Exploitation is a broad term for movies that "exploit" perceived immorality, showcasing (and some would argue, glamorizing) crime, violence, sexuality, drug usage, nudity, torture and general antisocial behavior or taboo topics, often with heightened realism for shock value. Not all exploitation films fall within the horror genre -- 1970s "blaxploitation," for instance, is comprised primarily of crime and action films -- but a good portion do, as described herein.
Exploitation movies have traditionally been "fringe" works made outside the Hollywood system, but by the early '70s, major studio releases like A Clockwork Orange, Deliverance and Straw Dogs began to incorporate exploitation elements. As more and more independent exploitation films became unexpected hits (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween, for example), the studios took note and produced exploitation of their own. The slasher craze of the '80s ironically so exploited that exploitive genre that slashers are now almost mainstream and not "exploitation."
Just as it's difficult to define exploitation as a genre, it's difficult to say when it began. However, one early attempt at sensationalistic cinema was 1931's Ingagi. Billed as a true-life documentary of a trek into deepest, darkest Africa, it displayed scandalous footage of human sacrifice and interspecies mating between native women and gorillas. It was soon revealed to be a hoax, though, that spliced footage from an earlier film with new material shot in California. Nevertheless, before it was pulled from circulation, the shock value that fed off the audiences' latent curiosity (mixed with a touch of racism and xenophobia) propelled Ingagi to box office gold.
Less successful but even more notorious was Tod Browning's Freaks, from 1932. Browning's career, riding high after directing Dracula, nosedived from directing this tale of love, loyalty and revenge within the ranks of a traveling circus's freak show. Outrage arose from repulsion at the appearance of the deformed actors, and the film was pulled from many theaters and was outright banned in countries like the United Kingdom. Ironically, Freaks remains perhaps the least exploitive exploitation film, as Browning aimed to humanize -- not exploit -- the so-called freaks, having himself worked in a traveling circus as a child.
In general, horror exploitation films can be grouped into several different styles:
This style of exploitation depicts the detailed, drawn-out torture of helpless victims, usually leading to their death. These films tend to take place in a secluded area cut off from all forms of communication, often lending them the nickname "rural horror." The goal of the protagonist is mere survival and escape, which he may or may not achieve (and probably not in one piece). Although the term "torture porn" wasn't coined until 2006, it can be used to describe early fare like 1974's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and 1977's The Hills Have Eyes (which also entails the rape-and-revenge scenario). Modern examples include: the Hostel series, House of 1000 Corpses, Turistas, the Saw series and Wolf Creek, as well as remakes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes.
Rape-and-Revenge movies play out just as they sound: a woman is raped and left for dead, only to recuperate and seek gruesome revenge. Sometimes, the victim is killed, and revenge is taken by a friend, family member or pet. Examples include: I Spit on Your Grave, The Last House on the Left, Fight for Your Life, Ms. 45, Night Train Murders and Poor Pretty Eddie.
Splatter films revel in showcasing large amounts of blood and gore. The name is derived from the blood splatter shown on screen and presumably the vomit splatter from the audience. Director Herschell Gordon Lewis created the style when his Blood Feast (1963) and Two Thousand Maniacs (1964) introduced new levels of gore into the film industry. Later in the '70s and '80s, Italian cannibal films like Cannibal Apocalypse, Cannibal Ferox and Cannibal Holocaust and zombie films like City of the Living Dead, Zombie and Burial Ground continued the splatter tradition with a darker, more somber tone -- and bad dubbing.
Erotic horror features extensive nudity and graphic sexual activities that sometimes overshadow the horror elements. They are particularly popular in foreign markets, with notable directors including Spain's Jesus Franco (Vampyros Lesbos), Italy's Joe D'Amato (Porno Holocaust, Emmanuelle's Revenge) and Luigi Batzella (Nude for Satan), France's Jean Rollin (The Rape of the Vampire) and Japan's Kazuo Komizu (Entrails of a Virgin).
Not all of the women-in-prison films fall within the horror genre, but the more hardcore examples combine elements of torture porn, rape-and-revenge flicks and erotic horror. Typical storylines involve authority figures torturing and sexually assaulting prisoners under their control. The most notorious of these is the Ilsa series, which expands the prison setting to include Nazi concentration camps, mental hospitals and harems. Other such films even mine filth in convents, a sub-genre deemed "nunsploitation." Examples include: Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS, Female Prisoner 701 Scorpion and The Jail: A Women's Hell.
Serial killer exploitation films differ from slashers in both tone and realism. Serial killer movies rely on realistic -- often biographical -- portrayals of their murderers. Thus, they're darker than and less cartoonish than slashers, which are more like scary campfire tales. Examples include: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Maniac, Murder Set Pieces, H6: Diary of a Serial Killer and Chicago Massacre: Richard Speck.