Filmmaker Ray Greene Excavates the Weird,
Wondrous World of the Exploitation Movie By Mike Watt
(originally published in Femme Fatales, Vol. 11, #2, February 2002)

Most movie fans are familiar with the names “Roger Corman” and “Peter Bogdanovich”, but what about “Samuel Z. Arkoff”? “Doris Wishman”? What about the names “Harry Novak”, or “David F. Friedman”? Filmmakers responsible for movies with titles like REEFER MADNESS, THE AGONY OF LOVE, NUDE ON THE MOON, THE DEFILERS. What if I were to tell you that, were it not for these people, we would not have the sensational Hollywood blockbusters that we have today?

“Exploitation movies saturate our culture now,” says filmmaker and author Ray Greene. “They ARE our movie culture. Everything we have that gets a lot of production capital from the studios now owes these guys. Owes these guys! Ultimately they won. They took over. They didn’t get the fruits of that, they didn’t get to run studios. But people aren’t running out to see movies that resemble GONE WITH THE WIND anymore. They’re seeing movies that resemble INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN. And I’ll tell you something else, when you make an exploitation movie with a hundred million dollars of studio capital, the thing that gets lost in the translation is the personality of the people making it. These studio films are basically made by the Borg. They’re made by a gigantic collective of people who spent a great amount of time hammering the script down to the blandest possible level so that some Malaysian audience member sitting halfway across the world won’t see something he won’t understand. The exploitation films of the 50s and 60s are full of the personalities of the people who made them – you can tell that they were made by human beings. Sometimes you can tell too much, from the handwritten sign that says `Psychiatrist Office’ hanging on a door, or whatever. You can tell people made them and made them out of their own brains. And if you sift through them, you can see some personal ideas that don’t make their way into these big Hollywood studio films.”

In his new documentary, SCHLOCK! THE SECRET HISTORY OF AMERICAN MOVIES, Greene delivers a very comprehensive look at the films and filmmakers that worked on the fringe of mainstream Hollywood between the early ‘40s and early ‘70s, making the movies that our parents and grandparents went to see when no one was looking. Films with low production values, cardboard monsters, buxom starlets and beehive hairdos – coupled, Greene argues, with some amazing and undervalued independent moviemaking. SCHLOCK is highly entertaining and provocative, loaded – absolutely loaded – with clips from some of these classic films.

“It took a lot of legwork, trying to figure out where things were,” says Greene. “I tried to take what we characterized as a “Zen” approach, to survey the landscape of what was possible and gettable within the economic framework and then to let the movie take its shape according to that. Make sure it was wide-ranging but then also structure the documentary toward the things that I knew that I could get. I mean, obviously if you’re going to do something like this, you’re going to have to illustrate it heavily with footage from the films, because that’s the point. And because the films are part of such an alien world for a lot of people it was real important to get all that stuff in there.”

Also astonishing is the fact that [Greene] found even half of the clips used. In most cases, the filmmakers themselves do not own the rights to their own films, and many have been lost due to lab accidents, vaults changing hands and distribution companies going bankrupt. “I just read this book about [exploitation filmmaker] Andy Milligan – eight of his movies are gone forever. And they’re fairly recent films! You don’t think of movies from the seventies as being in danger of disappearing. People like Sam Arkoff and Roger Corman recognized the value of what they were producing to a certain extent, but a lot of the [other] guys just dumped their prints after they’d played off. When the market collapsed and there was no real way to circulate these films, they destroyed the prints and negatives because they couldn’t or wouldn’t pay for the storage bins to house them. Even David Friedman, one of the cleverest and most ingenious exploiteers of all time, did not see the value of his films. He told me that he came very close to scrapping all his prints and negatives in the early 1990s because he thought no one would ever be interested in them. If he had done so it would have been a great loss.

“So that’s another reason why I felt like I wanted to do this. To me these films have a lot of value in a lot of different directions. First and foremost as a sociological index of a lot of things from our culture that we don’t think of as having been there during the period. When you see a full-frontal nudity shot from a movie made in 1946 – whether it was a birth-hygiene film or not – it’s a surprise! It’s a shock to think that your parents or grandparents may have been sitting in a theater watching this. What tends to happen over time is that whatever is the most successful and mainstream becomes remembered as the entire culture of a period. There’s a whole other world going on at all times – human beings are very complicated. These other, darker impulses have to find another way to get out and they found the way out through these movies.”

After coming to L.A. to study film at USC, Greene worked as a professional sound editor and wrote for the Village View and Box Office Magazine. It was as the Editor-in-chief of Boxoffice Magazine – a publication he left over four years ago – that the idea for the documentary came to be.

“Boxoffice Magazine is the oldest extant film publication in the United States that I know of. I was there for it’s 75th anniversary while running the publication, [and] what I decided to do was go back into the vaults and pull reviews of 75 films as a celebration of the history of the magazine – going back to Chaplin’s CITY LIGHTS. But in the process of doing the research for that, [I discovered] reviews of literally hundreds, if not thousands, of movies that I’d never heard of, released by distribution companies I’d never heard of and starring people I’d never heard of, with the most whacked titles and bizarre synopses I’d ever seen. Boxoffice was very important to the exploitation filmmakers because it distributed to the independent theaters, there were still some even during the studio era, in the out-of-the-way places. [And there were] guys whose work dates back to the Sex Hygiene days – the REEFER MADNESS days – who used the magazine to publicize themselves to the distributors.

“Reading about all these lost, strange films got me very interested. I’m sort of a film preservation guy at heart and I said ‘where are these movies? Where did they come from, where did they end up and are they still around?’ Around the same time, Sam Arkoff’s publicist contacted me to ask if we’d be interested in Sam writing a piece for the publication’s anniversary issue, and I said ‘sure’. And through the publicist, I got to know Sam a little bit. And it all came together in my head that there was this great and vast story of a kind of hidden cinema that hadn’t been properly told at that time.”

The idea of doing a documentary on this kind of “hidden cinema” began to take shape in Greene’s mind. He sketched out a kind of narrative map for the movie and began to contact some of the most important names in underground and b-movie cinema, like Roger Corman and Russ Meyer. It was a snag with Meyer that led him to one of SCHLOCK’s most happy accidents.

“Russ Meyer originally said that he would participate in the documentary and then got very strange on us. It wasn’t too long before we realized that Russ wasn’t going to work out. We were about three days away from going out to Palm Springs to shoot with him when the deal actually fell through. To be fair to Russ, first and foremost he’s a genius and he gets to do whatever he wants to do. Secondly, around that time I believe his sister was dying of cancer, so he had very strong personal concerns going on in his life. But the bottom line was that Russ Meyer wasn’t going to be in the documentary. Now I had viewed sexploitation films to be a sort-of side angle in the story. Suddenly no Russ – no clips from Russ – he’d been very clear from the start that he wasn’t going to let us use any of his clips in the film, he never lets anyone use his clips. So I freaked. I said, ‘Well, I’ve gotta talk about this world.’ There is obviously a strong link between these films – sexploitation is a subgenre of the exploitation genre as a whole.

“So I had to start rethinking and looking around and that’s when I came across Dave Friedman’s book. Harry Novak had been very heavily featured in an article in Cult Movies Magazine at that time. And then I came across the incredible story of Doris Wishman, which we needed to have in the movie. Because another thing I wanted to do with the movie was break down some of the pre-conceived notions of what these films are. You can say ‘okay, sexploitation is bad because it’s about the male objectification of women’. And it certainly is, no question, but what’s unexpected is within this framework of the exploitation film you have the one of the great feminist heroines of all time: Doris Wishman. She has had one of the most productive careers of any woman who has ever said ‘Action!’ or ‘Cut!’ in the United States in a feature forum. That was an element that I found fascinating and felt just had to be in there. So that people watching it could say ‘You know, obviously it’s not as simple as all that’.”

Greene knew that to ‘legitimize’ his subjects and make the movies more available to audiences, he’d have to include interviews with the filmmakers themselves, as well as noted film scholars and movie buffs who were there at the time the films were actually made. “What I wasn’t going to do was the `E! True Hollywood Story’ approach. Where they interview Frank Capra’s son and he says ‘Well, when my father made ‘The Strongman’ with Harry Langdon back in the 20s, thirty years before I was born, he got up in the morning, had a plate of eggs and said to himself—’ I didn’t want to use a secondary source as a primary source, who tells the story as if it was his story. I have experts in there, but more often than not I use them as informed audience members, interview them about what their experience of these movies was. They’d say ‘I snuck in to see ‘THE IMMORAL MISTER TEAS’, that sort of thing.

“And every one of them, time and again, said that while watching these movies back in the fifties, you didn’t worry about what a cheap, crummy effect something was. You suspended disbelief to these movies. Unless it was a truly bad effect, in which case people would start yelling ‘Fake!’ because that was part of the fun. But more often than not, the low production values were like a form of shorthand the audiences accepted and understood. These films they had their own way of speaking to their intended audience, and the viewers were glad to get the message and have the desired response. Be frightened of the plastic monster, or whatever the case may be. Pretend that the women in the ‘nudist camp’ films were stunningly beautiful, which they often were not. There was a conspiracy between the audience and the filmmakers as near as I can tell, where they got the message across.”

One of the informed audience members used early in the film is Vampira herself, actress Maila Nurmi. Greene wanted her in the film despite the fact that she was not intrinsically involved in the ‘grindhouse’ era. “I think Maila’s wonderful,” Greene says. “She’s in the documentary serving the movie as the prologue. I didn’t just want to say that TV was coming in and blowing open the notion of what you could show in theaters because the market was dropping and the studios were perceiving the device as a major threat. TV cracked open a hole that these guys crawled out of and started making all these crazy films. Malia represents the embodiment of this whacked energy that, in her case, erupted on TV. She’s like the first missile fired in the war.
[The] interesting thing that no one has mentioned about her being in the documentary: she never mentions Ed Wood. And there’s a reason for that. I wanted to tell the larger story of the trends of the exploitation form. Ed Wood was absolutely irrelevant in his time. It wasn’t until [Harry and Michael] Medved anointed him the worst filmmaker of all time [in their book, “The Golden Turkey Awards”] that he developed his following. We wanted to make a movie that told this great untold story about this major above-ground underground cinema. And Ed Wood was not a major player. He’s become the ‘so bad it’s good’ Archangel, and that just wasn’t the story we were interested in.”

With the framework established in his head, Greene then set out the assemble the people he wanted to interview. “David Friedman and Harry Novak were easy to get – at least for me. I think honestly because I was still Editor-In-Chief of Boxoffice Magazine at the time I contacted them, and that was a very important publication to them. If you look at BLOOD FEAST [which Friedman produced], you’ll see that the credits read ‘Box Office Spectaculars Presents’. And that is an homage to Box Office Magazine. Harry Novak’s company is still called Boxoffice International Pictures. To them that was the big time. And the fact that at the time I was in the chair made me automatically trustworthy.

“In Doris’ case – I managed to get to Doris through a couple of contacts. And I had discovered that Doris was coming to Los Angeles because the NuArt Theater, which is this big revival house in the city, was showing BAD GIRLS GO TO HELL. I had no money to travel, so it wasn’t like I could fly to Florida and shoot her. I had to get her within this two-day period. I talked to her, she was reluctant, but she finally said ‘Okay’. When she got here, the night before we shot, that was when I had met her for the first time. I thought ‘Wow, what an amazing, vibrant person. She’s got to be in my movie’.

“I went over to her hotel, as she was waiting to go to her screening, and the first thing that Doris says to me is, [uncanny and frightening Doris Wishman impression], ‘Ray, I’m not doing your movie.’ And I said ‘What?’ At this point, I’d rented all the equipment. My crew was asleep in bed because we were to start a different interview THE NEXT morning at 6:30. And now Doris isn’t going to do my movie. So I said, ‘But, Doris, why not?’

“And she said ‘Because it’s not in 35mm. I only do 35mm, Ray. I’m a filmmaker. A filmmaker.’

“And I said, ‘Doris, nobody shoots documentary footage in 35mm. Okay, it’s beta, but if we decide to go to film we can transfer the footage.’

“ ‘I’m not going to do it. You look like a nice guy, but I’m just not going to be in something this shabby.’

“So, alright. I continue to talk to Doris as we walk to the NuArt. We just chat about nothing at all. And when we get into the lobby, which is full of people, I took her hand and said ‘Doris…’ And she looks at me rather worriedly and says ‘What?’ ‘You have to be in my movie.’ She said ‘I’m not going to be in your movie.’

“So I got down on my knees in public, in the middle of the lobby of the NuArt Theater in Los Angeles, and I say, ‘Doris, I’m begging you: Please be in my movie. Please be in my movie,’ and I keep saying ‘Please be in my movie.’

“Doris looks at me and says, ‘Oh stop it. You’re embarrassing me. Stop it. Alright, I’ll be in your movie.’

“And that’s how I got Doris Wishman to be in my movie. According to her biographer, [film scholar] Michael Bowen, the interview I did with her on camera is the most revealing and comprehensive interview she’s ever done.”

Thankfully, the others weren’t as hard to line up.

“The thing to remember about all of these people is that they were desperate independent filmmakers themselves,” Greene says. “Maybe my own desperation and the fact that I was doing something completely on my own appealed to Doris. Actually, since then, Doris and I have become really great friends. Let the world know that Doris Wishman is one of the great unsung heroes of independent film. Ultimately the trick to getting everyone to co-operate with the documentary was understanding where each person was coming from and how they saw themselves. For instance Sam Arkoff – even though I had a pretty clean in with Sam and just published an article by him – Sam wouldn’t sign his release. It took forever to get Sam to sign his release. It took literally a daily phone call for six weeks to get Sam to sign his release. I was getting really really frustrated and terrified, because I already had the interview in the can. What I realized is that Sam, his whole life as a filmmaker was built around the idea of negotiation. Sam is one of the great deal makers. He was not going to trust a piece of paper that he didn’t have any input on. You know, ‘change this verb’, kind of input. In Doris’ case, the way to talk to Doris, you had to understand that Doris was a filmmaker who just hadn’t made a movie for almost twenty years. She thought of herself as an active, productive filmmaker. And the great, happy punchline to that is that she was an active filmmaker who was just between gigs, because she made a movie in the interim. So that’s what’s so great about these people, their indomitable energy.

“I also want to make a point about how much I appreciated Dave Friedman and Harry Novak’s participation in the documentary. Harry’s another one who doesn’t do a lot of interviews. And Harry is one of the people who has such a trove of information and all the priceless physical stuff he generated – promotional materials, things like that. Harry loves his movies and he held onto everything. There was a wealth of materials there and we were the beneficiaries of it. David, on the other hand, is as remarkable a figure in the filmmaking world as you’ll ever find. You’re talking about a man whose career started with birth hygiene films and went all the way through genuine porno. David was able to see every change that was going to happen, and was able to exploit the opportunity and turn it towards his benefit. Plus, David is a walking history book. If every person who was ever involved in this form of filmmaking were to perish – God Forbid – vanish overnight and they still left David here, we would still be able to tell the whole story of the exploitation movie.”

SCHLOCK takes a very reverent approach to what could be perceived as very bad b-movies, the kind that normally show up to be mocked by the MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER robots, or the type showcased in IT CAME FROM HOLLYWOOD! In SCHLOCK, the tone is never condescending, the filmmakers are never shown in anything but the best possible light. Even better, the documentary is geared not towards film geeks who would already be familiar with these faces, but for the casual film buff who wants to learn more.

“There’s nothing wrong with the ‘so bad it’s good’ approach, but it’s a little over-done,” Green says. “For me, there’s more to get out of these films then just crummy lighting. Which is why, when you watch the documentary, you’ll be surprised that it’s a straight-forward approach rather than an edgy alternative approach. That’s intentional. I sat down and thought about it. I thought ‘What’s the most radical thing I can do to approach these movies?’ I can shoot everyone in beautiful three-point lighting, like a Supreme Court Justice, and I can shoot a BBC-type documentary – make an almost highbrow documentary about these low-brow movies. Because that’s the approach that nobody takes! They always do the ‘Oh, look at the cardboard tombstones!’ approach, and there is way more going on in these movies. The camp humor that people derive from these movies – which I also get from these movies – is inherent anyway. You don’t have to waste a lot of time restating it. As long as you know you should hold on the shot of the ridiculously cheap monster long enough for people to get the laugh out of their system, you don’t have to make that point. You don’t have to say over-and-over again, ‘Look at this crummy movie! And that guy doesn’t know his lines!’

“I’m on their side.,” Greene adds. “Go ahead and laugh at them, but I know how hard it is to make a movie by yourself. That’s what these guys did. When you look at their stories you’ll also see – in the case of Friedman and Novak, and Corman to an extreme degree – these guys knew what the studio system was. They had studio jobs. They knew that it was a conspiracy of mediocrity that was never going to let them take control of their own destiny. So they’d rather go shoot these formula films and put the stamp of their personality there because they knew they could. It’s a really brave thing they did. These guys should be heroes to independent filmmakers everywhere. [Many filmmakers] don’t understand that part of the story, though. Living in L.A. I hear people standing around in Starbucks talking about the movie they’re going to make and they’ve never held a camera in their hand. At the end of the day, you just have to do it. And that’s what these guys did.”

Interestingly enough, in the realm of pop culture, if you wait long enough, everything old is new again. Because many of our current directors have an affection for these older grindhouse films – like Tim Burton’s unabashed love for Vincent Price (as well as his pseudo-biography of Ed Wood) – there is renewed interest in the psychotronic films of the past. But according to Greene, the respect isn’t quite there.

“We’re in a period right now that I would liken to the way people looked at Silent Movies back in the ‘60s. Back in the ‘60s, silent films were looked at as these herky-jerky artifacts from the past, badly made – everybody running around too fast. Because nobody realized that silent projection practices were different, so they would run them on sound projectors, and instead of running them at 18fps – or at variable film speeds, which is how they would have been projected in the silent film era – they ran them at 24 frames, so everything ran too fast. The films looked awful, everything looked degraded, so people laughed at them. It was standard. If you look at old 60s tv shows, you would see parodies of silent films thrown into things like Gilligan’s Island. They’re thrown in there to say ‘Ha Ha Ha. Look at how funny this looks’.

“Then British scholars came along and said ‘Wait a minute. Let’s look at these films more carefully and restore them.’ When you see silent films from the period, fully restored and properly projected, they look beautiful. It was a fully articulated world, it just spoke a different language than the one we’re used to. And I think that’s true of the exploitation world as well.”

As it talks about Corman’s three-day cheapie monster flicks for A.I.P., and Friedman’s association with ‘The Wizard of Gore’, H.G. Lewis, SCHLOCK also spends a considerable amount of time talking about the fascinating world of “Roadshow Movies”. Born out of a period when Hollywood was censoring itself to comply with its own code of standards and practices, people like David Friedman would produce “miracle of birth” movies, which would allow them to show ample amounts of nudity in the context of education – then would drive from town to town and show these films until the box office receipts would dwindle or, inevitably, someone would complain and force them to move on to the next town. “If you get the list of ‘don’ts’ that the production code had put out at that time, basically, anything that was on there was what the Roadshow Movies were. The studios had taken themselves out of the business of talking about abortion, talking about unwed motherhood, talking about drug abuse, and on and on. So these guys said ‘Great, we’re not going to worry about Spencer Tracy being in a birth hygiene movie.’ They didn’t have to compete at that level, but people were still interested in those subjects. So they made movies with a highly moral tone to get around the censorship issues, then they put the prints in the backs of their cars, so if they got in trouble in any particular town, they could be on to the next one. That’s really what the Roadshow Movies were. Which goes to show you that you can try to suppress that aspect of human nature, but it’s going to find it’s way out. And that’s where it found it’s way out. [And] it’s kind of surprising when you sit down to watch the birth hygene films. They’re good sex-education films! They’re a weird cross between sexploitation and genuine reformist concerns for social ills. Like unwed motherhood and so-forth. It’s fascinating to me. I think human beings will sexualize anything. When we watch a movie, it acts on us in two places – the part of our brain we think we think with and the part that we actually think WITH, which is the lower part of the brain. These movies gave it to them both ways. You could sit there and learn how a sperm fertilizes an egg – which was not easy information to come by in 1942. That was not discussed politely. And at the same time, watching ‘BECAUSE OF EVE’, they made damn sure that the models were stunning and beautiful. If that was what you were there for, you were going to get what you wanted.”

Greene adds, “And hey, I don’t want to indicate to the reader that Schlock isn’t fun as well. These guys were scam artists. Some of them were true thieves. There are stories of these guys showing up at the film exchange to pick up their print, and seeing a print of some MGM movie sitting on the loading dock and then next thing you know, that ain’t there anymore. It’s being roadshowed all over the South by a guy who doesn’t own it. These guys were scamps. I think David is a wonderful voice for that throughout the documentary, and that’s great, I know where they were coming from. Get it done any way you can. If you have to beg Doris Wishman in the lobby of the NuArt Theater, then do that! Because you won’t have a movie if you don’t do that. (laughs)”