Below is a list of documentaries about exploitation/grindhouse/b-movies and, where possible, links to where you can find them on-line. Consider it a public service. So feel free to skip this intro and scroll down to the links instead…
Lately, and by lately I mean my entire life, I’ve been watching a lot of cheap, cheerful exploitation movies. Don’t get me wrong, I love cinema full-stop. I’m happy to watch a respectable, Oscar winner or an art-house film. For me, as for so many others (you know who you are), film is a drug. All of my movie-watching has always been about dragging myself through the celluloid streets for one more angry fix; an attempt to recapture that first high of watching a King Kong/The Day the Earth Stood Still double-bill when I was three or four. Exact details are obscured by time. Only traces remain. I was in the spare room, not my bedroom. Put there for a nap maybe? There was a small TV in there, old enough (this would have been 1981/82) that it had a dial for changing the channels. Certain images are seared into my brain. Kong pushing the trees aside, light emanating from Gort’s visor. These visions changed me as fully as any later, more clearly remembered, more ‘real’, life experience.
Film as drug: If a classy, prestige Hollywood picture is an expensive bottle of wine, exploitation and B-movies are cheap amphetamine. A quick sleazy, scuzzy buzz compared to the mellow high of the prestige picture. Not that it is simply a question of budget. Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce was one of the most expensive movies of it’s day, but has B-Movie spirit coursing through every frame. Indeed, we might argue that post-Star Wars (or even post-Jaws) the vast majority of Hollywood’s output has actually just been big budget B-movies. For the true film junkie, however, there is no real distinction. Example: Scorsese’s love of 1953’s cheap, sci-fi quickie Invaders from Mars (particularly it’s set design and use of colour) is made manifest by in the opening scene of his own, far more “respectable” Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
At this point I should point out that I am aware that there are proper distinctions between the terms ‘exploitation movie‘, ‘grindhouse‘ and ‘B-Movie‘, but this is a blog post people, not a Film Studies journal article so let’s just agree to use them in an interchangeable, somewhat colloquial sense. It’s true that no actual B-movie has existed for decades, while most of the grindhouse theaters and drive-ins that showed exploitation movies have long since closed down and been replaced by the vanilla spectacle of the multiplex. So let’s treat it like the definition of obscenity: we’re not sure what it is but we know it when we see it. No-one has ever mistaken Maniac Cop for Driving Miss Daisy, dig?
Nowadays there’s a lot of pseudo B-Movies around. Tarantino and Rodriguez’s Grindhouse kicked of a mini-trend of contemporary flicks paying homage to the dirty aesthetic and narrative abandon of the 70s/80s exploitation movie (see Hobo With a Shotgun, Machete and so on). The last decade or so has also witnessed a surfeit of more effects-heavy (albeit cheap, shoddy CGI) creature-features with self-consciously wacky titles such as Sharktopus, Sharknado and Megashark). I couldn’t tell you if these movies are any good because I couldn’t care less. If I want shoddy FX, then I at least want shoddy practical FX (I’ve written more about special effects here).
On a side-note there was a precedent of sorts for this trend in the 1980s when directors set about remaking or homaging the B-Movies of the 1950s (see Invaders from Mars, The Thing, Strange Invaders). Those I like.
Take that, consistency of thought!
What I like about the true exploitation/B-movie however is their sincerity. They are not trying to create a knowing pastiche of a bygone genre, they are trying to entertain you and make a quick buck in the process. They’re not throwing in uber-violence and gratuitous tits because they know that you know that they know that sort of thing isn’t very respectable or PC or what-the fuck. The true grindhouse auteur genuinely thinks this is what you want to see. Because it’s what they want to see. And sure, they were mostly cheap and sometimes the sets wobbled or the monster looked ridiculous (but still cool because someone has made it FOR REALS!), but they had ideas and energy to burn. Larry Cohen could tell you a story about killer mutant babies or a Mexican winged serpent-god living in the Chrysler Building and he could do it in ninety minutes or under. If you’re lucky, as with Cohen’s films, they will sneak in some real craft and subversive commentary about capitalism or some shit, but even if they don’t you’ll see some cars blow up and a syringe go into someone’s eye or something.
So it’s a win-win.
All of which is roundabout way of saying I’ve compiled this list of documentaries on the subject of B-/Grindhouse/Exploitation movies, so if that’s your bag then these should be too. Where possible I’ve added links to watch them. If there’s no link they are still worth tracking down. The documentaries cover everything from Australian, Phillipino and American exploitation cinema, to specific franchises and producers/companies. One glaring omission, because apparently nobody has thought to make it yet, is anything covering Italian exploitation from the 1970s/1980s, a golden age of cinematic insanity when Italian producers would straight-up steal from Hollywood blockbusters to produce deranged knock-offs of films like Jaws, The Exorcist or Escape from New York. If anyone can point me in the direction of that documentary, or wants to give me the money to make it, leave a note in the comments.
In the meantime here’s the list. Happy viewing!
A French TV documentary from 1997 (original title: Les deniers du culte) covers American exploitation from the 1940s to the 1970s, drawing upon a wealth of clips, trailers and interviews with directors such as John Landis, Joe Dante, Larry Cohen and William Lusting (Maniac Cop). The historical range takes in 1960s beach movies, the drive-in gore movies of H. G. Lewis, Russ Meyer’ mammary obsessed sexploitation flicks and more. Unfortunately this seems to have been deleted from youtube so keep an eye out- worth watching if it turns up again.
Covering some similar ground to Hollywood rated R, Schlock! investigates the period of exploitation cinema that roughly covers the 1950s and 1960s, the era of the drive-in movie rather than the grindhouse. Talking heads include Roger Corman (see below), Vampira herself!, American International Pictures head honchos Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson, amongst others. No trailer seems to be available but this is worth tracking down if you can. Worth watching for it’s discussion of director Dorothy Wishman and ‘the roughies’, a particularly weird genre of sexploitation that I had never heard of prior to this doc.
Roger Corman was perhaps the consummate exploitation producer in the 1950s and 1960s (though he continues working to this day). Unlike most exploitation producers however, Corman has always been distinguished by his eye for new talent (giving directors as varied as Scorsese, Coppola, Joe Dante and Jonathan Demme their early breaks, as well as stars, most notably Jack Nicholson), and his own flair for directing. His cycle of Edgar Allen Poe adaptations remain impressive examples of cinematic gothic horror, while X-The Man With X-Ray Eyes is, to me, a stone cold classic that I watch at least once a year. Added to this, Corman also used his company to distribute many European art-house films in the 1960s. All in all, a cool cat whose genuine hit rate (commercially and artistically) as producer and director of exploitation quickies is markedly higher than most of the producers featured in these documentaries.
Covering a similar time-frame to Schlock, Mau Mau Sex Sex focuses on the careers of producers David F. Friedman and Dan Sonney, who between them were responsible for roughies like The Defilers (1965), Herschell Gordon Lewis’s 1963 film Blood Feast (often considered the first “gore” or splatter film), and two of the first Nazi exploitation films, Love Camp 7 (1969) and Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS (1974).
Like Mau Mau Sex Sex this doc zooms in on one particular creator, director Herschell Gordon Lewis, creator of the ‘splatter movie’. You can currently find the whole thing here.
This documentary by Stuart Samuels is based on his book of the same name. Samuels focuses in on the period between 1970 and 1977 and six particularly important films that came to define the midnight movie circuit: El Topo (1970), Night of the Living Dead (1968), The Harder They Come (1973), Pink Flamingos (1972), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), and Eraserhead (1977). Includes interviews with the film-makers involved as well as film critics Roger Ebert, Jonathan Rosenbaum, and J. Hoberman. Trailer is below.
Neat, historically wide-ranging doc that maps the exploitation film from Thomas Edison to the 21st century. Taking Tod Browning’s pivotal Freaks (1932) and specific categories like nudie cuties, blaxploitation, and women in prison films, the film also more recent productions, suggesting the spirit of the grindhouse remains alive and well (the inclusion of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ is a cheeky and provocative name-check in this regard).
Good overview of blaxploitation with a wide range of clips and talking heads including Blaxploitation connoisseur Quentin Tarantino (see Jackie Brown), stars such as fed Williamson and Pam Grier, directors like Larry Cohen and political and social context provided by cultural critics such as bell hooks.
Mark Hartley’s documentary covers the period of the Australian New Wave of 1970s and ’80s. While that same period witnessed a resurgence in respectable Australian cinema it also gave rise to a thriving low-budget “Ozploitation” cinema which took advantage of Australia’s newly introduced R-rating to present an array of vulgar, violent, disreputable genre pieces such as Barry McKenzie Holds His Own, Mad Max, Patrick, Razorback, Road Games, Turkey Shoot and more.The film is loaded with clips and interviews with actors, directors, screenwriters and producers, including George Miller, Barry Humphries, Stacy Keach, Jamie Lee Curtis, Dennis Hopper and Ozploitation aficionado Quentin Tarantino, who helped get the project started.
Hartley’s follow-up to Not Quite Hollywood features interviews with Roger Corman, Joe Dante, Pam Grier, Jack Hill, John Landis, and others, as well as the usual array of mind-boggling clips and trailers to explore the Filipino genre films of the 1970s, as well as the American exploitation productions that took advantage of the cheap labour, exotic scenery and non-existent health and safety regulations, the Philippines offered.
This IFC produced documentary covers the period ranging from Night of the Living Dead through Last House on the Left, Hills Have Eyes and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. As well as cast and crew-members the documentary features academics such as Carol J. Clover (author of Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film) in keeping with its intellectual focus on how these films differed from earlier horror by engaging with the ccontemporaneous social upheavals (Vietnam, civil rights) happening in American at the time.
You can watch the whole thing here.
Going to Pieces shares the same format of clips, cast and crew interviews and critical commentary of The American Nightmare but zooms in on a specific genre; the slasher film. As such, it presents a historical understanding of the slasher film that takes in Psycho (1960) and crosses over into the films discussed in American Nightmare, but then moves beyond these to the specifically 1980s trend for slasher movies. Trailer is below but you can watch the whole thing here.
On a related note, there are several exhaustive documentaries about specific slasher franchises. 2006’s Halloween: 25 Years of Terror, 2009’s His Name Was Jason: 30 Years of Friday the 13th and 2010’s Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy all present impressively detailed accounts of their respective franchises development, with contributions from their producers, writers, directors, special effects artists and stars. Warning: though the Halloween and Friday the 13th docs are relatively short and snappy, the Nightmare on Elm Street one is about four hours long!
Mark Hartley, who has already given us Not Quite Hollywood and Machete Maidens Unleashed (see above) her focuses on indie studio Cannon films. Founded by cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, Cannon would produce over 120 exploitation films from 1979-1989, becoming the key exploitation producers of the VHS age.