Guest List: Mark Anthony Lacy’s Top 12 Sexploitation Films of the 1960s

My foray into the world of pinup photography began way back in the mid ’90s. Now, some 20 years later, a collection of my work has been turned into a coffee-table book, Retro Glamour Photography of Mark Anthony Lacy, by Schiffer Publishing. The journey has been long and arduous, but well worth it. I’ve worked hard at my craft and love creating authentic looking images of vintage vixens for the world to enjoy.

Back when I started, my knowledge of pinup imagery and the whole midcentury aesthetic was next to nil. So, unlike my schoolboy days, I relished doing homework and learning all that I could about the era and its styles. One avenue that I took was to watch films made back then to study the hairdos, wardrobe, styling and settings. But not just any films. Those Doris Day/Rock Hudson pictures were cute, but not quite what I needed. So I dove deep into the murky waters of ’60s sexploitation!

Before the days when any kind of sex act imaginable could be viewed on the 4-inch screen of a smartphone, or even the 40-foot screen of a movie theater, there were grindhouse movies. Films of varying quality whose creators had only one mission: Get attractive women to expose their bodies for a mostly male audience more than willing to pay for the pleasure. And while some of these movies were actually produced by ambitious young filmmakers, the majority were the result of some guy with money, looking for an easy way to make even more money. Shot on miniscule budgets using small crews and stealing shots in public when needed, these independent efforts could rake in quite a haul once they hit small theaters and drive-ins across the country. That seems to be a lesson that present-day Hollywood studio execs have forgotten: Make small films the public wants to see for as little cost as possible, and your profits will be greater.

Although these productions may often seem lacking in writing, direction, editing, acting, plot, character development and overall filmmaking craftsmanship, they are not without their own unique charm. In fact, it’s routinely their imperfections that make them so enjoyable. Sure, I sometimes wonder why they didn’t do another take or edit something a different way. But those quirks are what help differentiate grindhouse films from bigger studio films that suffer from a certain sameness that makes them less endearing.

Before I start my list, here are a few observations that I’ve made after watching a plethora of these movies (thanks to Mike Vraney, the patron saint of grindhouse, who preserved thousands of titles and founded Something Weird Video). Like the ’90s rap scene, there seems to be an East Coast vs. West Coast thing going on. The two main wellsprings for these films were New York and Los Angeles. The New York films are grim and gritty film noirs, chock full of that neorealism spirit seen in European cinema of the time. Characters live in apartment buildings, traveled on the subway, and terrific shots of the streets of vintage New York abound. The Californian films reveled in the sleaze of Hollywood and made more of an effort to look slick and professional like their major studio counterparts, though rarely succeeded. They took advantage of the sun-filled, palm tree-strewn suburbs; modern apartment complexes, complete with swimming pools; and neon-drenched night shots of L.A. and its traffic.

Unlike the rash of nudist films that swept the mid-1950s sexploitation scene, these films needed reasons for their characters to bare all. A frequent excuse was bathing. These gals love to keep clean! Many of the films include at least one scene of a lovely lady taking a bath or shower. Often with a partner. I guess there’s safety in numbers.

And while they were considered extremely racy for the era, the majority of “love scenes” are actually quite tame, with seminude couples doing a lot of kissing, rubbing and undulating, interspersed with close-ups of their feet rubbing together. (Maybe Mr. Tarantino found inspiration in these.) Strip clubs and photography studios were the perfect settings for more women to ditch their duds. Makes sense to me. Though, I did see one film where a small toy store was used, but who am I to quibble?

And now, without further ado, my little Dirty Dozen of 1960s sexploitation …

1. Scum of the Earth (1963)

How can you go wrong with a title like that? Before he became known as “the Wizard of Gore,” director Herschell Gordon Lewis made a few films focusing on the female form instead of blood and guts. And the plot of this one lives up to the title. A sweet, naive high school girl in Detroit, back in the days when Detroit had palm trees, gets hoodwinked into posing for nude photos by a pornography kingpin who peddles smut to teens. Wow! There’s blackmailing, slut shaming, molesting, but ironically, not a whole lot of nudity. At least not in the version that’s on DVD these days. Then why does it make the list? If you’ve ever seen Something Weird Video’s intro reel, then you’ve seen a fraction of the tirade that the smut peddler gives his wide-eyed protégé. The full rant is well worth the price of admission.

2. Bad Girls Go to Hell (1965)

Speaking of catchy titles … Doris Wishman, the Grande Dame of sexploitation, is renown for coming up with titles to her films that put writers of the most tawdry of dime-store novels to shame! That and her unique cinematic style: She solved the problem of not being able to afford shooting live sound by avoiding the actors’ mouths altogether. Instead, we see shots of whomever they’re speaking to or household objects with voiceovers recorded afterward. And talk about resourceful: Wishman not only wrote and directed these efforts, but also shot them in her own apartment out in Queens, New York. The plot of this one centers around a sweet young housewife, played by diminutive dish Gigi Darlene, who is set upon by a predatory janitor who first blackmails then forces himself on her. She flees the scene and embarks on an odyssey that takes her from one lusty predicament to the next, much to the delight of the audience. Gigi is like a unicorn of the ’60s sexploitation world. With the face of an angel and body like a brick shithouse, this petite performer only appeared briefly in films and then disappeared. This one’s a must-see for true fans of the little lady!

3. The Agony of Love (1966)

Housewives were a favorite character in these sexploitation films for some reason. They provided a familiar figure for the married men in the audience who could imagine their own wives, or women that they know, getting up to hijinks while they were at the office. In this ambitious feature, a seemingly well-to-do young housewife with daddy issues turns tricks behind her loving hubby’s back for fast cash and cheap thrills. Not only do we get to see her engage in numerous trysts with a wide variety of men, but we also get to sit in on her therapy sessions with a shrink. The unbalanced babe is played by buxom go-go dancer/“actress” Pat Barrington (not to be confused with actor Pat Harrington, who portrayed that lovable scamp of a handyman, Schneider, on ’70s sitcom One Day at a Time). Her lack of acting chops actually facilitated in giving her character an icy detachment that makes the drama of this film more palpable. I wonder if Catherine Deneuve caught this one at some Parisian cinema before doing Belle de Jour a year later?

4. Moonlighting Wives (1966)

It ain’t easy making ends meet these days. And the same was true back in 1966. But one suburban housewife tapped into her entrepreneurial spirit and found a way to overcome: She turned a group of her fellow beleaguered housewives into prostitutes under the guise of an office stenography service. She slowly ropes in more gals and expands the business, much to the chagrin of local law enforcement. What ensues is a twisted tale of blackmail, wife-swapping and orgiastic nightlife with the country-club set. Based on a true case in Long Island, this film was helmed by that master of mature melodrama, Joe Sarno. Along with his wife and sometime actress, Peggy, Sarno brought a true auteur’s sensibility to the genre. While others toiled to find a way to justify all of the sex and nudity in their movies, he was just the opposite: His focus was telling a well-thought-out story and the motivations of its characters. Any sexual content was an afterthought shoehorned in to please producers. And even then, it was shot as demurely as possible. This is one of his early color films and it is a sight to behold. Brought to DVD by Retro Seduction Cinema.

5. Suburbia Confidential (1966)

Confidential was the name of a scandal sheet of a magazine first published in the 1950s that exposed the shameful shenanigans going on in Tinseltown. Movie stars and mobsters were its main targets. Because of its popularity, the word “confidential” became synonymous with the exposure of dirty secrets that were never to see the light of day. It became a popular title for a cornucopia of grindhouse films. There was High School Confidential, College Confidential, College Girls Confidential, Motel Confidential, Campus Confidential, Free Love Confidential and, of course, Suburbia Confidential. Using a common trope of a “doctor,” “psychologist” or researcher giving an inside look at various case studies, the film strings together a few vignettes of lonely, all-American housewives unabashedly engaging in all kinds of monkey business, from the seduction of the television repairman to excursions into bondage, lesbianism, nymphomania and a romp with a transvestite!

6. White Slaves of Chinatown (1964)

This is the first in a series of films featuring Olga, the brutal brothel mistress, and the twisted tales of her misadventures in drug trafficking, blackmail, prostitution and torture. It was followed by Olga’s House of Shame, Olga’s Girls, Mme. Olga’s Massage Parlor and Olga’s Dance Hall Girls. What sets this one apart is its documentary style — cinema verité, if you will. There’s no dialogue — just ongoing narration by a male voice that leads the audience through scene after scene of torture and degradation of the poor lost women in Olga’s harem, I’m guessing none of them graduates of the Actors Studio. Filmed in New York’s Chinatown by writer/director Joseph P. Mawra and starring the striking (literally) actress Audrey Campbell, this one is a unique time capsule of old New York.

7. The Defilers (1965)

Even though it was released a year after the first Olga film, this is considered to be the first of the true “roughies,” written and co-directed by the self-proclaimed “Mighty Monarch of the Sexploitation World,” David F. Friedman. After years of making “nudie cuties” that were bringing in less and less money, he decided to reinvent his product; instead of just sex, he ramped up the violence aspect. The result was one of the most successful films of his career. The story centers around a pair of self-entitled young guys who live for fast cars, hot girls and “kicks.” Using sun-drenched California locations, a studio and the apartment complex where he resided, Friedman took time to develop the characterization of the two young creeps. As the film progresses, so does the violence, from lighthearted rough-housing and spanking to the kidnapping of an unsuspecting newcomer to the big city. The rosy-cheeked Minnesota blonde gets abducted and forced into being their unwilling sex slave. While we may have seen worse on network television these days, back in 1965, this was incredibly shocking … and apparently extremely titillating, since it really packed them in.

8. A Smell of Honey, A Swallow of Brine (1966)

As they say, “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.” Or at least that’s what Friedman thought since he came up with the idea for this film, which turns the tables, so to speak. In this one, a twisted young blonde gets off by teasing and seducing young men to the point that they try to have sex with her … only to be denied when she starts screaming, “Rape!” Not wanting to seem sexist, she even has the nerve to do the same thing to her sultry, sapphic roommate. Stacey Walker, the star of this gem, only made two films for Friedman and then said goodbye to a promising career. What she may have lacked in acting talent, she more than made up for with onscreen charisma. And by that, I mean her rocking little body!

9. The Sexploiters (1965)

Here’s another film about an enterprising suburban housewife. This shapely lady works for a “modeling” agency that arranges for fetching young females to be photographed at their studio, attend college make-out parties and entertain particular clients with unusual fantasies on location. We follow Lynn on a typical day as she makes a few home visits, stops by the office, and returns home to her unsuspecting hubby by the end of the movie. An added bonus is watching Bad Girls Go to Hell’s Gigi Darlene enjoy an ice cream cone, as only she can.

10. Indecent Desires (1968)

How Doris Wishman came up with this one, I’ll never know! Imagine some creepy loner, obsessed with an attractive girl next door, finding a plastic baby doll in a garbage can and somehow, unknowingly, willing it to control the woman’s body. Talk about twisted! Filmed in Wishman’s Queens neighborhood, we follow the day-to-day activities of both parties. Unable to comprehend what’s happening as her life falls apart, she quickly descends into madness. If that isn’t enough, her lusty co-worker/BFF is into doing nude calisthenics in her apartment. I said it was twisted.

11. The Flesh Trilogy (1967-1968)

Okay, technically, these are three movies, but much like the whole Lord of the Rings saga, it’s all one drawn-out story. It begins with The Touch of Her Flesh, continues with The Curse of Her Flesh and ends with The Kiss of Her Flesh. An unbalanced weapons expert (writer/director Michael Findlay) wages a war against beautiful women in revenge after discovering that his wife has been unfaithful. It may be safe to say that Findlay had some issues with women. Even his wife and partner in crime, Roberta, admits that he had some difficulties with the opposite sex. Most of his films have a very disturbing attitude towards women. (And when it comes to grindhouse, that’s really saying something.) But as off-putting as they were to some, they may have been somewhat therapeutic to others. As odd as he was, this auteur managed to chisel out his own niche in the sexploitation scene.

12. She Mob (1968)

And now for something completely different. Of all of the films that I’ve seen, this one truly takes the cake. The plot may have looked simple enough on paper, but when translated to the screen, it became a whole other animal. A Texas town’s wealthiest woman has her boy toy snatched away by the butchest lesbian this side of the Rio Grande and her girl gang of desperate prison escapees. They hold him for ransom, and blonde-beauty private eye Sweety East, a spoof on TV detective Honey West, is hired to drop off the moolah and recover the victim, who has been forced into stud service for the wanton women. This one has it all: bathing, self-love, voyeurism, stripping, lesbians, leather, a cone bra, go-go dancing, a cigarette-shitting donkey, bondage, torture, forced cross-dressing, catfights, shoot-outs, car chases and an ocelot! Plus, it’s set to a jazzy soundtrack! Will it ever be confused with an Orson Welles production? No. Is it bizarrely entertaining? Hell, yes!  —Mark Anthony Lacy

Get them at Amazon.

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