Scandal (One) Sheets: Exploitation Cinema Landmarks

beyond-the-doorWhen it comes to cashing in—cha-ching, cha-ching—Hollywood always seems to find a way.

Exploitation films come in many shapes and sizes. There have been such sub-genres as “Nunsploitaiton” (School of the Holy Beast), “Nazispolitation” (the “Ilsa” films), “Carsploitation” (Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry) and, of course, “Blaxploitation.”

Then there are the scandalous stories that have drawn public attention. Producers seem to think that the 24/7 exposure they have received isn’t enough, so why not make a movie—often for TV or cable—about them?

Hence, we have films about O.J., Natalee Holloway, Anna Nicole Smith, adult star Shauna Grant, Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, Woody, Mia and Sun-Yi, and three—count ‘em—on Aimee Fisher, “The Long Island Lolita.” 

A horrific incident that has left the world aghast? Hollywood has the answer—a film to capitalize on it.

There is no shame. And while some of the examples teeter on the border between art and exploitation (like Star 80, Bob Fosse’s disturbing, acclaimed 1983 tale of fallen actress Dorothy Stratten and her creepy husband Paul Snider), in many cases “the reel” gives you a bitter aftertaste after you’ve learned about “the real.”   

Here are some prime examples of some of the weirdest and wildest exploitation films of the past. When opportunity knocked, these movies came, cashing in on one thing or another.   

manson-massacreThe Manson Massacre (1971): Charles Manson and his cult of ruthless murderers responsible for the brutal Tate-LaBianca killings in 1969 still seem to draw the public’s interest, with books and films emerging decades after the horrific events. Three years before the best-seller Helter Skelter was published, and just two years after the murders, this sleazy yarn was issued to theaters with a world premiere in Philadelphia! Who knew? It’s the fictionalized account of the deranged exploits of the Manson Family, with a leader named “Invar” directing his followers in diverse acts of depravity. Also known as House of Bondage, The Love Cult and The Cult, the film may have been directed by noted schlockmeister Albert Zugsmith (Sex Kittens Go to College) under the name “Kentucky Jones,” but is rarely seen these days. At least it had its world premiere in the City of Brotherly Love—hey, I may have been there but didn’t realize it. 

Poster Warning: “Helter Skelter was only the beginning…”

Beyond The Door (1974): There were many knockoffs of The Exorcist after William Friedkin’s shocker saw smash numbers at the box-office. Many of them came from overseas and were produced cheaply and quickly, such as this Italian confection that starred British actors Juliet Mills (Nanny and the Professor) and Richard Johnson (Deadlier than the Male). Oddly enough, the setting is San Francisco, where Mills, a young mother-to-be with hubby and two kids, discovers that former guy pal Johnson is in league with the anti-Christ and needs her demonic baby to be safe to satisfy his own agenda. Lots of Exorcist-like effects (spinning heads, levitation, smashing drawers) helped the film become a hit, although its sequels really have nothing to do with this film. Director Ovidio Assinitis would subsequently bring us Tentacles and The Visitor, two other wacked-out genre outings. 

Poster Warning:  “Beyond the door the most terrifying event in the history of mankind is about to occur!”

guyana-cut-damnedGuyana: Crime of the Century (1979): In the wake of the Jonestown tragedy, a well-reviewed TV movie aired with Powers Boothe playing Reverend Jim Jones, the fanatical cult leader in Guyana who ordered the ritualistic deaths of hundreds of his followers in November of 1978. Well, this is not the TV movie, but a quick buck exploitation number featuring Stuart Whitman as “Jim Johnson.”   Also known as Guyana: Cult of the Damned and released in theaters by Universal Pictures, the film also featured such veterans as Gene Barry, John Ireland, Yvonne De Carlo, Bradford Dillman and then-newcomer Jennifer Ashley in the cast; Mexican exploitation expert Rene Cardona, Jr.(The Bermuda Triangle) directed.

Poster Warning: “The Movie That Dares to Tell the Truth….About the Most Shocking Crime of the century!” 

Snuff (1976): Word got out that “snuff films”—movies that depicted real-life killings—were out there. So leave it to an enterprising schlockmeister to deliver a bogus variation on the subject. In actuality, Michael and Roberta Findlay (the “Flesh Trilogy”) made an earlier Manson murder-inspired film in South America called The Slaughter, about a cult of violent bikers. Grindhouse distributor Monarch Releasing (Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein, King of Kong Island) enlisted another director to shoot a new ending, in which a supposed real (but obviously fake) murder took place. For years the film was shrouded in mystery, but the truth is now fairly obvious. The fact that Michael Findlay passed away at 39 in a helicopter crash on top of Manhattan’s Pan Am building, three years after the release of Snuff, only heightened some of the morbid mystique.

Poster Warning: “The film that could only be made in South America…where life is cheap.”

Survive! (1976): The true story of how the passengers of a 1972 plane crash—including members of Uruguay’s rugby team—survived in the Andes Mountains was also the subject for Alive, a 1993 Disney-produced movie that starred Ethan Hawke, Josh Hamilton and Vincent Spano. But this Mexican production from Rene Cardona (Sr.!), the man behind the warped 1959 Santa Claus film, was heavy on the sensationalism and scenes of the contemporary Donner Party that make you squirm with their grotesqueries. The backstory may be more interesting than the distasteful film itself: Producer Allan Carr (Grease, Can’t Stop the Music) bought the picture for a pittance, dubbed it, persuaded Paramount to release it and promoted it big-time. The result was a $13 million box-office take–$53 million in today’s standards!      

Poster Warning: “The most shocking episode in the history of human survival!”

The Dragon Lives Again (1977): When Bruce Lee passed away at the age of 32 in 1973, scads of impersonators came out of the woodwork, as shyster producers tried to capitalize on his death by cranking out movies that purported to feature the dynamic martial arts star or a reasonable facsimile.  Also known as “The Deadly Hand of Death,” this amazing effort offers “Bruce Liang” as Bruce Lee…but that’s not all, folks. Here, Bruce Lee awakes in purgatory, where an evil ruler is assisted by James Bond (in a tux), Clint Eastwood (in a poncho), Zatoichi, the Godfather, the Exorcist and Emmanuelle. The ruler is angry about all of the women cooing about the late martial arts star’s large endowment—which turns out to be nunchuks! As Bruce battles the aforementioned henchmen, he’s aided by the One-Armed Swordsman, Caine from “Kung Fu” and a corncob pipe-puffing Popeye.  There’s even a guy dressed like Bruce Lee’s Kato from “The Green Hornet” TV show. You’ve got to admire the chutzpah of the filmmakers here—they even use real audio cues from the soundtracks of James Bond and Eastwood’s “The Man with No Name” movies, as well as Carl Douglas’ “Kung Fu Fighting.”  The movie is awful through and through, but so out there that you must watch it simply for the sheer audacity of it all.

Poster Warning:  “The film is dedicated to the millions who love Bruce Lee.”

tintorea-tiger-sharkTintorera: Tiger Shark (1977): In the wake of Jaws there were several knockoffs looking to cash in on its popularity—even legitimate documentaries like Peter Gimbel’s Blue Water, White Death, and studio-sanctioned epics like Orca. But here’s another entry from the Cardona canon, with Susan George, Fiona Lewis and Hugo Stiglitz, lots of shots of bikini babes swimming in dangerous waters, and some bad disco music and awful ballads.

Poster Warning: “There’s a monstrous killer churning up the sea…”

Amin: The Rise and Fall (1981): Everyone knows about Forest Whitaker’s Oscar-winning performance as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. But how many people recall this bizarre exploitation item, released when Amin was very much still in power using diabolical methods against his own people? Joseph Olita, who also played the despot in the Denzel Washington starrer Mississippi Masala, bears an uncanny resemblance to Amin in this Nigerian/Kenyan co-production. Few of Amin’s outrageously disturbing antics have been spared for the screen here.

Poster: Warning: “The rage of a maniac….the rape of a people!”  

Scandal U.S.A. (1981): And you thought the current award contender American Hustle was the only film kinda, sorta about the ABSCAM sting of 1979! Well, here’s a film—better known as Uncle Scam– released (barely) in ’81, that takes a comic look at the incident in which federal agents dressed up like Arab sheiks in order to catch a group of politicians involved in a number of illegal activities. The directors of this low budget satire were a builder and industrial filmmaker, and most of the cast was comprised of actors from the Philadelphia area, where most it was shot. There are brief cameos from comics Pat Cooper and Joan Rivers—the builder was an investor in her directing debut, Rabbit Test, with Billy Crystal.  

Poster Warning: “Uncle Scam wants you!” 

 The Versace Murder (1998); Fashion mogul Gianni Versace was shot to death on July 15, 1997 near his Miami Beach mansion by a disturbed assassin named Andrew Cunanan. The details of the murder and the search for the murderer received extensive media coverage and prompted former Cannon films topper Menahem Golan to make a feature out of the disturbing story. The production—filmed on a tight schedule, shortly after the fugitive Cunanan’s suicide–featured Franco Nero –the original Django—as the clothing tycoon and unknown Shane Perdue as his spree-killing slayer. The film received scant exposure, be it in theaters, on DVD, or on cable—an appropriately apt response to a movie that oozes sleaze and bad intentions.

Poster Warning:  “On July 15, 1997, a world famous fashion designer is gunned down. This is the story of…The Versace Murder.”