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Capitalism and Emancipation: What is Exploitation Cinema

The exploitation of people and ideas is the basis of humanity's existence, although we convince ourselves of our independence and altruism. The film industry, which draws ideas from literature, art and life since its inception, has turned to the same practice. Exploitation cinema uses cultural anxieties inherent in a particular period of time and is created for a fast profit. It is a genre based on time-tested formulas — a horror film where a cool jock dies first, or a film from Hong Kong about martial arts. Therefore, exploitation cinema is not a genre or a movement, but just a marketing label which has nothing to do with the industry.

by Anastasiia Ageeva


Exploitation cinema can be called a litmus test of how the film industry is developing in different moments of time. It appeared as soon as business representatives realized the importance of the youth market. The 1950s were marked by the consolidation of consumer society, which aimed its marketing arrows at teenagers and tried to speak their language. Therefore, books about puberty and its difficulties were written not about teenagers, but for them. Thomas Doherty, the author of Teens and Teen Films: The Juvenilization of American Films in the 1950s, notes this connection between the popularity of films about growing up and the opportunity to profit from the target audience through the creation of a new offering. One of the iconic films aimed at teenagers — I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) — contains almost everything that can attract the appropriate audience, from the rebellious spirit and identification in the title of it to gratuitous dance scenes and horror elements.
The development of exploitation cinema in the United States became possible only after relaxing the rules in the film industry. Hollywood sought to build its image on the exclusion of the contemporary, relevant topics — sexual hygiene, white slave trafficking, homosexuality, drug use and mixed marriages did not appear on large and small screens in the 1920s. The Don'ts and Be Carefuls were accepted in 1927 — it was like the preamble of the notorious Hays Code, which tacitly fixed the censorship standard in 1930. The decline of the latter began only after the ruling of the US Supreme Court in 1952 — it said that films are protected under the First Amendment to the Constitution. Considering this circumstance and noticing the increasing competition from European and Scandinavian cinema, the American Association of Film Companies replaced the Code with a rating system in the late 60s. For this reason, the heyday of exploitation cinema came with the 60s and 70s.
Some frankly lousy exploitation films were considered trash films until the 1980s. However, the era of postmodernism would not have become so controversial if it had not pronounced such creations as masterpieces — thus, some films by Edward Wood and Russ Meyer even managed to become iconic. The shocking kitsch which was full of irony and parody was recognized by the end of the decade even by the harshest critics. Trash cinema could no longer be called entertainment exclusively for an unpretentious audience with questionable taste; it was, instead, rapidly gaining recognition from the sophisticated crowd.

Exploitation cinema was also a reason why we have some of the world-famous actors and directors — they were discovered by producer Roger Corman, who is called "the king of B-class films and drive-ins". He founded the company Film group Productions in 1959. It distributed the first films with Jack Nicholson — The Wild Ride (1960) and The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) — and also produced Dementia 13 (1963) by Francis Ford Coppola. The same Korman directed the crime drama Bloody Mama (1970) with Robert De Niro and produced Martin Scorsese's second full-length work Boxcar Bertha (1972) and Sisters (1972) by Brian De Palma.
1950s: the educational process
The symbol of the uprising against adults in power was Marlon Brando. His image on screen embodied an arrogant guy who does not give in to the authority of his elders. When his character Johnny Strabler in the film The Wild One (1953) is asked: "Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?", he replies: "Whadda you got?". A year later, in 1955, Rebel Without a Cause was shown in cinemas — the most famous melodramatic film about juvenile delinquency and alienation. The hero of James Dean was no longer so hostile to the world — he was audacious, but only because of his sensitivity and mixed feelings.

The king of rock and roll Elvis Presley also had a considerable influence on teenage minds and pop culture in general. Since 1956, he has appeared in love dramas, where he performed mesmerizing ballads. Studio representatives and filmmakers placed the singer in pictures of one certain type, such as Jailhouse Rock (1957), King Creole (1958), Flaming Star (1960) and Lonely Man (1961) — a newly emerged category of so-called "Elvis movies". Later, Presley tried to explain the popularity of teen dramas and comedies:
1960s: peace to the world
The impact of the Second World War, which ended less than ten years ago, was felt very acutely in the 1950s. The whole world remembered Hiroshima and Nagasaki, especially the Japanese cinematographers — they created Godzilla in 1954. Its modern rival King Kong appeared twenty years earlier, in 1933, and became the first giant monster in cinema. Nevertheless, the films about giant monsters formed the basis of exploitation cinema only in 1953. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms tells about a dinosaur awakened by nuclear tests, who destroyed New York and was defeated by the same nuclear weapon. The film was warmly received by the audience: with a budget of $210 thousand, it earned $5 million only in the United States. The director of The Beast Eugène Lourié appreciated the interest in this subject and shot two more films about giants — Gorgo (1961) and The Giant Behemoth (1959).

Another tendency of that decade was the American baby boom — a sharp increase in the birth rate in the middle of the XX century, associated with the end of the Second World War. James Dean started his rebellion with seemingly no cause, and Hollywood turned to anti-heroes after several years of idealizing fearless women and men. Young people needed new icons reflecting their own understanding of the world so that boys and girls would not have to rebel against the images and values that cinema offered to middle-aged people.
I've made a study of poor Jimmy Dean. I've made a study of myself, and I know why girls, at least the young 'uns, go for us. We're sullen, we're broodin', we're something of a menace. I don't understand it exactly, but that's what girls like in men. I don't know anything about Hollywood, but I know you can't be sexy if you smile. You can't be a rebel if you grin.
The 60s were a period of invention, social and scientific, all over the world. John F. Kennedy was killed, the Berlin Wall was built, Yuri Gagarin was sent into space, the civil rights movement began to rise, a nuclear war almost started because of the Caribbean crisis, and the situation in Vietnam escalated.

The first category that emerged in light of aforementioned events was peplums. As described by Robert Rushing, these films depicted muscular heroes of mythological antiquity who were often played by professional bodybuilders and athletes. They fought fantastic monsters and rescued half-naked beauties. Hollywood put historical epics on stream, handing out fabulous budgets to their authors: Ben-Hur (1959), Cleopatra (1963), Spartacus (1960). The antagonist was an ambitious ruler who would stop at nothing to take over the throne, but justice had to prevail in films of this genre — the legitimate sovereign was expected to be in power. Sometimes the peplum was based on a story about the clash of civilized and barbaric peoples, and this feature was also inspired by reality.

The second type of exploitation cinema told about a well-known subculture. Everyone knows its motto: "Make love, not war!" The directors of this period tended to depict subcultures in general, so it would not be superfluous to include biker films in this category, especially since they are historically related. For example, Easy Rider (1969) demonstrates all corners of the social landscape of America at the time: the hippie movement, the sharply increased drug use, and the communal lifestyle. Roger Corman shot The Trip in 1967 — a psychedelic story of taking LSD. Sometimes bikers were as well equated with organized crime as in The Wild Angels (1966), despite the fact that the new generation sought to leave or even destroy the rigid framework in society.
1970s: a survival game
1980s: the age of fear
This decade is characterized by the emergence of the so-called "high-concept" — a cinematic plot that can be described in one or two sentences, which makes it much easier to sell. The 1980s became a predominantly commercial era, and the number of films it produced that we can call classics today was much less than in the 70s or 90s. For example, these are The King of Comedy (1982), The Terminator (1984) and Back to the Future (1985).

The exploitation cinema of this period is divided into several categories. The appearance of hostile aliens can be associated with the unprecedented development of the populist conservative movement — the New Right. Among its representatives were supporters of a more powerful American presence abroad. It was also clear that the Cold War would not end anytime soon, so there were those who advocated for a nuclear freeze. The largest mass demonstration in American history took place in New York's Central Park on this occasion in 1982. Do not forget about the development in the cinema industry — technology was moving forward by leaps and bounds, so by the 80s digital effects became the computer graphics that we know today.

The big screen was captured by fantastic stories about enemies from other worlds. In Carpenter's The Thing (1982), a group of scientists finds themselves locked up in an isolated research base in Antarctica, where they encounter the unknown. In The Abyss (1989) by James Cameron, a submarine with the crew descends into the dark depths of the ocean, where a creature of alien origin lives. The antagonists from Alien (1979) and Predator (1987) — films that had a serious impact on popular culture — will even appear on the same screen later and confront each other. And only E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) by Steven Spielberg tells the story of a friendship between an alien and a boy from the USA. The film is based on the director's childhood experiences with his parents' divorce.

While thinking about how the end of the world might happen, people did not forget to assume what would happen after it. Therefore, another popular exploitation category was concerned with post-apocalyptic scenarios. In Miracle Mile (1988), the end of the decade paranoia about nuclear destruction is captured vividly. The Day After (1983) was even able to scare Ronald Reagan, and Mad Max wandered through the desert in a world destroyed by an atomic bomb back in 1979. The central topic of Blade Runner (1982) is mortality: it haunts everyone within Ridley Scott's world — the director even agreed to make the film only after the death of his older brother from cancer.

In general, the creators' efforts during this period were aimed at generating bloody stories, hence the interest in slashers and Italian splitters. Both of them very realistically depict the massacre of any kind of creature. The golden age of slashers began in 1978, after the triumph of John Carpenter's Halloween (although the first horror with a silent maniac was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre).

The main character of the films of this genre is a cold-blooded psychopathic killer. In 1980, in accordance with this concept, Friday the 13th was released, and My Bloody Valentine came out a year later. Both films were produced by Paramount Pictures, therefore the studio was criticized. In the first case the audience expressed discontent with the studio that lowered itself to the level of films with violent exploitation. In case of the latter it was because of associations with the murder of John Lennon committed around that time.

The year of 1984 was marked by the revival of the genre by one of its best representatives Wes Craven. A Nightmare on Elm Street was no longer an ordinary meat grinder — it was based on a story that featured sudden unexplained nocturnal death syndrome. Craven interpreted an article in the L.A. Times about this disease in a cinematic way — his Freddy Krueger hunts for victims in their dreams, and if a person is killed there, then it is impossible for them to return to reality. The film destroyed the border between fantasy and real life, which is why many people were afraid to go to sleep after watching it. Craven's creation was the last one in The Golden Age of slashers, but it ended beautifully.

In 1981, Ronald Reagan became the 40th president of the United States, after which a new era of conservatism came and many were concerned about the growth of violence in the cinema. Therefore, splitters were accepted no better than slashers. According to the definition of George Romero, splatter is a film in which blood and severed body parts occupy 80% of screen time. At some point, such films became so popular that they caused a moral panic among some population groups: for example, the British Parliament banned these bloody genres at the legislative level in 1984.

Italy became a factory for the production of splitters. Cannibal Hell was released in 1980, and today it is considered one of the first films in the genre of found footage. By the way, Peter Jackson also began his career with such films — he shot Bad Taste (1987) and Braindead (1992) back in New Zealand.
The historical context of this decade in the US consists of the ongoing war in Vietnam, the civil and women's rights movements, as well as the general state of the economy.

George Romero's cult classic Dawn of the Dead (1978) hit the screens in 1979. Modern directors who work in the zombie genre still refer to it by quoting frames or entire scenes. Although White Zombie was the first film about the living dead, released back in 1932, it was Romero's creation that became the starting point for the genre. The picture received this status because of the hidden issues like criticism of consumer society. Romero did it by placing characters and the half-dead antagonists in the mall.

At the same time the trend of depicting cannibalism on screen appeared. The topic was developed by the Canadian director David Cronenberg — Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1977). Three years before that, in 1974, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was released. The project was based on stories about serial killer Ed Gein, which the director Tobe Hooper heard from his relatives. The criminal did not just kill people — he stole corpses, collected human organs and ate them. Hooper created a maniac who shared his features and owned a chainsaw, and also gave this character a crazy cannibalistic family in rural Texas. David Roche in his study The Creation and Remakes of horror in the 1970s and 2000s: Why aren't they being made the way they used to be? explains the film as a synecdoche of an entire American nation. Some critics saw the film as a satire on the problems of the United States at the time, such as the poverty of provincial residents, abuse of women and — the most obvious — the criticism of capitalism. After all, the Sawyer family was forced to engage in cannibalism, having lost their job at a slaughterhouse.

Cannibalism in these films appears as an image of perverted consumerism, a demonstration of what is happening in the whole country within the microcosm. However, this situation is paradoxical — directors and their films criticize the economic system which ensures the existence of the latter and in general are created in order to be consumed by this very consumer society.

There is another kind of exploitation cinema that appeals to physicality. WIP, or women in prison, has existed since the 1930s and encourages men's voyeuristic fantasies — in this case, the surveillance of beautiful single women is allegedly justified. Since the 1970s, WIP films have become more sadistic: they shamelessly fetishized prisoners — there were quite intimate scenes in the shower between female characters. Some of the films that can be recommended for an inexperienced viewer are The Big Bird Cage (1972), Bangkok Hilton (1989) and Barbed Wire Dolls (1976).
1990s: the sexual unrest
The beginning of the sexual revolution was officially announced by sociologist Pitirim Sorokin in 1954. Its heyday was in the 60-70s: the hippie movement emerged, the Baby boomers revolted, birth control pills began to be sold, the first sex shop in Germany opened and antibiotics against sexually transmitted diseases appeared. Everything stopped at the end of the 1970s — the counter-revolution came instead.

This counter-revolution — which also pronounced the beginning of the third wave of feminism — did not develop as planned. On the one hand, popular culture talked about female power and showed sex as a positive experience, but on the other, the female body was objectified, especially in hip-hop. Pale models like Kate Moss have become the ideal of female appearance, and the expression "heroin chic" appeared.

It is not surprising that an increasing number of films exploited this topic. The directors focused on nudity and sexual acts designed to excite and entertain the audience. There was no any educational function — thanks to the sexual revolution, everyone knew all the necesssary details. However, some creators claimed social or artistic merits of their films in order to protect their work from legal claims.

The erotic thriller became one of the main genres in Hollywood in the early 90s. In 1992, Sharon Stone impressed the audience in the role of Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct. No one was surprised by the well-known fact that director Paul Verhoeven forced the actress to act in that iconic scene without underwear. Obviously, the film was expected to be a box office success post-VHS release.

The promo campaign of Indecent Proposal (1993) by the director of Fatal Attraction (1987) and Lolita (1997) Adrian Lyne was also based on the sexual attractiveness of the main actors Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson. The poster just depicts a scene of sexual intercourse. The film earned $267 million with a budget of $38 million, and Demi Moore got the unspoken title of the star in this genre.

Showgirls (1995) by the aforementioned Paul Verhoeven is a high-budget gilty-play with a misogynistic aura, which somehow managed to become a classic. This drama turned out to be the first film with an NC-17 rating, which received a wide mass distribution and miserably failed in it. An interesting fact to be mentioned is that the screenwriter Joe Esterhaz became the highest paid screenwriter in the history of Hollywood while working on the film. He received an advance of $2 million for the concept written on a napkin, and then another $1.7 million after the script was ready.
Hollywood has grown together with exploitation cinema, so today it is not always possible to answer clearly whether a particular film is an attempt to play on a popular topic or a creators' genuine desire to talk about it. Despite this uncertainty, such films will always reach their audience. We must admit that the use of cultural phenomena in order to make good money does not always lead to a deplorable result.
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