Why Exploitation Films Can Do What “Serious” Cinema Can’t

By  · Published on April 22nd, 2014

American International Pictures

In Alex Stapleton’s documentary Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel, prolific filmmaking legend Roger Corman discusses a philosophy of entertainment that he developed about a decade into his career. Corman had just made his first serious drama, the 1962 integration-themed The Intruder. The film, which he and his brother self-financed because studios wouldn’t touch it, was Corman’s first work that he felt to be truly important, and it stands today as a film without equal in its timely diagnosis of American race relations. The film also turned out to be Corman’s first indisputable box office failure.

So after The Intruder, Corman changed course: he decided to continue pursuing relevant themes in his work, but maintain his dominance of American B-cinema. The text of his films would entertain audiences, but the subtext would resonate with an eye on timely social, cultural, and political issues. Corman saw his 1967 film The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, for instance, as both an entertaining gangster picture and a comment about the underground economy that develops when immigrant groups are sidelined from legitimate social mobility in a xenophobic America. The message, Corman admitted at a local Q&A this weekend, would not be apparent to all audiences. But at least it would be there.

Corman was hardly the first to recognize the political power of entertainment, but the fact that one of the most prolific B-movie producers in history understood this unique potential is significant: what are supposedly the most lowbrow or expendable of movies can actually be the most fitting means of addressing a pertinent political and social issue, all without preaching to an audience.

This practice isn’t exclusive to exploitation cinema, but something available in genre filmmaking at large. High Noon and Invasion of the Body Snatchers were a western and an invasion movie, respectively, about social repercussions of the red scare’s witch hunt. Dawn of the Dead was about the dehumanizing practice of consumerism. Any early-mid ’80s Cronenberg movie was about the fear of sex, stigma, and infection during the AIDS era. It has long been the case that genre makes the medicine go down, providing audiences with a familiar and entertaining narrative framework from which topical themes can be explored without a dull lecture or the fear of becoming quickly out-of-date. Such allegory, in fact, makes genre a fascinating game in which movies that entertain us the first time can open themselves up to rich and adventurous subsequent viewings. A not-so-hidden agenda can offer a means to rediscovery.

But there’s something unique about the political capacities of exploitation cinema in particular. In exploitation, exaggerated content is not only welcome, but expected. Conventions of morality are redrawn if not obliterated altogether. Characters can get away with saying and doing things that would simply be untenable in other types of films.

Exploitation cinema is supposedly only interested in the surface, in exploring what can make you scream, gross you out, and titillate you, but never (we assume) what makes you think. Exploitation cinema embraces lowbrow culture and irreverently sneers at filmmaking that is “serious” (read: self-serious), “artful” (according to the haughty tastemakers), and “valuable” (according to Hollywood’s hegemonic dictates of what constitutes a worthwhile movie). But by presenting itself as something not meant to take seriously, as an expendable object designed for momentary spectacle and fleeting satisfaction, exploitation cinema is uniquely capable of disrupting conventional norms and hierarchies.

This is a subversive power that exploitation films don’t always use – most exploitation movies are exactly the orgies of blood and nudity they present themselves to be – but when certain filmmakers with particular movies realize the potent and unique nature of vulgarity as a mode of expression, such films can demonstrate the unmatched depth of exploitation.

A prime recent example, E.L. Katz’s Cheap Thrills presents itself as a gloriously fucked-up game of one-upsmanship in which two men pitifully bargain their appetites, their pride, their bodies, their morals, and their sanity for a cruel game of truth or dare with the promise of raining green.

Drafthouse Films

What is at first an extended game of “Are they really gonna go there!?” eventually unfurls itself to be a sad and perhaps all-too-fitting portrait of the art of getting by in the 21st century. Our protagonist Craig (Pat Healy) is a young father and husband who recently lost his job as a car mechanic, received an eviction notice on the front door of his apartment, and has all but given up on the potential for his aspirations as an artist to ever come into being in a life that requires him to pinch pennies every day. Meanwhile, Colin (David Koechner), the fedora-donning sadist in charge of the game, lives in a luxurious Los Angeles house seemingly saddled with money to burn. Craig struggles to get by daily, while Colin’s riches allow him to live in a bubble without morals, responsibilities, or worries, leaving him alone with only a beautiful but vapid spouse and a dark imagination to fill his time. Colin’s vast reserve of wealth gives him the psychological power of dominance, and Craig and his buddy-turned-rival Vince’s (Ethan Embry) need for cash turn them into desperate subordinates. Nobody plays nice for his scraps.

As a result, Cheap Thrills ends up saying more about economic injustice in 87 minutes than The Wolf of Wall Street does in 180. Sure, Wolf of Wall Street was an excessive movie about excess, primarily about the destructive and self-aggrandized yet ever-protected sphere in which its protagonist always comfortably resides. But as a huge awards season movie by a serious director – a film designed to take “seriously” – Wolf of Wall Street contributed little insight into a world of greed that isn’t already familiar in Oscar-winning movies and in worthwhile editorials. Cheap Thrills, by contrast, is able to illustrate the asymmetry between the have-mosts and have-very-littles by staging a straightforward yet heinous game whose consolation prize is short-term economic stability.

As a film working in a tradition of excess, the exploitative vein of Cheap Thrills did not need to be justified thematically – it is simply the given palette through which its narrative and themes are realized. And unlike so many genre films in which potent and controversial political topics are explored through innuendo and strained symbolism, Cheap Thrills is not an allegory in the traditional sense: the themes that it works through are available on its face, not within the subtext. The film functions through hyperbole, to be sure, but exploitation cinema is unique in its capacity to realize pertinent themes overtly because nothing in exploitation is hidden. By virtue of hyperbole and excess, some exploitation films are able to deliver some themes to chew on directly and without pretense. Where allegory whispers, exploitation screams with a bloody hammer in its grip.

We typically think of entertainment’s ability to carry social messages in retrospect. High Noon’s themes of accepting political difference, for instance, are more uncontroversially clear now than they could have sustainably been upon the film’s initial release during the early throes of McCarthyism. But unlike genre cinema, exploitation offers an immediacy enabled by fast production, an emphasis on topicality, and the knee-jerk I-can’t-believe-I’m-seeing-this bodily reactions that such films seek to generate from audiences at the surface level. These are movies with the unique potential to delve into contemporary problems by reaching audiences through the gut, and then through their brain thereafter.

Sure, exploitation movies have been the place of cinematic crap both glorious and expendable. But such movies have also addressed themes of sexism, racism, feminism, minority rights, youth culture, and even economic injustice with a formidable force unequal in “serious” filmmaking, and often long before A-films will touch said subject matter. More so than any mode of filmmaking, exploitation cinema – while celebrating immorality on its surface – perhaps serves as the most challenging and unflinching place in which themes of morality have been dealt with seriously onscreen.