Wednesday, January 28, 2015

That's Sexploitation! (January 31st at the Cleveland Cinematheque)

[THAT'S SEXPLOITATION! screens Saturday January 31st at 9:05 pm at the Cleveland Cinematheque.]

Review by Bob Ignizio

From the earliest days of the medium, there have been those looking to put the “sin” in cinema, and by doing so turn a tidy profit. For much of that time, however, full on hardcore pornography was illegal, and standards could be even stricter depending on what state a given film was exhibited in. Thus was born the sexploitation film, a genre that teased audiences with the promise of sex, never quite delivered, and yet still left the paying customers feeling more or less satisfied. The films were a mixture of innocent fun and carny hucksterism, seldom of very high quality but, at least in hindsight, possessing a certain undeniable charm.

THAT'S SEXPLOITATION! takes its name and its cue from the THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT! series of documentaries released by MGM, initially intended to spotlight their musicals, but in the later installments expanding to other genres of film produced by the studio. Here, there isn't a single studio spotlighted, but rather a single, singular home video distributor. Something Weird Video was founded in 1990 by THAT'S SEXPLOITATION! producer Mike Vraney, who obsessively sought out and saved a great number of films that might otherwise have been lost. It is from Something Weird's extensive catalog that all the clips in this film are drawn.

As extensive as SWV's library of sleaze is, there are some important icons of sexploitation who go unmentioned due to the rights to their films being held by other companies, notably Radley Metzger and, with the exception of his first film THE IMMORAL MR. TEAS, Russ Meyer. Regardless, Something Weird's catalog is so extensive that there's precious little else about sexploitation films that isn't represented.

Director Frank “BASKET CASE” Henenlotter himself acts as emcee and primary narrator, frequently joined by legendary exploitation and sexploitation filmmaker David Friedman. Friedman is looking considerably older here than he did in MAU M AU SEX SEX, another fine documentary on this subject made in 2001, but he still has that sparkle in his eye when recounting his adventures in the sin trade. Sadly, Friedman passed away in 2011, followed by Vraney in early 2014, making watching this film a somewhat bittersweet experience.

Not to underestimate the value of the history and stories imparted here, but it's really the films themselves that are the main attraction. We get clips from idiotic nudist camp movies, birth-of-a-baby and VD “white coaters”, naughty and inane “nudie cuties”, and gritty “roughies” (films generally shot in black and white that mixed in a bit of sadism and violence to compensate for not being able to show actual sex). It all comes to an end in the late sixties/early seventies with a mix of psychedelic wet dreams on one hand, and early forays into hardcore under the guise of sex education films on the other. Once real hardcore porn came into the picture it became a whole other game, one that may have actually delivered on the promise sexploitation films made, but wasn't nearly as much fun.

There have been other documentaries made about this subject prior to THAT'S SEXPLOITATION!, but none of them that quite strike the same perfect balance between being informative and entertaining at the same time. It's a film that manages to be welcoming to the uninitiated without boring those for whom much of the information presented is old hat, and that's no small feat. 4 out of 4 stars.

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