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Horror And Exploitation Films

Horror films take as their focus that which frightens us: the mysterious and unknown, death and bodily violation, and loss of identity. They aim to elicit responses of fear or revulsion from their audience, whether through suggestion and the creation of mood or by graphic representation. Horror paradoxically provides pleasure, providing a controlled response of fear that is presumably cathartic. Stories of fear and the unknown are timeless, no doubt beginning around the prehistoric campfire. It is around such a fire on the beach at night that John Houseman dramatically recounts the scary legend of Antonio Bay to the engrossed children in the opening of John Carpenter's The Fog (1980). With roots in such precinematic forms as medieval woodcuts, Grand Guignol theater, and the gothic novel, the genre has been popular since the beginning of cinema, as evidenced by the fantastic films of Georges Méliès from the first years of the twentieth century. Many of Méliès's short trick films dealt with monsters (a dervish in Le Monstre, 1903), ghosts (Le Revenant, 1903), magic (La statue animée, 1903), and the devil (Les trésors de Satan, 1902)—subjects that were to become central to the genre as it developed over time.

Horror films address both universal fears and cultural ones, exploiting timeless themes of violence, death, sexuality, and our own beastly inner nature, as well as more topical fears such as atomic radiation in the 1950s and environmental contamination in the 1970s and 1980s. As Stephen King observes, horror "is extremely limber, extremely adaptable, extremely useful "(p. 81). Horror addresses that which is universally taboo or abject but also responds to historically specific concerns. Both kinds of fears are addressed by the main categories of horror, as Roy Huss and T. J. Ross usefully group them: gothic horror, monster terror (overlapping here with science fiction), and psychological thriller. Because horror provides us with manageable experiences of fear, it is one of the most sustained of film genres, as popular today as it has ever been.

Unlike such genres as the musical and the gangster film, which had to wait for the development of sound, horror movies were an important genre in the silent era. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) was filmed as early as 1910, and in France, Louis Feuillade's serial Les Vampires (1915–1916) made use of earlier narratives with female vampires. Audiences were familiar enough with horror conventions that by 1927 they were being parodied in The Cat and the Canary.

The first significant cycle of horror films appeared in German expressionist cinema, a movement that began with the influential Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920), directed by Robert Wiene. Its plot involves an evil mesmerist who forces a somnambulist to commit murder. Designed by expressionist artists Hermann Warm, Walter Reiman, and Walter Röhrig, the film contains almost no right angles in its distorted buildings and streets; shadows were painted directly on the walls and floors rather than created by lighting, and the make-up and acting are deliberately stylized. The film's design visualizes the madness of the inmate in the insane asylum who narrates the story. Caligari was a significant international hit and inspired the many films to follow.

A specific period or movement of German silent cinema in the 1920s, German expressionism eschewed realism in favor of projecting onto the exterior world abstract representations of intense inner emotion, whether of characters in the narrative or of the artists themselves. Characteristic techniques of German expressionist cinema include an emphasis on extreme angles, chiaroscuro lighting, distorting lenses or sets, and stylized acting and makeup. The films were shot mostly in the studio, many at Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft (Ufa, the largest studio in the country), with an artificial look that deliberately sought to exclude the natural world. Thus German expressionism was a style ideally suited to the horror film, and many of the films dealt with the popular horror themes of psychological breakdown and madness and the supernatural, including Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (The Golem: How He Came into the World, 1920); Der Müde Tod (The Weary Death, also known as Between Two Worlds, 1921); Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu, a Symphony of Terror, also known as Nosferatu the Vampire, 1922), the first adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula (1898); Der Student von Prag (The Student of Prague, 1926); and Faust (1926). Production of expressionist films in Germany peaked in the mid-1920s, and the movement dissipated in the early 1930s with the coming of sound and the emigration of many German directors, cinematographers, actors, and other film workers to the United States as the Nazis rose to power. In Hollywood they worked their way into the studio system, where they contributed significantly to the development and look of the horror film, particularly those produced at Universal, and later in the 1940s to the distinctive style of film noir.

In contrast to German cinema, the comedies and westerns already characteristic of Hollywood in the silent period expressed upbeat and open moods that were unsuitable to the dark and claustrophobic worlds of traditional horror. It was not until much later that Hollywood would turn for inspiration to the strong vein of horror that ran through American literature, from the demonization of native Americans and the wilderness in the fiction of Charles Brockden Brown, James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and others to the more straightforward horror tales of Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft. But while horror was not a Hollywood priority in this period, Lon Chaney (1883–1930), known as "The Man of a Thousand Faces" for his mastery of makeup, emerged as the first American star of the genre in such roles as Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925), and in eight collaborations with the director Tod Browning. Unique among silent film stars, Chaney was known for portraying monstrous, physically deformed, and psychologically tortured characters.

Exploitation movies have been a part of the motion picture industry since its earliest days. The term "exploitation movie" initially referred to any film that required exploitation or ballyhoo over and above the usual posters, trailers, and newspaper advertising. Originally this included films on risqué topics, documentaries, and even religious films. But by the 1930s it referred specifically to low-budget movies that emphasized sex, violence, or some other form of spectacle in favor over coherent narrative.

Exploitation films grew out of a series of sex hygiene films that were made prior to and during World War I in an effort to stave the scourge of venereal diseases. Using movies as a modern educational tool to convey the dangers of the diseases and their potential treatments, movies like Damaged Goods (1914) drove home a moralistic message about remaining clean for family and country. Following the war several films commissioned by the government for use in training camps were released to the general public. Fit to Win (1919) and The End of the Road (1918) did not have the same level of moralizing of pre-war films, but they did include graphic clinical footage in many situations. These elements left the films open to severe cuts or outright bans by state and municipal censorship boards. In 1921 a meeting of top motion picture directors adopted a self-regulatory code, The Thirteen Points and Standards, that condemned the production of movies that were susceptible to censorship. Sex hygiene, white slavery, drug use, vice, and nudity led the list of disapproved topics. The same topics were among the list of forbidden subjects of the MPPDA's "Don'ts and Be Carefuls" when it was approved in 1927 and the Production Code when it was written in 1930. With a collection of salacious topics off-limits to mainstream moviemakers, low-budget entrepreneurs quickly moved in to fill the gap and reap the profits. Just as the bizarre sights of the sideshow had been segregated from the big top in the circus, the subjects of exploitation films were shunted aside by the mainstream movie industry.

From the late teens through the late 1950s classical exploitation films operated in the shadow of the classical Hollywood cinema. The men that made and distributed exploitation films were sometimes called "the Forty Thieves," and several came from carnival backgrounds. Some companies were fly-by-night outfits that produced a film or two and then disappeared. However, many individuals and companies were around for years: Samuel Cummins (1895–1967) operated as Public Welfare Pictures and Jewel Productions; Dwain Esper (1892–1982) used the Road Show Attractions name; J. D. Kendis (1886–1957) made films under the Continental and Jay Dee Kay banners; Willis Kent's (1878–1966) companies included Real Life Dramas and True Life Photoplays; and Louis Sonney's Sonney Amusement Enterprises dominated West Coast distribution.

Exploitation movies were invariably low budget—usually made for far less than the average B movie. Most exploitation films were made for under $25,000 and some for as little as $5,000. Shooting schedules were less than a week, with some films being shot in as little as two or three days. (Unlike B movies, which were used to fill out the bottom half of a double feature, exploitation films were often expected to stand on their own.) Their low budgets and accelerated shooting schedules meant that exploitation films featured stilted performances, poor photography, confusing plots, and startling gaps in continuity. On almost every level they were bad films. Many of these movies have a delirious quality, shifting between long passages of expository dialogue and confusing action. But what they lacked in narrative coherence they made up for by offering audiences moments of spectacle that could not be found in mainstream movies. That spectacle might come in the shape of scenes in a nudist camp, footage of childbirth or the effects of venereal diseases, prostitutes lounging around in their underwear, or women performing striptease dances. These scenes of spectacle often brought the creaky narrative to a grinding halt, allowing the viewers to drink in the forbidden sights. As a result of such scenes exploitation movies were always advertised for "adults only."

In addition to the forbidden sights on the screen, exhibitors were often provided with elaborate, garish lobby displays. Sex hygiene films could be accompanied by wax casts showing the process of gestation and birth or the effects of VD. Drug movies came with displays of drug paraphernalia. In many instances the films were accompanied by lectures, which were little more than excuses to pitch books on the subject of the film. For a dollar or two the audience could buy booklets with titles like "The Digest of Hygiene for Mother and Daughter." Pitchbooks provided an additional source of income to the distributor.

A small core of urban skid row grindhouses played exploitation films constantly. But the best market for these films consisted of regular theaters, in cities or small towns, that periodically took a break from Hollywood product to play a racy—and profitable—exploitation movie. The movies cloaked their suggestive stories and images in the mantle of education. Almost all exploitation films began with a square-up—a brief prefatory statement that explained the necessity of showing a particular evil in order to educate the public about it. Given the difficulty of getting information on such issues as childbirth and birth control, some of the movies did have a legitimate educational component. But they were produced primarily to make a buck. Exploitation movies were often available in "hot" and "cold" versions to accommodate local censorship or taste, and to extend the potential of pocketing that buck. And if audiences did not get the spectacle that they had been led to believe they would see from the lurid advertising, a roadshowman could always throw on a "square-up reel" of nudist camp footage or a striptease dance to sate the crowd.

Because only a handful of prints of any film circulated around the country at any one time, many classical exploitation films were in release for decades. It was a common practice to re-title a film to extend its life on the road; some movies were known by as many as five or six titles over time. Among the perennial hits on the exploitation circuit were sex hygiene movies such as The Road to Ruin (1934) and Damaged Goods (1937); drug movies like Marihuana (1936), The Pace That Kills (1935), and She Shoulda Said No (1949); vice films such as Gambling with Souls (1936) and Slaves in Bondage (1937); nudist movies like Elysia, the Valley of the Nude (1933) and The Unashamed (1938); and exotic movies (often featuring nearly naked natives) such as Virgins of Bali (1932) or Jaws of the Jungle (1936).

The most successful exploitation film of the classical era was Mom and Dad (1944). Producer Kroger Babb (1906–1980) had toured with earlier sex hygiene films and in 1944 decided to make a more up-to-date film. The story of a high school girl who discovers that she is "in trouble," Mom and Dad included films within it that showed childbirth, a Caesarian operation, and venereal diseases and their treatment. Babb sold the film aggressively and at one point after World War II he had more than twenty units on the road with the film, each with its own "Elliott Forbes," an "eminent hygiene commentator" who provided the lecture and book pitch. Millions of men, women, and teenagers saw Mom and Dad and it soon had competition from several direct imitations: The Story of Bob and Sally (1948), Because of Eve (1948), and Street Corner (1948). Eventually the owners of the four films joined together in a consortium to distribute the movies in a way that minimized direct conflict. Mom and Dad was still playing drive-in dates into the 1970s and some estimates have placed its total gross over the years at $100 million. But as the 1950s progressed, the Production Code was relaxed and many of the old topics that had been grist for exploitation movies—drug use, unwed motherhood—were folded back into the list of acceptable subjects for Hollywood films.



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