A Beginner’s Guide to Exploitation Films: Doris Wishman’s ‘Bad Girls Go to Hell’

Exploitation film Bad Girls Go to Hell is a masterwork of miscreant behavior and a love letter to an era when men feared the sexual power of women.

Looking at the classic exploitation films of the ’40s – ’70s, I realize that 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, and producers such as David F. Friedman and Harry Novak, many subjects 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—exploitation films that barely deserve to stand alongside the mangled masterworks by the format’s addled artists. But they, too, represent an important element in the medium’s overall development. So grab your trusty raincoat, pull up a chair, and discover what the grindhouse was all about.

Bad Girls Go to Hell (1965), Director: Doris Wishman

It’s the lure of the city that calls them, the bright lights matching the twinkle in their eyes and the sparkle of their high hopes. Sensible shoes wear a groove into the pavement as deep as the despair in their hearts as they learn that their fantasy easy street is a bleak boulevard of broken dreams. Few survive, and even fewer stay. For those with drive and determination, something close to a living can be squeezed out between the hustle and bustle. For others, it’s back alleys and underground clubs filled with sleazy users just waiting for the new crop to rotate.

And it’s these lost, lonely and desperate women that become the focus of the urban roughie movies of Doris Wishman. In a career that fluctuated between innocent nudist colony films and all-out hardcore pornography, no one understood the metropolitan landscape and its ability to steamroll one’s soul better than Wishman. Her bleak, brave tales of big city seduction and violent passions reflected the times and tenure of America circa 1965-66 better than any mainstream film or filmmaker. Bad Girls Go to Hell is a masterwork of miscreant behavior and a lost love letter to a social era when insecure men feared the sexual power of women and would do anything to keep it under their control.

In the film, our heroine, Meg Kelton (Gigi Darlene), goes about her daily chores. As she is cleaning the kitchen and taking out the garbage, she is attacked and savaged by the brutish landlord of her apartment building. When he later threatens to tell her husband about the incident, she meets him at his apartment, where she is again assaulted. But this time, she bludgeons the bully to death.

Frightened and alone, she heads to New York, where she encounters a series of good Samaritans, each with seemingly innocent offers of help. But each situation turns indecent sooner or later, and Meg finds the lecherous landlord’s murder catching up with her.

Creating the so-called “roughie” exploitation film is a complicated and critical step in the forward momentum of drive-in and grindhouse adult entertainment. Before its appearance as part of the exploitation oeuvre, sex on film was either naughty or nice and usually a little of both. The nudist camp saga showed skin as part of an imagined scientific examination of the lifestyle (mixed with a little tabloid titillation). The nudie took it one step further, making the location insignificant and the amount of body bared ample.

Later, tease would turn into flat-out fornication, where no one shed their clothes unless they meant to press and prod the flesh. Such soft-core sexcapades would even veer off into wild and warped “ghoulies”. where gore and murder were added to spice up the sordidness. The roughie exploitation film existed in that strange middle zone between the tame and the tawdry, in an arena both twisted and tantalizing. The formula was simple enough: feature the man/woman or woman/woman dynamic as a seedy balance of lust and violence, where a man would slug a woman as soon as kiss her, and the woman would sheepishly respond to both.

In these urban decay dramas, sex was power, used to control and contain. Women who understood or flaunted this knowledge were shown the back of a hand or a belt. Only men were allowed to exploit the act for any interpersonal gain. But sex was also seen as a comfort, a means for lost souls to find that temporary moment of connection, where loneliness concedes to lingering caresses under the sheets.

However, these acts of sensual salvation were always punished. Men did not want women to comprehend the power and the glory of their bodies.

Socially, it is understandable where this cinematic philosophy comes from. The ’60s in America were a time of great sexual and personal liberation, where women came into their own as sensual and political beings. Gone were the meek, mousy housewives of the ’50s. In their place were ripe, passionate women lush as an erotic fruit.

Before the games of suburban roulette, where husbands took back control and traded vows (and wives) for keys to the kinky kingdom, the roughie exploitation film marked a time when men attempted “payback” for their perceived loss of sexual and gender power. The battle of the bruised sexes played out in the soiled, soggy streets of the metropolis, within the walls of its catacomb-like apartments.

There is no denying that director Doris Wishman understands this metropolitan landscape, aware of how to translate its power and pulse into a raw cinematic sensation. She focuses on the little moments, the small slices of the city that exemplify and accurately paint a portrait of life in New York. She refrains from long shots of Manhattan or perfectly framed compositions of tall buildings scraping the sky. Instead, she leads us down back streets and into tiny neighborhoods and boroughs where people struggle to exist.

We linger in the city’s few remaining desolate and serene open spaces as large monolithic apartment blocks overlook the fertile land like greedy developers. In these sequences, she captures the city as simultaneously oppressive and infinite, with its cell structure-like living rooms opening onto streets of endless seduction and sin. Like the magic that only the movies can provide, the monochromatic color scheme creates the only sense of black and white that will exist in this world filled with gray areas. There are no winners or losers in this Gotham, just the walking wounded, hoping for someone to dress their battered bodies and heal their shattered lives.

As a director, Wishman didn’t cast for beauty. She wanted her actors to embody their characters’ desires, defects, and destinies. She picked men who exuded Scotch and cigarettes, wearing their wounded male pride on rolled-up shirtsleeves stained with blood, nicotine, and lipstick. As for the women, all had hair piled high on their heads like a bouffant crown or frame and bodies bound under fishnet unitards and undersized brassieres. Their aura silently screamed desire and fertility from beneath their weathered unusual attractiveness, their glamour and good looks offset by the sharp edges of a life unfulfilled and the severe vogue of the current fashion.

Everyone in Bad Girls Go to Hell seems exhausted as if beaten down so hard by the world that Hell was still somewhere high above. Acting talent or temperament was of no concern. Wishman would find a way to make the performance work if they looked the part on screen. It has been noted that, like Fellini, Wishman never recorded live sound in her films. Everything, from effects to dialogue, was dubbed later during the post.

While this is not always true, dubbing is used in Bad Girls Go to Hell, adding another layer of foggy, depersonalized confusion about who and what we are watching. Characters become moral enigmas, too astray to speak in their own voices, too dulled and sullied by life to own a distinct, individual personality.

Wishman employs standard melodramatic plot lines in her films and then inverts the parameters to impose illicit acts and criminal vice into the fray. Bad Girls Go to Hell casts our heroine as a carnal Candide, living from one sexual misadventure and debasement to the next. No circumstance is safe for her, neither the kindly couple with the room for rent nor the lesbian hooker with a gold-plated dime store heart.

For Meg, men and women are a constant threat, one looming over and ogling her in a ripe desire for defilement. She finds herself caught in a never-ending pool of prurience that comes when one forsakes their virtue for a life of vice. While this may be reading too much into what should be a standard exploitation film narrative, Bad Girls Go to Hell does have something to say about the social and biological politics between women and men, between the so-called weaker sex and the caveman king of the castle. There is no courting, no sweet talk or handholding. It’s a story of men looting women like sexual candy stores, stuffing their mouths, and grabbing goodies by the fistful. All these unlucky ladies can do is grind and bear it for another vanished day.

Newcomers to the genre may wonder what all the amateurish fuss is about. After all, there are probably 75 shots of shoes in Bad Girls Go to Hell alone. Wishman loves to move away from the action, from the groping and humping, and turn the camera’s gaze onto inanimate objects like a fruit basket or a clown wall hanging. Some will argue that this is done to avoid decency and censorship laws, but a trained eye looks deeper and sees a message. These are not acts of love.

This is not an erotic exchange. This is violent, rough sex play for authority, and no one needs to see it directly. Wanting to watch means acceptance and compliance. The extended shot of a desk set symbolizes the deplorable nature of what is happening off-screen. But what about the continuity errors, the bad dubbing, and the horrendous under/overacting in Bad Girls Go to Hell? Again, all of it exists to set a tone and tarnish the tales being told. Wishman made exploitation films about the corruption of women. Her celluloid crime scene is riddled with the evidence of honor usurped, of dignity fouled.