Schlock! The Secret History of American Movies (2003)
Schlock! The Secret History of American Movies (2003)

Genre: Documentary Running Time: 1 hr. 25 min.

Release Date: December 2nd, 2003 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Ray Greene Actors: F.X. Feeney, Maila Nurmi, Samuel Z. Arkoff, Dick Miller, Roger Corman, Forrest J. Ackerman, David F. Friedman, Doris Wishman, Harry Novak, Herschell Gordon Lewis, Russ Meyer, Peter Bogdanovich




n Hollywood, California a small theater group puts on a version of “Reefer Madness,” based on one of the earliest types of sensationalistic films: exploitation. It’s just one of many productions capitalizing on viewers’ desires to see wilder and wilder depictions of vices and curiosities. Dating back to just after World War II, which led to the pent-up sexual energies of the Baby Boom in the ‘50s, the onset of television, and the disruption of studio monopolies, an opportunity was created for independent films to find an audience. AIP (American International Pictures) was one of the first, snapping up subject matter no reputable producer would touch.

It’s clear that sex, death, and anything far beyond realism was a target for exploitation films. From the introduction of Vampira (Maila Nurmi) in “Movie Macabre” to the teenage-oriented escapism of 1955’s “The Fast and the Furious” to the over-the-top science-fiction nonsense of “Invasion of the Saucer Men,” lurid, non-mainstream ideas fueled Z-grade pictures. Ballyhoo projects, wherein marketing campaigns and advertising – including titillating titles and posters – were created before a single foot of film was shot, and atomic bomb propaganda spinoffs skyrocketed to the top of producers’ endeavors. Adults and authority figures became the enemies as younger audiences were reeled in, with such outlandish creations as “I Was a Teenage Werewolf,” “Beast with 1,000,000 Eyes,” “War of the Colossal Beast,” and “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die” (which is now occasionally considered an abstract feminist allegory amidst the objectification of women).

One-week shooting times, ripped-from-the-headlines concepts, laughable cheapness and raggedness (despite greater budgets throughout the years), and generally bad taste seem to compose the majority of early exploitation epics. Intermittently, self-consciously artful, existential productions like “Carnival of Souls” or “Bucket of Blood” would arise, though they were largely dismissed at the time thanks to the exploitation elements. This documentary briefly covers the history of American censorship, road show distribution, clap operas, the sex hygiene genre, the “cultural artifact” of sexploitation (inspired by the success of the legally redeemed “Garden of Eden” nudist camp film), the nudie-cuties, ultra-violent deviations, roughies, LSD vehicles, last-ditch XXX resorts, and the eventual extinction of exploitation films due to mainstream productions tackling the same controversial topics.

Writer/director/producer Ray Greene doesn’t have the greatest voice for a narrator, reciting a relatively intelligent script with a monotonic, unenthusiastic articulation. But his editing makes up for some of that with a combination of talking heads, artwork, and plenty of film clips (many of which feature prominent nudity). It goes into decent depth chronicling the evolution of exploitation, from fantastical teen adventures to outer space terrors to suggestive documentaries to comical nakedness to extreme gore (beginning with “Blood Feast”). Some of the interviews go on a bit too long, the cutting is off in a spot or two, and repetition occurs briefly, but the education value is high and the inclusion of psychological insights (such as Kinsey’s research) are rather amusing. Pioneers Roger Corman (given, by far, the most credit for the genre), David F. Friedman, Doris Wishman, and Harry Novak, along with various film historians, producers, and actors, trade off commentary in a worthwhile examination of a fascinating alternate Hollywood (additionally contemplating the notion that, when pictures are examined under a microscope, just about every movie is ultimately sheer exploitation).

– Mike Massie

  • 7/10