What is an Exploitation Film?
To celebrate our Film of the Week, Serial School, we’re taking a look at the phenomenon of exploitation films, how they have manifested themselves in the horror genre, and whether they are relevant in today’s society.
To begin, let’s look at what an exploitation film actually is. Typically very low budget, these types of films would often be seen to ‘exploit’ a trend, niche or controversy – such as sex, violence, or drug use. Often screened in seedy drive ins, or small independent theatres, genre fans would gather to watch some of the trashiest films ever created. The exploitation genre, closely tied with grindhouse, has it’s roots as far back on cinematic history as the 1920s, but was fully realised in the late sixties and seventies; mainly as a result of relaxation of censorship rules. Exploitation is very loosely defined, and has more to do with a viewer’s perception of the film than with the film’s actual content. Titillating material and artistic content often coexist, as demonstrated by the fact that art films that failed to pass the Hays Code were often shown in the same grindhouses as exploitation films. Indeed, many films which may at one point been considered exploitation are now considered culturally significant; the most notable examples being Night of the Living Dead or Tod Browning’s Freaks. As such, modern film critics have examined the cultural influences which have effected whether a film is classified as exploitation – noting that if Eyes without a Face had been made in American it would have been viewed as a low budget horror, while if Carnival of Souls had been been in France it would be considered an art film.
Exploitation films have often exploited news events in the short-term public consciousness that a major film studio may avoid because of the time required to produce a major film. Child Bride, for example, tackled the issue of older men marrying very young women in the Ozarks. Other issues, such as drug use in films like Reefer Madness, attracted audiences that major film studios would usually avoid in order to keep their respectable, mainstream reputations. But exploitation and horror specifically have been closely linked for many years, taking the form of many subgenres.
Cannibal films are one of these most notable subgenres: graphic, gory movies mostly made in the 70s and 80s, usually by Italian and Spanish moviemakers. Focused mainly on cannibalism by tribes deep in the South American rainforests the movies often depicted violence perpetrated against Westerners. The main draw of cannibal films was the allure of exotic locales and graphic gore involving humans and animals. The best-known film of this genre is the controversial 1980 Cannibal Holocaust.
Also notable is the Giallo genre of Italian filmmaking: films featuring brutal crimes, eroticism and the search for killers. The word “giallo” is Italian for “yellow” and is derived from a series of cheap paperback mystery novels with trademark yellow covers. Although derived from Italian origins, American and British films within horror did adopt elements of the tradition, most notably in Psycho and Peeping Tom. Considered the first giallo film is Mario Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much. Its title alludes to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, again establishing strong links with Anglo-American culture. Bava’s Blood and Black Lace introduced elements that became emblematic of the genre: a masked stalker with a shiny weapon in his black-gloved hand who brutally murders a series of glamorous fashion models.
The trend of vigilante exploitation films also lead to the establishment of the revenge horror movie – in particular the rape revenge genre with the most famous example being I Spit on your Grave. This genre contains films in which a person is raped, left for dead, recovers and then exacts a graphic revenge on the perpetrators, with the emphasis being placed not only on the violence but the transformation of the central character.
More minor branches of this style can be seen in horror throughout history, and have survived into more modern horror. It could be argued that ‘mockbusters’, such as the films made by Asylum Studios fit the description of exploiting a current trend. The concept began in Italy, with unlicended films designed to cash in on Romero’s zombie movies, and has more recently surfaced in films like Transmorphers and Atlantic Rim.
Let’s take a look at some of the various types of exploitation films:
Films that use large amounts of low-budget computer generated special effects. A majority of these movies are produced and distributed by New Concorde and The Asylum. These films are commonly aired on the Syfy Channel.
A small number of films generally from the year 2000 onwards featuring members of the Alternative or Goth subcultures of the UK, usually London, such as Learning Hebrew:A Gothsploitation Movie showing situations such as drug use, unusual sexual practises and wild parties, often with a heavily intellectual plot.
films featuring nuns in dangerous or erotic situations, such as The Devils, Killer Nun, School of the Holy Beast, Sinful Nuns of Saint Valentines, and Nude Nuns with Big Guns.
A subgenre of film that centers around sharks. The most popular film in this genre is Jaws, but many other films have been released. The sharksploitation film Sharknado is an example of a more recent film in this genre.
Check out our film of the week, Serial School here.