I went into Ray Greene’s 2001 documentary Schlock: The Secret History of American Movies thinking that it would be a bit of a waste for me. I would say I’m somewhat familiar with the exploitation films of the 50s and 60s, and worried that the film would not contain anything I didn’t know. I was SO wrong, with its great collection of interviews and well-researched narration the film left me surprised, informed and delighted. It is not the names or content of the films that matter but the overall narrative of early exploitation that Greene constructs for the viewer.
The film’s strength lies in its great collection of interviewees. David F. Friedman (H. G. Lewis collaborator and producer of Blood Feast and The Acid Eaters), Doris Wishman (Bad Girls Go to Hell, and, according to the film, the most prolific female director of the sound age), Roger Corman (legendary producer/writer/director/talent-magnet), Harry Novak (prolific sexploitation producer) and a bunch of other equally distinguished guests relate anecdotes and commentary as Greene examines the main movements of 50s and 60s exploitation (Teen, Sexploitation, “Roughies,” Horror, etc.) in chronological order. Some highlights include both Forrest J. Ackerman and Harry Novak taking swipes at the success of Blood Feast. Forry just wrinkles his nose and politely declines to comment on the film while Novak takes the less-than-classy path and regards the film with absolute contempt(and, if I’m not mistaken, a touch of jealousy that he didn’t think of it first). There are also some priceless self deprecating lines from Doris Wishman and some delightful and thought-provoking weirdness from Maila Nurmi (a.k.a Vampira). For me the highlight of the film is Friedman recalling stories from the road show circuit of the fifties. He laughs and describes the days when he and other producers were peddling “educational” films that featured childbirth and VD as “sexy.”
The film could have easily been three hours if Greene had chosen to cover the exploitation of the 70s and 80s, but he instead chooses to end with the formation of the MPAA (and some bittersweet footage of a drive-in being demolished). He implies(convincingly) that the studios’ ability to show sex and violence diminished the appeal and need for filmmakers and producers like those interviewed.
They may seem crude by today’s standards, but I dare you to watch this film and not have your Netflix queue balloon. A good percentage of these films are available on double feature discs from Something Weird Video (which use quantity of features to make up for what they normally lack in transfer quality) and many of the Corman/AIP films covered have readily available editions.
The film poses questions about the artistic validity of the films, and while almost all the filmmakers deny any “messages” Greene’s documentary definitely leaves you pondering.