If you’re a fan of odd films, then you’ve undoubtedly seen more than a few exploitation movies. And just in case you’re new to the weirder side of cinema, an “exploitation film” is defined as a motion picture that promotes elements such as sex, violence, drug use, and the downright bizarre to bring customers into theaters. Most examples of exploitation movies are low-budget in the extreme, but occasionally one will get a chance to work with a surprisingly decent bankroll. The resulting quality, however, is never guaranteed.
Exploitation movies come in all shapes and sizes, and you might be surprised to learn of all the various sub-genres. These include:
- Biker movies
- Giallo films
- Blaxploitation movies
- Cannibal movies
- Spaghetti Westerns
- Chambara movies
- Mondo movies
- 1930s and 1940s cautionary movies
- Eco-terror films
- Nudist movies
- Rape / Revenge movies
- Splatter movies
- Slasher films
- Women in prison movies
The first exploitation movies popped up in the 1920s, but they really started gaining momentum in the ‘60s and ‘70s thanks to filmmakers using the lurid subject matter to draw in bigger box office revenue. Now with movies like Grindhouse being made, we even have tributes to this rather unusual genre of film.
I’ve listed 10 essential exploitation movies below, but that’s not even the tip of the iceberg. There are thousands of exploitation films out there waiting to be discovered, and I suggest signing up with a service like Netflix or GreenCine to have access to as many as possible.
- She Shoulda Said No! (1949) – After she got busted smoking pot with actor Robert Mitchum, real-life actress Lila Leeds tried to salvage her career with this cautionary tale of a young woman who’s seduced into smoking marijuana and ends up a sex-crazed dope fiend. Potheads will especially get a kick out of it, as She Shoulda Said No! deals in the same anti-drug histrionics as previous films such as Reefer Madness.
- Motorpsycho (1965) – When it came to curvy women in cinema, few filmmakers could rival exploitation master Russ Meyer. This is just one of his many films to explore the age-old themes of sex and violence, and it’s also notable for being among the first to display the classic trope of the deranged Vietnam vet. The tale follows a veterinarian (Alex Rocco) whose wife is raped by a band of vicious motorcyclists. Looking for revenge, he joins forces with a Cajun woman (the buxom Haji) whose husband was murdered. Fans of gritty biker movies will be delighted.
- The Thing with Two Heads (1972) – “They share the same body…but hate each other’s guts!” That’s because Oscar winner Ray Milland stars as a racist doctor dying of cancer. In an effort to go on living, he comes up with a scheme in which his head will be transplanted onto a healthy body. But things get complicated along the way, and he winds up attached to the hulking frame of a black death row inmate (Rosey Grier). That’s when the trouble really starts, as the two-headed creature runs from the cops, rampages in a supermarket, and spends lots of time hurling mixed racial insults. An absolute must-see for fans of bizarre cinema.
- Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964) – Written and directed by goremeister Herschell Gordon Lewis, Two Thousand Maniacs! promises “an entire town bathed in pulsing human blood.” That claim isn’t far off, as a group of six Yankees are lured to a southern town under the guise of being special guests for the 100th anniversary of destruction at the hands of Union troops. Playboy Playmate Connie Mason stars, and featured deaths include a man ripped apart by horses, a woman hacked up with an axe and later barbequed, and a guy forced to roll downhill in a barrel lined with nails. Oddly enough, the band that was once fronted by Natalie Merchant took their name from this exploitation classic. For a modern-day remake (starring Robert Englund), check out 2001 Maniacs.
- Race with the Devil (1975) – Mixing action, horror, and plenty of car chases, this unique 1975 exploitation film stars Peter Fonda and Warren Oates as a couple of guys heading from Texas to Colorado in an RV. Accompanied by their wives (Loretta Swit and Lara Parker), they stumble across a Satanic ritual at a campground and soon learn that half of the small towns in Texas are involved in some manner of devil worship. This leads to a climactic chase scene in which an RV and a shotgun are pitted against a gang of determined cultists. Co-starring R.G. Armstrong, this remains one of my favorite childhood flicks.
- I Spit on Your Grave (1978) – Also known as Day of the Woman, The Rape and Revenge of Jennifer Hill, and I Hate Your Guts, this nasty slice of revenge cinema follows a New York writer (Camille Keaton) as she heads to a cabin in the country to start work on her first novel. But her big-city looks cause lust and resentment in the loins of some locals, and soon our heroine finds herself gang-raped and nearly killed. But she doesn’t run to the cops or the local crisis center, instead hatching a plan to pay back her assailants in the most graphic ways possible. Considered a “video nasty” in the UK, it would also be banned in Australia, Canada, Iceland, Norway, the Republic of Ireland, and West Germany. In 1993, an unofficial sequel named Savage Vengeance would follow.
- Showgirls (1995) – Released with an NC-17 rating, this modern-day piece of exploitation was penned by Joe Eszterhas and directed by Paul Verhoeven. Elizabeth Berkley from Saved by the Bell grows up before out eyes via plenty of scenes of dancing and nudity. Going from strip clubs to the Las Vegas stage, her Nomi Malone character romances members of both sex and makes a desperate climb to the top of the exotic dancing world. Gina Gershon shines as a bisexual bitch, while Kyle MacLachlan is the male romantic interest. Robert Davi also pops up to deliver one of the funniest lines in movie history (intentional or not). Poorly received when it hit theaters, Showgirls has since developed a cult following thanks to its sheer outrageousness.
- Cannibal Holocaust (1980) – Long before The Blair Witch Project used the “found footage” gimmick to promote their project, this Italian cannibal movie was doing the same. A team of documentary filmmakers head into the Amazon Rainforest, go missing for two months, and a secondary team is sent in to learn their fate. When the original group’s film is found, shocked audience members will be treated to a tale of brutality that demonstrates mankind may not have advanced that far after all. Filled with cannibalism, graphic mutilation, and real-life animal killings, Cannibal Holocaust is still banned in a number of countries.
- The Toolbox Murders (1978) – This slasher film gained notoriety for being labeled a “video nasty” and banned in the UK from 1982 until 2000. Set in an apartment complex, the residents are being bumped off by a ski-mask-wearing killer with a love for power tools and other home repair items. As a police detective investigates the kidnapping of a 15-year-old girl, he slowly comes to realize that the two cases may be related. Starring Cameron Mitchell and Tim Donnelly, The Toolbox Murders was remade in 2004 by iconic horror director Tobe Hooper.
- Barbed Wire Dolls (1975) – Originally titled Frauengefangnis, this Swiss film was an example of the women in prison films that were so popular in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. Lina Romay stars as Maria da Guerra, a young girl who is jailed after killing her sexually abusive father. Once in prison, she faces all the perils associated with this sub-genre: lesbian guards, sex between the prisoners, torture, and insanity. The zoom lens is used with reckless abandon, and one slow-motion scene actually has the actors move very slowly instead of achieving the effect in post-production. Spanish craziness from director Jesus Franco (Vampyros Lesbos, Venus in Furs).
Exploitation movies are like bread and butter for those who enjoy unusual cinema. Hopefully this list will get your started, but check back with Odd Films in the future for even more suggestions.