"Into the belly of hell called the United States"
- Kathy Acker
There’s a sequence in a film that has so indelibly burned itself into my psyche that I wonder if It's not a symptom of vicarious trauma at witnessing something so purely made to horrify and nauseate. A banshee screaming young woman covered head to toe in blood and gore howling from the back of a pickup truck in the dry heat of a Texas afternoon. The object of her terror: a chainsaw wielding maniac wearing a ragged black suit and the skinned face of a woman over his own. The man dances in fury (or ecstasy? It's something that resists interpretation) as the boiling sun gives him the halo glow of a man who is beyond empathy, human reasoning and restraint – he is in other words, the personification of human cruelty pushed to the limits of excess and madness.
We are of course talking about Tobe Hooper's flawless masterpiece, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The 70s was a hugely formative time for cinema (particularly for America). With gigantic auteur film-making the likes of which the world had never seen – this is of course the decade that gave us the best of filmmakers such as Scorsese, Coppola, Malick, Altman, Cimino that only scratch the surface of exciting new forms of cinematic language that would revolutionise film and filmmakers until our current day and age. But I’m not here to sing the praises of artists who have libraries written about them, I’m here to talk about the ‘dirt in the fingernails’ cinema that would send the Mary Whitehouse mob into a paroxysm of moral terror. The genre I refer to is exploitation in all its proliferate sub categorical value.
Exploitation can be argued as a slow drip of Gothic decadence stemming from Universal’s now charming catalogue of monster movies. Spectral, supernatural and ghoulish figures would send film goers running from the cinema (literally) as Frankenstein (who resembles a human energiser battery) and a suave and sensual Bela Lugosi Dracula stagger slowly towards their ‘immodestly’ quivering female prey (an upper thigh was what got hoots back in the 30s’). While this is arguably a crude and antiquated form of cinematic terror, blow the dust off and you see the enduring blueprint of the future horror film for years to come. With each successive generation of horror upping the ante on carnage and lewdness, it wasn’t until the early 70s that cinema-goers got what the posters promised: SHOCK! SEX! PASSION!
But what makes the horror of the 70s onward and exploitation in general isn't the gleeful transgression of any and all moral taboos the audiences held in those days, it is the simmering understated and unconscious anger of an America in the throes of a feverish mental breakdown. How can we discuss the moral perversion of a cinematic movement without addressing the moral perversions of its overarching society? In a time when Watergate was on everyone's lips as the albatross of government corruption, a country in south-east Asia becoming the burial ground for its native residents and international troops, as well as the constant spate of serial killings that would gnaw at the American psyche. With all this dreadful shit awaiting the peace and love flower power generation, folks of the 60s would have said, ‘heavy shit man’, but as Mick Jagger screams out powerfully, 'rape, murder, its just a shot away'. Who can deny the powerful anxious neuroticism of an era that gave birth to Ted Bundy, Lawrence Bittaker and David Berkowitz. In other words, the 70s gave a platform for mass-murder in both the arts and in reality.
While I cannot defend the exploited issues native to the genre, those such as rape, child abuse and trauma, serial killings, cultural insensitivity and misogyny which are indefensible as topics of a ‘whopping good time’, there is something fascinating in the ferocious no-holds-barred hyper-real portrayals of such grotesque acts, amplified into the operatic space of melodrama and indeed, surrealism. One could argue that films such as, ‘Day of the Rapist’ (Tony Vorno, 1982), ‘Don’t Go into the House’ (Joseph Ellison, 1979) and William Lustig’s piece de resistance of gore, Maniac (1980) as avant-garde fare in comparison to the highly conventional (and fucking boring) horror of the last few decades.
It is with great pleasure that I write this introduction as a primer to the deep dive of exploitation we will take in the next few weeks. Stay tuned on Thursday’s for posts on some of the craziest, bat shit insane exploitation and horror films of the 70s and 80s. Dig in perverts!