Though many a snobby film buff may scoff at such a statement, the current state of movies owes an amazing debt of gratitude to those real pioneers of outsider filmmaking, the exploitation industry. From the breaking down of subject matter barriers to the challenging of outrageous censorship issues, the brave men and women who pushed the boundaries of taste and delved wildly into the territory of taboo helped pave the way for narrative and stylistic elements we take for granted in today's modern mainstream mentality. From nudity and sexuality to violence and gore, exploitation took chances and faced the risks that the major studios wouldn't have dreamed of or dared.
For over 15 years now, Something Weird Video has championed these celluloid social outcasts, putting out some of the best and most important sleaze and skin filled DVDs on the market. Cramming each offering with archival shorts, trailers and galleries of poster art and movie magazine covers, these dense discs play like a visualized Encyclopedia Sextanica, providing a living digital history of this incredibly influential aspect of contemporary moviemaking. Of the dozens of discs released by the company in 2004, these 10 represent the cream of the corrupt crop, offering a chance to see the kind of crazy, crude and corporeal product that kept the raincoat crowd amused back before Internet porn was so prevalent. In reverse countdown order, we begin with:
10. Alice in Acidland/ Smoke and Flesh
Cautionary tales about the evils of drugs are a dimebag a dozen, but leave it to the grindhouse gang to infuse these anti-educational farces with more frigging than foreshadowing. Each is a clear example of a hot button issue being used to excuse a wealth of wanton wombating. Alice is less "Just Say No" and more "Just Say Ho" as the title teen learns that drugs, alcohol and pool parties are a direct line towards uncontrollable lesbian loving. It's not long before she is taking a trip through the hooking glass. Flesh and Smoke, on the other hand, is a real toke of THC-laced lunacy. This gritty throwback to the urban roughie smoothed out with sensimilla is a testament to the beauty in a bong hit. As the novel narrative walks us through the cloak and dagger deceptions of an early 60s pot party, we meet more cool cats and hip chicks than Cheech and/or Chong ever envisioned. Together with an amazingly amoral documentary about the aphrodisiacal properties of Mary Jane, this is one "chronically" crazy DVD.
9. Ghetto Freaks/ Way Out
Ever since the end of the 60s, the peace and love decade (and the hairy freaks who made it happen) have been the subject of some sentimental selective recall. This pair of perverted properties sets the record semi-straight, once and for all. Freaks is a trite little look at the lewd life in a commune. Our hero is a freethinking love machine who doesn't want to get tied down to one woman. So naturally he falls for a suburban debutante who is going Age of Aquarius to rebel against her family. Long on body paint, but short on story, this cinematic happening is more incensed then palette cleansing peppermints. Way Out, on the other hand, is a brash indictment of the entire drug culture, posing as a very successful experiment in avant-garde filmmaking. Director Irwin S. Yeaworth, Jr., took an underground play by a real life recovering addict, and populated his cast with ex-junkies. The result is an intriguing look at the everyday struggles of Hispanic heroin addicts. Anyone who thought the counter culture was all beads and brown acid will see the inner light, thanks to this pair of perturbing titles.
8. Cool It Baby/ Mini-Skirt Love/ Venus in Furs
Though not as well known as his more celebrated sexploitation brethren - like the Findleys, or the Sarnos - Lou Campa deserves a seat in the hierarchy of reprobate monochrome moviemakers. Cool It, Baby / Mini-Skirt Love / Venus in Furs are three of the choicest chunks of exploitation ever to misrepresent their purpose. Cool It, Baby is a non-stop barrage of debauchery that just gets more miscreant as the narrative plows ahead. This tale of a misfit madam and her exclusive club of ill repute has to be seen to be besmirched. Mini-Skirt Love also gets its plot pointed in the right raunchy direction. Having very little to do with the title fashion item, this seedy little slice of suburban rot has mothers bedding lovers and aunts seducing nephews in a never-ending cycle of sleaze. Finally, Venus is Furs, is an eccentric, dada-ist step that goes completely over the oddity edge. Beginning as a debate between our hero and an unseen goddess, the film de-evolves into a series of vacuous vignettes, each one centering on the pleasures/pains of the flesh. With this terrifically tacky triple feature, Campo really earns his wanton wings.
7. Flesh and Lace/ Passion in Hot Hollows
Flesh and Lace follows the exploits of two b-girls-drink-hustling floozies flaunting their flesh for patrons at the mopiest tavern in lower Manhattan (at least it seems like New York). At this strip club for the living dead, disinterested dancers shuffle like Bub into one of Dr. Logan's training sessions, as customers stare off into space. Against this blitzed-out background, sexploitation pioneer Joe Sarno paints a passionate portrait of desperate people living on the edge of social reality, trapped in their own world of sly seediness and realizing that survival, not escape, is their only way through. Sarno then scuttles his previous potboiler's subtle charms to turn the sin-and the skin-up 180 degrees with the wall-to-wall balling of Passion in Hot Hollows. The story can be summed up in one sentence: Perverted sister returns home to mess with her sexually repressed sibling. It may seem like sacrilege to say it, but there are just too many soiled-sheets shenanigans in this movie. Sarno does keep his head in the taboo tumbler, grabbing at those forbidden fixtures like adultery, incest, and homosexuality. But instead of talking and hinting, Joe goes for bodkin broke and gets everyone undressed and porking.
6. The Ghastly Ones/ Seeds of Sin
Andy Milligan. A filmmaking name that suggests kitsch and camp mired in craveness and cruelty. With a title that should spell suspense and a promised premise of gore ready to draw its blood-drenched hook into even the most misgiving fan of exploitation, The Ghastly Ones has pounds of potential. Unfortunately, Milligan's mad movie of murder and millinery is horror only in that the aspects of the filmmaking are far more frightening than the storyline. The entire cast walks around in lace collars, crinoline skirts, and numerous petticoats like this supposed slasher flick is Dickens' Bleak House (just call it Fortnight the 13th). It's just too staid to be scary. Seeds of Sin, on the other hand, is a genuinely warped masterwork of misplaced melodrama. So campy that Boy Scouts are seen circling it for merit badges and filled to bursting with incest, blood changing, insane classic dialogue ("I love you so much I could kill you"), and perversely unexplainable subplots (the scheming servants, the slimy abortionist, the psychotic youngest son) this wild B&W workout showcases a filmmaker of rare resplendent outrageousness. Though not as nasty as their names suggest, this is a delightfully deranged double feature, highlighting Milligan's misguided style perfectly.
5. Take Me Naked/ A Thousand Pleasures
After what has to be the near-perfect perversion of their Flesh trilogy (which are outright classics), any additional cinematic offerings from the sleazoid specialists Michael and Roberta Findley would seem pale in comparison. This is indeed the case with Take Me Naked. With a title far more erotic than anything happening onscreen, this arthouse hokum is just a literary excuse to show us some static softcore. Centering on a proto-poet pining for a goofy looking gal, there is more carnality in a half-assed haiku than in this entire mindless free verse. Though it feels like a warm-up for John Waters's bad-taste masterpiece Pink Flamingos, A Thousand Pleasure substitutes sex for John's individual idiosyncrasies. Yes, there's a lesbian couple that wants a child, a dumb-as-a-doorknocker servant, an adult in a baby's crib, and a determined desire to plum the depths of depravity. But whereas Flamingos focused on the battle between notoriety, filth, family, and fame, A Thousand Pleasures is a look inside the deviant depots hidden in America's suburbs. Toss in some of the Findlays' mandatory sadism (a fireplace shovel to the privates, the burning of the bottoms of feet), and you've got one double feature as fetid as it is fascinating.
4. A Smell of Honey, A Swallow of Brine/ A Sweet Sickness/ The Brick Dollhouse
One of the most emblematic titles in the SWV catalog finally arrived on DVD this year...and that thud you heard was the sound of a film failing to live up to its hype. Exploitation monarch Dave Friedman's simplistic story is all decadent come-on and piddling payoff. Steamy pseudo sex kitten Stacy Walker acts like a flesh furnace waiting for a nice load of coal to stoke her fires. There is style a-plenty and quotable lines en mass, but unless you see Walker as human Viagra, A Smell of Honey, A Swallow of Brine is just one long faux fornication. A Sweet Sickness combines a dull narrative with delirious visuals turning this film into a cut-rate men's magazine sprung to life. And just when you think this nudie nonsense can't get any more bizarre, we get a twenty-minute psychedelic freak-out where our heroine is forced to spray food all over a man in a monkey mask. Then there is The Brick Dollhouse. Like a tattered laundry line with a great deal of ersatz erotica draped all over it, this murder mystery wrapped in an orgy (or ten) gets filtered through a lot of same sex leanings. The whodunit is just an excuse to have characters "remember" sordid scenes of naked shucking and jiving. While Brine is a bit too brackish to brave, the rest of this tainted triple feature is a total tawdry treat.
3. Indecent Desires/ My Brother's Wife
If she had been making movies in France, and not in some South Florida nudist camp or gritty New York locale, and had her films been headed for the arthouse, not the grindhouse circuit, critics today would be declaring Doris Wishman a true revolutionary auteur. Instead of championing Godard or Chabrol, Wishman would be the one receiving the scholarly dissection at the hands of overly self-important film historians. Throughout her entire crackpot career, Wishman pushed the envelope of acceptable technique by refusing to record with sound (laying in all voices and foley in post), cutting away to random objects during the middle of a scene, and relying on the gritty realism of her own tacky Manhattan apartment as the backdrop for most of her action. Call her style "no-wave" or "no-sense," but Wishman was a director who bucked the system to realize her own strange take on sex and sin. And after a significant drought in releases, Something Weird is back with a sensational double feature, the pairing of the peculiar Indecent Desires (about a sexual symbiosis between a doll and a dame) with the salacious My Brother's Wife (outrageous interfamilial adultery a go-go). The combination is pure, perplexing Wishman, and a must-own DVD presentation.
2. The Best of Burlesque
Just like they did last summer with their tour de force releases of classic VD/live baby birth road show films, Something Weird Video has again unearthed another treasure trove of forgotten genre titles. Burlesque, like its close kinfolk vaudeville and the variety show, was once a mighty mainstream force. It has been a long time since this critic has actually been entertained by something so mindlessly, effortlessly, and thoroughly, as this digital delight. The Best of Burlesque DVD will have you shedding copious tears of body bearing joy. Containing two full-length features, 10-minute mini strip shows, comedy skits, trailers, loops, 3-D sequences, clips, and a couple of glorious girl-filled galleries, this is an addictive and seductive Pandora's Box of pulchritude. You'll see everything from classic stars to unknown entities, professional stage extravaganzas to backroom quickies. You'll hear jokes so corny that Fritos could be fashioned from them, and comedy routines so clockwork they almost tell time. As a glimpse into the world of dinner shows and adult nightlife, this DVD is priceless. It's a tempting, teasing time capsule back to when femininity was celebrated (and yes, exploited) as a true art form.
1. Sin in the Suburbs/ The Swap and How They Make It
With titles suggesting a sleazy peek into the sordid lives of salacious suburban swingers, and a gritty black-and-white style that further emphasizes the nasty noir of it all, Joe Sarno was, and remains, the Sultan of Sophisticated Smut. Sin in the Suburbs and The Swap and How They Make It are two of his best films, bold experiments in style and subject matter that would still be branded as borderline scum, even in today's so-called tolerant environment. Sin is an exceptional exposť of the then-popular swingers' scene of the late '50s and early '60s, while Swap deals with the crazy keychain parties preferred by the era's three martini miscreants. Each film is a perfectly plotted masterwork of story and shot selection, wildly entertaining and more like a post-millennial walk through the seedy side of society than a standard early exploitation film. Clearly surpassing the mainstream mung that tried to cover the same subject area at the time, these films are a couple of truly carnal classics. So step right up and take a peek behind your neighbor's curtains. You'll definitely like what you see.
- Bill Gibron