Creature Feature Crypt by Count Gore De Vol

Blaxploitation, Bad Boys and Girls, and They Called Him Bruce


    While virtually any topic might be the subject of an Exploitation Film, there were of course several motifs that came to dominate the first half of the 1970s. These motifs might use any genre of film as a theme, but the motifs themselves would conform to their individual archetypes. The most popular of these were the Blaxploitation film, the Crimesploitation film, and the Asian Invasion film.

    Blaxploitation arose from the all-black cinema of the 1930s through the 1960s. African-Americans found little work in mainstream films for the first six decades of the industry’s existence, and what work was available was stereotyped and demeaning: either African natives, bearing the loads of the white hunting party, or domestics—maids, butlers, janitors. Servants all, if they were gainfully employed. Otherwise, they would be cast as lazy lay-abouts or villains of one form or another.

    Obviously, little thought was given to the concerns of African-Americans in the audiences for these films; indeed, little concern was given to the opinions of any minority group. Several companies began making and marketing films to black audiences, using all-black casts, even all-black crews. Producers such as Oscar Micheaux, Ted Toddy, and Al Sack made dozens of films of this type—all strikingly offensive to modern audiences; indeed, contemporary audiences were less than enthused about the stereotypical characterizations of blacks in these films. However, at least it could be said that blacks were in the lead roles in them, as well as often working behind the scenes. These were incredibly racist portrayals, but given the tenor of the times, they were perhaps the best that could be expected.

    It would be the late 1950s before black actors could begin to shake off the racist stereotypes that had bound them since the beginnings of American cinema. Sidney Poitier was the first African-American to make a significant impact on Hollywood, despite Hattie McDaniel having won the best supporting actress Oscar twenty years before for her performance as “Mammy” in Gone with the Wind. His landmark performances in films as diverse as A Raisin in the Sun, Lilies of the Field (for which he won an Oscar), The Bedford Incident, To Sir, with Love, and In the Heat of the Night helped shatter the racial barriers that kept African-Americans in secondary roles in mainstream film.

    Exploitation cinema also reacted to the Civil Rights movement, and the end of segregation in film—but it did so in typically exploitative fashion. First were the reactionary ‘race-baiting’ films of the 1950s and ‘60s, with titles such as High Yellow and The Black Klansman. These were nothing but racially motivated propaganda films, highlighting every negative stereotype, feeding whites’ fears regarding the growing push for equality in America. However, you would find occasional offerings in this genre that tried to be more than that, to have some measure of social conscience. The Intruder (1961) has been described by its director Roger Corman as, “… the only film he regretted making” but that’s entirely due to the fact that it was the first of his films that failed to break even, as it was very well-received by critics. Star William Shatner stated that he was told by others that he would have to work for the standard “Corman Salary” on this film, but admitted years later that he would’ve “paid Roger for the role.” Though the film did eventually turn a profit in home video release, it remains one of Corman’s rare commercial failures—ironically while being recognized as one of his better, more substantial, and least exploitative, films.

    The Intruder tells the story of a small Southern town dealing with the integration of the local high school. The people of Caxton, Georgia aren’t happy, but they’re more or less resigned to the inevitable. Until Adam Cramer (Shatner), arrives in their midst. He begins sowing seeds of unrest and dissension in the very fertile soil of Caxton, whipping the town into a racial fervor. Based on a novel by Charles Beaumont (who also wrote the screenplay), it was one of the few films not produced by a major studio that dealt in a realistic manner with the civil rights issues of the early 1960s. Most of the exploiters chose a much more sensationalist tone when dealing with this topic.

    Thankfully, these films were short-lived phenomena, dying out around the time the Hippie counterculture began to assert itself. As the ‘summer of love’ became the ‘winter of discontent’, the counterculture became a militant protest movement. They protested against the war in Vietnam, against pollution, against racism, against the Draft. They protested for women’s lib, for LSD, for pot, for the sexual revolution. As militancy found a home in the youth of America, it also found a voice, a means of expressing itself, in the films of the period—especially Exploitation Film.

    While critics debate their value and validity, Blaxploitation Films, the uniquely ‘70s-era genre of Exploitation aimed primarily at urban black audiences, were undeniably one of the most significant forms of independent cinema throughout that decade. Though vilified and opposed by the Coalition Against Blaxploitation, a group of black and urban organizations including the NAACP, the Urban League, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the genre was tremendously popular with black audiences, both urban and rural.

    Director Melvin Van Pebbles is generally recognized as the father of the Blaxploitation Film, with his groundbreaking 1971 movie, Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song. This X-rated look at the Times Square vice industry established the pattern that Blaxploitation movies would follow for the rest of the decade—gritty, realistic violence; explicit, in some cases hardcore, sex; and the image of the lead character as an ‘anti-hero’, going outside the law to fight the ‘establishment’, which usually meant the white power structure. Then in July of that same year, M-G-M released Gordon Parks’ Shaft, starring Richard Roundtree as Detective John Shaft, which became a huge hit, crossing over to draw in mainstream audiences. The film’s success was certainly helped by the terrific score, including the Oscar-winning “Theme from Shaft,” written and sung by Isaac Hayes.

    Produced on a budget of $1.125 million, Shaft grossed $12 million, while Hayes won the Oscar for Best Original Song. This amount of success for an Exploitation film virtually guaranteed that there would be more to come, though not quite as polished and mainstream.

    Concurrent with the growth of Blaxploitation, and exploring many of the same themes, was Crimesploitation. An outgrowth of the Roughies, in some cases indistinguishable from them, Crimesploitation films traded heavily on sex and violence much as the Roughies did, though the two themes weren’t as closely linked. They also borrowed heavily from current events, such as the Charles Whitman sniper killings in Austin, Texas, or the Tate-Lobianca murders committed by the followers of Charles Manson. Not quite as formulaic as the Blaxploitation Films were, they were also the most ‘mainstream’ form of Exploitation Film.

    Though the Crimesploitation Film can be traced to such early movies as Fritz Lang’s M (1931), starring Peter Lorre as a pedophilic serial killer, the genre’s true prototypes were films such as Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter, released in 1956, and Hitchcock’s Psycho. Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, released the same year as Psycho, would also prove to be a template for the Crimesploitation genre.

    The beginning of the Crimesploitation era was Peter Bogdanovich’s superb film Targets (1968), starring Boris Karloff as an aging icon of Horror Films, ready to retire but obligated to make one more personal appearance first. His path to that appearance, at a Los Angeles Drive-In theater premiering his latest thriller, intersects that of Tim O’Kelly, as a homicidal sociopath who murders his family, then goes on a shooting spree that ends at that same Drive-In. Produced by Roger Corman, who stipulated that Bogdanovich find a way to incorporate some twenty minutes of existing footage as a cost-saving measure, the film is a superior example of just what can be accomplished with a great story, good actors, and just a little money. Bogdanovich skillfully weaved footage from Corman’s 1963 thriller The Terror into the tale of a star grown tired of his public persona, and increasingly dissatisfied with the roles available to him at the twilight of his career. Though unsuccessful at the box-office (caused primarily by lack of support from Paramount owing to the high profile assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy), the role of Byron Orlok is one of Karloff’s greatest, causing one to wonder how much of himself is in the part.

    The masterpiece of the Crimesploitation genre, however, was undoubtedly Wes Craven’s groundbreaking 1972 film The Last House on the Left. This movie, a Drive-In and Grindhouse staple for years, is a violent, brutish, full-bore assault on the viewer, one that went far beyond what was a ‘normal’ depiction of violence on-screen at the time. The story of the abduction, rape, and murder of two teen-age girls and the revenge sought by the parents of one of them, based loosely on Ingmar Bergman’s 1960 film The Virgin Spring, shocked audiences when it opened in August of 1972. It is a testament to the film’s quality that in large part it still retains that capability to shock the viewer. Only the bizarrely out-of-place comic relief, in the presence of a bumbling country sheriff and his oafish deputy, lessen the effectiveness of this film, and give it a dated appearance.

    The success of Last House… set the stage for dozens of imitators—which of course is the essence of Exploitation Film. One of the better of these was 1974’s The Candy Snatchers, directed by Guerdon Trueblood. Broadly similar to Last House… it added an especially sick twist, in that the kidnapped girl’s stepfather is all too happy to ignore their ransom demands in hope that they kill the girl—clearing his way to her mother’s money. The ending, which folds in a subplot concerning an, “… abused, mute, autistic little boy with abusive white trash parents,” is one of the most horrifying imaginable.

    Perhaps the most notorious, most disparaged exploitation film of all was the infamous I Spit on Your Grave (aka Day of the Woman). Meir Zarchi’s nausea-inducing take on the Crimesploitation genre, released in 1978, is the graphic depiction of the brutal gang-rape of a young New Yorker, and her revenge against her attackers. Despite harsh criticism, especially on the part of Chicago Tribune film critic Roger Ebert, the movie was popular among fans of Exploitation Film.

    The third dominant form of Exploitation in the ‘70s was largely inspired by one man, a man who died at the height of his popularity. Bruce Lee, a native of San Francisco (though raised in Hong Kong), was a martial arts instructor and competitive fighter who fame in that world brought him to the notice of Hollywood. Born Li Jun Fan in 1940, his family returned to Hong Kong shortly after his birth, and the first years of his life were spent in occupied Hong Kong, following the Japanese invasion after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He returned to the United States in 1959, reputedly to avoid the police after having been involved in gang fights.

    Lee’s martial arts skills soon brought him to the attention of Hollywood, starting with the role of Kato on the TV series The Green Hornet. The series lasted just one season, but it led to guest-star roles on programs such as Batman (in a two-part Green Hornet crossover), Ironside, and Blondie. Lee’s first American feature (he had a successful career as a child star in Hong Kong) was a minor role in the James Garner private eye vehicle Marlowe, in 1969. Reportedly dissatisfied with bit parts and supporting roles, Lee returned to Hong Kong to find himself a recognized star, owing to the local broadcast of the Green Hornet series, redubbed as “The Kato Show.

    Raymond Chow, a local producer, signed Lee to star in The Big Boss, released in 1971. The film was a huge success in Asia, which led to both a U.S. release and a second starring role for Lee. Fists of Fury, released in 1972, was an even bigger success, especially in the United States. This was followed later that same year by Way of the Dragon, and in 1973 Enter the Dragon, Lee’s final completed film.

    On 20 July 1973, Lee collapsed and died at the age of thirty-two, in the Hong Kong home of Betty Ting, a Taiwanese actress. The cause of death was acute cerebral edema, or swelling of the brain tissue. No satisfactory explanation for the edema was found, other than a possible adverse reaction to the pain medication Equagesic.

    Though Lee’s career as a star was brief, his impact upon popular culture was not. Despite his death, or perhaps because of it, the popularity of martial arts soared. Schools for Karate, Kung Fu, and Tae Kwon Do opened around the country. On TV, David Carradine, son of John Carradine and himself a former dancer, portrayed a Shaolin monk wandering the old west in Kung Fu, a concept originally conceived by Lee. On the radio, Carl Douglas was singing Kung Fu Fighting, which was a one-hit wonder on Billboard’s charts. If it was Asian, suddenly it was hot.

    Other stars arose, though none with the impact of Bruce Lee. Sonny Chiba was perhaps the biggest of these second-generation martial artists. He burst upon the scene in The Streetfighter (1974), a superbly violent, insanely action-filled revenge tale from Japan, one which had the distinction of earning an “X” rating from the MPAA. Chiba would revisit the role a year later in Return of the Streetfighter, which continued the story from the first film.

    As with most forms of Exploitation film, as its popularity grew, the Asian Invasion became more mainstream. Americans such as Chuck Norris took martial arts films mainstream, culminating in 1985 with The Karate Kid. However, that was several years after the Drive-In had seen the heyday of the Asian Invasion.

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