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.
It’s clear that, in the eyes of many mainstream film fans, exploitation is an idea spawned of the Devil. By taking on taboos and fleshing out fetishes, it was and remains a genre that stated its sinful purpose time and time again. Among the frequent challenges the grindhouse producer faced were government censorship, regional arrest, and a universal reputation as a smut peddler or purveyor of pornography – and each and every dispute decried the immoral nature of their efforts. So discussing these films in terms of good vs. evil, right vs. wrong is not a new idea. In fact, it’s been around since the first roadshow pictures pushed the limits of common decency by showing live birth footage and/or images of sexually transmitted diseases.
So naturally the writers and directors of these frequently explicit epics thought it wise to make fun of their own supposed lack of ethics. And they did so by literally giving the Devil his due. All throughout the history of the exploitation film, Satan and his transgression-laden underworld have been the setting for scenes, subplots, and sometimes, entire storylines. In fact, demons and the supernatural have a way of turning standard sleaze into a kind of pulchritudinous Pilgrim’s Progress. Though concepts like neverending nookie and an infinite amount of skin usually substituted for the customary Hades happenings of damnation and eternal torment, the core element of virtue vs. vice was always front and center. Besides, it made the movies seem like veiled morality plays.
For their sole May DVD release, Something Weird Video is revisiting the days when Legion left the Inferno for a little raincoat crowd limelight. The two films offered - The Joys of Jezebel/My Tale Is Hot – are nothing more than loose, lame comedies covered over with sloppy softcore (in the case of Jezebel) and endless minutes of mundane T&A (as in Tale). Both are hilariously bad, and represent a kind of cautionary example about using stunts to sell your smut. Each movie here could have easily existed without the hack histrionics of its Belial channeling thespians – but then that would kind of ruin the point, wouldn’t it. Accented by a crazy collection of added content (including some sensational trailers, a Harlem era feature about salvation, a weirdo jazzbo cartoon mocking the Church, and a Candy Barr peep reel) and what we end up with is something that will titillate as well as test your tolerances for all things tacky and threadbare.
The Joys of Jezebel (1970)
The famed Biblical biz-nitch, noted for her wanton, wicked ways, has just found herself as number one with a bullet on Satan’s Top Ten Sex Partner list, and the mangoat isn’t taking “No” for an answer. Desperate to avoid the Devil’s touch, she enters into a pact with Ol’ Scratch. In exchange for the ability to right some wrongs back on Earth, Jez will trick her virginal buddy Rachel into swapping souls with her. This will give Beelzebub a chance at the untouched flesh he’s been perpetually pining for. Once the switch is made, our harlot heroine gets to work. First up on her list – preventing her gal pal from marrying the overweight wart Jeremiah. She does this by suggesting that Rachel is more slut than saint. Then it’s time to get back at Joshua, the man who sent her to Hell in the first place. She pretends to be a man, and then seduces him, causing a nice same sex scandal. All the while, Moloch is hunting around Hades for his ultrapure poon. After all, if he can’t partake of The Joys of Jezebel, he’ll have to get his demonic jollies from someone.
At this point in their respective careers, Producer David F. Friedman and director Bethel Buckalew were growing tired of the same old skin flick. They had worked their way through a rather ribald version of a classic Shakespeare play (The Secret Sex Lives of Romeo and Juliet) and taken on famous femmes like Fanny Hill and Cleopatra. With each entry, the explicitness was accented, pushing the pair ever closer to actual X rated material. For this clothesline creation, the duo came up with a simple story. They would use the character of Jezebel (whose name is notorious for suggesting sleaze and sin), place her in situations where she can use her physical skills to payback some bad karmic bills, and then let her copulate her way to victory. With the fiery redhead Christine Murray as the title tart, and Dixie Donovan as the well endowed Rachel, we end up with a pair of potential powerhouses. But Friedman and Buckalew don’t stop there. They overload the film with naked babes, stopping the narrative now and then to offer up overlong sequences of fake fornication. It’s the movie’s main flaw. One scene in particular – a visit to the oddly named Pit of Nymphs - seems to literally go on forever.
Anyone who’s seen this pair’s previous efforts will instantly recognize the production scheme at play. Friedman and Buckalew preferred bright primary colors - an almost cartoon aesthetic - when it comes to art design and lighting. There is a heavy emphasis on reds and blues, and a clever use of gels and shadows to avoid the action sliding into hardcore. Most of the humor is Jokes for the John level lewdness, the kind of so-called ‘sophisticated wit’ that really felt seedy even back in the ‘60s. Perhaps the most amazing element of this entire presentation is how good it looks some 37 years later. Something Weird strives to provide the best transfers of their titles as possible, and with access to original elements (thanks to Friedman), this movie looks great. You know you’re in pristine picture territory when an actress’s embarrassing facial hair is easily distinguishable. It’s just a shame that The Joys of Jezebel isn’t better. It has all the slap and tickle one could ever want, but it also avoids much of the camp and kitsch that makes the exploitation genre so enjoyable.
My Tale is Hot (1964)
You think you’ve got it bad, average married American male? Imagine what it would be like to be Lucifer, and have your Hellspawn housefrau berating you every day over the lackluster job you do in bringing home the brimstone. Sick of the nagging and desperate to earn back his good bad name, he takes on the topside challenge of turning ‘the world’s most faithful husband’, Ben-Hur Ova, into an adulterer. He plans on doing this by providing the goofy goody two shoes with as many chances to cheat as possible. Once on Earth, he offers Ben some gratuity in the garden, a little booty in the local bar, a sampling of honey in a nearby hotel, and even a sequence of Candy Barr doing her pasties and panties burlesque routine. But nothing can persuade our honorable he-man – and why should it? After all, he’s a Saudi Arabian sheik, and has a harem loaded with 364 girls. With a different doll a day, who needs additional amorousness? You can just hear the Devil muttering to himself, “And I thought My Tale Is Hot.”
If you ever needed proof that the grindhouse and the goofball just don’t get along, here is the perfect piece of cinematic evidence. Like watching one of those late ‘50s/early ‘60s cocktail napkins come to life – you know the ones, the flimsy squares of absorbent paper that house arcane innuendo laced gags about sailors, doctors and three martini businessmen – this excruciatingly repetitive yarn about a virtuous Arab and the Fallen Angel who tries to tempt him is really rather stupid. Part of the problem is the fact that some of the film is missing – like each and every punchline. It often appears as if some comedy hating editor stepped in with a pair of pinking sheers and purposefully trimmed out each and every joke from the film. The character of Ben-Hur Ova will start a quip, and before you know it, Satan is responding to something we didn’t get a chance to hear. Equally, the Devil will try to make a funny, and in the blink of the eye, Ben has already rejected his suggestion and moved on. This creates a very disturbing sense of disassociation. You want to enjoy the vaudeville level of laughs, but the movie just won’t let you.
And when paired with the much more daring Jezebel, the men’s magazine dynamic of the nudity of Tale gets lost in the sexual shuffle. Since the movie was made in 1964, years before the ‘crotch shot’ barrier was broken, we are dealing with a nudist colony conceit when it comes to posing. The women are forced to maintain unusual positions, props like towels, beach balls, and various throws and shawls everpresent to keep the pubis in check. In addition, there is no attempt at giving the gals character or personality. They are merely eye candy of the most casual yet carnal kind. As stated before, one could enjoy this movie a lot more if Something Weird had found a decent print. The version here is faded, scratchy, and clearly edited with a collection of prehistoric sledgehammers. The company has frequently said that while they strive for technical perfection, they feel such transfers give their artifacts the appropriate “authenticity”. Apparently, that’s a new definition for “almost unwatchable”. Somewhere, in its original form, My Tale is Hot was probably a hoot. Here, it’s a collection of cutting room floor flaws accented by bare boobs.
Flip Wilson, the wildly successful ‘60s/‘70s comedian, had a catchphrase that he used whenever he played the drag queen character Geraldine, a massively popular pitch that explained his/her frequently outrageous behavior – “the Devil made me do it!” The same could be said for the movies featured here. For many, it would require a mandate from Hades to get past some of the production/performance/personal pitfalls these efforts provide. Others will simply laugh out loud and enjoy the eros. The Joys of Jezebel/ My Tale is Hot may represent two divergent sides of the overall grindhouse grouping, but they’re more promise than payoff. Kind of like every deal with the cloven hoofed one, right?
Sci-Fi Author Ursula LeGuin's Stories of Class War, Religious Dissension, Identity Politics and More