[31 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.
By its very definition, the exploitation film finds its foundational subject matter in the areas that society despises. These movies explore the taboo, the scandalous, the unmentionable and the forbidden. From sleazy and abhorrent sexuality to tales of brutality and sadism, the raincoat crowd and lovers of grindhouse goodies wanted material that made the squares feel uncomfortable. They also demanded that smut be used to spice up the proceedings, be they rough and tumble or ribald and risqué. Yet one area that always drew the most controversy and harshest criticism was that of drugs. Since many fringe features tended to glamorize its gratuity, parents and public officials feared that any motion picture approach to addictive narcotics would turn impressionable youth into rock solid speed-ballers.
Granted, drugs had been a staple of the genre for as far back as the roadshow experience. In the ‘30s and ‘40s, with mass communication rather limited, exploitation entrepreneurs understood they could make a fast buck or two by scaring gullible yokels with poorly made message movies. Utilizing harrowing titles like Marihuana: Assassin of Youth and Cocaine Fiends, these premeditated pitch efforts, complete with intermission instruction from a renowned scholar on the subject, were nothing more than the set up for the sale of ‘educational manuals’. In fact, these poorly constructed tomes, usually made up of material from medical journals and college textbooks, provided little valuable information. But they helped line the pockets of the promoters, and gave off an aura of authenticity that a standard theatrical play date would definitely lack.
But time caught up with the roadshow crowd, as audiences grew more sophisticated and skeptical. So the grindhouse gang simply decided to use drugs as one of many clothesline narrative devices – basically, an idea upon which several erotic and/or violent scenes could be crafted. A perfect example is Mantis in Lace, sometimes known as Lila. Producer Harry Novak wanted to make a movie featuring starlet Susan Stewart. Unsure of the proper angle, he came up with a concept that would have our heroine flip out whenever she took acid. Her aggressive ardor would then turn deadly, as she went from canoodling to carving up her possible paramours. Aside from the occasional Mondo style documentary, or attempted serious dope drama, most movies involving recreational pharmaceuticals relied on this peculiar perverted pretext.
As part of their ongoing release schedule with Image Entertainment, Something Weird Video digs up two very unlikely companion pieces for its April DVD double feature. Offering up excellent transfers and a collection of added content (in this case, educational shorts and preview trailers) both the arcane Acid Eaters and the well meaning Weed illustrate perfectly how the grindhouse used opiates to help mellow out the more miscreant of the masses. Each one offers up its own delights and disappointments, but as examples of latter era exploitation, they’re priceless. Let’s begin with the bizarre:
The Acid Eaters (1968)
From 9 to 5, the members of the White Pyramid motorcycle club work average, everyday jobs. But once quitting time arrives, these fun loving loons like to hop on their mini-bikes and make for the mountains. There, they smoke pot, skinny dip, and screw. Their main goal however is the elusive ivory tower with its promise of LSD delights. Once found, our free spirited sex fiends drop tabs, drop trou and get groovin’ via a group grope. Though it all seems rather tame, there are indications that such corporeal playtimes can lead to some manner of implied evil. But for The Acid Eaters, working hard means making one’s relaxation as randy as possible.
Like simultaneously smoking and slipping on banana peels, Byron Mabe’s psychedelic sleaze out The Acid Eaters purports to expose the lighter side of LSD – you know, the baffling, more bosomy part. Featuring an almost never dressed (and decidedly blonde) Pat Barrington and the muscleman’s answer to a monkey, Buck Kartalian, this prurient pilgrims’ progress through the wonderful world of wanton behavior is one of those ‘see it to believe it’ productions. While it’s obviously trying to illustrate the counterculture in unquestionably craven terms (these over the hill hepcats even make body painting seem skuzzy) while concurrently exploring the inner world of dope, what we wind up with is the exploitation equivalent of some swinger’s sad home movies. Mabe, whose time behind the camera included such odd duck delights as A Scent of Honey, A Swallow of Brine and Space-Thing, has a very limited motion picture vocabulary. In essence, he’s a catch as catch can kind of filmmaker, setting up his actors in various sequences of sin, and then moving the lens around as much as possible to capture all the action. Then he goes into the editing booth and hacks his handiwork to death, rearranging the narrative until it’s almost as nonsensical as his artistic aesthetic. And since producer/co-conspirator David F. Friedman basically agreed to such a cobbled together conceit, we are dealing with a movie with a singular surreal purpose.
Many times throughout the non-linear storyline, you’re not sure whether you should laugh or lick toads. The drug taking material is tepid at best – everyone smokes a little grass and then takes large bites out of obvious Styrofoam LSD tabs – and the sex scenes offer the basic groan and grapple we expect from the genre. Barrington gets a couple of corrupt solo scenes, including a baffling jungle boogie in front of a black bongo player, as well as an unsettling dream sequence where she succumbs to her eye patch wearing “daddy’s ” advances. Ew! As for Kartalian, he jumps around like a chimp with chiggers, gets his own beefcake moment when he takes a much needed shower, and finally dons red longjohns to play the Prince of Darkness. Indeed, one of the most impressive elements in The Acid Eaters, aside from the curious comical blackouts where a couple who’ve just met go for a literal roll in the hay, is the 50 foot tall white LSD pyramid set smack dab in the middle of the California countryside. Sure, all Mabe and his cast can do with the prop is use it like a part of Plato’s Retreat: The West Coast Version, but it still makes for a visually arresting prop. As a matter of fact, it elevates one’s overall appreciation for this haphazard head-trip. If you want to see silicon skin sacks swaying in the Pacific breezes, there’s plenty of pulchritude on hand. If you’re more interested in the chemical component of this whacked out weirdness, your lysergic acid diethylamide search will just have to continue.
Hoping to provide a fair and balanced look at the use of marijuana among American youth, as well as the laws that threatened to make many of them criminals, director Alex De Renzy travels from the jungles of Mexico to the streets of war-torn Cambodia to explore the cultivation and criminalization of drugs. Speaking with government officials, anonymous dealers, sympathetic lawyers and angry scholars, De Renzy wants to make it very clear that, as an agent of addiction, pot is no worse than alcohol. He then goes on to dispute the way in which politicians, for the sake of a campaign promise or continued power, push an agenda that is detrimental to both people and society’s position. While he’s not sure if dope should be legal, he definitely believes the official view of it should be more moderate and rational.
Representing the other approach to dealing with drugs, in this case, an expose-style exploration of the late ‘60s/ early ‘70s generational gap, Weed hopes to be an even handed and informative look at marijuana, its facts, and fallacies. Offered by Alex De Renzy, a flesh peddler playing documentarian (by day, he maintained a healthy career in hardcore pornography) and using the Nixon Administration’s foundational studies to begin the real war on drugs, what we experience here is a travelogue teased with various pro/con conceits. On the negative side, we get government officials arguing that pot produces an unruly, addicted and mentally unbalanced member of society. They fuss over the illegal smuggling, exploitation of third world countries, and the increased crime that comes with smoking dope. Then we get the counterculture perspective, a look at how weed and various doorway drugs are viewed as rights, privileges, and part of the new, hip and free scene. De Renzy does a good job of never letting one side win the fight. While we rarely see the substance used (there is a single sequence where a group of Canadian heads enjoy a kind of slapstick smoke, the action sped up to create a clear comic ideal) we do witness warehouses full of the illegal substance, and the creative ways transporters use to fool law enforcement. Perhaps the best scenes stem from a give and take exchange – indirectly – between members of the legal/criminal prosecution portion of control, and the social workers and scholars who simply want to help the kids. The latter view harsh laws as a deterrent to education, and their arguments are very compelling.
In fact, the odd thing about Weed is that, with its non-sensationalized approach to the subject of marijuana, it’s occasionally hard to find the true grindhouse angle. Some may suggest that De Renzy was merely doing the public a subversive service. By putting out a documentary that neither demonized nor defended pot, he created a calm dialogue where before there was none. As a result, the subject became quasi-scandalous, since it refused to tow the emphasized governmental positions. And we are talking about late stage hippy-dom here, a time when drugs were just starting to turn from fun to felonious. By bucking convention, and undermining the Establishment, De Renzy was indeed pushing an envelope of acceptability. On the other hand, this is nothing more than insightful interviews strung together with some intriguing exotic locale work. It’s a treat to see Tibet in all its pre-horror glory, and the sequence where soldiers in Vietnam discuss the ready availability of “#1 Cigarettes” (as the marijuana joint was nicknamed) illustrates the various cultural elements attached to dope. Heck, we even hear a Missouri wildlife warden defend the hemp plant as the perfect habitat and winter cover for quail and pheasant. While the final scene seems like a slap in the face of a close-minded and politically oriented position toward pot, Weed has a lot of interesting things to say.
Together, The Acid Eaters/ Weed prove that, when it came to putting gullible behinds in roadshow or arthouse seats, outsider film producers understood the value of a potent propagandized subject – and no issue was more volatile in the ‘50s – ‘70s than drugs. While the styles may be wildly divergent, and the entertainment consequences equally contradictory, these movies make the clear point that, when it came to exploring any and all forbidden fruit facets of society, no one did a better, more brazen job than the exploitation filmmaker.