What is the consummate exploitation film?
With the subgenre still enjoying a fantastic comeback, it’s a question begging to be answered; and while there may be several contenders for the definitive horror film, exploitation — with all its various subgenres, facets, and incarnations — presents an altogether unique problem: What criteria do we use?
After all, while many exploitation movies are, at heart, horror movies, there are enough action, martial arts, thriller, and adult films in the canon to disqualify “scariest” as the adjective against which all of them are judged. If we’re moving into the arena of offensiveness — for exploitation films certainly pride themselves on their ability to appall and disgust — then that presents another, unique difficulty: Offensive in what way? Most sexist? Most racist? Most derogatory towards organized religion?
In the name of setting out proper criteria, I offer the following: exploitation classics lie at the intersection of sleazy and surreal. Sleazy, after all, is a very nice umbrella to encompass offensiveness, sexiness, and scariness; while surreal beautifully sums up that savage, off-the-wall, je ne sai quois quality that kept exploitation out of the mainstream and entrenched firmly at drive-ins and grindhouses. With that definition in place, then, I offer up POOR PRETTY EDDIE as a contender for the film that best exemplifies exploitation cinema — a bizarre, rotten, unbelievable little gem of a nightmare situated right at the heart of “sleazy” and “surreal.”
We’ll get to “sleazy” in a moment; it’s the movie’s surreal qualities that need addressing first, for they lie not just in the content of the film itself but in its genesis. The picture was financed by Michael Thevis, an Atlanta-based gangster with ties to the Gambino family who once boasted to a jury, “I was the GM of pornography.” Thevis — along with fellow Gambino associate Roger Dean Underhill — is widely credited as the man who came up with the idea to turn carnival peep booths into showcases for pornography, and he applied this same ingenuity to building a business empire that encompassed both legitimate and illegal ventures, from owning and operating indie record labels Aware Records and GRC to distributing 40% of the country’s porn. (In another bizarre addition to Thevis’ exploitation pedigree, it was his GRC that released Sammy Johns’ “Chevy Van,” the song credited with helping to birth the “vansploitation” subgenre).
It was Thevis’ penchant for violence, though, that indirectly led him down the road to film production: He was a suspect in the 1970 arson of Urban Industries, a competing peep booth company, and later the same year he pulled the trigger on Kenny Hanna, another low-level mob associate. The crimes put Thevis on the FBI’s radar, and, facing heavy scrutiny from the feds, he hit upon the idea to begin laundering his fortune through the exploitation market, hoping to earn himself some mainstream legitimacy at the same time (“I could be this city’s best goodwill ambassador if they only knew it,” he boasted to the city of Atlanta).
After an initial foray with the 1971 chop sockey flick BLOOD OF THE DRAGON, Thevis was approached by the exploitation duo of Richard Robinson and David Worth (responsible for ADULTERY FOR FUN AND PROFIT), who were looking to film a script Robinson had written. Thevis bit, and thus POOR PRETTY EDDIE was born.
Adding to the film’s “this can’t be real” ethos is the cast: the picture stars Leslie Uggams, in addition to Ted “Lurch” Cassidy, Shelley Winters, and Michael Christian, known at the time for his role on television’s PEYTON PLACE. (It was Christian’s involvement, in fact, that set off a chain of events responsible for the rest of the cast’s appearance, a story documented in Chris Poggiali’s ALL ABOUT EDDIE, included as a special feature on the Cultra Blu-Ray).
The surrealism doesn’t end behind the scenes, however; it grandly washes over into the plot of the film itself, where it collides with unadulterated sleaze to make EDDIE the subcultural touchstone that it is.
A warning going into the plot summary: the story of how EDDIE came to be is much more palatable than the content of the film itself. Liz Wetherly (Uggams, essentially playing a caricature of herself) is a high-strung jazz singer who makes the inexplicable decision to take her Rolls Royce on a road trip through the Deep South.
Of course, the car breaks down, and Uggams finds herself stranded at Bertha’s Oasis — a backwoods resort where the eponymous proprietor (Winters), an aging starlet, holds court over a gaggle of Southern grotesques ranging from man-child Floyd (Dub Taylor) to Bertha’s own kept man, an Elvis impersonator named Eddie (Christian), who becomes convinced that Liz is his ticket to stardom.
Liz agrees to spend the night at the Oasis, while Bertha’s manservant Keno (Cassidy) fixes her car, only to find Eddie waiting in her bedroom. After she turns down his advances, Eddie rapes Liz in a nightmarish slow-motion sequence intercut with footage of hillbillies watching dogs mate, set to a Petula Clark-style pop ballad. From there, it’s a slow descent into the darkest — and strangest — corners of the human heart.
Eddie (resplendent in a Nudie suit) kidnaps Liz and forces her to take photos of him in front of a dam, intending to use the snaps for an album cover; Liz is later kidnapped again — this time by a travelling salesman, who rapes her in his car; Eddie kills Keno’s beloved dogs and serves them up for dinner. It all culminates in a literal shotgun wedding, in which Liz — forced into a wedding ceremony with Eddie — is liberated by Keno, who shows up at the last minute to blow everyone away with a 12 gauge.
Uniquely, though, the story of POOR PRETTY EDDIE doesn’t end when the credits roll, and it’s here that the movie ekes out a place for itself in grindhouse lore as perhaps the only exploitation film to be re-released as a “producer’s cut” in its heyday. Christian and West purchased the rights to EDDIE after its original distributor went out of business, and together they re-edited the movie using deleted and extended scenes that hadn’t made the final cut, hoping the result would be more marketable.
Somehow, HEARTBREAK MOTEL manages to up the crazy ante beyond anything EDDIE could’ve ever hoped. Though the setup is the same, the focus is shifted from Liz onto Eddie, with Christian recording an all new voice-over narration that makes the picture equal parts Flannery O’Connor story and black comedy.
Coming across as more of a filmed play than an original movie, MOTEL is talkier, including a powerhouse monologue from Winters explaining how Keno was disfigured. Eddie’s rape of Liz is implied rather than explicit, and the violence (sexual and otherwise) has been redacted — replaced, in one instance, with a sequence in which Eddie has anal sex with Bertha before rescuing Liz from a gang of rapists. MOTEL even features a radically different alternate ending: in place of the shotgun massacre is a WONDER YEARS-style montage, during which a slightly older Eddie recalls what’s happened to everyone since the events of the movie, before leaving Georgia in Liz’s car.
A saying goes that you can’t love someone without acknowledging their faults; the same holds true for films. There’s a double-edged sword to liking exploitation movies; some of them are fantastic, deserving classic status as much as any Oscar winner, yet as the name implies, exploitation cinema was about building a film around some exploitable angle — sex, race, violence — and then milking it to the nth degree. In a way, they’re a much better cultural barometer of the 1970s than the more well-regarded films for which we remember the decade; THE GODFATHER and JAWS were meant to appeal people’s better nature, and catered to people’s ideal selves — the smart, innocent, deep individuals that we all wanted to be. Exploitation films pandered to baser urges and more pressing matters; they were the movies aimed at the people we were.
Therein lies the uncomfortable truth of POOR PRETTY EDDIE’s status as the exploitation touchstone: it says a lot about the world that created it, and what it says isn’t very flattering. It was the distilled dream of a pornographer-gangster seeking freedom and legitimacy; it was a weigh-station to irrelevance for struggling and fading stars. The story is a Dixiecrat’s darkest fantasy brought to life — an assembly line of humiliation for a strong, independent black woman who dared be smarter, richer, and more powerful than the diseased minds whose final stronghold she stumbled into. Even the film’s own climax — in which Liz turns a gun on the camera itself — seems to condemn everything that’s come before. Ultimately, the film found some modicum of redemption only by carving off the most definable hunks of the original and sewing onto it the bits and bobs deemed too civil and intelligent to play to its intended audience.
Yes, POOR PRETTY EDDIE is the consummate exploitation film. Whether that’s something to be proud of is a different story.