troma, Fred Olen Ray's American Independent Productions, and Corman's Corcorde-New Horizons initially concentrated on theatrical releases. But by the late 1980s video and cable television proved to be greener pastures and theatrical releases became token efforts. Full Moon Entertainment, Tempe Entertainment, Seduction Cinema, and other companies were formed specifically to make films for the direct-to-video market. Most of these companies depended on the loyalty of the fans of low-budget genre films, whether horror, science fiction, splatter, or erotic thrillers. Fans have gotten into the act as well, picking up cameras and making their own films, hawked in the pages of fanzines, at conventions, and on the Internet. Other entrepreneurs, who scour old film depots and vaults, have released hundreds of old exploitation movies to new generations on videotape and DVD. It would appear that as long as audiences will search for a cheap thrill, there will be exploitation movies available to satisfy their demand.

SEE ALSO Art Cinema;B Movies;Exhibition;Pornography;Publicity and Promotion


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Eric Schaefer