When it comes to cinematic ballyhoo, there are few scents sweeter than the carny cry of the sexploitation subgenre. It is the dancing girls, the carnival barker, the strong man, the freak show and the fortune teller hooking on the side all lasciviously wrapped with a bow made of pasties and g-string. (Tom Waits would undoubtedly approve.) It’s like the fun version of snake venom, in that once it strikes, it quickly goes to your blood, leaving you never quite the same. Unlike snake venom, you will be begging to never get the antidote. Now whether you’re a neophyte or a grizzled fan, there is no finer introduction than 2013 documentary, That’s Sexploitation!
Operating both as a well-oiled primer and a golden-hearted love letter, That’s Sexploitation is 110%, grade-A, slick skinned FUN. F-U-N! (So nice, I had to invoke it twice!) Narrated and directed by the legendary film director Frank Henenlotter, the film is riddled with nods and winks for those in the know. The latter especially shines bright in the two bookend segments involving Henenlotter as our trusty guide, a swanky bar, a beautiful nearly naked burlesque doll, and a bartender who is even less clad than our twirling dame.
The journey begins with Henenlotter visiting one of the biggest grandfathers and poobahs of the sexploitation genre at his Alabama home, Mr. David Friedman. Friedman has always struck me as the kind of grandpa or older uncle you always wanted. He’s whipsmart, funny, gregarious, and not only has the best stories but he’s got a million and one of them. How many men can claim working at both a carnival AND Paramount in the same breath? Exactly.
One of the many bejeweled and sleazy charms of sexploitation is the unconventional peek it gives us into what titillated our parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents’ generations. Mainstream TV/Hollywood, as well as some conservative politicians and religious leaders, will have you believe that everyone was all buttoned-up, married, and dear heavens, Mildred, respectable in the “good old days.” Thank all the pagan gods that sort of thinking is a load of hooey and bunk! (Granted, it helps if you don’t think of your specific line of relatives getting hot and bothered. They totally did, of course, but I get it.)
Starting from the 1920s and 30s, with the strip poker antics of Sins of Love (such a great title) and Uncle Si & the Sirens. The latter involves an old farmer delighting in a device that reveals some nude lovelies…until his wife barges in and discovers the device! (Uncle Si would pop up in a clip used in Michael O’Donoghue’s 1979 madcap comedy-cultural Molotov cocktail, Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video.) The former follows some strip-poker hijinks. If you thought the brief glimpse of Claudette Colbert’s milk-covered breasts in Cecil B. Demille’s incredible pre-code film, 1932’s The Sign of the Cross was shocking, well honey, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
From there, our journey takes us further into the 30s, 40s, and 50s, from sex hygiene films to the roadshow pictures and “hot” and “cool” versions of certain films. (Their side-by-side example of this practice with the fabulously tawdry 1941 B-film, Escort Girl, being one of the numerous highlights within the documentary.) There’s also a brief section on stag films, which for the uninitiated, were little porn loops that were often screened at private men’s clubs, houses of ill repute, and your uncle’s wood-paneled attic that still smells like Pall Malls and Hai Karate. (Sadly, there is no mention of the infamous “Weed Head,” recognized by those of us who have seen the uber amazing and woefully obscure 1975 SOS: Screw on the Screen. If you can find it, watch it.)
For those who like their entertainment more cheeky but far less steamy, we have the nudist camp films. The film beautifully goes into the subgenre’s origins, ranging from movies from Germany of the 1920s and 30s, as well as the first American nudist feature, Elysia (1933) to the “nudie cuties” of the 1950s and 60s. With this shift, you see nudism examined initially as robust, healthy living for families ranging from toddler to senior citizen to a parade of gorgeous pin-up models and famed strippers in scenarios so goony that they border on the phantasmagorical. Phantasmagorical is both the root ingredient and overall result of so many of these films.
The nudies would beget the ghoulies, a tiny but oh so mighty subgenre where nude girls and monsters intersect, giving us such glorious nutzoid titles like Kiss Me Quick and House on Bare Mountain. If you ever wanted to see topless girls twist and shout with Frankenstein’s Monster, then we clearly need to be friends. Also, watch House on Bare Mountain. Soon the ghoulies would beget the roughies, the cinematic equivalent to lurid pulp novels and true crime magazines of that era. Stark black & white cinematography, violence, titillation, themes of white slavery, slap-happy mooks with a penchant for pretty girls in black lacy underwear, are just some of the unifying themes with the roughies. It’s lurid time in Kill City.
The documentary makes a point to mention one of my personal favorites, the late and eternally unforgettable Michael Findlay, whom along with his then-wife and filmmaker in her own right, Roberta, would create some of the most artistic and psychosexual films of the era. If you thought the creation of a lead slasher villain popping in a number of films originated with Michael Myers and Freddy Krueger, then you seriously need to watch Michael Findlay’s Flesh trilogy.
As the 1960s continued and started to wane, the sexual revolution going in America would be more and more reflected in the grindhouses and peepshows in the country. Explicit nudity grew more sexual, with sex itself going from simulated to real with the pseudo-educational “white coaters” to actual narrative features, beginning with Howard Ziehm and Bill Osco’s, Mona, the Virgin Nymph (1970.) Hardcore is where our story with That’s Sexploitation ends since sizzle is a lot harder to sell when the steak is front and center. This is less a judgmental stance towards the golden age of adult and more just a knowing glance to the fact that if the sexploitation was about anything, it was the sizzle. Its carnival come-on origins glowed to the end, from burly-q dancers and Borscht Belt comics to leather-booted dominatrixes lining their pockets via the flesh trade.
That’s Sexploitation is a wholly jubilant experience, giving the viewer solid historical depth and commentary, while crafting a pure-hearted valentine to a genre that is still treated by most film critics and even some filmmakers as “trashy” and “sexist.” My response is, what’s wrong with being sexy? Okay, Nigel Tufnel references aside, there is nothing wrong with subject matter being trashy, lurid, and dark. Life can often be all of these things and more! Hollywood was and still is arguably more sexist than any HG Lewis or Russ Meyer film. Sexploitation connected with me going back to my teens partially because so many of the women in these films were portrayed as strong and in charge of their sexuality. Even in the roughies, which were often riddled with sexual assault, the men are always portrayed as mentally ill, crime hungry, and frothing madmen. (Even my beloved Richard Jennings!) If you want to see REAL exploitation of humans, please find any Oscar bait title where all too common tragedies, like terminal illness or losing a child, are used to manipulate your emotions. One could argue that most, if not all art, no matter how respected by the status quo, is inherently exploitative.
That’s a girthy argument for another day and another man, because Frank Henenlotter, doing that wonderful thing he does by directing a truly fantastic and one-of-a-kind movie that stands out like the most beautiful be-plumed showgirl sitting in a pew full of sweaty, repressed mixed-fabrics sinners. Henenlotter, being one of the best auteurs to have emerged out of the genre scene in the 1970s, knows how to bring an A+ game and bring it he does. Whether you’re a neophyte or someone whose shelves are lined with multiple Something Weird Video titles, you are gonna have a grand ole time with That’s Sexploitation. After all, not every film needs pasties and a g-string, but it helps.