5 Jan 2008

The Exploitation Film Considered As Art

This blog will be an examination of four films that don't exist. They were created as faux-trailers for Grindhouse, the Tarantino/Rodriguez tribute to exploitation cinema. We won't discuss that movie itself - plenty of room elsewhere on the net for fanboy knife fights, and they haven't even released it here yet, anyway (and when they do, it will be without these trailers). This is about four little love letters to a period of film history - when your movie could never be too cheap or too sleazy. Oh, of course, we still have exploitation cinema today, but jeez - most b-movies today spend more money in one shoot than Roger Corman did in his entire career. It's not the same.

The cool thing about these things is that, by being trailers, they get to have all the moneyshots in one snappy little package. They can convey the whole feel of the movie by piling on the music-video direction. Besides, most plots in classic exploitation cinema could have been summarised in two minutes anyway - the rest was just glorious filler.

You can watch all four trailers in this video below (which also has a clip from Planet Terror and the Acuna Boys ad); or the individual ones by each article. Thanks YouTube!

1 - Machete

The plot of Machete is a mindless 80's action film run amok, using all the worst stereotypes they could think of. That is, it looks bloody fantastic. (Is it me, or is Danny Trejo the hardest motherfucker on the planet?) A seemingly disposable $7-a-day labourer is hired by some Reaganesque suits to assassinate someone. Of course, he's been set up and all. But what they don't know is a) this guy is unkillable, b) he's actually a Federale, and c) now a really pissed-off one at that. Bring on the carnage!

Machete has a brother - none other than Cheech Marin, a shotgun-packin' priest. That's a colossal in-joke I loved. From that point on the film would become a systematic gorefest, as the baddies are dispatched in appropriately sadistic ways. The promise of the title has to be fulfilled - the machete is a fear-inspiring weapon, and a guy slinging them all over has to be respected. Of course, some time is found for some wah-chigga-wah-wah in the spa; these films typically had a four-boobie minimum. It's called pacing, man; can't be killing all the time.

We never got a lot of Mexploitation cinema in New Zealand - it's definitely an American thing. It could be considered racist as all hell, but Machete and his chums are the good guys in this. In a similar fashion to blaxploitation, it was the greedy white bastards in power who were the villains. An ordinary American audience watching films like this, back in the early 80's, were having a major wish indulged - to see their stereotypes reinforced about both violent Mexicans and corrupt politicians. With heaps of blood and boobies too.

2 - Werewolf Women Of The SS

It probably doesn't get more politically incorrect than Holocaust porn. It first appeared around the early '70s, as a new generation was rediscovering the mass-murder. All sorts of lurid and sensationalist legends grew out of this paperback era. The immediate horror and terror of the Nazis had gone, and people became seduced by the twisted aesthetic. The most famous example of this is probably the book "House of Dolls" - which is only really remembered today for its influence on Joy Division.

History itself did provide some basis - there really was a Salon Kitty - but on the whole this was an imaginary, illucid memory of Nazism. It was all about the gorgeous SS uniforms and the BDSM scenarios. There was a whole porn sub-industry in the 70's, a particular kind of "men's magazine", which was all about helpless and nubile girls being tormented by their Nazi captors.

So this is Rob Zombie's take on a pungent genre. Naturally, he could be expected in turn in a worthwhile effort. The trailer doesn't provide much in the way of a plot, but that's okay, because the movie as a whole would barely have one. It would go something like this - the magnificent Udo Kier leading a bunch of Satanist Nazi doctors on a mission to create werewolves. This would involve lots of bound and half-naked women being leered at. Things get cranked up a notch with the arrival of the She-Devils of Balzac! That name is filled with so many levels of meta-referencing, it shows how Zombie knows his stuff. A definite nod is made there to the Ilsa movies, with their passing connection to notorious female war criminals. The appearance of Sybil Danning, raspy-voiced Queen of the Sleazy Bs, is outright pandering to the hardcore fans (and we love it, thanks Rob); the name "Belzac" is a reference to a real camp called Belzec.

After that, I imagine, there would be a succession of weird sadomasochistic sex scenes, some torture, then a massive battle scene that ends in gory death for all - set to the tunes of Beethoven's 9th. Throwing in Fu Manchu FOR NO REASON AT ALL is a stroke of genius. What would he be doing there? Who knows. There was a whole tabloid pseudohistory concoted about "Nazi occultism" which provided rich fodder for these films, despite being utter myth. But we're talking werewolves here! In SS outfits! With sexy blonde psychos! AND FU MANCHU!

(At this point in the first vid we have an ad for the Acuna Boys Restaurant, which shares its name with the mysterious gang mentioned by Kiddo in Kill Bill 2 - the bastard brood of one Esteban Vihaio. This is an in-joke on several Tarantinoesque (whew) levels. Apparently the food is pretty suspect, but I wouldn't know about that. Anyway, it's one of those things like Red Apple cigarettes, which are smoked by everyone in the Tarantino universe - a knowing reference to a metaverse of movies. Pretty neat, then, for a short cheesy fake ad).

3 - Don't!

When TVNZ first began broadcasting 24-hours in 1985, a whole new world opened to film-crazy kids like me. They needed something to fill that midnight-to-dawn void. In these glorious days before infomercials, they used Hammer horror films. My young mind was traumatised most beautifully by these British excursions into horror. They had a tone and style that stayed with you for a long time after. It was all about light, shadows and terrible things lurking offscreen. It is this kind of film that "Don't!" is directly referencing. This is also a strong strain of Italian, or 'giallo' in it as well; homaging the works of masters like Fulci and Argento. The latter, in particular, has a strong presence in this trailer; that green and blue lighting effect is almost a signature.

There doesn't seem to be any plot here; a bunch of victims arrive at a Bad Place and get dispatched in many howwible ways. That "Baby-eater' in the basement is a real doozy - like some ghastly Glamis monster. This is all sadistic, lurking horror - Hammer and mondo films are mainly remembered for their imaginative and gory death scenes. This trailer loads it all on - freaky kids, murderous ghosts, and psycho killers. Eyes are often attacked; that's a common theme in Argento's movies and in this trailer several characters seem to be blinded in horrible fashions. This is an essence of real fear that makes these films memorable. They were one long string of bizarre murders after another, with the audience being constantly jarred.

This particular European style of horror stands out quite naturally from the three other American trailers. There is a particular aesthetic, which calls for the horror to be more suggestive than gratuitous. You never get a good look at the monsters in a Hammer film, but you really don't want to. That's how they work. Of course, it's ripe for self-parody; this particular piece was made by Edgar Wright; you should also refer to Steve Coogan's "Dr Terrible".

4 - Thanksgiving

Here we have the classic slasher film. These are probably the most well-known kind of exploitation horror, given their massive commericial success. Playing on the neurotic fears of teens, while giving them all the nudity and gore they can handle, has made some people very rich. "Thanksgiving" calls to mind all the date-centered gore fests like "Friday the 13th", of course, or that notorious gem "Silent Night, Deadly Night". It also has the best voiceover by far, and was the only trailer to merit an 18 rating; I'd say it's because this was Eli Roth's contribution to the party. Trust him to thrown in as much blood 'n' breasts as possible.

(Aside : Roth's latest production, Hostel 2, was banned here last month. Just proves that exploitation cinema is still alive and kicking violently in the torture chair!)

What's the plot here? Roth provided a basic one, but it's immaterial. A lot of nubile teens get butchered in comprising situations. One girl survives to allow for sequels - in this case 'Judy'. The murkiness and the ominous electric score are very evocative. These are the basic tropes of this kind of film, now extensively self-satirised. There is a gleeful tone to this trailer which reflects these well-established conventions. The whole joke of choosing Thanksgiving as the date is a hoot, especially for all those terrible puns. The stuffed victim at the end is, by itself, a masterful touch of horror. And who could not love the indomitable Michael Biehn as the local sheriff; and probably the guy who nearly takes out the killer in the end, only for it to come back to life and get him.

The Wikipedia article on exploitation movies says that they are "films made with little or no attention to quality or artistic merit but with an eye to a quick profit, usually via high-pressure sales and promotion techniques emphasizing some sensational aspect of the product". What snobs! "With an eye to a quick profit" - so name me a bloody movie that wasn't produced to make a profit? Ironically, many B-movies paid fair more attention to quality and artistic merit - which are totally subjective anyway - than Hollywood usually does. The rest, I admit, can't be argued with - because sensationalism is the whole reason for this kind of film. It's just that that description above could sum up most movies, not just exploitation ones. Yay for the honesty of bad cinema!

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