As part of a new feature here at SE&L, we will be looking at the classic exploitation films of the ‘40s - ‘70s. Many film fans don’t recognize the importance of the genre, and often miss the connection between the post-modern movements like French New Wave and Italian Neo-Realism and the nudist/roughie/softcore efforts of the era. Without the work of directors like Herschell Gordon Lewis, Joe Sarno and Doris Wishman, along with producers such as David F. Friedman and Harry Novak, many of the subjects that set the benchmark for cinema’s startling transformation in the Me Decade would have been impossible to broach. Sure, there are a few dull, derivative drive-in labors to be waded through, movies that barely deserve to stand alongside the mangled masterworks by the format’s addled artists. But they too represent an important element in the overall development of the medium. So grab your trusty raincoat, pull up a chair, and discover what the grindhouse was really all about as we introduce The Beginner’s Guide to Exploitation.
This week: Doris Wishman redefines “the roughie”.
Bad Girls Go to Hell
It’s the lure of the city that calls them, the bright lights matching the twinkle in their eyes and the sparkle of their high hopes. Sensible shoes wear a groove into the pavement as deep as the despair in their hearts as they learn that their fantasy easy street is actually a bleak boulevard of broken dreams. Few survive, and even fewer stay. For those with drive and determination, something close to a living can be squeezed out from in between the hustle and bustle. For others, it’s back alleys and underground clubs filled with sleazy users just waiting for the new crop to rotate in.
And it’s these lost, lonely and desperate women that become the focus of the urban roughie movies of Doris Wishman. In a career that fluctuated between innocent nudist colony films and all-out hardcore pornography, no one understood the metropolitan landscape and its ability to steamroll one’s soul better than Doris did. Her bleak, brave tales of big city seduction and violent passions reflected the times and tenure of America circa 1965-66 better than any mainstream movie or filmmaker. Bad Girls Go to Hell is a masterwork of miscreant behavior and a lost love letter to a social era where men feared the sexual power of women and would do anything to keep it neatly in check.
In the film, our heroine Meg Kelton goes about her daily chores. As she is cleaning the kitchen and taking out the garbage, she is attacked and savaged by the brutish landlord of her apartment building. When he later threatens to tell her husband about the incident, she meets him at his apartment, where she is again assaulted. But this time she bludgeons the bully to death. Frightened and alone, she heads to New York, where she encounters a series of good Samaritans, each with seemingly innocent offers of help. But sooner or later, each situation turns indecent and Meg finds the lecherous landlord’s murder catching up with her.
The creation of the so-called “roughie” is a complicated and critical step in the forward momentum of drive-in and grindhouse adult entertainment. Prior to its appearance as part of the exploitation oeuvre, sex on film was either naughty or nice and usually a little of both. The nudist camp saga showed skin as part of an imagined scientific examination of the lifestyle (mixed with a little tabloid titillation). The nudie took it one step further, making the location insignificant and the amount of body bared ample.
Later, tease would turn into flat-out fornication, where no one shed their clothes unless they meant to press and prod the flesh. These soft-core sexcapades would even veer off into wild and warped “ghoulies,” where gore and murder were added to spice up the sordidness. The roughie, however, existed in that strange middle zone between the tame and the tawdry, in an arena both twisted and tantalizing. The formula was simple enough: feature the man/woman or woman/woman dynamic as a seedy balance of lust and violence, where a man would slug a woman as soon as kiss her, and the woman would sheepishly respond to both.
In these urban decay dramas, sex was power, used to control and contain. Women who understood or flaunted this knowledge were shown the back of a hand or a belt. Only men were allowed to exploit the act for any interpersonal gain. But sex was also seen as comfort, a means for lost souls to find that temporary moment of connection, where loneliness concedes to lingering caresses under the sheets. However, these acts of sensual salvation were always punished. Men did not want women comprehending the power and the glory that existed as part of their physical make-up, aspects never to be explored together.
Socially, it is understandable where this cinematic philosophy comes from. The ‘60s were a time of great sexual and personal liberation, where women came into their own as sensual and political beings. Gone were the meek mousy housewives of the ‘50s. In their place were ripe, passionate pieces of erotic fruit. Before the games of suburban roulette, where husbands took back control and traded vows (and wives) for keys to the kinky kingdom, the roughie marked a time when men attempted payback for the loss of sexual and gender power. And in the soiled, soggy streets of the metropolis, within the walls of its catacomb like apartments, the battle of the bruised sexes played out.
There is no denying that director Doris Wishman understands this metropolitan landscape, aware as to how to translate its power and pulse into a raw cinematic sensation. She focuses on the little moments, the small slices of the city that exemplify and accurately paint a portrait of life in New York. She refrains from long shots of Manhattan, or perfectly framed compositions of tall buildings scraping the sky. Instead, she leads us down back streets and into tiny neighborhoods and boroughs where people struggle to exist. We linger in the city’s few remaining open spaces, desolate and serene as large monolithic apartment blocks overlook the fertile land like greedy developers. In these sequences she captures the city as simultaneously oppressive and infinite, the cell structure living rooms opening onto streets of endless seduction and sin. And like the magic that only the movies can provide, the monochromatic color scheme creates the only sense of black and white that will exist in this world filled with gray areas. There are no winners or losers in this Gotham, just the walking wounded, waiting for someone to dress their battered bodies and shattered lives.
As a director, Wishman never cast for beauty or good looks. She wanted her actors to embody the desire, the defects, and the destinies of their characters. She picked men who exuded Scotch and cigarettes, wearing their wounded male pride on rolled up shirtsleeves stained with blood, nicotine, and lipstick. As for the women, they all had hair piled high on their head like a bouffant crown or frame, and bodies bound under fishnet unitards and undersized brassieres. Their aura silently screamed desire and fertility from beneath their weathered unusual attractiveness, their glamour and good looks offset by the sharp edges of a life unfulfilled and the severe vogue of the current fashion. Everyone seems exhausted, as if beaten down so hard by the world that Hell was still somewhere high above. Acting talent or temperament was of no concern. As long as they looked the part on screen, Doris would find a way to make the performance work. It has been noted that, like Fellini, Wishman never recorded live sound with her films. Everything, from effects to dialogue, was dubbed in later during post. While this is not always true, it does exist here and it adds another layer of foggy, depersonalized confusion as to who and what we are watching. Characters become moral enigmas, too astray to speak in their own voices, too dulled and sullied by life to own a distinct, individual personality.
In her films, Wishman employs standard melodramatic plot lines and then inverts the parameters to impose illicit acts and criminal vice into the fray. Bad Girls casts our heroine as a carnal Candide, living from one sexual misadventure and debasement to the next. No circumstance is safe for her, not the kindly couple with the room for rent, not the lesbian hooker with a gold plated dime store heart. For Meg, men and women are a constant threat, one looming over and ogling her in ripe desire for defilement. She finds herself caught in a never-ending pool of prurience that comes when one forsakes their virtue for a life of vice. While this may be reading too much into what should be a standard exploitation narrative, Bad Girls does have something to say about the social and biological politics between man and woman, between the so-called weaker sex and the caveman king of the castle. There is no courting, no sweet talk or handholding. It’s a story of men looting women like sexual candy stores, stuffing their mouths and grabbing goodies by the fistful. And all these unlucky ladies can do is grind and bear it for another vanished day.
Newcomers to the genre may wonder what all the amateurish fuss is about. After all, there are probably 75 shots of shoes in Bad Girls Go to Hell alone. Wishman loves to move away from the action, from the groping and humping and onto inanimate objects like a fruit basket or a clown wall hanging. Some will argue that this is done to avoid the decency and censorship laws, but a trained eye looks deeper, and sees a message. These are not acts of love. This is not an erotic exchange. This is violent, rough sex play for authority, and no one needs to see it directly. Wanting to watch means acceptance and compliance. The extended shot of a desk set symbolizes the deplorable nature of what is going on. But what about the continuity errors, the bad dubbing, and the horrendous under/over acting? Again, all of it exists to set a tone and tarnish the tales being told. Doris Wishman was a woman making movies about the corruption of woman. Her celluloid crime scene is riddled with the evidence of honor usurped, of dignity fouled.