This golden age is more like fool’s gold, but it has its thrills
Even as a Brit, when I think of exploitation cinema, I tend to think of Roger Corman, Russ Meyer, Mom and Dad, Ed Wood, Radley Metzger, and Chesty Morgan before I remember anything produced in my own country. I think of David Friedman, Al Adamson, I Spit on Your Grave, and Candy Stripe Nurses rather than the homegrown trash that circulated through the British fleapits and then briefly invaded hundreds of thousands of households in the first years of home video. I even think of European exploitation, of Jesse Franco, Jose Larraz, and Lina Romay, before I recall the Poverty Row sleaze that was churned out of Wardour Street, London, on a regular basis until the end of the seventies.
What does this tell you, apart from the fact that I think too much about exploitation cinema? Well, in addition to noting that nothing traveled quite as badly as British exploitation, it also tells you that there’s very little fondness for it, even in its homeland and despite the gently ironic nostalgia that is so fashionable in current film discussions.
But that is not to say the British exploitation pic isn’t worth remembering. There are some of us who miss it. We miss its toe-curling political incorrectness, its shabby vulgarity, its embarrassed actors, and its toilet-roll scripts. And, bad as they were, British films like The Amorous Milkman (1974), Big Zapper (1973), and House of Whipcord (1974) at least remind of us a time when British cinema wasn’t quite so worthy, self-conscious, and pleased with itself as it is today.
To great filmmaking nations such as the United States and France, British cinema has never been something to take particularly seriously. Although it enjoyed a bit of a flowering during the 1960s and very early ’70s – when, with U.S. funding, its arthouse appeal blossomed thanks to some slightly dangerous, groundbreaking movies, and when its commercial kudos were inflated by James Bond and a host of sexy, imposing theatre actors – it has since largely declined to a state of low-budget seriousness, high-budget catastrophe, and the occasional successful crossover pic, in which social comment is fused with a dose of popular triumphalism: Billy Elliott (2000), The Full Monty (1997), Brassed Off (1996), etc.
Almost entirely missing from the slate of British releases during the last 20 years, however, has been the exploitation film. Admittedly, in the U.S., the halcyon days of the grindhouse exploitation film are also a distant memory, thanks to the arrival of home video and the unreal escalation of the cost of film production. But here at least the genre has survived in different forms. The days when Death Weekend (1976) and Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things (1972) could pack a drive-in week after week may be largely over, and many may be thankful for that, but there are scores of steamy soft-porn noir thrillers that head straight-to-video or cable TV each year, and The Blair Witch Project (1999) is simply another in a line of exploitation movies that got lucky, as well as being an example of the affordable future of the genre. And what is Paul Verhoeven’s U.S. oeuvre if not just high-budget, Hollywood-stamped exploitation fare?
The fact is that where the exploitation film has been, to some extent, regenerated in the United States, it was resoundingly killed off in the UK. There were indisputable financial reasons for this, but equally damaging was the sneery superiority and stuffily PC attitude of the few British film production companies and the culturally apathetic government that prevailed in the 1980s. Still, it must be said that the very ineptitude of many of England’s exploitation “mavericks” also contributed to their genre’s demise.
Back in the late fifties, however, the British exploitation film had begun to thrive, boosted by the success of Hammer horror and the snail-paced relaxation of film censorship. A host of two-bit film outfits were created in the wake of Hammer’s domestic and U.S. successes: Planet, Independent Artists, Protelco, and Compton (later Tigon) all churned out sub-Gothic hysteria, sensationally “messagey” sci-fi and rubber-masked-monster pics for hungry double-feature consumption on both sides of the Atlantic. And when the censors allowed “tastefully” shot nudist films to be shown in the early fifties, the next ten years saw a plethora of naturist “documentaries,” which in the late 60s gave way to the “sex education” film and, in the ’70s, to the soft-porn “adult comedy.”
At its height in the late ’60s and early ’70s, British exploitation fare was attracting U.S. co-production and distribution: AIP teamed with Tigon and loaned out Vincent Price for the now highly regarded Witchfinder General (1968), Columbia Pictures jumped onto the skinflick comedy bandwagon with the Confessions series (1974-77), and films such as Deathline (aka Raw Meat, 1972) were taking the genre to more interesting levels.
During this productive period, at the even lower end of the spectrum, a handful of Poverty Row filmmakers had begun to make regular contributions to the grindhouse circuit. This article focuses on three of them: Lindsay Shonteff, Pete Walker, and Stanley Long.
Walker and Shonteff are largely representative of a number of producers and directors whose careers traversed the burgeoning sex film industry in the late ’60s and attempted to branch into other genres, but Long remained pragmatically committed to the initially lucrative British sex film (although he certainly appeared to have no emotional fondness for it). His work is particularly representative of the tepid smut that passed for British soft porn in the 1970s.
When, in the mid-’70s, U.S. companies withdrew almost all support for British feature production, and the country’s own higher-profile companies (Hammer, Amicus, EMI) slipped into recession and unproductiveness, it was left to these men to sustain not just the British exploitation film but British popular cinema itself. Sadly, they weren’t really up to the job. But filmmakers such as Shonteff, Walker, and Long should be remembered more for their cheerful resilience, dogged perseverance, and obliviousness to fashionable thinking and popular trends than for their films. In many cases their films are desperately, desperately bad. But it is instructive to see that, in the early years, they made money – perhaps more a testament to the desperation of the thrill-hungry British public than to any merit of the filmmakers.
Lindsay Shonteff came to Britain from Canada in the early ’60s, following his friend Sidney J. Furie. His modest experience got him control of horror second features such as Devil Doll (1963) and Curse of Simba (1964). Unremarkable fodder, they probably made their money back from people sheltering from the rain. Shonteff’s next film that began his idiosyncratic exploitation career in earnest. Licensed to Kill (1965) (note the d) was a James Bond cash-in so crudely high-spirited that it is hard not to find at least some enjoyment from it. Drenched in cheap ’60s sexism and undercranked pussyfoot violence, it plays like a rough take on Matt Helm, laying on the spoofing with a general lack of sophistication or apparent concern. Still, Licensed to Kill did enough business to be released in the US, where Joseph Levine retitled it The Second Best Secret Agent in the Whole Wide World.
Shonteff’s career at this point looked like it might go somewhere. He was apparently offered a deal with Twentieth-Century Fox, but he claims to have walked away from it because it didn’t offer him enough independence (if one thing characterizes the headstrong spirit of British filmmakers like Shonteff, it’s an unerring capacity to foul up a good thing). Despite such pretensions, Shonteff continued to be drawn into the fast-expanding world of the grimy British sex pic: Permissive (1970), The Yes Girls (1971), etc. Presumably this activity allowed him to fund his own, more “personal” projects, which were almost exclusively jokey “adult” spy thrillers; in effect Shonteff was trying to remake his own Licensed To Kill with varying degrees of sex and violence. The Fast Kill (1972) and Big Zapper (1973) were bargain basement, sub-Avengers-style capers with lots of tits and ass and the usual travelogue London footage thrown in. Spy Story (1976) differed, being a slow-moving Len Deighton adaptation. This almost brought Shonteff credibility, had he not decimated it in the following years with two more Licensed to Kill revamps: No. 1 of the Secret Service (1977) and Licensed to Love and Kill (1979), which were limply adventurous curio pieces that are almost impossible to find in the UK now – not because of any censorship difficulties but because no one can be bothered to release them. They play like cheap jokey coffee commercials, and, more often than not, feature cheap jokey coffee commercial actors, trussed up in wide-lapeled dinner jackets and delivering third-rate bon mots.
Still, Shonteff’s self-image as the Kubrick of exploitation can be seen in his attempt to re-create the Vietnam war in Berkshire, England (!), with a host of obscure British actors, in his would-be epic How Sleep the Brave (1981). This film does exist! I’ve seen it, courtesy of a now long-defunct VHS label. How Sleep the Brave is an almost hypnotically unlikely experience. While Kubrick later had all the resources to re-create Vietnam in South London (and even he failed to make it convincing), Shonteff definitely did not. But only Shonteff and, say, the Carry On team would ever try to pass the woodlands around Gerrard’s Cross off as Vietnam! And only the Carry On team could get away with it. Shonteff was, however, deadly serious. Consequently, How Sleep the Brave remains one of the true staggering oddities of British Poverty Row cinema. Hats off to the filmmaker for making it, though – who else would have had the audacity to put this together in Britain, with no budget, at a time when Vietnam films were anathema to the box office?
Not surprisingly, How Sleep … didn’t make Shonteff’s fortune. He dabbled in video throughout the 1980s and in 1990 was back yet again to his Licensed to Kill shenanigans with Number One Gun. I haven’t seen it. Nor, apparently, have many others. But Shonteff must be championed for still managing to get films off the ground ten years after his contemporaries had all given up.
Pete Walker was a contemporary of Shonteff’s whose career was more steadily prolific and, for a time, modestly successful. Again, Walker began with cheesy sex loops, first producing 8mm glamour reels for discreet gentleman who liked to jerk off to pasty-faced, fat-assed English girls in unerotic poses, before graduating to substandard, feature-length skin flicks such as I Like Birds (1967) and School for Sex (1969). Walker was a more coolly efficient film packager than Shonteff, however, and his style quickly improved when he recruited professional scriptwriters, even if they were knocking out scripts for just “two hundred quid a time.” Cool It Carol (1970), scripted by Murray Smith, was a mildly subversive sex drama that holds some historical interest. But Walker was content to slip back into the most crass forms of novelty exploitation now and then – The Four Dimensions of Greta (1972), for example, a rare British 3-D sex film, has to be seen to be believed.
Again like Shonteff, Walker had ambitions to branch out into genre pictures, principally Psycho-like thrillers and Guignolesque horror. To this end, he worked prolifically in the early seventies: Die Screaming, Marianne (1972), The Flesh and Blood Show (1973), Tiffany Jones (1973). He then made a slight impression with the hysterical House of Whipcord (1974), about a senile judge setting up a “house of correction” for permissive girls. The film is audaciously dedicated to people who want to see the reintroduction of capital and corporal punishment in Britain! Frightmare (1974) was a grisly proto-cannibal film, which, like Whipcord, featured the redoubtable matronly harridan and Walker regular Sheila Keith.
Neither Whipcord nor Frightmare made any money (Walker screenwriter David McGillivray remembers that in one West End London cinema on Christmas Eve, admittedly not the best time to look at box office returns, Frightmare took £23), but in the seventies this didn’t really matter. At that time, the Eady Levy, a government tax on general film exhibition that provided funds for low-budget domestic product, was still thriving and substantially bankrolling most of the films discussed in this article. Even so, Walker managed to attract Columbia-Warner UK to distribute his next pictures. House of Mortal Sin (1975; US title: The Confessional) is probably his best horror film; it features Anthony Sharp as a corrupt priest with his own sick moral agenda. Schizo (1976) starred a pre-Peter Sellers Lynne Frederick (the schizo of the title, somewhat disturbingly prophetic) and a vaguely uncomfortable Stephanie Beacham, and was mildly distinguished by some cheap visual flourishes. But like most of Walker’s work, these films have dated badly.
Walker’s next film, The Comeback (1978), was a derivative body-count shocker memorable only for the crazy casting of Las Vegas crooner Jack Jones in the lead. By now, Walker was feeling the pinch that affected all independent British filmmakers in the late ’70s. Eady Levy money was still available, but it never covered an entire budget. And the distribution circuit was becoming more apathetic; loss-making provincial cinemas were closing up and down the country. The ones that stayed open were more often than not rank places just short of condemnation. Walker made another film, an ugly, tabloid sex drama, Home Before Midnight (1978), before running into more severe fundraising difficulties.
That Walker had difficulty setting up projects at this time was particularly indicative of the poor state of British cinema. If this shrewd small businessman couldn’t do it, no one could. He kicked around some unrealized projects for five years before being drafted in (his first time as a hired hand) by Cannon Films to direct House of the Long Shadows (1983). But this was a tedious and unfunny horror parody, the umpteenth reworking of The Seven Days to Baldpate, and it also managed to waste the only screen teaming of four horror icons: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Vincent Price, and John Carradine. After this debacle, Walker wisely retired and moved into property development.
Stanley Long was a one-man film industry also having his last successes at the end of the ’70s. Long had been involved in the exploitation film industry since the early ’60s, as a writer, cinematographer, editor, and, eventually, producer-director. His filmography includes such gems as Nudes of the World (1961), West End Jungle (1963), The Wife Swappers (1970), and Naughty! (1971). But, where other skid row directors made the transfer to horror and thriller, Long remained active as a producer of sex films, and his greatest “success,” if we can so label these desperately unerotic films, was the Adventures series, three films between 1975 and 78.
Sadly, Long is highly representative of why the British sex film was such a dire, gobsmackingly dull experience. He was personally dismissive of pornography, saying it didn’t turn him on, and seemed generally uninterested in sex and nudity per se. This peculiarly British attitude to sex clearly permeated the genre. When director Joe McGrath, once famous for TV work with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, was, in his eyes, “reduced” to making adult comedies, he was known to direct sex scenes with his back to the set, appalled at having to earn his living from such a sleazy activity. This may have seemed a morally justifiable position for him to take, but it didn’t do a lot for the films. And almost without exception, every British sex film of the heyday of exploitation is a dreary, embarrassing experience, thanks both to “artistic” attitudes such as this, and the British censors’ penchant for chopping out anything remotely dirty anyway. Still, at least their titles of Long’s films were occasionally inventive –Can You Keep It Up for a Week (1974), Keep It Up Downstairs (1976), I’m Not Feeling Myself Tonight (1975), Let’s Get Laid (1977).
Critical dismissals aside, low-grade British smut, with its perfunctory flashes of tits, ass, and pubic hair, was a surefire domestic moneymaker in the early to mid-’70s. Most successful was the Confessions series (1974-77) starring Robin Askwith, generally crass reworkings of saucy postcard coitus interruptus scenarios with a pop youth feel. Distributed by Columbia, these also attracted the involvement of fairly distinguished TV character actors; perhaps they seemed like the only legitimate films in production at the time.
Long’s Adventures series – Adventures of a Taxi Driver (75); Adventures of a Private Eye (77), and Adventures of a Plumber’s Mate (78) – were cheap cash-ins on these Confessions films, themselves hardly a yardstick for quality filmmaking. Each episode finds a cheeky young Romeo getting into all sorts of subpornographic situations thanks to the nature of his job. Parochial, unfunny, unsexy, they now make for depressing rather than affectionate viewing. But, if you’ve not seen one, try and dig one out – sociologically, they are at least illustrative of both the state of British filmmaking in the late ’70s, and the collective mindset of the nation with regard to sex. Nevertheless, they now make The Benny Hill Show look like I, Claudius.
The success of this short blast of “permissiveness” was, however, short-lived. The Confessions and Adventures films had petered out by 1978, and the theatrical sex film struggled on for only two or three more years, when it was annihilated by the advent of home video (at the time unregulated.)
But 1980 also marked the virtual collapse of the British film industry, and the certain death of the British exploitation film. Along with the new threat of video and the gradual reduction of exhibition due to economic recession, he newly-elected Conservative government decided to turn off the genre’s life support machine. The Tories took one look at the films benefiting from Eady Levy money and promptly abolished it. This Draconian measure represented more than the characteristic Conservative outrage at salacious material; it was also the first move of a government that was hostile to any kind of subversive artistic expression, especially if it was state subsidized. So, in one move, the British exploitation film, already gravely ill, was dealt a swift dose of euthanasia by the Thatcher administration.
Two years later, a new source of film finance did come into operation that may have benefited the committed populists of Poverty Row. But television’s Channel 4, which established itself as the only real source of low-budget funding for feature films in Britain, adopted a practice of refusing to commission anything remotely “popular,” let alone exploitative.
Channel 4 started interestingly, but films such as Walter (82), P’Tang Yang Kipperbang (82), and Giro City (82) looked too much like what they really were, TV plays on film. Also, their theatrical distribution was severely limited: some Channel 4 films had no theatrical distribution; others might play for a week in London and then premiere on broadcast television 18 months later. As a self-styled “minority” channel with a remit to feature experimental and artistic material, Channel 4 could be dangerous but more often remained resolutely politically correct. There was no way Pete Walker or Stanley Long were likely to get commissions from such an organization. Over the next ten years, Channel 4 films were, at best, filmed TV plays (The Ploughman’s Lunch , Rita, Sue and Bob, Too ) or self-consciously experimental affairs (Peter Greenaway’s ’80s films). The occasionally unclassifiable film, such as Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire (1985; a musical horror spoof about snooker!) looked like it was trying too hard for cult success. However, much of Channel 4’s ’80s legacy consists of stuffy and tedious little TV films, many of which have gotten even duller with age. By 1984, then, the British exploitation movie looked as far away as the days of silent cinema.
An Exploitation Revival?
It was 15 years before attitudes to popular cinema began to relax a little in Britain. During that time, exploitation films were few and far between. Veteran Poverty Row practitioner Norman J. Warren delivered an Alien cash-in (Inseminoid, 1981) as well as the forgettable Bloody New Year (1986), but Stanley Long (finally moving out of the sex film) only managed to patch together three horror shorts for video release (Screamtime, 1983). Other attempts to revive the horror genre were made with Dream Demon (88), Beyond Bedlam (93), and the Hellraiser series, and even Ken Russell seemed determined to carry on with his early ’70s agenda with Lair of the White Worm (1988) and Salome’s Last Dance (1988). But most of these films, none made with Channel 4 funding, suffered, as usual, from apathetic distribution and failed to kick-start the genre.
In the mid-’90s, however, Channel 4 had become a more commercially biased entity, and began to relax its commissioning procedure: Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), although reputedly “greenlighted” because of the “worthy” balance provided by the funeral itself, was an innocuous popular hit despite its necessary dose of gloom; and Trainspotting (1996) was, domestically at least, massively successful in reinvigorating British youth cinema, despite its best efforts to hammer home “drugs are bad” message.
Indeed, Trainspotting’s success, and the establishment of filmmaking arms of other terrestrial television channels such as BBC Films, has led, in the last few years, to a kind of domestic resurgence of popular British cinema. This quickly veered towards the crime film, and, in the wake of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (1998), something of a new British exploitation emerged: the “cool Britannia” gangster film –Gangster No. 1 (1999), Love, Honour and Obey (1999), Essex Boys (2000), Sexy Beast (2001).
As there are only about 55 handguns in use in Britain, the British gangster film looks moronic and somewhat embarrassing. Similarly, it is already suffering from the distribution problems that plagued popular British cinema in the 70s and 80s, albeit with a more secure fallback on video and satellite television.
Still, British gangster pics are not to be totally sneered at. Their very awkwardness puts them on a par with the defiantly tacky popular films of 30 years ago, and some of them attempt stylistic flourishes that do show imagination and ambition. Like the exploitation films of the 1970s, they are largely dismissed by the critics and (often) the public at large. Like the films of the 70s, they are imitative projects, begging for exposure and for attention in the shadow of mainstream commercial hits. And if they seem bluntly anachronistic now, or somehow unnecessary and embarrassing and unworthy, then perhaps in 20 years’ time they will have something to offer for the retrospective enthusiast.
As far as horror and sex is concerned, however, we have to concede that the British exploitation film is showing no signs of life, and isn’t likely to until some innovative exhibitor realises that not everyone wants a sanitized evening out at the multiplex, where MPAA-approved entertainment is washed down with corporate junk food. We have to live in hope. Exploitation has been a staple of the entertainment industry since pictures first moved. Maybe the Internet or digital TV will present a modern distribution network for a new breed of British exploitation filmmakers. Like the last generation of Poverty Row directors, Walker, Shonteff, Long et al, a part of me still harbours a wild and foolish optimism.