BOB GARFIELD: Fringe filmmakers have known since the 1920s that sleaze can sell tickets as well as any big name star or slick script. Generally low-budget and low-brow thousands of exploitation films turned a profit on the promise of cheap thrills. Disdained by critics and virtually extinct by the '90s, features like Nude on the Moon and Alice in Acid Land are enjoying renewed interest. OTM's Rex Doane dons his 3-D glasses for a closer look at a sordid cinematic tradition. [TIMES SQUARE SUBWAY AMBIENCE]
SUBWAY ANNOUNCER: 42nd Street, Times Square.
REX DOANE: Back when 42nd Street was known as The Deuce, subway passengers emerging from the Times Square Station would be assaulted by movie theater marquees that blared out titles like Gutter Trash, Barbed Wire Dolls and-- I Spit On Your Grave. [EXPLOITATION MOVIE TRAILER MONTAGE]
ANNOUNCER: Come join the world of the hipsters, the beatniks, the sickniks. [BONGO DRUMS]
ANNOUNCER: Now: a motion picture of pulse-pounding excitement! [GUITARS, DRUMS]
ANNOUNCER: Please bear with us. We must leave the rest of this sequence to your imagination. [CYMBALS]
ANNOUNCER: Meet the girls of the Big Doll House. They're young, they're beautiful, and they're killers. [MACHINE GUN EXCHANGES]
REX DOANE: Bill Landis, who's been writing exclusively about exploitation film for over 20 years.
BILL LANDIS: They were very creepy-- severe pictures. [CREEPY PIANO, BASS]
REX DOANE:Landis and his wife Michelle Clifford used to frequent the Deuce for cinematic thrills and lived to tell about it in their appropriately titled book Sleazoid Express. [CREEPY MUSIC CRESCENDO] Clifford remembers that the scope and variety [POLICE SIREN UNDER] of films screened in Times Square was astonishing.
BILL LANDIS: Each theater had like a different vibe to it. [POLICE SIREN UNDER] Each theater had a different type of audience that went to it.
REX DOANE: The Rialto featured gore films; the Liberty regularly scheduled Euro-Sleaze imports, and The Bijou specialized in Kung Fu triple features. [SUPER FU MANCHU EXCERPT]
ANNOUNCER: He's super-cool, super-quick, super-deadly. Super Man II-- See it to believe your eyes.
REX DOANE:The theaters themselves were also part of the exploitation experience. Back in the '70s and '80s the Deuce was full of formerly grand movie palaces that in their dilapidated state had become known as "grindhouses." These grindhouses were often scarier than the films they features.
MICHELLE CLIFFORD: People would throw things. You would have to, you know, put a lighter down on the seat to see if it was okay - if there was anything, you know, lurking in the seat actually before you sat down. The bathrooms were-- an experience in themselves. [MOVIE EXCEPT - MUSIC - WOMAN SCREAMING]
REX DOANE: Those brave enough to endure the surroundings were treated to frank and brutal films [WOMAN SCREAMING UNDER] that major studios at the time would have never considered releasing. Again, Michelle Clifford.
MICHELLE CLIFFORD: Hollywood movies are kind of like what America is showing to the neighbors, but exploitation shows what people are thinking on their insides.
ANNOUNCER: Scum of the Earth -- the real poor white trash. They live and die -- [GARISH MOVIE MUSIC] below Tobacco Road.
DAVID EDELSTEIN:These movies are -- at their best -- are kind of emanations from the sort of collective unconsciousness. They tell us things that Hollywood movies often are afraid to.
REX DOANE: David Edelstein reviews films for Slate and NPR's Fresh Air.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: When you've been force-fed a diet of movies that have been machine-tooled by giant corporations that have been tested on audiences over and over to, to sort of satisfy the lowest common denominator -- to go to these movies that are abrasive and that are--oftentimes very nihilistic-- is, is actually really exhilarating! Because you're reminded what movies can do! You're reminded that, you know, movies aren't necessarily about telling beautiful stories beautifully. They can also be about telling really disgusting stories disgustingly. [MAN SCREAMING DISGUSTINGLY]
REX DOANE: Edelstein even suggests that the extreme and perverse elements found in exploitation film helped develop a compelling visual language for mainstream directors brazen enough to use it.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: Horror and exploitation has accessed the sort of outlandish metaphor. You can, you can use a zombie. You can use, you can, you can take a vampire to express things about, about human desire and, and addiction. It's enormously liberating, and in fact takes you much further if you look at the films of David Cronenberg, one of the great movies about terminal illness ever made is The Fly. [CUT FROM THE FLY]
JEFF GOLDBLOOM AS THE FLY: [BREATHING WITH DIFFICULTY] Saying I, I'm an insect! [BREATHING WITH DIFFICULTY] who dreamt he was a man! And loved it! But now the dream is over, and the insect is awake. [DOOM AND GLOOM MUSIC]
REX DOANE: As a thoughtful reminder that we are also discussing movies about ax murderers, zombies and giant insects, Edelstein offers the following caveat.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: I don't want to over-romanticize exploitation movies. 95 percent of them are just dreadful. They're crap. [PONDEROUS KETTLE DRUMS UP & UNDER ALL]
REX DOANE: By his own admission, exploitation filmmaker Herschell Gordon Lewis, is firmly camped within the crap category. Save your Oscars for someone else.
HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS: There are those who make movies and would rather have someone say what a brilliant piece of cinematography. Well they're entitled to have that niche for themselves. My niche was -- Did you see that?!? [BLOODCURDLING WOMAN'S SCREAM]
REX DOANE: Which is exactly what people uttered back in 1963 when Lewis released his epic gore film Blood Feast. The film was so grim and so gory that even the Blood Feast trailer required special warning.
HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS: The trailer, we, you, we called it "the coming atrocity" -- showed somebody standing against a red background -- and he said "Ladies and gentlemen..."
ANNOUNCER:Ladies and gentlemen -- this picture -- truly one of the most unusual ever filmed --contains scenes which under no circumstances should be viewed by anyone with a heart condition or anyone who is easily upset. We urgently recommend that if you are such a person or the parent of a young or impressionable child now in attendance, that you and the child leave the auditorium.
REX DOANE: Blood Feast not only enjoys the distinction of being the first in the gore film genre. It was also the first feature film to pass out barf bags to theater patrons.
HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS: [LAUGHS]! Yes, I, I don't think I want that--on my tombstone as an epitaph, but you're quite right; that was the first. We were the first in many ways.
REX DOANE: Indeed, Lewis's gore gimmick would later show up in hit films like Halloween and Friday the 13th, all part of a pattern in which the tone and content of exploitation films was appropriated by major studios with bigger budgets and bigger returns. [TIMES SQUARE/42ND STREET AMBIENCE] Back on 42nd Street there is little evidence that Times Square had ever been the premiere showcase for exploitation film. Nationwide grindhouses and drive-in theaters have given way to the multiplexes that stick to mainstream fare. Film distribution today rarely gambles on a new release. They're looking for the next Harry Potter sequel and not the new installment of Fugitive Women. Banned from the big screens, gore hounds have been left to watch their sleaze in solitude on video and DVD. As David Edelstein notes, however, there is still plenty of the delightfully demented left to be discovered.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: I have here-- from my collection an amazing film called Blood Freak. It's a, it's a movie made by, by sort of a church group with, with sort of religious intent to, to tell you about the evils of drug abuse, and it's about a giant turkey monster. [TURKEY MONSTER GOBBLING SOUNDEFFECTS] [DANGEROUS MUSIC, BLOODCURDLING WOMAN'S SCREAM]
DAVID EDELSTEIN: It's exhilarating. You just, you, you just --you can't find this. Nobody would -- how -how was this movie made? Who are these people?
REX DOANE: In New York, for On the Media, [MORE TURKEY MONSTER GOBBLING NOISES] I'm Rex Doane. [DANGEROUS MUSIC CRESCENDO] [TURKEY MONSTER GOBBLING NOISES] [THEME MUSIC]
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Janeen Price, Katya Rogers and Megan Ryan with Tony Field -- our newest recruit -- still fresh after a week on the job! -- which is a record for this show. The show was engineered by Dylan Keefe, George Edwards and Irene Trudel, and edited-- by Brooke. We had help from Sharon Ball, Brian Tilley and Andy Lanset. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Arun Rath is our senior producer and Dean Cappello our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media from NPR. I'm Brooke Gladstone.