The story of 10,000 movies you never heard of…and how they changed the world
Hey folks, it's me again, your ever-vigilant critic, trying to find yet another way to sell you on exploitation once and for all. Seems that some of you still look down your snobbish schnozzle at the missing link between old-fashioned roadshow ballyhoo and the modern mainstream blockbuster movie and wonder why anyone would even bother with these cast-offs from classic cinema. Maybe you're tired of hearing about it. Maybe you've even tried a title or two, based on yours truly's ranting, and found them to be fetid and foul. Or perhaps you've had the opposite (and correct) reaction. You've sampled a Something Weird or tasted a Troma or Tempe and said, "Say, this stuff ain't half bad. Gimme more!" If you are tantalized by the idea of movies centering on live birth footage, old burlesque routines, nudists camps, oversized mammary glands, and amateurish gore effects, the strange shows that entertained your parents and relatives throughout the 1950s through '70s, then have I got a film for you. Schlock! The Secret Story of American Movies is a wonderful primer for the uninitiated, a nice compendium for the casual viewer and a welcome, if ultimately superficial showcase, for those already immersed and versed in the perverse. This 90-minute documentary takes on the far-reaching task of exploring the entire exploitation genre, from the drive-in monster movies of AIP to all the various grindhouse sleazefests with interviews, archival footage, and campy nostalgia. It succeeds in selling the idea that these forgotten films are the forefathers to our modern media, but with a subject so rich and robust, it occasionally feels skinny and surface.
Facts of the Case
Director Ray Greene spent three years and countless man-hours tracing the lineage and links between two divergent and yet very complementary areas of independent filmmaking. Each one categorized itself as "exploitation," since they were moving away from the typical Hollywood fare to take advantage of a certain demographic (the teenager) and/or subject matter (nudity and gore). Using interviews with those important players still alive and offering some sermonizing on the movement's social significance, we get a bifurcated and often benign view of this most autonomous of cinematic artistry.
To clarify their position, the filmmakers offer Roger Corman and Samuel Arkoff, responsible for the majority of the American International Pictures product that showed up in passion pits around the USA from the 1950s to '70s. Corman and Arkoff believed in ghouls, gimmicks, and good business sense. Films were made quickly and as cost efficiently as possible, sometimes doubling up on actors and sets to score two movies from one production. Their main focus was the low budget monster movie, the atomic beast from another world that threatened mankind and the angry teen delinquent saga.
On the other side of the same coin (according to the filmmakers) were the roadshow hucksters and grindhouse impresarios, men (and one woman) who understood that sex and violence sold—and sold well—and tried to find as many ways of capturing that cash machine on film. Beginning with Kroger Babb and his live baby birth film Mom and Dad, and up through the nudist colony craziness of Doris Wishman and the roughie gore epics of Herschell Gordon Lewis and David F. Friedman, "exploitation" or "sexploitation" as it was sometimes known, ushered in a new frankness to film that was heretofore a forbidden subject.
My fixation with exploitation began in the early 1980s, when VHS promised a wealth of unknown wonders to anyone with a top loading, dual head VCR and the patience to seek out the strangeness simmering at the bottom of video store shelves. John Waters' magnificent book Shock Value (a must-read for any fan of the filmmaker or the exploitation genre—go buy it now!) discussed at tantalizing length the world of independent arthouse cinema. It also hinted at a hidden world of banned movies and 42nd Street sleaze that fried my punked-out brain like nothing had before. Waters championed the works of Russ Meyer (thus causing my trip to see Beyond the Valley of the Ultra Vixens in a theater!) and Herschell Gordon Lewis. Sadly, there were no current screenings of Lewis' gore-drenched dramaramas around, but his skewed slaughter shows were a constant on horror racks, simply waiting for my retail rental dollars to disclose their sadistic sick delights. Only problem was, upon viewing these so-called camp classics the first time through, I was neither impressed nor moved to fandom. I chalked these tainted tales up to that snobbish sentiment known as "acquired taste" and left them to molder for almost an entire decade.
It wasn't until an odd cable program from Britain called The Incredible Strange Film Show started playing on the Discovery Channel that my exploitation interests were once again teased. This time, it was names like Wishman, Mikels, and Steckler that stirred my imagination and whetted my alternative palate to Tinseltown trash. Books were purchased, psychotronic guides were studied, and Blockbusters were scoured for any residual relic from this creaky chaotic past. As laserdiscs came into vogue, big silver platters of splatter filled nudity and cornball carnality came careening through my television screen. And with the advent of DVD, the floodgates finally slammed wide open and an entire catalog of beasts, blood, and breasts was suddenly available. Something Weird Video started offering devilish DVD delights on a fairly regular basis, and like a cracked Columbia House, I was hooked. Commentaries from Lewis and Friedman on these discs told a wonderful oral history of the genre and made waiting for the next month's SWV release seem like a lifetime. Now it's several years and hundreds of discs later, and exploitation is a genre I wear with pride and purpose. The whole world needs to understand the importance of this underground universe of moviemaking, not only to our modern sensibilities but to our legal and pop culture precedents as well.
So where does this leave Schlock!? Is there anything that this documentary can teach me, or any other avid fan, about the exploitation genre that we don't already know? The answer, oddly, is yes, though the connection it forges is precarious at best. The main theme of Schlock! is that pioneers like Dave Friedman and Doris Wishman, along with near mainstream moguls like Roger Corman and Samuel Arkoff, created the modern motion picture and our current pop culture proclivities. And for the most part, they are right. These filmmakers working within the confines of AIP or the art/grindhouse circuit pushed the limits of acceptable stories, subject matter, behavior, acting, and directing to where today, in 2004, we have all manner of blood, guts, sex, porn, perversity, and sin as part of our normal motion picture platform. The exploiteers pushed the envelope when it came to onscreen nudity and violence, opening new entertainment markets. Directors like Lewis set the standard for the blood-drenched horror and gore slasher films and producers like Harry Novak introduced the nation to the notion of softcore skin flicks. Even Wishman holds a significant place in moviemaking with the record for most films made by a woman. Between the growing indie festival set and the homemade, Internet inspired start-ups, current popular culture is a crass war between old school bait and switch and show it all non-subtlety. And it's hard not to see Schlock!'s point: this was and is the direct result of the AIP/sexploitation industry.
Problem is, I buy only about 50% of this argument. Now, I have never been a huge fan of Roger Corman, or AIP for that matter. For me, the tacky Saturday morning kid's matinee quality of these monster movie productions always signaled something stupid and silly. It wasn't until Mystery Science Theater 3000 crashed landed into my life that I grew to appreciate the drive-in dreariness of Roger's regiment. But even then, MST was pumping these putrid pictures full of all manner of well-aimed air biscuits, deflating their cracked qualities into a manageable merry mess. Leave me alone with something like Attack of the Giant Leeches or It Conquered the World, and I will go buck and start taking lives. There are a few Corman canvases that I actually fancy (Little Shop of Horrors, some of the Poe works), but for the most part, like "Vienna," AIP "means nothing to me." So when Schlock! starts touting the work of Corman, Arkoff, and the rest of the American International canon, my eyes start to glaze over and my brain shuts down. Then it makes the logic leap over into SWV territory and I get antsy. Again, the filmmakers here have a fairly valid point. Without the low budget boundaries set up by the AIP moviemaking machine and the ready acceptance of such weird and warped tales by teenage gang debs and dons, the road that Friedman, Novak, and the rest of the exploiteers had to haul would have been that much more trying.
Problem is, AIP didn't do much about the ever-present envelope. About the sexiest thing in their films was Beverly Garland, and she went on to mother the odious Dodie in My Three Sons, so that's not saying much. It took the Russ Meyers, the Doris Wishmans, and the David Friedmans of the world to open the cinematic language up to bare bodies and bloodletting. Yet Schlock! tends to treat these talents as more or less ancillary to the issue. Maybe it's out of respect or out of actual belief, but Corman and Arkoff get a lot of credit and screen time here and some of the same old ground gets retread for the sake of this film (Yes! We know that Corman gave Coppola and Scorsese their starts. Enough already!). Honestly, this duo, along with a moment or two of Vampira, is the superfluous material here. They may have opened some doors, but the true exploiteers knocked down the walls and took the foundation and the whole building with them. Yet they seem to be set up for the red headed stepchild treatment. Perhaps Schlock! could have, or should have, carved its narrative into two, taking on the mainstream members of the independent scene (namely Roger and Sam) and then give its full attention to Freidman et al in their own individual exploration.
If there is a chief grief with Schlock!, it's that it takes on too much at one time. Exploitation is a huge, huge, HUGE canvas with a vast vault of undiscovered stories, outrageous anecdotes, and unbelievable players. To try to tell just part of their story in 90 minutes, mixing in Corman and Arkoff in every few sequences and sprinkling a small amount of journalistic slant, can only result in something half-baked. A good example is Schlock!'s treatment of David Friedman. His autobiography, A Youth in Babylon (another excellent book, buy, buy, buy!) would make a great HBO miniseries, a chance to depict the wily ways of the Mighty Monarch of Exploitation and the rest of his fellow exploiteers, the self-proclaimed "40 Thieves" who worked the territories in a tireless attempt to earn a buck. His book is full of insight, humor, how-tos, and gossip. None of that appears in Schlock! Friedman, who many SWV fans know as the king of commentary, is somewhat hampered here, his appearances given over to small sound bites and occasional asides. But Schlock! never lets this master storytellers and walking historian of the genre spin any of his magnificent tales. It's as if, by having him in the film, they acknowledge indebtedness to his (immense) efforts and then merely move on. Like the fleeting moments with Doris Wishman, who few could get to sit down in front of a camera and speak about her work, there are missed opportunities in Schlock!, times when the exploitation genre could be sold as the sensational cinematic secret it's long been. But this movie doesn't want or need to make that point. It has other, vaguer fish to fry.
Still, I have to say that for all its faults, for its far too elephantine scope and shaky suppositions, Schlock! is a really wonderful introduction, an entertaining and enlightening work that will help those without any real clue about exploitation to get their feet frenched. It's always nice to see the major past players participating, and aside from a couple of MIA moviemakers (whose absence is explained in the commentary), this documentary does a good job of letting us into the world of some of the most important independent film voices. There are a couple of strange sequences (the "apology" for showing breasts must be a joke—they were the lifeblood for grindhouse fare) and overlooked legacies (Milligan? Sonney? Cresse?), but if you've never seen a nudist colony film, wouldn't know a roughie from a snuffie or a rooffie, and think "gore" lost the election in 2000, then Schlock! will begin your re-education. It will introduce you to this lost world of hucksters, hooligans, hams, and heroes. It will entice you with clips from these ancient artifacts and tickle your curiosity with what lies beyond the lurid titles and twisted poster art. It gives many now-deceased icons a chance to speak for themselves and does a nice job of following the historical realities of the genre. Schlock! is a welcome addition to the overall history of the exploitation film. Thankfully, most of its audience won't know what a thin sampling it is.
Pathfinder's DVD release of Schlock! is a cornucopia of special treats. First up is a commentary track by director Ray Greene and producer Wade Major. Both of these gentlemen are likeable, if a little full of themselves, arguing that Schlock! may be the definitive portrait of the exploitation world. Greene has a lot of stories about how he got the idea for the movie and why Russ Meyer and Herschell Gordon Lewis are not in the film. Samuel Arkoff is also eulogized quite a bit (he was an inspiration for the documentary) and occasionally you feel that both guys would have rather simply told his story, alone. Still, the narrative is plentiful and pleasant and calms some of the concerns avid fanatics will have with the film (however, when Greene comments that he just can't watch the gore in Blood Feast, it's a confession that undermines his authoritative stance on exploitation). This is one case where the commentary actually complements the film.
The rest of the bonus material is fun and in some cases, unforgettable. Mainly it's the extra interview material with David Friedman, Harry Novak, and Doris Wishman that really fires the imagination. In each case, one can witness what Schlock! could have been in various incarnations: Wishman is the elusive yet funny talking head version of the film; Friedman is the fun loving old style exploiteer, while Novak shows that you can still be a hustler long after the genre is supposedly dead. The exploitation art gallery is very nice (SWV does them better), the cast and crew biographies are informative, the nuclear propaganda film The Atom and Eve is laughable and ludicrous. The final bonus here is a radio interview with director Greene recorded around the time of the film's release. He talks about the making of the movie and does repeat some of the stories found in the commentary. Still, it's intriguing to learn what motivated him and the talk show host seems to get to the heart of the matter often.
On the sound and vision side, Schlock! looks great for a direct-from-video mixed-media offering. Sure, some of the stock footage is faded and scratched, but most of the material is fairly good and the 1.33:1 video transfer is sharp, crisp, and absent any flaring or bleeding. Sonically, the movie is very voice-driven; therefore, a standard Dolby Digital 2.0 aural presentation suits the film nicely. There is no need for channel challenging acrobatics. All we want are clear voices and no distortion, and Pathfinder delivers.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Hi! It's the little demon that sits on big Bill's shoulder here. Don't listen to this pompous ass, this overblown self-important king of overextended verbal vomit. Schlock! is a great film, a worthy complement to such exploitation explorations as Mau Mau Sex Sex and Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. While it may not be able to encompass everything this poor dope wanted in the way of a digital dive into the grindhouse pool, it's got wonderful interview footage, compelling anecdotes, and some real thought behind it. Schlock! is meant as a mere introduction, an appetizer to stimulate your taste for more tantalizing examples of this forgotten film history. It would figure that this great hog, this glorified genre gourmand, would want more. He's never satisfied. So avoid his pontifications, his holier than thou hissy fits, and give Schlock! a spin. You'll be rewarded with a really great, important footnote to an entire legacy of film. Well, it's time for me to return to moralizing duty. You wouldn't believe the ethical conundrums this dipstick gets into.
Over the time I have been writing for DVD Verdict, I have come to learn that, in the land of exploitation, I am a small minnow amongst a school of savant sharks. There are people and places out there, all over the world wired web, which know the name and the locations on all of Andy Milligan's films and champion the acting of people that I didn't even know had names. For me, as a pure movie fan, the exploitation genre was just a welcome wake-up call, a chance to retrace the past and reconnect with an important lost artifact. I still read Shock Value (even have Mr. Waters' John Hancock on a copy) and I still recall its influence on me. And as I was paging through the well-worn chapters of my original copy prior to the review, quietly reminiscing, I remembered something. It was downtown Chicago. The Jamaican woman who was our live-in maid at the time wanted to go down to State Street and check out Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon. With everyone else gone from the apartment, she decided to drag me along. As we wandered into the Loop, the glorious marquees filled with neon lights and choreographed flash—extolling everything from mainstream to the meat rack—beckoned onward. They all screamed their strange come-ons: "All Male Cast"; "Topless & Bottomless"; "Dares To Show More!" I was transfixed. I was tantalized. Heck, I was twelve! But I never did get to see Lee kick ass. The box office wouldn't sell me a ticket to an "R" film, no matter how hard this svelte Caribbean woman with a hard island accent tried to convince him that she was my guardian. As quickly as the bright lights flickered, they faded away. So it seems exploitation played a part in my life earlier than I thought. But as Schlock! shows, perhaps it was always there. This is the message behind the movie. It's time to acknowledge it once and for all.
Schlock! The Secret History of American Movies is hereby acquitted of all charges and is free to go. The court acknowledges its own bias in the matter, but instead of recusing itself, hopes that those put off by its negative comments still check out this interesting and entertaining film.
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• Commentary with Director Ray Greene and Producer Wade Major
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