Nostalgic for sleaze, part II: Nazis, nuns, and wicked prison wardens.

In my previous blog post, I waxed nostalgic over the print advertisements for grindhouse theatres that appeared in the newspapers back in the 1970’s, the heyday of exploitation cinema. I felt the need to establish my long-term relationship with these films, in order to provide context for the discussion that follows. As you’ll soon read, the relationship I have with exploitation cinema is a conflicted one. It’s highly reminiscent of those teenage Bad Boys I yearned for in high school: appealing in their dangerous good-looks and rule-breaking nonconformity, but essentially all abusive jerks. Simply put, exploitation cinema isn’t always kind in its treatment of women.

But before we delve too much further, let’s trot out the standard definition of ‘exploitation film‘ as offered up by Wikipedia:

Exploitation film is a type of film that is promoted by “exploiting” often lurid subject matter. The term exploitation is common in film marketing, used for all types of films to mean promotion or advertising. These films then need something to exploit, such as a big star, special effects, sex, violence, romance, etc. […] The audiences of art and exploitation film are both considered to have tastes that reject the mainstream Hollywood offerings. […] Exploitation films may adopt the subject matter and styling of regular film genres, particularly horror films and documentary films, and their themes are sometimes influenced by other so-called exploitative media, such as pulp magazines.

Typically, the exploitation film was a low-budget B-movie, created as cheap, double-feature fodder for drive-in theatres. In order to attract audiences, they promised risqué content not offered by mainstream Hollywood productions. Sex and violence frequently intermingled, and were served up as an intoxicating cocktail of naughtiness. Hence, many of the exploitation subgenres — including the three I’ll examine here — contain copious amounts of nudity and sexualized violence.

As mentioned in my previous post, I shall focus my discussion on three subgenres of exploitation cinema: nunsploitation, WIP (Women in Prison) films, and Naziploitation. Apart from the fact that I typically write about depictions of gender in film, I wanted to address these particular subgenres for the simple reason that they are variations on the exact same narrative. And this narrative runs as follows:

A sadistic lesbian [Mother Superior/prison warden/Nazi Stalag Commandant] oversees the naked torture and general abuse of her attractive female wards. A young ingénue enters the [convent/prison/concentration camp] and must overcome great obstacles. She ultimately escapes, and her tormentor/s receive their final comeuppance.

Now, let’s parse this narrative. The variable same-sex settings — convent, prison or concentration camp (essentially another form of prison) — provide the excuse and opportunity for lesbian sex. This is the same sort of lipstick-lesbian fantasy that frequents pornography produced for heterosexual men. Presumably, the buxom women that populate these films are (mostly) lesbian by circumstance, rather than true sexual preference. This detail maintains the fantasy element for its predominantly male audience, who can enjoy the lesbian spectacle onscreen, while their belief in the inherent heterosexuality of these female characters remains intact.

The same-sex settings also provide opportunity for a second, considerably more sinister element: violence perpetrated on women by other women. Given the context of the various scenarios, this violence takes the form of ritualized or systematic abuse and torture. The cruel prison warden portrayed by Pam Grier in Women in Cages (1971) derives sadistic pleasure from the physical punishment of her female wards. Similarly, the Mother Superior from Joe D’Amato’s Images in a Convent (1979) vents her sexual frustration on one of her nuns through ritualistic flogging. The Nazi Stalag Commandant from Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (1974) tortures her female prisoners with the curiously-misguided goal of proving female superiority over men. Is all this girl-on-girl violence merely the cinematic equivalent of a catfight, or is there something more menacing at play here?

Flogging constitutes a form of foreplay in Joe D’Amato’s raunchy “Images in a Convent” (1979).

One possible theory I have is that girl-on-girl violence seems less sinister and realistic than violence perpetrated on women by men, and thus more palatable to an audience in the context of an exploitation film. It can argued that the poorly-written scripts, implausible scenarios and less-than-stellar acting commonly found in these films tends to undercut any convincing menace in a torture scene. When you also factor in the high camp of a Nazi Commandant whose ample bosom threatens to burst out from her fetishistic SS uniform — well, it all seems more absurd than truly sinister.

But none of this answers the question “why is sex and violence so often paired together in these films?” I’ll attempt to tackle this big question in my next blog post.

Walerian Borowczyk’s “La bête” (‘The Beast’)

Horror at the discovery of the slaughtered lamb and bear-like Beast in the surrealistic dream sequence.

I wanted to revisit a film I’d mentioned in the previous post on Walerian Borowczyk. This blog entry introduced the work of Polish filmmaker Borowczyk and offered a brief analysis of his softcore films created in the mid-1970s. His most notorious and controversial film La bête (‘The Beast’, 1975) was released shortly after Contes immoraux (‘Immoral Tales’, 1974) and was, in fact, an expansion of a sequence originally shot for the earlier anthology. This sequence consisted of a rather cheeky retelling of the Beauty & The Beast fairytale as only Borowczyk’s ribald imagination could envision. An aristocratic woman in a powdered wig is roused from her harpsichord by the sudden disappearance of a lamb outside the window of her country manor. She ventures into the nearby forest in search of the lamb, only to discover its carcass being gnawed on by an enormous, bear-like creature. Presumably fearing for her life, the woman screams and runs through the forest in a frenzied manner that quite effectively removes all of her clothing save for her corset and stockings. In close pursuit, the Beast appears visibly aroused by the semi-nude woman, as evidenced by the absurdly large phallus it sports. The woman is eventually captured by the creature, who performs oral sex on her whilst she hangs from a tree branch in a futile attempt at escape. Her wild protestations soon vanish and she surrenders to the erotic attentions of the Beast in one of cinema’s most bizarre, and hilarious, sex scenes.

Sweet, sweet loving between Beauty and her Beast. Walt Disney, this ain’t.

If the text on the DVD package is accurate, La bête was banned for the past 25 years in the UK on the grounds of its depictions of bestiality. If true, this would strongly suggest that the British censors possessed neither imagination nor a sense of humour. The sex depicted in this sequence lacks any sense of realism and is clearly meant as a darkly comedic farce of the romantic relationship typically found in the traditional Beauty & the Beast fairytale. Borowczyk’s penchant for the grotesque also shapes the scene. A man in a bear suit touting an enormous prosthetic penis is grotesque, ridiculous and not-so-vaguely perverted, but it’s certainly not bestiality.

Now that La bête is available on DVD, my advice to the British censors is to slip a copy into the player, decant the wine, plant themselves on the couch and enjoy this sexy and thoroughly absurd film. Heck, I’m willing to bet that they were doing this in secret, all along.

Walerian Borowczyk’s “Contes immoraux”: The bloodthirsty Countess meets European softcore cinema.

A bevy of naked beauties in Walerian Borowczyk's "Contes immoraux" (1974).

Walerian Borowczyk (1923-2006) was a Polish filmmaker who was, in the early years of his career, the creator of astounding stop-motion animations. Nightmarish and surreal in nature, animated short films such as Renaissance (1963) and Jeux des anges (1964) brought Borowczyk critical acclaim in the rarefied world of avant-garde filmmaking. Commercial success, however, eluded him until his venture into live-action cinema with his infamous art-house-meets-softcore films of the 1970’s. A consummate provocateur, Borowczyk challenged his audience with Contes immoraux (‘Immoral Tales’, 1974) and La bête (‘The Beast’, 1975) — films which some critics derided as “contentless pornography” due to their wholesale preoccupation with nudity and sexuality. While the charge of “pornography” is not entirely unwarranted, I would maintain that Borowczyk’s meticulously-detailed set design, careful art direction and signature surreal style elevate films such as Contes immoraux from mere “sexploitation” to softcore cinema with considerable artistic merit.

Now, don’t get me wrong — from a straightforward “is this movie good or not?” perspective, Borowczyk’s Contes immoraux is not an especially good film. What dialogue there is — and there’s mercifully little — is completely inane. The action is glacially slow, due in part to a camera that lingers incessantly over the bushy nether regions of naked girls. It is ironic, then, that as a purely softcore film Contes immoraux also falters. By the standards of contemporary pornography, Borowczyk’s film is rather too tame to satisfy current erotic appetites. It’s all breasts, bums and bush, and precious little sex. Thus, we are left with a paradoxical film that is neither artful enough for the art-house, nor raunchy enough to function as pornography.

Film still from "Contes immoraux". Paloma Picasso stars as Erzsébet Báthory, the notorious 15th-century Hungarian countess who allegedly bathed in the blood of young women as a means to preserve her youthful appearance.

What the films of Borowczyk do possess, however, are stunning visuals that perfectly synthesize elements of the erotic with the grotesque. Given his early animations, which were bizarre and nightmarish, it is not at all surprising that Borowczyk would continue his exploration of the grotesque in later work like Contes immoraux and La bête. A primary example of this is the Erzsébet Báthory segment of Contes immoraux, the third and most accomplished segment of his four-part erotic anthology. Set in 1610, this segment stars Paloma Picasso (the daughter of Pablo) in the role of Countess Elizabeth Báthory, the notorious 15th-century Hungarian noblewoman legendary for her cruelty and sadism. Amongst her many reputed atrocities were the infamous ‘bloodbaths’, in which the Countess would soak in her victim’s blood in order to retain her youth and beauty. Borowczyk downplays the savagery of the Báthory legend, and instead offers up a positively demure Countess. The segment opens with the round-up of the nearby village girls by the Countess’s henchmen. The next several minutes are dedicated to extended scenes of the girls bathing and generally frolicking in the shower stalls of the Báthory castle. There’s virtually no dialogue, focusing all of our attention on the sumptuous colour palette and beautifully-composed camera shots. After the frivolity of the showers, the naked girls are lead en masse into a large bedchamber. Elizabeth Báthory reappears, wearing a gossamer white dressing-gown, adorned with lace and pearls. The crowd of girls approach the Countess and stroke her pearl-encrusted gown admiringly. Rapidly, however, the scene transforms from sultry to savage, as the girls begin to violently tear at the dress, ripping it to shreds. They fight amongst each other over the pearls that fall, and the once sexy scene of nubile young girls turns into a bloody, animal rampage.

The 'bloodbath' of the Countess.

The scene quickly cuts to a close-up of the bloodbath of the Countess. The white limbs of Paloma Picasso fill the screen as she luxuriates in her bath, twisting back and forth in the frothy red. The heightened aestheticism, with the rich, vibrant red blood against white skin, cleverly undercuts the grotesque/horror aspects of the ‘bloodbath’ and the mass-murder that occurred (off-screen) in the previous scene.

The films of Walerian Borowczyk are not widely available, but cinephiles and film geeks can likely find these in the better “alternative” video stores or at midnight screenings in rep cinemas.