The exploitation film, by name and by nature, seeks to exploit the fears of the viewer in order to make a quick buck. Just as people will stop their cars by the site of a crash to have a cheeky peek and just as many a bestselling women's magazine will contain tales of rape, murder and mutilation; so too have people always flocked to the cinema to get a glimpse of a world they really want no part of. That is what horror and exploitation films do, they provide a space for us to watch teenage girls being dismembered in a log cabin, and we don't even have to feel bad about it.
The challenge for exploitation directors has always been to keep up with the fears of their audience. Like demented puppeteers they must find new and interesting ways to punch Judy, they need to keep people shocked. So how have exploitation films kept up with the zeitgeist? Well, where better to excavate fear than from your newspaper or by settling down on the couch and switching on the six o'clock? Humanity has always worn its fears on its sleeve, and that's the secret to how writers and directors up the ante, every time. Why try to frighten people with the living dead when they're already pissed scared of the living?
On November 16, 1957, in a little amber and green stretch of Americana called Plainfield, Wisconsin, the body of hardware store owner, Bernice Worden, is found hanging upside down in a shed. Her head is missing and there is wide laceration from her vagina to her midriff. She had been missing for only a day, but the police knew exactly who to look for. That's what brought them to the "house of horrors", the home of Edward Gein.
The media exploded and turned Gein into a household name. Here was the kind of story you might find in a seedy pulp novel or a horror comic, except everything about it was real and it gave post-WWII America a new enemy, and that enemy was on home turf. Not only was it on home turf, but it lived in every small town, every neighbourhood, it lurked in every dark corner and it had a thousand faces. PSA flicks like Reefer Madness and Boys Beware were suddenly redundant, politicians and concerned citizens couldn't profile evil anymore, because evil was a small town farmer in rural Wisconsin. Evil was one of their own.
With Psycho (1960), Alfred Hitchcock brought people like Gein to the cinema. The average Joe, the silent madman, Hitchcock exploited the new fears of a very new world. He took this intensified Western paranoia to the bank, and in doing so, gave us one of the most important horror films of all time. Bela Lugosi was on his way to becoming a parody and Christopher Lee was becoming a sex symbol, Dracula wasn't scaring anyone anymore because Dracula wasn't human, Dracula wasn't Edward Gein. Though Hammer and Universal were still peddling fantastic horror films during the 60s, and made a lot of money in doing so, it was the thrillers and Italian Giallo films that truly defined the era. Knives and madmen were more frightening than Frankenstein's monster, that much was clear.
Then, just when people thought they had put a face to evil, the game changed all over again. The late 60s brought us peace, love, tranquility and some fantastic music, I've only ever heard good things about this period, a fine time to live if ever there was one, but when it died, it died bleeding. Again, the United States, and the rest of the world with it, found fear in a new and unexplored corner. Evil could play the guitar and it could wear daisy chains. Sharon Tate and party guests were discovered, bound and mutilated, in their Los Angeles home, and Charles Manson and his 'family' were soon to become household names.
Besides earning himself the cover of Rolling Stone and an eternity in prison, Charles Manson, the manipulative cult leader and Satan of California, would go on to inspire fear and paranoia in Jane and John Doe, and shove money in the pockets of the opportunistic Hollywood directors. The 70s were dominated by films about murderous teenage cults painting suburban white fences red with blood, the common man turning on the common man, the nuclear family getting nuked. It was at this point in the early 70s that the traditional Hammer Horror coughed up its last chunk of phlegm before nodding off. The final two Christopher Lee Dracula films with Hammer were set in the 1970s, an attempt by Hammer to modernize and give new life to an old demon, but it just wasn't happening. The people wanted sensationalism, but they also wanted realism. Essentially, the movie-goer wanted to see the very worst of reality, and if this early wave of gore and extremity taught us anything, it's that reality is far more shocking than fiction. You just need to know where to find it.