In the annals of exploitation, Bob Cresse remains more myth than man. While other kings of the grindhouse see their names celebrated as part of cinema’s history, the University of Miami educated ex-carny with a penchant for weaponry and Nazi paraphernalia stands as a singular, unexplainable enigma. A pure hustler, Cresse worked his way through the traditional Tinsel Town channels (messenger, low level executive) until he decided to go independent. Yet so little has been written about him personally that he’s become an afterthought in the conversation, a figure whose reputation suggests respect, but whose actions and accomplishments indicate something far more reprehensible.
Genre scholars have often referred to the fireplug producer as a man who never met an actress he didn’t want to whip, and his filmic fetishes - bondage, discipline, sadism, and degradation - remain the trickiest of proclivities (for Cresse, both personal and professional) to defend. Yet there is much more to his oeuvre than motion picture masochism and a flare for the extreme.
Many fail to realize that Cresse helped fuel the growing Mondo craze with his 1963 production Hollywood’s World of Flesh. Later, together with his longtime cohort and collaborator Lee Frost (together they ran the notorious Olympic International Films - motto: “Art for the Sake of Money”) they would expand on the style with Mondo Bizzaro and Mondo Freudo (both 1966). His famous feud with David F. Friedman, Mighty Monarch of the Exploitation film, led to a glorious battle of softcore wits. When the mind behind The Defilers and Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Blood trilogy made a bawdy Western (Brand of Shame), Cresse rushed his own smut-laced oater into release (Hot Spur - 1968).
Always looking for a way to make a buck, the maverick also copied industry trends and other’s successful schemes. Back when censorship was constantly challenging the validity of sex and violence onscreen, the grindhouse guides tried everything they could to avoid persecution (and legal prosecution). One semi-successful ruse was bringing foreign films over from Sweden and France to the United States, redubbing them into English, and positioning them as high brow, arthouse fare. The air of sophistication and international distinction made the rampant nudity and adult content more palatable to those looking for prurient interests and illustrations.
Thus Little Girls entered Cresse’s life. In retrospect, it seemed like an oddly perfect fit. The mannered morality tale about wealthy young ladies losing their inhibitions away from the prying eyes of their distance, disinterested parents had a seedy subtext (the gals would end up blackmailed by a desperate club owner and her hired stud), a recognizable underpinning of perversion (we get beatings, teen lust, and some not so subtle incest), and lots of nubile, naked bodies. It was everything the raincoat crowd mandated. It also mimicked the ongoing sexual revolution expertly while offering cold hearted members of the coat and tie Establishment enough finger waving precaution to make it appear conscientious.
The story centers on four school girls. Their kittenish curiosity in the ways of wantonness ends up backfiring when their supposed friend Bismuth sells them out to club owner Dani and her hunky employee Mike. As scenes of debauchery and degradation play out, we get innuendo and insinuation, the black and white image giving everything a definitive, monochrome morality. As with any tale of innocence defiled and principles perverted, Mike has a moment of clarity, and decides to end the extortion. Of course, it helps that he’s fallen for Elena, one of the trampy targets. In the end, it’s Dani, not her ‘students’, who pays for their crimes.
Unlike their American counterparts, Europeans frequently used sensuality and lust as reminders of social responsibility and political unrest. Little Girls reflects this by having all the parents indirectly approve of their daughters’ dirty deeds. In fact, the plans of the conniving Dani backfire when no one cares about the scandalous photos they are sent. One stepfather even decides the situation excuses his attempted rape of his own child. With Cresse supplying the voice over narration (as well as an inserted S&M sequence - more on this in a moment), we get that slightly smug, holier than thou feeling about the entire premise. While a movie like Little Girls wants to celebrate the hedonistic horniness of its heroines, it also does a dandy job of putting them right back in their supposedly underage place.
Since he merely picked up this production for distribution, Cresse had no input in how the movie was actually made. But it’s clear he used his newfound ownership interest to exercise a little editorial control. His creation of the narration aside, the movie feels overly simplified, reduced to basic plot points and lots of scenes of faux fornication. Unlike the Mondo movies he imported, elements here appear truncated, reconfigured, and purposely repositioned. When two characters retire to a movie theater for some private time, the onscreen action features a well hidden Cresse (his back and balding head give him away) giving former pin-up and Whisky a Go-Go dancer Michelle Angelo the once over. Breasts tied up in restraining ropes, there are endless shots of this model being abused, beaten, and objectified.
Many of the movie’s more scandalous moments were also right up Cresse’s alley. One of the first trysts takes place in a cemetery, half-naked heroine and her pick-up crawling out of a freshly dug grave in post-coital satisfaction. Another customer demands his paramours strip, and then slap each other silly. Perhaps the most repugnant moment occurs when a blond bimbette, described as “just over 14”, slinks up to a deviant sitting at the top of a ladder, his grinning mug and filthy slicker opened suggestively. After a few more minutes of seduction, the girl’s head disappears into the coat’s hemline.
One aspect of Little Girls that Cresse clearly had no control over is the performances. Most of the actresses are very good, coming across like naughty versions of their new wave counterparts. At other instances, the talent takes on the air of a sketch comedy parody, overwrought emotions ruining the film’s more subtle sophisticated atmosphere. The script does take chances, hinting at pedophilia, suicide, and a last act brawl that pits our remaining victims against the callous bitch who would sell their soul (and skin) to save her business. In classic exploitation style, matters between vixen and villain are handled with brazenness and a brutal sense of comeuppance.
Had their not been the connection to Cresse, had the movie simply arrived on American shores as yet another example of international envelope pushing, Little Girls would have had little impact. But what made men like this as infamous as they were ingenious (and waving guns in the faces of deadbeat distributors doesn’t count) is the way they turned the formulaic and familiar into something filthy. Even without the added scene, this movie would have been sleazy. Cresse’s contribution strips away the veneer of propriety to show the effort for what it really is - 66 minutes of breasts, butts, and balling.
It still doesn’t explain the man, however. Maybe nothing truly can. He viewed himself as a rebel, a hard nosed ball buster of a businessman who treated his friends like fools and his competitors like casualties. Harry Novak, famed producer of such movies as Kiss Me Quick and Wham, Bam, Thank You Space Man once referred to him as a “criminal” claiming his volatile temperament frequently failed him. This was especially true one fateful day. While walking his dog, Cresse saw two men beating up a woman. Stepping in to stop the situation, he proceed to threaten them with his trusty handgun. Turns out it was a pair of policeman roughing up a local prostitute. Provoked, they shot Cresse, and then killed his canine companion for good measure. The resulting seven-month stay in the hospital depleted all of his money (he was uninsured). He would eventually die of a heart attack in 1998.
Little Girls may now appear like a blip on Bob Cresse’s professional radar, and he will probably always been known as the miscreant German commandant in Love Camp 7, or the Jonathan Winters channeling Granny Goode from House on Bare Mountain. Indeed, many of his acting turns (The Erotic Adventures of Zorro - 1972, The Pick-Up - 1968) were more memorable than his movies. As a screenwriter he was routine and as a humanitarian he was humiliating. But Cresse will always be one of exploitation’s more intriguing characters, and his participation in Little Girls is proof of his position as the genre’s unsung agent provocateur. He should be better known. Sadly, it seems like he’s destined to remain an elusive, contradictory legend.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.