Some call it “smut”, but I call it “art”. Sexploitation films are a genre of low-budget features that have always enjoyed pushing boundaries. Born out of the 1960s, American sexploitation started popping up after the fall of the Hays code and just before the MPAA instituted a ratings system. Over the years, the American sexploitation has grown to include an eclectic collection of styles and artistic merit, while remaining full of sexual content and gratuitous nudity. Here are five American sexploitation films that will fit in nicely in your arthouse collection.
PROMISES! PROMISES! (1963)
One of the first American sexploitation films, this unrated sex comedy was released at the end of the controversial Hays Code. Featuring all of mainstream sex symbol and star Jayne Mansfield, PROMISES! PROMISES! was one of the first Hollywood films to show a celebrated star in the nude. Marilyn Monroe’s SOMETHING’S GOT TO GIVE would have been the first film to boast such a distinction had the production not been plagued with so many issues.
The film features Mansfield as a woman desperate to have her husband, Tommy Noonan, impregnate her. Her television writer husband, too stressed to perform, takes her on a cruise where they meet another young couple. After a night of drinking, the men end up in the wrong room and with the wrong wives. A few days later the wives discover they are both pregnant and now have to figure out which husband is the father.
This comedy of errors features Mansfield nude in the three scenes which get repeated as dream sequences later. The film was banned in several American cities, but was still voted as one of the top 10 Box Office Attractions by theatre owners in 1963. The film was also accompanied by a Playboy pictorial from the set.
BAD GIRLS GO TO HELL (1965)
After accidentally killing a maintenance guy who was sexually assaulting her, Boston housewife runs away to New York City. There she becomes involved with several seedy people, all while being hunted by the police. Iconic female director Doris Wishman got her start in films shooting “nudie cuties” which were rather plotless films about nudist colonies. Her first film in the full sexploitation genre was THE SEX PERILS OF PAULETTE, quickly followed by BAD GIRLS GO TO HELL which is a sleazy, fun viewing.
Russ Meyer’s 1968 film, VIXEN!, was originally released unrated , but received an “X” rating in 1971 before being edited down to an “R” in 1977. VIXEN! is the story of a bored housewife who takes out her frustrations by trying to seduce anyone who gets close to her including her own brother. As the film progresses, Vixen’s racism and belief in Communism becomes an overwhelming and gratuitous focus of the film. A box office hit for Meyer, its “low budget with high return” style helped launch a series of iconic 1970s exploitation films including BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, SUPERVIXENS, and BLACK SNAKE.
“Honor student by day, hooker by night” was the basis of this 1984 sexploitation that became a late-night Skin-amax staple. Molly Stewart, played by Donna Wilkes, is a fifteen-year-old private school student in Los Angeles. At night, Molly dons a leather miniskirt and takes the name Angel as she walks Hollywood Boulevard looking for clients. The street quickly turns deadly as a serial killer begins stalking and killing Hollywood hookers, forcing Molly/Angel to seek vengeance for her fallen coworkers.
ANGEL features quite an eclectic cast for such an obviously exploitive plotline. Cowboy legend Rory Calhoun, comedian Dick Shawn, and Broadway veteran Susan Tyrrell lend a heavy dose of experience to this melodramatic New World Pictures release. ANGEL quickly gained a cult following and spawned the sequels AVENGING ANGEL, ANGEL III: THE FINAL CHAPTER, and ANGEL 4: UNDERCOVER.
THE HAPPY HOOKER (1975)
The 1975 film, THE HAPPY HOOKER, was based on Xaviera Hollander best-selling memoir of the same name. Focusing on Hollander’s life as a prostitute in New York City, the book sold 20-million copies while the film received mixed reviews. Lynne Redgrave takes on the title role of Xaviera Hollander, a Dutch woman who comes to New York to marry a man she hardly knows. As she grows more familiar with him, she finds he is not the man she wants to marry and takes up with a French business man named Yves. When Yves leaves her to take a job out of the country, Hollander starts a bordello and eventually becomes the most successful madam in New York.
Two years later, the happy hooker would travel to Washington where Hollander was called before congress in THE HAPPY HOOKER GOES TO WASHINGTON. This sequel got a more polished treatment and an all-star cast. The series became a trilogy in 1980 with THE HAPPY HOOKER GOES HOLLYWOOD, this time with Martine Beswick starring and a supporting cast consisting of Richard Deacon, Phil Silvers, and a quite buff Adam West.