Director: Frank Henenlotter
Severin Films

Long, diverting—if a tad superficial, by design—clip show documentary on American cinema sleaze. Severin has released on Blu-ray THAT’S SEXPLOITATION!, the 2013 documentary from Something Weird Video, produced by SWV’s Mike Vraney and Jimmy Maslon, written, edited, and directed by Frank Henenlotter, and starring Henenlotter and legendary schlockmeister David F. Friedman in his final movie appearance. A lengthy compilation of sexploitation clips from the 1920s through to the early 1970s, lent a historical framework by Friedman’s spirited recollections and Henenlotter’s brief footnotes, THAT’S SEXPLOITATION! is as much (if not more) a two hour and sixteen minute trailer for SWV’s back catalog as it is an exploration of the dirty little secrets of America’s hidden “sinema” past. And as’s quite entertaining, particularly for newcomers to the genre. A commentary track with Henenlotter and SWV’s Lisa Petrucci is included, along with a remarkable 3 ½ hours worth of bonus sexploitation shorts from SWV’s archives—that’s a big bag of sleaze.

Labor-of-love THAT’S SEXPLOITATION! apparently came about through the long association between SWV’s founder, Mike Vraney, notorious sexploitation producer/director David F. Friedman, and director Frank Henenlotter. Seattle-based movie collector Vraney had built a profitable, well-known video distribution company beginning in 1990 by releasing public domain VHS copies of works by directors like Joseph W. Sarno, Doris Wishman, and Friedman—a business model Friedman initially had some problems with (he called it “pirating”) before making friends with Vraney (and his money). It was a mutually beneficial arrangement, particularly for Friedman, who after a long career in movie production and exhibition, was delighted long-forgotten works like GOLDILOCKS AND THE THREE BARES and THE DEFILERS were making money again for him, as well as bringing him a measure of fame among a new group of VHS-watching genre enthusiasts. Vraney was also close friends with director Frank Henenlotter, who had made a name for himself with big screen, popular-on-video releases like BASKET CASE and FRANKENHOOKER. Henenlotter went on to work with Vraney and SWV, hosting one of their most popular VHS series, Frank Henenlotter’s Sexy Shockers from the Vault. Eventually, Vraney and Henenlotter branched out into feature-length documentaries, the first being the well-received HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS: THE GODFATHER OF GORE, from 2010. Having obtained over five hours of interview material from a frail, ailing Friedman at his Alabama home in 2011 (it was the last time either Henenlotter or Vraney saw Friedman alive; the producer died just months later), Henenlotter set out to make a doc chronicling the seven decade evolution and death of the American sexploitation movie, with Friedman’s interview as the glue holding together selected cuts from Vraney’s vast collection of stag reels, peep show loops, nudie cuties, roughies, sex hygiene movies, burlesque shorts, and white coaters. It took Henenlotter two years to choose material and edit it down for the 136 minute-long THAT’S SEXPLOITATION! (unfortunately, Vraney died unexpectedly before the doc was completed), where it received good notices on the festival and art house circuits in 2013.

In total honesty, even though this reviewer had seen his fair share of sexploitation shorts and reels over the years prior to watching THAT’S SEXPLOITATION! (mostly back during film school...and a few innocent, ancient hand-crank peeps, believe it not, at Cedar Point Amusement Park back in the early 1970s), I would have had a difficult time trying to put examples of nudist camp shorts, roughies, goona-goona outings, and sex hygiene docs into a proper chronological timeline. THAT’S SEXPLOITATION! accomplishes that lesson very well for casual fans like myself, or for newcomers to the genre. As much a clip show as it is a straight documentary, when there’s a choice between showing half a dozen burlesque strippers strutting their stuff without commentary on the track, or showing just two stripper clips after someone explains what we’re seeing and why it’s important, THAT’S SEXPLOITATION! goes with the six strippers. It’s content over context. And that approach is fine, for what it is. You certainly never get bored during THAT’S SEXPLOITATION!, something that can’t be said for a lot of movie documentaries. It’s wall-to-wall nudity and oddities: a few gorgeous, a lot fairly pretty, and some quite grotesque (those hideous Army and Navy VD training films, that one lesbian on the couch with the heavy mustache...and most of the guys from 1965 on). One could even make a valid case that THAT’S SEXPLOITATION! does what a documentary should do, if nothing else: it “documents.” It isn’t just talking about this hidden aspect of American movies—it’s showing it to you, in a big bundle, so you can see for yourself.

THAT’S SEXPLOITATION! starts off on an unnecessary, shaky note, with an awkward intro featuring director Henenlotter and hot-as-hell burlesque dancer “Gal Friday.” Henenlotter is a genial and animated host—sort of like an older, good-natured Mickey Rooney—and for my money, Gal can walk in front of a camera any time she likes. However, these kinds of home-grown comedy skits can be and usually are, quite deadly, and that’s the case here. Thankfully, we immediately move down to Alabama where Friedman begins a long, frequently fascinating (if choppy, by editing) dissertation on the evolution of the sexploitation movie in America. Silent peep show loops and private 200 ft 16mm stag movies from the 1920s are discussed (beautiful girls on the beach in WHY GIRLS WALK HOME, a prescient UNCLE SI AND THE SIRENS, showing porn coming through a futuristic TV set). The Hayes Code and the Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency in the 1930s are briefly mentioned (Henenlotter says the following decades of Hollywood movies featured the “morality of angry Catholic nuns whacking you with a ruler,”), while we’re treated to that “murder weed” marihuana in WAGES OF SIN and strip poker parties, featuring full frontal, in SINS OF LOVE (that first woman is amazing).

Friedman very briefly discusses how producers went from theatre to theatre with their movies, arranging quick exhibitions before laming it out from the cops. The sex hygiene movies of the 1930s are next up (the infamous THE ART OF LOVE), with their carny scam of selling old, rebound government sex pamphlets in the lobby at a huge profit. A brief mention of state censor boards is interrupted, for some reason, by a look at the “monkey sex” sexploitation subgenre (INGANI, FORBIDDEN ADVENTURE), before we’re back to a fascinating side-by-side presentation of a scene from ESCORT GIRL, with one side of the screen the “hot” version for certain states (they’re in lingerie), and the other side “cool,” where everyone is clothed. Nudist movies are the next subject, with Friedman revealing the startling information that the topless SALLY RAND’S NUDE RANCH was the top-grossing movie at the Chicago World’s Fair. Segueing into peep show reels and hard-core “smokers,” Friedman mentions how the latter were ironically often shown in a town’s finest institutions: the Grange and American Legion halls, and the police and fire stations (a rare talkie stag, THE SAILOR AND THE HULA GIRL, is briefly shown...just long enough for the creepy narrator to pricelessly intone, “Boy, whatta babe, whatta babe!”)

Then WWII comes along and puts the kibosh on sexploitation, according to Friedman, so we’re treated to some truly repulsive armed services VD training docs you won’t soon forget (is that Paul Kelly in THE FURLOUGH?). Post-war pin-ups are briefly mentioned before we’re back to 1940s loops (I love the card that reads, “Shall we go on? OK...MORE LOOT”), with the director telling us that even family-friendly arcades had porn loops in a back room (that BABES IN THE WOODS looks weirdly modern for the 1940s, with shaky hand-held camerawork and a zoom if I’m not mistaken, and the ironic clowning of the girls losing their clothes, before that bizarre jump cut to a guy in a spooky Tex Avery-like wolf mask). Sex hygiene movies make a post-war comeback, with Friedman briefly mentioning the king of carny exploiters, Kroger Babb, and his spectacularly successful MOM AND DAD (featuring a live birth that will make your stomach turn), which Friedman claims made $60 million dollars over its years of releases. Other smut masquerading as hygiene/warning movies, including STREET CORNER and THE STORY OF BOB AND SALLY, are featured (those newspaper photos of ticket buyers lined up around the block at theaters showing these movies is remarkable, when your only context for how things “really were” back then comes from sanitized Hollywood fare). A fun detour into burlesques—burlesque acts and strippers filmed from 8th row center—is next, including too-brief interludes with Blaze Starr, Tempest Storm (yowza), Bette Paige, Mary Blair, and Kalatan’s “Fire Dance” in well as the Junior Samples of burlesque strippers, the (ahem) ample Iva Pratt (we get a few fun, off-topic looks at some burlesque comics, too, including Charlie Crafts). Barely acknowledged are the ethnographic “mau mau” movies and foreign “art films” (a brief shot of Brigitte Bardot) that also showed up in the 1950s.

It’s the late 1950s, and nudist movies are back, with Friedman spilling the beans on how producers “salted” those camps with hot models for movies like THE NUDIST STORY and GARDEN OF EDEN (check out the remarkably stylized NAKED VENUS from incognito cult director Edgar G. Ulmer). The “nudie cuties” of the 1960s are up next (“they were the stupidest movies on the face of the earth,” according to the director), including shots from Meyer’s THE IMMORAL MR. TEAS, and NOT TONIGHT, HENRY. 1960s loops are discussed, with an increased surrealism creeping into their plotless scenes (does it get any more bizarre—or brilliant—than STARLIGHT 207, that has Day-Glo plastic cowboys and Indians arranged on a naked woman’s body?). “Nudie cuties” then morphed into “nudies” as the 1960s rolled on, as Friedman gives some good information on how the number of theaters showing sexploitation features jumped to an astounding 700, as failing neighborhood houses had to adapt to survive the Hollywood 1960s slump (that AROUSED looks pretty crazy—“not recommended to anyone who is emotionally unstable or under psychiatric care,”). A look at “roughies” interrupts, with clips from BAD GIRLS GO TO HELL, AFTER THE BALL WAS OVER (looks like an early version of “Helter Skelter”), the Finleys’ THE TOUCH OF HER FLESH, and the notorious OLGA’S HOUSE OF SHAME (the director insists these sick outings were merely for “lonely men and frustrated husbands”—a wildly euphemistic, deliberately innocuous appraisal that misses the point of these movies entirely: their male audiences got off vicariously on the sadism towards women). Back to nudies, as stars like Marsha Jordan and Stacy Walker (THE NOTORIOUS DAUGHTER OF FANNY HILL) competed with increasingly racier material, before the later 1960s psychedelic revolution hit, with nudies like THE ACID EATERS, THE HIPPIE REVOLT, and HEDONISTIC PLEASURES (are those kaleidoscopic bubble projector scenes ripping off Corman’s THE TRIP...or did Corman see this first?).

Friedman then discusses his role in the Adult Film Association of America, helping to legally defend small exhibitors’ 1st Amendment rights; as they won court case after court case, the envelope for what could be shown on screen was pushed further and further out (gay cinema is very briefly looked at here—as a straight guy I can say without fear that the two dudes in THE SONG OF THE LOON look prettier than most of the strippers here). Pretty soon, the “storefront” phenomenon—makeshift theaters set up with folding chairs and a 16mm projector on a card table—signals the shift from sexploitation to hardcore (some great shots of 42 Street (?) theaters), before the “white coaters” come in, such as Matt Cimber’s MAN AND WIFE: sex hygiene movies designed to bypass the obscenity laws by providing so-called “educational content” in-between the hardcore material (the doc avoids any hardcore shots). As Friedman observes before the final fade-out, “the movies became explicit, and the fun stopped.”

The fast-paced, content-loaded THAT’S SEXPLOITATION! makes for a good primer for anyone interested in further, And I would suppose further “study” would naturally lead one to Something Weird’s website (it’s the last thing Lisa Petrucci calls out on the commentary track). And that’s cool...but that subtle emphasis of promotional material over historical context necessarily keeps THAT’S SEXPLOITATION! a minor-grade doc, at best. Since the subject matter is so enticingly presented, it’s natural that small questions will keep nagging at the attentive viewer when set-ups aren’t fully satisfied. How did NUDE RANCH become the biggest grossing movie of the Chicago’s World Fair? Was it in a tent? Out in the open? How did the general public accept that being shown, if it was so outrageous at the time? Why, exactly, was sexploitation “out” during WWII? We’re not given a convincing answer...but we’re told it was so. If Doris Wishman was so important a director of nudies...why isn’t there a discussion of why she was so important? Or even just a few lines? What was the timeline for the court cases that are vaguely alluded to in the movie, if they were crucial to the envelope being pushed on nudies? And how about developing the carnival hucksterism angle a little bit better, since that seems to be, really, at the center of the sexploitation genre—selling and making a buck by tricking the customer into thinking he was getting something he really wasn’t, rather than championing increased sexual awareness while fighting the courts on principle? And if little things like that nag, the bigger questions really frustrate us; principally: why doesn’t anybody acknowledge the irony of nudie and roughie producers pushing the envelope for what can be seen on the screen...right into the hardcore years that led to their own genre’s demise (unless of course it’s all bullsh*t and those guys went ahead and made hardcore, like Friedman, despite his laments). And even more paradoxical: if censorship and America’s Puritanical DNA were the enemy, supposedly waving phony “cardboard morality” in our faces that sexploitation helped to destroy...then why wasn’t it a paradise when hardcore finally came into being? Why had the “fun” ended, as Friedman sadly offers, when the opposing force of morality died? Oh well...I guess we’ll just have to be satisfied with all the boobs and bums on display here....

The anamorphically-enhanced 1.78:1 widescreen AVC encoded HD transfer for THAT’S SEXPLOITATION! looks—when taken on average—pretty good. The new segments are digitally shot and thus, digitally crystal clear and sharp. The various full frame clips from past decades vary in quality. Some of the earlier black and white stuff looks surprisingly clean, while others are horribly scratched up and contrasty. Quite a few of the late 1960s stuff looks candy-colored bright (director Henenlotter admits to boosting the color during the scanning process), with others looking grimy and muddy. A real fan of this kind of stuff won’t care. The English LPCM split 2.0 mono audio track can be described the exact same way: variable, depending on the source material. Overall, though, it’s fine, with all music and dialogue cleanly heard. Purists, though, may disagree strongly with Henenlotter’s admitted dubbing in of jokey sound effects and music for many of the shorts. No subtitles available.

As for extras, there’s a commentary track with director Henenlotter and Mike Vraney’s widow, Lisa Petrucci. There’s quite a bit of information offered here that would have served well on the actual doc (Petrucci seems to know all the names of the anonymous girls in the movies, for example; some deeper contextual info frequently comes from Henenlotter), along with extended memories of Vraney and Friedman (Henenlotter’s account of raiding the bankrupt Movie Lab vault in New York City is positively spellbinding...except when—amateur hour alert—it’s interrupted by a visitor to the studio, as the commentary track momentarily goes dead). Henenlotter is quite amusing, but Petrucci began to lose me when she said she didn’t like Abbott & Costello (whaaa??), before she lost me completely, trying to defend her favorite sexploitation subgenre, the roughie, as innocuous comic book fare. You can like what you like, as we all do for our own reasons, but at least be intellectually honest about it. There’s nothing about the roughies mentioned in this doc that were done in a “fun-spirited way,” as she stridently describes them (Henenlotter politely disagrees with her, and then drops it). They were sick and nasty, and they appealed to a very dark place in viewers, just like their progeny today, such as SAW and V/H/S. You can like them if you want (I like big, glossy, heroic war movies—you don’t get any sicker or phonier than that genre)...but don’t deliberately misread them to somehow make it more “okay” that you like them. Next, THAT’S SEXPLOITATION!’s best surprise is over 3 ½ hours of clips from SWV’s back catalogue, some of which are briefly seen in the main feature (don’t worry: this already too-long review won’t add additional thoughts on each of these extras). Titles included are: UNCLE SI AND THE SIRENS, THE WOOD NYMPHS, NUDE FROLICS, PERSONAL HYGIENE BOOK PITCHES, THE ART OF LOVE BOOK PITCH, NUDISM—A WAY OF LIFE?, A SPECIAL MESSAGE FROM WALTER HALE, BETRAYED, KALANTAN IN HER EXOTIC FIRE DANCE, MY TALE IS HOT, SHOCKING SET!!?, NAKED FURY!, an abridged MOONLIGHTING WIVES, THE SIN SYNDICATE, WILD NIGHT AT THE INTERLUDE, COWGIRL WATUSI WITH MICHELLE ANGELO, BELLY DANCE WATUSI, BALLOON WATUSI, BULLFIGHT WATUSI, NUDIST BEACH CONTEST, HOW THE NUDIST KEEPS FIT, and JOY IN THE BOUDOIR MODELLING ‘WAY OUT’ LINGERIE. An impressive array of smut. And finally, a trailer for THAT’S SEXPLOITATION! rounds out this funny, dirty-minded disc. (Paul Mavis)