Book Review: FrightFest Guide – Exploitation Movies, by Alan Jones

By Ben Bussey

The 17th annual FrightFest may have not long since come to an end after its five day reign of terror in London – but, like any monster worth its salt, it keeps on coming back bigger, stronger and nastier. So it is that the FrightFest brand continues to expand. Having already moved into film distribution with the FrightFest Presents label, they’ve now made their way into the world of print, teaming up with the esteemed FAB Press to produce what promises to be the first of many FrightFest Guides exploring, to use their tag line, ‘the dark heart of cinema.’ And FrightFest co-founder Alan Jones has chosen an interesting subject matter for the first book in the planned series.

Not unlike ‘cult,’ ‘exploitation’ is a word we use frequently, and oftentimes it seems easy to identify anything that fits the label – but try to definitively identify its parameters, and it’s easy to get a bit muddled. In its truest form, exploitation would seem restricted to the domain of cut-price B-movies, yet exploitative elements can frequently be found in bigger-budgeted mainstream productions too. Why, in cinemas right now, many viewers have been rather taken aback by certain key moments in the final act of Don’t Breathe, a Sony release; meanwhile, outraged reviews are pouring out of the Toronto International Film Festival for Walter Hill’s new movie [Re]Assignment, which casts Michelle Rodriguez as a hitman out for revenge after being forcibly given gender reassignment surgery.

Ultimately, if a movie’s main selling points are sex, violence, or any kind of taboo subject matter, and said content is there first and foremost to give the audience a thrill – regardless of whatever educational/moral angle filmmakers were more or less obliged to spin back in the old days – then it would seem safe to class it as exploitation. It’s like a stubborn layer of damp that permeates the lower end of every cinematic genre, incorporating horror (obviously), action, comedy, drama, the whole shebang; not to mention how it crosses national boundaries too.

As such, it would seem an almost insurmountable task to provide a definitive chronicle of exploitation, but I don’t think this is necessarily what Jones sets out to do here. Starting out with an A to Z of key exploitation subgenres, Jones goes on to explore how exploitation endured in various forms throughout the decades, with brief but insightful looks at a total of 200 key exploitation movies released between 1930 and 1985 – the year in which, the book argues, the rise of home video finally killed off the grindhouses and drive-ins.

This, as you might expect, isn’t one of those books you necessarily intend to read cover-to-cover in strict chronological order. It’s a good old-fashioned glossy reference book of the kind which film fans relied on in the days before IMDb. Full colour throughout, it’s stuffed with lurid poster art and photos; half the fun is flicking through, allowing your eye to be captured by one eye-popping image or another, and making a mental note to track the film down. Not that this will always prove easy; of the 200 films listed in the main section, I counted no more than 20 that I’ve personally seen, and there are a great many I’ll admit complete ignorance of. Many of them have doubtless never made the leap to DVD; hell, some of them probably never even made it to video.

Of course, any film reference book of this sort (even when it has the humility to not use the word ‘definitive’ in its title) will invariably attract grumbles from readers who don’t see their personal favourites mentioned, and I won’t deny at times I felt a bit baffled by some of the titles Jones includes (to mention Walter Hill again – Streets of Fire, exploitation? Really?), and some of the ones he omits. But in his defence, Jones does seem to make a point of acknowledging most of the key filmmakers, even if he doesn’t highlight the films you might expect; for instance, Blood Feast and Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! might not get a look-in, but other, less noted films by HG Lewis and Russ Meyer do.

In any case, though, this is a fun, breezy read that’s very nice to look at and will doubtless sit comfortably on the coffee table of any discerning trash-hound. It also boasts a compelling, indeed slightly haunting foreword from Combat Shock writer-director Buddy Giovinazzo, recounting his memories of the original grindhouse cinemas on New York’s 42 Street; an intriguing blend of heartfelt nostalgia and living nightmare.

FrightFest Guide: Exploitation Movies is available on 16th September from FAB Press – pre-order here.