Thank God for Schlock: Exploitation Films with Christian Financiers
by Xan Holbrook
One recurring treat (among many) for the Bill Hicks fan is his theatrical disdain and revulsion for drug prohibition. Such a passionate hatred proved an excellent vehicle to showcase his near mastery of prose and rhetoric. In one of my favorite bits, he inverted the stifled, crusty verbiage of the lame duck President of the day and slammed it on its head, in a flawless act of verbal Jiu-Jitsu:
“I loved when Bush came out and said, “We are losing the war against drugs.” You know what that implies? There’s a war being fought, and the people on drugs are winning it. What does that tell you about drugs? Some smart, creative people on that side!”
Many instances bear out this damning truth. Not only in the smuggling and sale of contraband, but in the struggle to undermine authoritarian attitudes, too.
Joe Rogan’s dismantling of the infamous anti-marijuana talking dog PSA is a particular favorite example, but I think there is a greater cultural tradition which has led to some of our most beloved narco-cultural touchstones. One that transcends psychedelic rock, R. Crumb and alternative comedy. Namely, the relationship between conservative Christian financiers and exploitation filmmakers.
It’s not hyperbole to say that film belongs to America, and its command of the form is one of its great cultural jewels. Take your -isms, styles, schools, movements, auteurs, flaneurs, muses and floozies and put them to one side.
No one generates film on the scale and with the dogged, can-do efficiency as the good old US of A. Contrary to popular belief about California being a land of soft people and softer brains, the movie business operates with a ruthlessness only surpassed by Somali pirates. Profit from hysteria lies not only with the O’Reillys, Hannitys, Capones, and Kennedys of the world, but with the slack-jawed grinning shysters of Sunset Boulevard. Taking money from social nannies and producing gurning trash is as American as Apple Pie.
Let’s look at a few examples, shall we?
Any sane person has come to the conclusion that criminalizing weed, a drug which makes one no more dangerous than an obese sausage-dog, has been a complete failure. The real motives behind the ban – grounded in racism and cynical business – are now well-established, and the world’s largest cash crop teeters ever-closer to full legalization.
But cast your mind back to 1936 – in a world about to shit itself a second time and perfect industrialized murder, Marijuana is considered a threat by stuck-up morons. A small church group decided to fund an informational film about the ‘dangers’ of smoking Marihuana.
Producer George Hirlimann took the helm and employed cinematic pioneer Louis J. Gasnier. So far, so unremarkable. However, for reasons unknown, the film fell into the hands of schlock merchant and certifiable nutter Dwain Esper after initial shooting finished.
Esper, whose back catalogue was a gleeful middle finger to the Hays Code, proceeded to recut the film with a pair of rusty garden shears and dish the film out across sticky-floored alleyway theaters and rural drive-ins. The film, like Satan and weird fetishes, was known by many names. Tell Your Children, The Burning Question, Doped Teens…
The plot, although infamous in its stupidity, followed a similar formula to the other drugsploitation of the time, and the time that Esper specialized in. Young teens, with the whitest names in history, are sold exotic cheroots, which naturally comes from a love of Jazz. Murder, sexual deviancy, and insanity ensues. That’s it.
Horrendous from start to finish, its 1970s rediscovery, just as the Nixon Administration schedule one-d the drug in a big fuck-you move, proved more informative, and more revealing, of the idiocy behind such crusty thinking than even the sharpest satire. And it’s in the public domain.
All because of a little unnamed church group’s attempt to stop people getting baked.
Hubcaps in the Sky
Ed Wood was the best bad filmmaker ever. Everything he touched turned to hot trash – his budgets were tighter than a cat’s butthole, his actors and sets were wonky and wooden, his scripts inspire weapons-grade cringing, and yet he has a special place in my heart.
I’m far from alone in thinking like this. Tim Burton’s 1994 biopic is one of the director’s more inspirational and touching works, and Wood’s out-and-proud transvestism is just another link between the weird, the gothic, the queer, and the outsider. More than anything, though, it was Wood’s sheer bloody-mindedness that established his reputation, and got some of the worst films ever produced.
To say this madman made films on a shoestring is putting it mildly. He cut every imaginable corner. He took so few shots partly in awe of his own ‘genius’ and to save on printing, making only the direst of shots available. He took actors who would take any gig at any price, often those who were struggling with financial problems and addiction. He wrote, produced, edited and directed everything he did.
In 1956, Wood was gearing up to make Grave Robbers from Outer Space. In a coup d’état, he had secured the aging, addicted Bela Lugosi and shot some silent test footage. Then Lugosi died. Wood pressed on. Still struggling for money as always, he turned to a Southern Baptist church for funding. They disapproved of the man Wood was, the company he kept, and the title of his film. But they agreed to grant him the funds he needed, as long as he and the cast underwent full-immersion baptism and changed the title. Wood agreed.
The result was the earth-shattering Plan 9 from Outer Space.
As with Reefer Madness, the plot is terrible. Pitched somewhere between White Zombie and The Day The Earth Stood Still, aliens plan to raise Earth’s dead, in the hopes they’ll cause chaos and stop humanity building an atomic doomsday machine blah blah blah make it stop etc… all shot for the price of an East Cleveland house.
Stock footage, crap acting, cardboard sets, physical effects (see the title), Bela Lugosi dying halfway through filming and being replaced by some bloke covering his face with a cape, there is not one thing this film does not balls up.
It would be a disservice to Wood’s zeal to entirely blame this travesty on Southern Baptists, but it’s still nice to see that a sincere attempt to save the damned resulted in this defining cultural shipwreck. One should also note that the indie powerhouse-model of the Roger Corman or Full Moon Features variety owes much to Wood’s ethic. Take the up-and-comers and down-and-outers, give them a meagre budget and ask for 80 sordid minutes.
Gobble Gobble Gobble
In 1972, nutbag Christian Brad F. Grinter, who may or may not have been from another planet, decided to scrape together funds for a film which proves that gory body horror and Christian moralizing are the unstoppable force and immovable object.
To pile on the tortured, cliché metaphors for a moment, it is said that when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Well, when the only filmic skill set you have are garbage, Z-feature chops, that’s how you’ll articulate every theme. Grinter, an ostensible baptist christian, wished to revive the cautionary drug tale and revolutionize it for the age of Tobe Hooper and post-counterculture America. He created Blood Freak.
By the time the church who ponied up the cash realized what he had done with their money, it was too late.
Grinter hired muscled-up, proto-Tommy-Wiseau type Steve Hawkes (née Stjepan Šipek) as a hippie, ‘Nam Vet biker Herschell who at first refuses drugs, but eventually acquiesces. He wakes up in a shady laboratory and is offered turkey meat, treated with experimental chemicals. And then…
Herschell gets turkified, and lusts after the blood of other druggies.
This is a thing. This got filmed.
And we can all Thank the Lord that it exists.