[14 July 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 Defilers/ Scum of the Earth
“All you kids…MAKE ME SICK!”
Carl and Jameison are two bored brats who can’t seem to settle into their growing adult responsibilities. While the later would like to get on with his life, the former is fierce in his aggressive anti-social stance. So when the standard kicks – alcohol, cheap dates, hot rodding - just can’t provide the necessary post-adolescent relief, the boys concoct a sure-fire plan of amoral action. They decide to use an abandoned warehouse as their own private sex club. Then, they will kidnap less than willing wenches to be their own personal porn sluts. They will rape and beat them, whip and degrade them, all in the name of aimless, alienated thrills. When they happen upon the demure Jane Collins, a beautiful blond who is eros incarnate, the debauched dudes spin into overdrive. But as the games become more and more violent, Jameison has second thoughts. He doesn’t want to be one of The Defilers anymore, but Carl will stop at nothing – including death – to get his repugnant rocks off.
Meanwhile, little Kim Sherwood is desperate to get into modeling. She hears there are lots of opportunities over at Mr. Harmon’s studio, but when she arrives, she is stunned to find a ‘dirty pictures’ operation. Yep, our photographer is a closet smut peddler, working for the nefarious Mr. Lang, a local mobster. He needs the sexy snapshots to keep his juvenile delinquent picture pushers in available product. At first, Kim acquiesces, believing that she will be protected from any sin or exploitation. Besides, Harmon appears nice enough. But as she gets in deeper, our heroine soon learns that no one is looking out for her best interests, and when she wants to quit, Mr. Lang harangues her into further ruination. Besides, if she doesn’t give in, the hood’s goon squad will step in and show her whose boss. It’s a foul fate worse than death for this inexperienced babe in the woods. When she started, she was just a dumb kid. Now, she’s part of the Scum of the Earth.
If exploitation had a pair of founding fathers, individuals almost exclusively responsible for the fate of the entire film genre, it would be David F. Friedman and his partner in perversion, the amazing Herschell Gordon Lewis. Together, they traipsed through all manner of original grindhouse fodder. They worked within the nudist colony romp and offered up their own take on its offshoot, the nudie cutie. They more or less invented the gonzo gore film with their bold Blood Trilogy (Blood Feast, 2000 Maniacs, Color Me Blood Red), and formed the foundation for the combination of the carnal and the craven known as the ‘roughie’. Their affiliation ended over an issue fairly typical in the skin and sin business (read; $$$) and by the time the rest of the cinematic artform were catching up with their efforts, the two were off making movies separately.
Friedman had the most immediate success, his 1965’s The Defilers acting as the kind of wanton wake-up call the industry definitely needed. Lewis would go on to explore the outer reaches of the splatter film, eventually turning his back on all things celluloid for a stint as a successful marketing consultant. Still, his 1963 Scum of the Earth stands as a benchmark for the merging of the sexual and the sick. Without this look at sleazy stag photography, other filmmakers (like Friedman find Lee Frost) wouldn’t have envisioned a meshing of the arousing with the atrocious.
The Defilers remains the definitive statement on such subgenres, with the wicked works of mid-‘60s Doris Wishman a very close second. Like a prototypical profiler for future serial killers, this incredibly twisted take on the bored adolescent ideal takes seediness to a whole new level. As our lead lothario, the unbelievably abusive Bryon Mabe actually makes you uncomfortable, what with his mealy-mouthed manhandling and tendency toward misogynistic rants. This is one incredibly cracked dirtbag, a human hormone strung out on his own sense of inconsequential power. Obviously, Friedman felt that the soft and sensual side of sex had been amply explored inside the exploitation arena, and thought that men now wanted to see a more domination-oriented angle.
Always fond of whippings and hostility, he personally wrote the repugnant script, amplifying everything taboo and tawdry for the growing depraved demographic. There are scenes in this otherwise average drama that are awfully distressing, especially for today’s placated PC audiences. Scandinavian sex bomb Mia Jannson is a far too convincing victim – so demoralized and traumatized that you half believe she’s really being beaten. It’s no wonder then that the rumor mill has her leaving a possible film career shortly after appearing here. Far nastier than it is naughty, The Defilers defines the limits producers would go to reach the raincoat crowd. It also signaled the beginning of the end for the entire drive-in dynamic of filmmaking.
Every finale has to have a starting point, and in retrospect, Scum of the Earth is as good as any. Lewis, never one to ride trends, was already growing tired of the gore fest when he was approached for this project. In his typical hired gun happenstance, the director promised a picture based on a distributor’s demand, and along with pal Friedman, fleshed out a tale centering on the controversial concept of naked photography. With the Supreme Court still a decade away from declaring that nudity was not in and of itself obscene, anyone taking on such a tabloid style exposé of said subject was asking for trouble. That’s why the various photo shoots of topless talent are so incredibly tame by today’s standards. But insinuation could be as crude as necessary, and Scum of the Earth gives great allusion.
There are hints of horror behind the backdrop, suggestions of prostitution, promiscuousness and pain. Even the characters get into the act, with the most famous example being actor Laurence Aberwood’s famous “dirty, dirty!” speech. Forming the basis for Something Weird Video’s standard product title montage, our deranged doughy guy with a mouth full of metal crowns spits out a venomous tirade at a helpless young lass, his assertion that reality is “a fire sale, and (she’s) damaged goods” becoming a readily quotable classic. But within the context of the film, it fits perfectly. Lewis and Friedman were suggesting that anyone who’d disrobe for dollars was obviously suffering from some misguided perception of propriety.
It was a radical stance for exploitation, one destined to destroy the cinematic category from the inside out. For the longest time, flesh filmmakers fought to give their movies a modicum of legitimacy, in hopes it would keep the censors and self-ascribed moralists at bay. But as the variations on vice grew more and more hackneyed, new naughtiness had to be explored. Soon, pseudo-sex movies were merging with every genre conceivable, yet audiences were less than impressed. But when violence was added to the mix, receipts went through the roof. What that says about the average exploitation fan is something for scholars and psychiatrists to debate. But the bottom line doesn’t lie, and all throughout the rest of the ‘60s, the ‘roughie’ became the new pulchritude paradigm. Eventually, the whole concept would mutate into the ‘ghoulie’, and then the ‘grossie’, but by then hardcore was already knocking at the door. While it’s true that Friedman and Lewis didn’t start the whole vice and violence movement, they definitely helped cemented its significance. The Defilers and Scum of the Earth are proof of their endearing importance.
In today’s world of ‘anything for a dollar’ dirtiness, it seems like girls AND guys will willingly degrade themselves for a buck. It doesn’t matter if there’s a fanbase for it – post-modern smut peddlers simply assume that there is. But back in exploitation’s heyday, producers actually catered to the nauseating needs of their very vocal clientele. One need look no further than the roughie, and its premiere examples of The Defilers/Scum of the Earth to support such sentiments.