Two teenagers, raped and murdered in the woods. Four killers, desperate and finding somewhere to stay. Finding the home of one of the murdered teens, they are slaughtered via castration. Barbaric cruelty, and ultimately chainsaw dismemberment. Sounds pretty fierce right? Well, by today’s standards, probably not. By now everyone probably knows I’m talking about the immortal Last House on the Left. By the standards of today, things are a lot different than when it was first released and due to the dated look and atmosphere of the film, it seems a lot of respect for the film has been lost by all but the die-hard genre film fans out there. It’s an interesting dilemma, because yes, even for the time it wasn’t the most extreme film of all time. H.G. Lewis was doing far worse even before it. What it comes down to is atmosphere, it was something not seen at the time and something that in my opinion still comes through loud and clear. Exploitation cinema is by and far one of the most expansive genres, including as many "ploitation" subgenres as one can count via a computer. Nunsploitation (nun erotica), Brucesploitation (fake Bruce Lee films), Blaxploitation (black exploitation), Nazisploitation (self explanatory) Home Invasion and the list goes on. So when one comes to examine the "exploitation" world, you have to first set some ground rules as to just what an "exploitation" film is. So, let’s do that just now.
The Exploitation genre encompasses so much, and every other geek on the planet has their own particular take on just what exactly makes any particular film fit that mold. Some would say an exploitation film is any movie made with the intention of turning a profit just by offering the lowest common denominator in order to gain viewers. Sort of like capturing a train wreck on camera, or making a film with the intention of pushing the envelope further than ever before – simply to say you have done so. That of course neglects that there are films that fit into these particular subgenres, but were made for an artistic intent. Films such as Dead-Alive may be intense in their gore, but are ultimately just a film for all-out entertainment purposes. Same thing for films like Black Caesar or plenty of other "Blaxploitation" films that have very little in the way of actual exploitation, but focus more on true storytelling and social injustices rather than violence for the sake of violence. Despite these films breaking through the mold, I don’t think that separates them any further from fitting in with their more exploitive or genre-fitting brothers. Exploitation is simply a series of sub-genres, films that are closely knit together and bond together by their often independent roots and their willingness to offer stories and acts not given time in their big budgeted brothers in Hollywood. If anything, Exploitation cinema is simply a rite of defiance. The act of showing what is taboo, the act of stripping down an art form and exposing a raw nerve or giving the audience something they do not, nor could they, expect. Of course, this interpretation isn’t perfect by far, but it’s my personal view on this maddening world of vampires, hicks, soul brothers, fake Bruce Lees, sex obsessed nazis, mafioso Italians and filthy rapist scum.
Today, we are seeing a resurgence in exploitation cinema. With audiences tuned in to Fear Factor, Jackass and pretty much anything featuring people brutalizing/embarrasing themselves on television – it was only inevitable that a balls-ier form of cinema made a rise from their seventies tomb. With filmmakers like Eli Roth, Rob Zombie, Robert Rodriguez (who of course is not a 100% true to his heart gore hound horror/exploitation afficianado, but it seems the next fellow I’m going to mention has been rubbing off on him) and Quentin Tarantino all producing their very own entries into this crazy world we call exploitation. Roth is probably the most intriguing of this so called "Splat Pack", as I saw Time listed such filmmakers, and that’s only because I think he is the most dedicated to the horror genre and the one who is still discovering. That doesn’t mean I’m goo-goo gah-gah for his filmography so far, but Hostel was a steady improvement over Cabin Fever, and although I think The Devil’s Rejects was definitely a step above House of 1000 Corpses, Rob Zombie still seems fervently placing his foot in the past when it comes to his references and homages to the films of the past. I can respect what all of these filmmakers are doing however, and am enjoying it as an American horror/exploitation fan, but there’s only so much one can do in the studio system – and filmmakers like Takashi Miike are constantly pushing buttons with their audience and could care less about receiving an R-rating. Different studio systems mind you, but just watching Miike’s addition to the Masters of Horror television show will show you just how brazen an artist can be in this day and age.
Exploitation cinema is the realm of extreme. Whether the extremes are in a dramatic, comedic or plain out violent sense – when you see a group of geeks such as myself throwing around the label, it doesn’t always mean one particular thing. My thoughts are simply my own and I’m sure there are others who could devote an entire debate on the issue, but right now I think it’s a fairly exciting time to be a genre-film fan. American cinema is on the verge of producing some very tough and rowdy work, and I know I personally can’t wait to see what is in store in the near future. With Tarantino and Rodriguez teaming together for Grindhouse, the sequel to Hostel on the way as well as a remake of Halloween from Zombie and filmmakers such as Alexandre Aja constantly on the rise. I think now is the time to start looking at things objectively, criticizing who is doing good and who is producing drek. I doubt we’ll have a surge of cinematic violence like this lasting long and now is the time to really poke our heads out and see what is what.