Though they didn’t invent the mainstream drama or the crowd-pleasing comedy, the exploitation industry definitely helped define the main outsider cinematic genres. Horror had been around long before Herschell Gordon Lewis and David F. Friedman decided to gore it up. Still, The Blood Trilogy (Blood Feast, 2000 Maniacs, Color Me Blood Red) literally gave the movie macabre the cauldrons of claret it so desperately craved. Similarly, the nudist camp film got its start in the ‘30s, acting as an advocate for healthy living before Doris Wishman turned it into the precursor of the modern sex farce. All throughout the grindhouse lineage, certain filmic types are discovered and delineated. One of the most notorious and nauseating remains the standard slasher film. Centering around a mindless psycho slaughtering individuals for his or her own perverted kicks, it was the raincoat crowd, not the backlog of motion picture scares, that had a hand in this category of creepiness.
Most fans of the slice and dice fright flick pick out certain iconic movies and makers when they consider who started the serial killer showcase. One can go back as far as Fritz Lang’s M to find a focal point, though this milestone of expressionistic evil is more social commentary than slaughter party. Alfred Hitchcock and his homage to the Oedipal complex gone cuckoo, 1961’s Psycho, is often sighted as the mass murdering maniac’s real debut. But again, the Master of Suspense had more up his sleeve than a knife-wielding whack job. For many though, the next true spurting jugular jumping off point was John Carpenter’s study in student butchery, a little independent romp featuring the “Shape”, Michael Meyers and his homicidal Halloween visit to Haddenfield, Illinois. The 1978 hit indeed spawned renewed interest in the stab and jab school of cinema, culminating with the introduction of a little place called Camp Crystal Lake, and a deformed demon with his own set of mother issues named Jason Voorhees. In fact, if you ask the average moviegoer to name a slasher film, something with a ‘13’ attached to its title is bound to come leaping out of their mouth.
Unfortunately, none of these examples provide the true basis for the spree-killing extravaganza. Back during the floundering final days of the exploitation film, a filmmaking couple named Michael and Roberta Findlay was given a mandate. A friend who had produced an incredibly provocative set of films starring a sadistic white slaver named Olga wanted the pair to deliver their own take on such a depraved scenario. He felt the husband and wife team would be as successful as those who gave his female flesh peddler her sinister streak, and could tap into the fetish fan’s desire to see women beaten and belittled with the necessary erotic aplomb. Little did he know that he was dealing with a rather unhinged individual in Michael Findlay. Mired by a misogynistic streak as wide as a 42nd Street billboard, this degenerate director, along with his camera-toting spouse, would totally redefine the sexploitation industry, paving the way for all the Meyers and Voorhees to come.
Between 1967 and 1968, Findlay took his deepest, darkest depravities, spiked them with incredible flights of foul imagination and dreamed up dozens of ways to torture and murder women. He then set about making these fetid fever dreams into a sleazoid cinematic reality. The result was a trio of tales so tawdry, so steaming with sensationalized sadism that one couldn’t help but feel funky and skunky after watching them. Sure, the “roughie” as it was called, had been around for years. Exploitation filmmakers had always mixed sex and violence like the uneasy ingredients in a miscreant’s martini, allowing patrons to get drunk on their outrageous sense of muddy male fantasy. But there was something different about The Flesh Trilogy comprised of the films The Touch of Her Flesh, The Kiss of Her Flesh and The Curse of Her Flesh something more personal and far more disturbing. It was as if Findlay relished his role in gal garroting, with a seedy sense of purpose that practically pulsated off the screen.
All three films center around cuckolded husband Richard Jennings (played by Findlay himself). After forgetting his speech for an important meeting, Dick comes home to see his spouse “entertaining” a rather passionate pal. Distraught and enraged, Ricky does the only thing one can do in said situation - he runs out into traffic. There, he is summarily bended by several fenders. Wheelchair bound and brandishing an evil-evoking eye patch, Rick begins to get in touch with his untapped rage against the female members of the species, and after a certified mid-60s montage freak out, he decides that the best way to cure what ails him is to murder. That’s right, Richard Jennings wants to kill every single woman on the entire planet. Though it seems like a tall order when first announced, we soon learn that Richard is a very inventive guy. His corrupt can-do spirit finds more and more misguided methods for capturing, torturing and killing his conquests, giving his gender genocide a real chance of achieving its goal.
Thus we have the soiled psyche at the center of all the beating, bludgeoning and bloodletting that occurs in The Flesh Trilogy. In truth it is really nothing more than a set-up, a premise upon which a series of murder moments can be attached (and they will only get more and more preposterous as the sequels pile up). At first, Richard relies on novelty and innovation when deciding his death moves. He kills a go-go dancer with a toxic rose, and gives a stripper a lethal kiss from a blowgun. For his final act of retribution in The Touch of Her Flesh, Findlay uses a maintenance shed, a table saw and the adulterous spouse’s head for a certifiable “extreme” make over. Though he’s supposedly killed in the first film (felled by his own crossbow), the audience response was such that Richard Jennings was “revived” and returned to wreck more horrifying havoc in two other marvelously misguided movies.
Believe it or not, the deaths in The Curse of Her Flesh are even more jaw dropping. We see killing by contaminated pussycat claws, poisonous panties and a demise via deadly dildo. Findlay also found a way to work more insane sexuality into the film, using a theater setting to have our pal Rick stage some manner of absurdist, avant-garde play about fallout shelters and lesbianism. Before performing some “virginity reconstruction surgery” on one of his victims, Richard breaks out the movie camera and forces the femme into starring in his surreal squash porn (a gal, a gourd and…you get the idea). While the nudity is ample all throughout the Flesh films, bodkin is not really Findlay’s raison d’etre. This director is out to make the most shocking, sick experiment in extremism that a late ‘60s raincoat crowd could tolerate.
Yet after seeing The Kiss of Her Flesh, it’s a miracle that the exploitation distributors didn’t have Findlay committed. This movie is a delicious disease, a meal at the Marquis De Sade’s chateau complete with an ipecac cordial. Everything he practiced in Touch and Curse paid off in this film, as it slimes its way through more slaughter shenanigans. After taking over a doctor’s suburban practice, Richard Jennings gets back in the slice and dice groove. He prepares a poison douche for one of his patients, and gives another a lobster claw lancing before electrocuting her via her metal hoop earrings. He mangles his ‘male essence’ with additional toxins, turning a bout of oral sex into a decidedly deadly experience. There is even a little blowtorch cosmetic surgery, a shotgun vasectomy and the standard machete mulching. While it all sounds like I Spit on Your Grave meets an alienated teenagers idea of interpersonal relating, The Flesh Trilogy is more than just violence against women. Actually, that’s all that it is a series of scatological and skuzzy murder moments propelled by a never-ending sense of corruption and insanity. But underneath the surface, behind all the slaughters and the sadism lies the groundwork for the horror films of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Many have argued that these female unfriendly fright films were the result of the growing feminist movement, which asked soon-to-be emasculated men to treat their ‘weaker sexed’ loved ones as literal and ethereal equals. The response of this paternalistic society? Sic a serial killer on these uppity ladies and let them have it. Of course, this is a far too simplistic assessment of the post-modern movie macabre. Sexuality and drug use were as readily punished as femininity. There had to be another reason for taking such an anti-girlie approach.
Said rationale can be found in The Flesh Trilogy. What Findlay proved was that, when stripped of all its social relevance and cinematic artistry, motion picture murdering can be goofy good fun especially in the over the top, farcical manner in which he realizes the deaths. True, the subtext is highly unsettling. All the crimes are against women, and usually deal with some manner of genital disfigurement. If that’s not enough to keep a shrink’s notepad full, what is? Still, horror films are always seen as a regular reality release, a chance to break free of the true and authentic fears of the world and vicariously experience the terrors of another. Sure, it sounds sick, but it’s not new. Such a concept was the basis for the original mass media macabre, the famous French theatrical experience known as the Grand Guignol. With exploitation, all that was added was the testing of taboos and the pushing of perversion envelopes. Certainly it was only supposed to serve a specific audience, one Hell bent on seeing pleasure populated by pain. But it’s influence washed over the entire moviemaking industry, supplying the outline for two decades (or more) of death dealing.
That is why all slasher films have their basis in the Findlay’s foray into the foul. In many ways, what movies like Maniac, Sleepaway Camp and Prom Night prove is that gore and naked girls are instinctual elements of amusement. Whereas The Flesh Trilogy used sex and sadism to sell itself, the modern psycho killer flick finds its “release” in more routine idioms, like blood and boobs. Yet when the history of horror is discussed, the Findlays aren’t even a footnote. It’s a shame, really, since the exploitation genre was instrumental in making almost all of the movies we see today bigger, brasher and bolder. Someone had to challenge the norm, circumvent the prevailing censorship and test the limits of audience tolerance. So the next time you wonder why Hollywood still has a hankering for stalk and hack horror, attach the blame where it belongs. Michael Findlay is the father of the slasher film. Everyone else is just following in his freakish footsteps.