Top 10 Twisted But Notable Exploitation Films
This list is one of the many new shopping lists we have been publishing since the start of September. Be sure to check out the rest of the trial shopping category to see what we have already published. We are not publishing shopping lists to the main article feed so you will need to check the shopping category each day (you can find that with the other categories on the top menu bar of the site). Now onwards! It’s time for some exploitation!
Exploitation cinema occupies a strange and lost place in American film. While recent attempts have been made to recapture the off-the-rails and boundary-adverse qualities of the best of these illustrious B-films, they have largely fallen short.
Many exploitation flicks are particularly notable for the artists that produced them, the controversies they engendered or the boundaries they broke. Here are ten you should probably watch… unless, of course, you’re chicken.
10Beyond the Valley of the Dolls
Starring: Erica Gavin, John LaZar
Director: Russ Meyer
Celebrated schlockmeister Russ Meyer is responsible for a titanic number of films of very questionable quality. His emphasis on sheer quantity over production values- not to mention shocking and taboo content- made him successful, but the approach did lead to the discovery of such talent as Francis Ford Coppola (who directed the horror film Dementia 13 for Corman) and James Cameron (whose debut feature was the Corman-produced Piranha II).
This satirical melodrama is one of Corman’s most celebrated features for one unbelievable reason- he co-wrote it with legendary film critic Roger Ebert. Ebert never shied away from discussion of his brief dabbling with exploitation screenwriting, not that he was necessarily proud.
Starring: Paul Hampton, Lynn Lowry
Director: David Cronenberg
Shivers is an alien parasite infestation film with an uncomfortable venereal disease-themed hook. It’s disturbing, gruesome and well-made, which is to be expected from soon-to-be revered horror director David Cronenberg.
This film is also notable for having been produced by Ivan Reitman, who would go on to direct Ghostbusters and its sequel along with several other well-received comedies.This was his first of two features with Cronenberg, the second being Rabid, a slightly more well-known film which starred legendary adult film actress Marilyn Chambers.
Starring: Divine, David Lochary
Director: John Waters
Artist John Waters was never known for subtlety, and his film works are certainly no exception. Even the more mainstream of the bunch, such as Cry-Baby (an early starring role for Johnny Depp) and Serial Mom have a distinct, twisted bent to them- but among his early work, Pink Flamingos is by far the most notorious.
Ostensibly a criminals-on-the-run saga starring the drag queen Divine, Pink Flamingos pushes so far against the boundaries of good taste that it’s easy to see why the film was released without a rating. Surreal and darkly comic, it’s a must for fans of exploitation cinema- at least those that can stomach the final scene.
Starring: Ron O’Neal, Sheila Frazier
Director: Gordon Parks, Jr.
The blaxploitation offshoot of B-cinema was a rich mine of the weird and extreme in its own right, producing such stars as Fred “The Hammer” Williamson and Pam Grier. Director Gordon Parks, Jr.- son of the director of the seminal Shaft- created perhaps the best of the bunch, a hard-hitting pimp’s tale with a magnetic lead performance by Ron O’Neal.
Also of note: this film features one of the greatest soundtracks of all time. Ex-Impressions singer Curtis Mayfield created it as one of his first solo projects, and it’s perhaps the peak of his career, a widely acclaimed classic of 70’s funk.
6The Toxic Avenger
Starring: Mitch Cohen, Mark Torgl
Director: Michael Herz, Lloyd Kaufman
Perhaps the most purely shameless filmmaker on this list other than Corman, Lloyd Kaufman is the mastermind behind Troma Studios, famous far and wide for their eclectic array of insane low-budget films. This is the film that brought the studio to something that vaguely resembles prominence, for better or worse, and it is probably their most coherent and polished effort.
The story of a bullied janitor granted superpowers after falling into a vat of chemical waste, The Toxic Avenger is a bizarre symphony of ridiculous characterizations and brutally cartoonish violence. Unfamiliar fans of the genre should see it at least once- the bonkers-crazy foundation of the studio that never stopped trying to elevate exploitation to its own brand of weird art.
Starring: Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren
Director: Tinto Brass
Probably the most singularly bizarre entry on the list, Caligula is the only feature film to be produced by men’s magazine Penthouse. Shot by Italian director Tinto Brass, it features additional scenes of a very explicit nature shot by none other than Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione himself.
But this is a rated film with a pedigree unlike any other. It was scripted by respected author Gore Vidal, and stars Malcolm McDowell, Peter O’Toole, Helen Mirren and John Gielgud- the latter two of which have each accomplished the acting “Triple Crown”, winning an Oscar, Tony and Emmy. The lavishly produced, insanely violent, pornographic and controversial film was absolutely savaged by critics (including Roger Ebert, who perhaps should not have thrown stones in this case), but has since come to be regarded as a cult classic with significant artistic merit.
Starring: Robert Kerman, Francesca Ciardi
Director: Ruggero Deodato
If you’ve never heard of this notorious film, it is notable for two distinct reasons. First, it created a new genre; the story of a documentary film crew that goes missing in the untamed Amazon, the film’s second half is presented as the crew’s recovered footage, making it the first found footage film ever. The genre wouldn’t be popularized for almost 20 years with 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, and it continues to be popular today.
And second… the gruesome special effects, which are so stupefyingly effective that director Ruggero Deodato was called into an Italian court and ordered to produce his actors and replicate his effects, in order to prove that nobody had actually died on camera. Despite his being cleared, the film was banned in several countries and is still appalling in its brutality- not for the faint of heart.
3Thriller: A Cruel Picture
Starring: Christina Lindberg, Heinz Hopf
Director: Bo Arne Vibenius
That theme continues here, with a film that Quentin Tarantino has cited as “the roughest revenge picture” he has ever seen. The story of a mute young woman forced into heroin addiction and prostitution- and the revenge she takes on those responsible- it is the result of director Bo Arne Viberius’ attempt to make “the most commercial picture of all time”. He failed completely.
This film is chock full of shockingly graphic violence and sex, and is also the type of film that rumors spread quickly about (such as the alleged use of an actual cadaver for a scene where a character is stabbed in the eye). Also marketed under the deadpan title They Call Her One-Eye, the film is a direct influence on such latter-day exploitation flicks as Tarantino’s own Kill Bill.
2I Spit On Your Grave aka Day of the Woman
Starring: Camilla Keaton, Richard Pace
Director: Meir Zarchi
Although it was a serious attempt by filmmaker Meir Zarchi to create a powerful statement on sexual violence and feminism, 1978’s The Day of the Woman- better known by its far-more-descriptive retitling, I Spit On Your Grave- is to this day one of the most controversial and infamous films ever made. In it, writer Jennifer Hills (Camille Keaton, in a crushingly demanding role) is preyed upon at her isolated rental cottage by a group of deranged locals. What they put her through cannot be described here, but they leave her alive… leading her to enact revenge in a manner even more shocking and brutal than the events that instigated it.
Once again, Roger Ebert’s utter contempt for this film dripped off the page in his review, in which he deemed it “a vile bag of garbage, without a shred of artistic distinction… one of the most depressing experiences of my life”. We’ll leave it for you to decide if he was right- not all reviews were this savage- but this is without doubt a film that will stick with you long after viewing.
Starring: Mal Arnold, Lyn Bolton
Director: Herschell Gordon Lewis
Finally, we have what may be the grandfather, the originator of the entire exploitation genre. The oldest film to appear on the UK’s Video Nasty list, 1963’s Blood Feast was a (successful) attempt by director Herschell Gordon Lewis to completely shatter film conventions of the time. The story of a psychotic caterer who incorporates victims into his meals as a sacrifice to an Egyptian goddess, the film was absolutely without precedent in enthusiastically serving up buckets of graphic blood and gore.
Lewis- who felt “cheated” by the absence of gore in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Psycho, three years earlier- went on to a distinguished career in exploitation, being behind such legendary films as The Wizard of Gore and Two Thousand Maniacs! His films’ influence can be seen all over the modern horror genre today, as Lewis was proudly the first to show what no filmmaker would show before.