[9 March 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
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.
The Wonderful Land of Oz/ Jack and the Beanstalk
You have to remember – exploitation was all about money. Any notions of art or appeal were a slim, shady second. If you could film it, and find an audience willing to watch it – or be tastefully tricked into doing same – your coffers could be clinking with curiosity-inspired coinage. Short of sneaking over into hardcore pornography (still a major Constitutional no-no at the time) or delving into areas even more disturbing (snuff, anyone?), producers had to plunder the depths of all potential profit zones, going from fright to foreign to get the greenback dollar done. And then once they struck grindhouse gold, they would tap and re-tap said monetary mine until it was almost ready to implode.
Perhaps the oddest revenue stream came from the pre-teen crowd. Too young to pet up the passion pit, but still cognizant of film as a form of entertainment, they were a fledgling fanbase that the major studios failed to sufficiently market to (wow – how times have changed). While it may seem strange for a business that based most of its earnings on eros, nudity and scandal to venture into kid-friendly fare, anyone who knew the genre’s cinematic con game realized such a strategy was a long standing element of exploitation. When the roadshow proved successful – selling sex education epics loaded with “live birth footage” along with an in-person hygiene lecture – other combinations of cinema and theatrics were conceived. Magicians, capable of creating magic without the need of celluloid, were quickly reconfigured into horror hosts. The next thing you know, the spook show was born.
It was a killer combination. A cornball carnival act was out-fitted with Grand Guignol blood and gore effects, a rotten old scary movie was picked out of the public domain pile, and almost instantaneously, ads announcing the upcoming fright fest were filling papers all around the standard exploitation circuit. Summer-weary youngsters, looking for something to stifle the sweltering heat (or in Fall, to prepare them for All Hallow’s Eve) would line up outside the local Bijou, ready for a mind-boggling multimedia event. Traveling from city to city, these potent profit generators became an annual rite of passage for many of the nation’s most easily impressionable. But just as the spook show was burning up the beltway, Congress began its unprecedented hearings into comic books and juvenile delinquency. In one fell swoop, the selling of violence to children was tantamount to a crime.
Quickly needing to regroup, the exploitationers hit upon a radical idea – pander to the parents. Instead of shocking their offspring, perhaps they should provide a sort of cinematic panacea (and indirectly, a few hours out of Mon and Dad’s harried household). The answer was obvious – link into the large library of fairytales, apply the same lo-fi no budget approach to their production as they do in the skin and sin department, and railroad them through as many small market screens as possible. Thus the kiddie matinee was born, an afternoon long celebration of good clean fun merged with buck-based babysitting. A perfect example of this approach are the efforts of Barry Mahon. A director who dabbled in almost every genre of sleazoid cinema, his late ‘60s/early ‘70s adolescent epics defy easy description. These amazingly misguided movies prove that, when it comes to famous fables from the past, familiarity breeds a kind of commercial contempt.
When it comes to wonderful wizards, it figures that as soon as Dorothy and Toto travel somewhere back over the rainbow to Kansas, Oz instantly becomes a backlot at some failed Florida funpark. It is here where we meet Tiperarious, an off-key cretin, who is ready to help bastardize L. Frank Baum’s beatitudes. Apparently, “Tip” is a metaphysical princess trapped in a talentless male child star’s body, enslaved to a wax-chinned witch. Typical of your enchanted land manservant, little Lord Boredleroy carves a pumpkinhead and calls him Jack (somewhere in the great beyond, the future imagination of Timothy Burton smiles). Mombi, his magical “massa,” sprinkles her broth of vigor all over the squash and he turns into a walking, talking gourd with no ass and Jackie Vernon’s voice.
Overhearing that his hag housemother plans on turning him into a marble garden gnome, Tip takes Jack to the Emerald City to visit the Scarecrow. Along the way, the dumb duo runs into General Ginjur and her all-female marching band. They are set to overthrow the forward-thinking Oz government for granting them suffrage. Seems our young ladies would rather sleep late and money grub after all (screw the ERA!). In a desperate attempt to breathe life into this tired child’s chestnut, they introduce the timeless, treasured literary characters of the flying sofa Gump and the walleyed Cuddlebug/Pollywog/Wiggleworm/Wogglebug/Whatever. It doesn’t work. So then everyone sings!
Meanwhile, in another far more single warehouse set fantasy world, Jack and his fiduciarily strapped family lament their late father. Or a better explanation would be that they sing pathetic show tunes about how stupid he was at not being able to recreate his famed, money making inventions, or how many of their now malnourished ribs they can count. Mom decides that instead of slaughtering the cow and serving flank steak for a month, she’d rather turn over the wise financial decisions to her wispy loafered son Jack. He immediately trades the potential ground round for a handful of lentils, then tosses them into the backyard, thereby avoiding the alimentary middleman.
A huge beanstalk grows, Jack traverses it, and runs into the sloppiest giant (with the loveliest castrati voice) in all of Cloud City. Our light fingered fig climber commits acts of larceny while the crumb laden colossus eats his weight in skunk soup and then falls into incredibly well timed cases of narcolepsy. Eventually, Jack discovers he is stealing to supply his sister with a dowry. Seems a hard-up mutt ugly 16-year old miss has a difficult time getting hitched to swarthy suitors without cash on the salt pork barrel head, or at least a harp that plays by itself. Eventually there is some manner of “happily ever after” since the movie ends.
For those who find the Rankin-Bass school of brat bewilderment jerky and unnerving, or Sid and Marty Krofft’s sebaceous cartoons on crack like kissing Billy Hayes, just wait until you get a load of what nudie entrepreneur Barry Mahon thought wee ones would be willing to sit through on a hot Saturday afternoon. Unless your name was K. Gordon Murray and you set about importing all manner of Mexican merriment to fuel your moneymaking matinees, you had to grow some junk of your own. And films like The Wonderful Land of Oz and Jack and the Beanstalk were the homemade horse hockey result. These movies share a great deal with the entire R-B/ S&MK school of juvenilia with their Puffnstuff/Bugaloos/Lidsville weirdness; awkward, in puberty flux teen boys with bad Beatle hair and even worse singing voices cooing about magic wands and enchanted pixies; overly bright and oddly angled sets attempting to pass for far-out imaginary locations, and charmless adults in ill-fitting costumes and pounds of pancake makeup prancing and posing, passing time until happy hour.
Oddly enough, Oz is rather faithful to the original book upon which it is based (The Magical Land of Oz), even using some of the same dialogue and scenes. And that’s good, because when left to his own devices, Mahon gives us action, actors, and musical numbers that take the whole notion of nonchalance to a new, near comatose level. Even when they’re singing the saccharine, silly songs inserted into the show, everyone in the cast seems barely awake. You start to wonder how something this outrageously awful could be made. And fret it could get worse.
And then it does. Jack and the Beanstalk starts to play. So stagy and talky that David Mamet watches it annually just to remember how best to cram the maximum amount of dialogue within the minimal amount of scene changes, this vexingly verbal version of the classic Fe-Fi-Fo-Fooey should be called Jack Beany / Jackstalk. You half expect Kevin Spacey to show up three-quarters of the way through (in a wizard’s hat of course) and yell at the cast to “go to lunch.” Anything to enliven this by the fast food franchise coloring book rendition of the bedtime standby. Every time the hairy, seemingly hung-over giant goes into his high pitched “Fe-Fi” aria, you actually feel your individual skin cells quivering in nucleic failure. Jack’s mother sounds like she just came over on the boat (from where? Perhaps…Lithuania?) and his sister is so obsessed with that damn dowry that you’d swear she was Indira Gandhi in another life.
The direction subdivides the film into three separate, bowel challenging movements, each one starting and ending with Jack climbing his green leafed rope ladder and shuffling along the dry ice stage setting like he’s tripping the cumulus fantastic. Then, via the magic of atrocious rear projection, he steals cardboard items while we witness the gross gob of our elephantine enemy in all his mouth corner salt sickness. It’s just too bad that even with his lack of musculature, Jack never once stumbles and tumbles to his upper atmospheric death. Nothing or no one so deserves to burn up in the earth’s atmosphere more than this grimy Grimm’s flimsy tale.
Oddly enough, both movies were very successful. They lead Mahon to make a version of Thumbelina (1970) and a pair of corrupt classics with Christmas as a backdrop (Santa and the Three Bears, 1970 and Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny, 1972). And it wasn’t even off-title exploitation auteurs that were betting on brats to rake in the dough. Even Herschell Gordon Lewis, the originator of the gore film, tried his hand at it, making the insane fantasy flop Jimmy the Boy Wonder. He would even go so far as to film a local amusement park’s stage show and release it under the title The Magical Land of Mother Goose. In both cases, the movies were good for a couple week run before fading into the entertainment ether. It all ended when TV realized the desperate demographic available, and began purposefully programming cartoons and other kid fare during the afternoon hours. In an instant, the kiddie matinee died. The films were relegated to rerun status on local UHF channels, and the producers went back to pushing softcore smut as their ballyhoo bread and butter. After all, exploitation was all about money. Still, it’s interesting to remember a brief period when the piggy bank drove as many movies as the private parts.