“The thing about seeming is that seeming is never quite as it seems.” - Timothy Morton, Dark Ecology
Reading time 7 Minutes
We begin our journey into the cinematic upside-down with Bob Clark’s She-Man: A Story of Fixation (1968), which remains a curiosity in that it is an early work by a director lauded not only as a horror pioneer but also one of the key figures of the Canadian Tax Shelter era (or as historian Paul Corupe has coined it, the golden age of Canuxploitation). But Clark is equally aligned with that unique pocket of Floridian exploitation, which is where his early films – including She-Man – were shot, and as such his work is imbued with that sticky kind of sleaze that Canadian cinema seems largely allergic to.
The leering teens of Porky’s aside, the sexual politics conveyed through Clark’s films have always been too naïve to really be offensive, though his distinct nonchalance about political correctness often invites debate as to whether his films should be seen as reactionary or progressive, and how definitions of those words may have changed throughout his 40-year career. Certainly he saw himself as left-leaning – whether dealing with women’s reproductive issues (Black Christmas, 1974) or racial prejudice (Porky’s, 1981), but he also once told me that for the infamous shower scene in Porky’s they needed “a gay guy” to stick his member through the hole in the girls’ shower wall “because they have bigger dicks.”
It is possible to be progressive and still say wildly inappropriate things sometimes.
She-Man’s politics – though still framed as a study of “deviancy” – would have been seen as forward-thinking at the time. Though difference is acknowledged and ‘Othering’ a given, Clark’s call for understanding and acceptance in this exploration of trans identity does feel more sincere than the average exploitation film preface or square-up. But it also has to be acknowledged that the protagonists of exploitation films are typically marginalized characters, who’ve found themselves cast out of society for one reason or other, which is one reason for their continued appeal.
Questions of deviance versus normalcy were an ongoing concern for me from a young age. I learned about sex from pornographic pulp paperbacks stashed in the cubby hole of my father’s basement, books that had been confiscated from a local convenience store (this was 1970 when pornography was still illegal in Canada) and awarded to my psychologist father to ascertain whether they had any “redeeming social value”– itself a tricky term that has been playfully manipulated by exploiteers throughout the years. I had a cardboard fort in the cubby hole where I would sit and read books like Confessions of a Part Time Hippy, Teen Pro, Rx for Sex and My Lover, My Son. Any manner of “deviant” sexuality was fair game for these books, after all, no one wanted to read a book about a married couple having vanilla sex. As a result, what society at large considered deviant was so normalized to me that when I had sex for the first time, I tied the guy up and blindfolded him, because I thought that’s what you were supposed to do. I was 16 and he refused to believe I was a virgin. The next day he accused me of stealing his bike; I guess one form of deviancy is perceived as interchangeable with all others.
By way of its connection to Bob Clark’s She-Man, the first chapter necessarily investigates notions of deviancy, largely through fluid representations of gender, through exploiteers’ tactics for evading censorship by blurring the line between education and exploitation, through regional space – geographically and psychically – and through the fetishization of banality, itself a statement of deviancy – what could be more perverse than finding ecstasy in something designed to squash sensation?
Darker obsessions take hold in chapter two, as Joseph P. Mawra’s New York roughie Olga’s House of Shame (1964) provides a launching point for investigating taboo, often violent desires. Whips, knives and stockings hit visual and aural pleasure-centers, acting as an unexpected complement to the subversive potential of romantic mid-century nurse novels. Likewise, the kind of cultural detritus assigned to films like Mawra’s is contrasted with very real and dangerous forms of waste promulgated by the Establishment. And again, the perceived boundary between high and low art is obliterated, here by The Wooster Group’s infamous mashup of Olga and Gertrude Stein in their experimental stage play House/Lights.
Chapter 3 is perhaps the most evocative of all, spawned from the Ed Wood-scripted Orgy of the Dead (1965), a sexploitation oddity steeped in the occultism of Weird, Old Hollywood and inviting a series of diverse meditations on stardom, glamor and spiritual transcendence. Wood also novelized the film after the fact, prompting twin pieces on the short-lived explosion of adult film tie-in paperbacks, while the psychic Criswell’s starring role in the film inspired an epic audio journey through spoken word occult records. Even houseplants get in on the act, their murder mystery-solving skills caught between two seemingly oppositional schools of thought that, as it turns out, might not be so different after all.
That generations of scholars and cultural critics return to the marginal, “problematic” (I know, we all hate that word) exploitation films again and again speaks to their continued import in challenging our changing notions of deviancy, in the subject matter of these films as well as their makers and audiences. New artists continue to mine these films in creating original work, informed by their budgetary and aesthetic limitations as well as their unfiltered ideologies – which, rubbing up against today’s preoccupation with cultural sensitivity makes for a fascinating creative tension that forces us to embrace our own fluidity, as a culture and as individuals.
Kier-La Janisse is a film writer and programmer, Owner/Artistic Director of Spectacular Optical Publications and founder of The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies. She is the author of A Violent Professional: The Films of Luciano Rossi (2007) and House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films (2012, currently in development as a series with Rook Films) and contributed chapters to Destroy All Movies!! The Complete Guide to Punks on Film (2011), Recovering 1940s Horror: Traces of a Lost Decade (2014) The Canadian Horror Film: Terror of the Soul (2015) and We Are the Martians: The Legacy of Nigel Kneale (2017). She co-edited and published the anthology books KID POWER! (2014), Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s (2015), Lost Girls: The Phantasmagorical Cinema of Jean Rollin (2017) and Yuletide Terror: Christmas Horror on Film and Television (2017), and is currently co-curating (with Clint Enns) an anthology book on the films of Robert Downey, Sr. and writing a monograph about Monte Hellman’s Cockfighter. She serves on the boards for both Fantastic Fest and the American Genre Film Archive.