The great thing about 70’s exploitation flicks is that the reasons you should see them are the exact same reasons you shouldn’t. Forget the nuanced discussions of plot, theme and character you have after you watch Magnolia or Blade Runner. Pop in The Hills Have Eyes and the guy who likes it is going to love up the same damn things the guy who hates it decries. The symmetry is beautiful.
For instance, take Fight For Your Life, made the year before I was born. Here are some of the reasons given to convince me to see the film:
- A gun is pointed directly at a baby’s head.
- A child is beaten to death with a rock.
- Lots of nudity.
- An insanely, absurdly racist villain.
Can you imagine the reasons someone might give for hating this one?
The exploitation genre was meant to be abrasive. It pushed boundaries simply because they hadn’t been pushed for decades. As the Hayes Code receded into memory, directors wanted to try and use the medium to shock their audiences a little, to address issues most film was too timid to address head on. Think about Fight For Your Life for a second. By 1977 America was already learning to pretend that racism didn’t exist. More artistic, sensitive portrayals of racism married the ugliness to their work delicately. Fight For Your Life had no qualms about giving us a villain who talked about African Americans the way far too many people still did around their dinner tables when no one was there to overhear.
I can’t defend the exploitation genre’s intentions. Even if directors talked high-mindedly about what they were trying to expose in America, and even if they sort of meant it, the real draw was the voyeuristic thrill that accompanies seeing insane shit playing out on your screen. That said, there’s something to be said for work that doesn’t flinch from the vileness of our world. There can be something to be learned from the experience, even if education never crossed the filmmaker’s minds. A good exploitation film can be cathartic, and a bad one can still be an awful lot of fun.
Where modern entries in the genre fail is in their attempt to dress up the old exploitation flicks with deeper themes and character development. Suddenly, it’s no longer a simple formula. The guys who hate babies having guns pointed at them in principle may excuse the film for being “about something,” and those who came for the shocks are going to feel cheated by the cushioning those shocks receive when they’re dressed up with extra plot.
The exploitation films of the 70’s triumphed due to an utter lack of pretension. The film was a guy driving really fast in a really macho car who runs into naked chicks and troublesome cops, or a family of mutated, cannibalistic murders who come upon a poor, helpless family. That was it. The social commentary, when it was there, was subtle; it was a good sear and just the right amount of salt and pepper on an already meaty, bloody – but cheap – steak. Try to dress it up with some kind of mustard brandy sauce, and all you’ve got is a shitty steak that doesn’t know its place.