Forbidden Fruit

Page 1Page 2Page 3    page 3 of 3 -- interview by Gary Johnson

Self-flagellating, cross-toting worshippers in The Lash of Penitentes.
IMAGES: What can you tell me a social problem picture called The Lash of the Penitentes?

Bret: It started out with just some footage that was shot of a strange religious cult, I believe in New Mexico, which had been in the news because of their radical religious practices of self-flagellation and re-enacting stations of the cross, where people would be carrying crosses up to a mountaintop. [Roland Price, an exploitation photographer, who also shot How to Undress for Your Husband] photographed this. He had all this footage of people torturing themselves and whipping themselves, but what do you do with it? It became newsworthy when a reporter who was there writing a story on this cult was killed, and so everyone assumed that he was killed by this religious cult because he was going to expose them. Suddenly, it became a hot issue. Someone had the idea that this is the film. So [they] re-enacted this guy's trip down to New Mexico and how he was killed. From there it blossomed into a fictionalized re-enactment of this guy's last days on earth. But unfortunately, the entire film doesn't exist. I think about 45 minutes is the longest version that [exists]. A lot of times, these films would be chopped down so they could be put on double features. For instance, Reefer Madness is around in a 65-minute version and also a 45-minute version. Frequently you'll find films when you get them from different sources will be missing footage because it had been cut out to satisfy the censors. Or maybe they took a film, passed it to the censors, and then added new footage to give people a little something extra for their money. So there were no definitive versions of the films. They circulated in a lot of different cuts, radically different lengths, slightly different content, and with different titles because if you didn't have a film to sell, you could always take an old film, put a new title on it, draw up a new ad campaign, and go ahead and release it as if it were something new. By the time people caught on, it wouldn't matter: You'd have already gotten their ticket money. And a lot of times the film may have never played there in the first place. It was just a way of multiplying product.

IMAGES: Were these movies typically presented before censor boards?

Bret: Not every state had its own censor board. Some states were wide open. But other states, and in some cases cities, had censor boards, where you would have to apply and get a license. Sometimes they would flat out fail and [the exploiteers wouldn't] even bother appealing it. Other times [the censor board] would say, "If you will cut out this scene, this scene, this scene, this scene, we'll give you a license." So that allowed a little bit of flexibility for the filmmakers. In some cases they could take a film, submit it to the censor board, make the changes, satisfy the censor, get their license, and then release an UNCUT print. We have on record where some people did that.

Felicia: That was definitely one of the beauties of the road showman. You put your film into a theater after having played lip service to the censor board and pretended you were going to make some cuts which you ultimately didn't make. And then [you] showed the film in a small town theater. But the road showman was moving from town to town and he could whisk a film out of town if it became a problem in the local press or with the local police. Or a common strategy was to show a film that was fairly tame and to follow it with a loop of burlesque footage or a cesarean operation. So the roadshowman, being on hand for the screenings, allowed for all sorts of adaptations that could get around censorship because he was there on hand to make whatever accommodations were necessary.

IMAGES: What role did the Motion Picture Production Code play with respect to exploitation films?

Bret: The MPPA, the production code administration, is the board that governed Hollywood films, but they didn't have any real bearing on these independent filmmakers because the only theaters that cared about a picture with a production code seal were the major theaters, the ones run by the chains, people who had a reputation to protect. It didn't really matter to the independent theaters, so the production code was not that heavy a force in exploitation.

A doctor inspects a syphilitic sore in Damaged Lives.
[click photo for larger version]

IMAGES: Another popular genre of exploitation was the sex education pictures. How were these different than the wayward women movies?

Felicia: Damaged Lives is a good example because it is not about a wayward woman but in fact a wayward man, a man who, on the eve of his marriage, at a bachelor party, has an evening of pleasure with a party girl. He winds up with syphilis. The film is more specific than the wayward women films in describing his process of getting better. The films in the sex education genre are real specific about the medical treatment of something like syphilis or the condition of pregnancy. They used actual medical reels, medical footage of child birth or images of syphilitic genitals, decayed eyeballs, babies who had contracted syphilis from their mothers. These films are incredibly explicit in showing what they're talking about. It's hard to depict the fall from grace of a girl gone bad, but it's quite easy to make your point about the dangers of syphilis or pregnancy by showing the actual imagery.

IMAGES: Yes, on the CD-ROM version of Forbidden Fruit there are some real shockers taken from the exploitation films--footage of actual live births and cesarean births.

Felicia: Audiences today tend to see those things as the ultimate gross out. At the time, a lot of those images were not common to ordinary people, so I think these films, though they certainly had a level of sensationalism and horror and shock to them, were also showing something that couldn't be seen anywhere else. The country was changing a great deal and people didn't have access to home births the way they had in the past, partly because the medical community was becoming so powerful and controlling things like pregnancy. The lines of women queuing up for something like Modern Motherhood indicate that these films weren't just for the prurient interest of men. Women were quite interested in them. I think the sex education films are the best example of how [exploitation films] also appealed to women.

The child birth scene from Because of Eve.
[click photo for larger version]

IMAGES: The roadshow experience is pretty much gone today, is it not?

Felicia: I think so. We can find links with things today. It's easy to find comparisons with Rescue 911 or America's Most Wanted. But I guess the reason we initiated this whole project was because this is a lost phase of film history. This was an entire genre devoted to things that Hollywood would never touch. And it's pretty much lost, except for companies that are putting these films out on video and giving some access. It's a lost art.

Bret: The means by which they were distributed is another one of the lost arts, not just the films themselves but the way in which they were shown. Even the way in which they were made, on-the-fly, by guys who didn't really have any training in filmmaking who saw a dollar to be made and had a great idea of how to go about it. It's definitely a chapter of history that is pretty much closed. We're just trying to put some part of it on record.

IMAGES: Would you then argue that there is something of merit in exploitation movies? That they weren't simply a way to separate people from their money? But that they did provide some type of important service--entertainment, education--no matter how sensationalized they may have been?

Bret: In their own hysterical way, they definitely did. If you're willing to look beyond the campy surface and oftentimes the poor visual quality, [the films] are emotionally engaging. They did serve a function in satisfying people's curiosity, not only their morbid curiosity but also their curiosity about basic things, such as how the woman's menstrual cycle works or what happens in childbirth. How exactly does a person get pregnant. If I get syphilis, do I get a pill? Will it clear up? Or will I get long term treatment? There were serious answers given to legitimate questions. A lot of times these answers were wrapped up in a totally haywire drama of fast-paced teens and a downward spiral.

Felicia: And I think a lot of times watching these films is like watching a newsreel. They have this authenticity to them. And a lot of that authenticity is a result of the half-baked production values. The fact that they aren't polished like the Hollywood productions gives you more of a feeling of the desperation and the fears and the phobias of the day. You have a scene, like the one in Maniac, of the man who has the backyard cat-and-rat industry. What could be a more creepy and sublime image of the desperation that the Depression drove people to? I think the films are incredibly vivid and really speak to what the time was like. They are a record of the literal fears of the time. You really get a sense of what people were concerned about. It looks quaint to talk about the fear of marijuana in Reefer Madness, but for that time it was a legitimate fear.

A drug injection turns a man into sex-crazed fiend in Maniac.
[click photo for larger version]

IMAGES: What spelled the end of the exploitation era?

Bret: Once censorship became more relaxed, it became less necessary for them to wrap up their sensational dramas in this cloak of legitimacy, where they no longer had to address a pressing social concern it order to show someone take their clothes off or to show someone using drugs. You could just make a thriller and have someone doing these things, which in the past they had to disguise as social commentary. Exploitation became sexploitation. For instance, David Friedman and Hershell Gordon Lewis could make nudie movies without any kind of medical lecture or moral lesson. Russ Meyer could make films about whatever he wanted. So the films didn't have to package themselves as legitimate social commentary. And that was what was so good about [exploitation] films. They had to be clever about how they presented things, or advertised things. They had to sidestep around being too explicit. But once it became demystified, once you knew that when inside you'd be seeing some nude women playing volleyball, where's the fun in that? It was no longer a mystery. It just became naked people.

IMAGES: I think there was also a greater sense of drama. When the movie was coming to town in the '30s and '40s and you weren't familiar with the title of the movie already, there was a big mystery about what would happen on the screen once the theater lights dimmed. And that mystery started to disappear with the sexploitation genre.

Bret: With a lot of these films, you didn't know how explicit they were going to be. Some of these were pretty tame. There would be no nudity. There would be no explicit drug use. And then the next one that came through town, you might get close ups of rotting genitalia. You might get images of dead bodies. You might get a skinny-dipping scene. You never knew what these exploitation films were going to be like. Even if you sort of know what exploitation films are, there is always this level of mystery of not knowing how explicit it would be.

Felicia: There is quote that we reference in our book, David Chute saying, "The classic exploitation films were flirtatious." And I think that is definitely a quality that these films have. A narrative that is almost like a striptease. You never know what's going to be revealed. It's always quite slow, but that buildup to what's going to happen is all the more satisfying and interesting. Whereas when you have the nudie films, and the sexploitation films later on, that sense of flirtatiousness is gone. It's just pure display. And a lot of the fears that we have about sex, and a lot of the mystery of sex, disappear when those films come into play.

IMAGES: I think it was the anticipation that was really getting us there, that we were really feeding upon.

Felicia: Definitely. It was very much built upon what was next.

Bret: Especially when you had [the roadshowmen] coming in a week in advance, plastering the town with posters, building up this intense curiosity.

IMAGES: I suspect more money was frequently spent on the advertising campaigns than on the movies themselves.

Bret: If they had been engineered by the studios they wouldn't have been as appealing to us. But the fact that they were made on these low, low budgets--that a step up for them would have been renting a poverty row soundstage, that was like class--by these guys that didn't know that much about film, in a lot of cases. It was a real grass roots movement and it was kind of spontaneous. They didn't do any surveys to find out how these films were going to do. It was a movement that quickly became this distinctive form both in the style of film and they way the films were exhibited. And then, when the time came, it petered out. But for awhile it was a totally unique movement.

Felicia: And they weren't disingenuous about it either. It's not like they were making these films about sexual harassment to garner Academy Awards for their actors. They were trying to make a buck.

If you're intersted in learning more about exploitation cinema, we recommend Forbidden Fruit, a new book by Felicia Feaster and Bret Wood (go to book review); Forbidden Fruit, a CD-ROM interactive disc from Night Kitchen Media (go to software review); and Kino On Video's "Forbidden Fruit" video series, which includes Narcotic, Maniac, and Reefer Madness (go to video review).


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