To me, bad taste is what entertainment is all about. If someone vomits watching one of my films, it is like getting a standing ovation. But one must remember that there is such a thing as good bad taste and bad taste. John Waters, Shock Value 
Why is it that the so-called exploitation genre has the capacity to evoke certain meaning systems over others, not to mention fervent critical responses? Jim Schembri refers to Bloodmoon as "so unfathomably bad it is hard to know where to begin with it, although a public burning of the film's negative would be a good start".  Why are films such as Sons of Steel, Howling III and Hostage (to name but a few) seen in terms of the odd, the marginal and the demotic? Interestingly, and to some extent paradoxically, films which are seemingly formulaic or even 'simple' raise a number of complex questions about the nature of generic identity.
If ever there was a likelihood of a straight-forward 'presentation' of pre-existing culture/genre categories, then surely it would reside in these supposedly non-complex, simplistic and naive filmic texts. And (for instance) from where does their categorisation in terms of generic identity come? Large-scale cultural questions remain central in this debate. Are these texts the socially worthless products of 'sick minds' or are they the culturally viable material of popular taste? An investigation of such questions must surely take account of the fact that the term itself (exploitation) generates its meaning via a particularly value-laden system of film making and viewing practices (conjuring up a plethora of images ranging from the obscene to the spectacular). Certainly when it comes to Howling III (in which babies are born as mutant-marsupials) and Sons of Steel (a balding rock star is transported into a primeval future) it is possible to see how simple and dismissive tags can be applied. But this reflex is itself a product of the trivialising critical discourses seen to be applicable to such films. It is more interesting, though, to examine what is seen to constitute the category exploitation film as if it is a separate identifiable genre.
One film handbook produces the following definition:
Films made with little or no attention to quality or artistic merit but with an eye to a quick profit, usually via high-pressure sales and promotion techniques emphasizing some sensational aspect of the product. 
The ideological assumptions at work here are striking. Firstly, notions of 'quality' and 'artistic merit' stand as self-evident universal expressions. That is, everyone knows 'quality' when they see it! Secondly, 'quality' and 'artistic merit' must give way to financial profit. Here one can trace the deployment of competing discourses within a film industry where the commercial prospects of a product are always inversely conflicting with its claims to cultural value. The passage also points the way towards the (by now quite intricate) question of a high/low culture debate. Thirdly, and somewhat ironically, these 'types' of films both satisfy an audience's (complex) imaginary needs whilst being primarily aimed towards making a profit. It would seem such films (given these types of definitions) are intent only on creating a highly visceral audience response. One that invokes the titillation of collective guilts regarding the body (and bodily functions). It is within this approach to the exploitation film that representations of the body are given a negative evaluation as opposed to seemingly more positive cerebral material. Let's look, for example, at another description of the genre where 'exploitation' is defined as:
A film that exploits a subject for its commercial advantage by pandering to the curiosity and prurience of the audience. Such films may exploit current violent events ... or well known personalities. 
The contradictions multiply. How can a film that does not disguise its purely commercial objective, one that is not concerned with entertainment (instead panders "to the curiosity and prurience of the audience") make any money at all? These categories imply that audiences, if not cretinous, are very easily satisfied. In such instances of film making, the social text becomes ideological capital - no more than a means to a money-making end. Why is it, we might ask, don't films such as Young Einstein and Evil Angels fall into this category? Both films can be seen to 'exploit' nationalist discourses in utilising (and rerepresenting in the case of Evil Angels) popular cultural belief systems. And what is it that distinguishes a text like Evil Angels from Hostage, or Young Einstein from Sons of Steel? The latter two films both celebrate their adversarial relations to contemporary culture, invoking critical commentaries on the nature of pre- and post-holocaust societies. Both constitute a certain over-the-topness in terms of style, thematics and narrative structure. So surely, if the above sets of assumptions about exploitation film are to hold any water at all, then they do so only to adhere to unilinear and conservative functions. The creation of such genre trappings are highly suspect. These categories need to be prised open and problematised. Each of the above descriptions is motivated by an implicit inscription of value. Definitions such as these rely upon particular constructions of the total cultural field and the possible positioning of the texts within it. Within this construction certain films are clearly seen as being of low or inferior cultural value and relevant only via 'sub-standard' taste criteria.
Part of that criteria is the seemingly automatic assumption that the exploitation film represents an easily knowable cinematic system - a closed system that paradoxically, at the same time, defies regulation or censorship while enabling forms of the culturally 'unseeable' to be seen. There is a clear appeal being made to shared viewing/critical assumptions in identifying such texts and their audiences. It is via these critical strategies that the exploitation film is linked to the equally ill-defined category of the 'B-grade' film as the epitome of deliberate bad taste.  To a certain extent this is the approach taken by a critic such as William Routt. However, Routt's method is to subtly radicalise the whole 'taste' debate.
Routt argues that 'badness' in relation to 'goodness' is a distinction that "reaffirms the importance of the viewer as the arbiter of taste and centre of vision".  He claims that a consensus of taste is an important function of film reception, and that for most filmgoers:
the recognition of inferiority on the screen (erroneously called, and felt as, badness) is surely more satisfying than the recognition of self-superiority that comes when one grasps the 'goodness' in a film (that is, as we see that it is 'for us'). It is easier to assuage the anxiety of taste with a declaration of the object's unworthiness, and thus to suspend judgement of one's own worthiness, than to risk the failure of perception, precipitation into badness, by praising what others deem unworthy. 
This recognition of badness, Routt claims, is motivated by the anxiety of taste (and the pressure to conform). Underpinned by a type of unpleasure, the exploitation film is then able to generate its own kind of pleasure. One that is inevitably tied up with the recognition of unpleasure. Notions of an anxiety of taste - suggesting, in this context, a connection between aesthetic norms and the 'badness' of these texts - certainly point towards a more complex positioning of texts gathered within this category. The pleasure/unpleasure dichotomy can be deployed, too, to examine the striking kinds of oppositions and reversals that can be noted in these texts.
A film such as Sons of Steel (Gary Keady, 1989) is marked by a number of perverse kinds of reversals. This film can be read as a satirical assault on the regulation of power and order in modern urban societies. Here, political structures become thinly-disguised malevolent regimes operating in a place where the pleasure of sexuality lies in its disruptive threat to dominant order, and where the seedy underbelly of an urban existence (generally marginalised as the 'decadent') is inverted to represent the everyday socio-political conditions pertaining in a just-in-the-future Sydney. Black Alice (Rob Hartley) is the film's protagonist, a (white) rock'n'roller and leader of 'Octagon', a peace activist movement. His 'blackness' resides in his tongue-in-cheek portrayal of an iron-maiden type figure with a vehement dislike for authorities. This anti-establishment stance is usually relayed via video clip-like segments with song lyrics such as "hey mister system ... wall street climber investing to kill ... hey mister system ... you're just another statistic on your own blackboard", as Black Alice machine-guns groups of cloned trench-coated yuppie executives in the foyer of the 'Oceana' pad.
Sons of Steel is an explosive generic mix borrowing as much from science fiction, video-rock clips and animation as from discourses of horror, adventure and romance. The result is a sporadic cult-like array of motifs and ensembles. A self-conscious appeal to its multi-generic substance invites an audience not only to suspend disbelief but to read it as part of a cultural/cinematic system re-referencing itself in terms of parody and pastiche.  In these respects it is difficult to see the difference (in terms of organisational strategies) between this so-called B-grade movie and a more acclaimed film such as Young Einstein.
In a sense, then, and in many so-called exploitation (and genre) films, we are dealing primarily with discourses of effectivity. That is, a film's effective use of re-generating particular generic tropes. Sons of Steel, for instance, utilises an elaborate Frankensteinian intertext whereby Black Alice is de-molecularised, transformed into a hologram and sent to an imaginary after-life in a post-holocaust world. There is also his recurrent visions of "the shine" as representative of the narrative enigma alongside its function as a type of 'Ur text' of the unconscious. It is here that John Foam's discussion of genre film is useful. He regards all films as genre-based by virtue of their "historical, symbolic, material and narrative relationships with one another".  His claim is that some films escape this system (the genre-based network) via the auteur tradition, eventually signalling themselves as non-genre. These non-genre films are referred to as the "romanticized 'film object' ". By comparison, what we get from genre films is:
... not the romantic product of art, artists and artistry, but ... more genre films. In any one genre, this notion of 'more' is doubled: (i) more than (representing the past films) and (ii) more of (representing the future films) - with no authorial presence directing this reflux. 
How does Sons of Steel draw on this particular notion of excess? Given the reliance on patterns of reversal (both thematic and aesthetic) to create its pleasureable effects, one notable way in which this concept of 'moreness' functions is in the film's deployment of a double ending. We are shown, first, that Black Alice's valiant attempts to save Sydney are completely in vain as his mission to divert the course of the anti-nuclear protest ferry fails in a climactic collision with the nuclear submarine. Just after the impact (and as we prepare for the credits to roll) there is an interruption. Cut to 'The Head' 11 (an omniscient type of Max Headroom mask) that demands Alice improve his game by giving the audience a happy ending. No sooner said than done: we see the final scene in rewind motion enabling the narrative to 'rectify' all that has gone beforehand. Thus, as Foam suggests, with this particular genre we do get more: more narrative action and, more importantly, more interventions into the production (and outcome) of that action.
In a similar way, and again towards the end of the film, notions of scripting and directions are reworked at the level of the produced text. In a scene where Black Alice and Hope (Roz Wason) are shown as having just escaped the time-warp imprisonment of Oceana's fascist regime - a scene where the race against time to save the world is pitted against these two protagonists' actions - the narrative flow is casually and self-consciously interrupted during a chase when Hope turns seductively towards Black Alice and pouts, "is this where we kiss?". Being the laconic anti-hero that he is, Alice rebuts her untimely pass, addressing the viewer instead with a fixed gaze and the line "Here's looking at you kid", followed by an all-knowing wink. The chase is resumed. At this point, any seemingly outrageous tampering with the narrative's linear progression comes as no surprise. For as John Foam also points out, "a genre is an opiate of expected manipulations, a fix of desired sensations". 
Like the genre film then, the exploitation film can be regarded as an active parasite utilising (and often reversing) the conditions and effects of filmic conventions, production processes and ideological messages that dominate an otherwise mainstream cinematic model. There is certainly a density of signifying practices in Sons of Steel - ranging from the bizarre presentation of an inflatable doll 'giving birth' to a motorbike, to the obscure activities and rituals of various gender-benders - that denies simple ascriptions from tag-making critical processes. Such a density of practices clearly suggests the capacity of the exploitation film to lay bare the conventions and values of a culture. As Barbara Klinger claims:
Exploitation films almost contradictorily (given their capitalistic fervour) crystallize, exaggerate, and expose the 'ground rules' from which mainstream films are built. 
This point raises the interesting question of the relationship between the exploitation film and those texts seen as being part of the more orthodox mainstream. It is clear that texts such as Sons of Steel and Howling III cannot be easily dismissed as genre, exploitation or B-grade films appearing only as forms of low-life cinema and appealing only to mass audiences. Apart from the complex cultural ideologies surrounding such divisions, this formulation - between high/low cultural appeal, the elite as opposed to the masses or the classic versus the demotic - ignores important questions of an audience's implicit understanding of a text's intentionality and thus recognition of, and pleasure in, the construction of perversion.
Much of the pleasure of the exploitation film may well be precisely situated in the recognition of its satirical parody of a pompous high cultural (bourgeois) set of aesthetic proclamations. The notion of intentional B-gradeness is often overlooked by critics and reviewers. This is a point considered by Philip Brophy in his discussion of the 'effects' of screen violence. Brophy's incisive commentary targets the lobbyists and data-collecting researchers in this area. In his counter-attack he claims that:
Many 'sick' films play at being sick by deliberately provoking the wrath of conservatives and those ignorant of the conventions, or by plunging into the great chasm where only attuned sensibilities can illuminate the exact slant of the film. 
What is often seen as 'badness' in these texts, he continues, can be defined as a type of openness of performance. After all, he claims:
... it is quite possible that real exploitation pictures (i.e. films that never pretend to have any artistic merit whatsoever!) are more open about their exploitative nature than big blockbusters which gloss their low-level appeal with high production values and the stamp of a known producer or director. 
Given this situation it seems quite reasonable to claim - as Brophy does - that most audiences are likely to recognise this difference and thus perceive the exploitation film within the parameters of satirical, cultural challenge.
Questions of satire, parody, self-consciousness, intertextual quoting and multi-generic performance play a significant role in both the production and reception of these texts. My point here is that, rather than seeing the B-grade film in opposition to the normative classic or mainstream text, it is more appropriate to think instead of an interplay of generic polarities, and various narrational modes of presentation.
Evidence of these kinds of interplay can be clearly read in the performative structures of The Marsupials: The Howling III (1987), usually referred to as Howling III. Generally speaking, this film parodies the monstrous in its various guises. Some of which include: American intelligence networks; Aboriginal politics and scientific discovery pertaining to evidence (and impending consequences) of extinction; and evolution of races/species. In one way or another notions of established order are threatened and forms of collective neurosis ridiculed. As a sharp send-up of the horror genre, we are shown Frank Thring in a Hitchcockian role directing the movie Shape Shifters: Part 8.  Although the concept of a film within a film is not new, it does, in this context, open up an avenue for satirical commentary on distinctions between high and low culture discussed earlier.  For example, Thring is shown instructing the cast and crew on the benefits of his film having a popular cultural approach as he scowls, "you know this film is about popular culture. In the sixties Andy Warhol showed us how pop could be high art!" And later when he is seen to be fussing over a take in Shape Shifters where Jeboa (Imogen Annesley), a renegade fringe dweller/werewolf/mutant-marsupial turned actress/opera singer is being strangled by a werewolf resembling the Michael J. Fox character in Teen Wolf, the incorporation of intertextual material is again illustrated. Here a series of retakes of the attack are requested, each involving a high-pitched scream from the actress. On completion Jeboa, not satisfied with her performance, asks Thring if they can shoot the scene one last time. On which he quips, "my dear, I can assure you, darling, that scene's as good as anything that Janet Leigh did in the shower scene in Psycho".
It is clear that this film, like Sons of Steel, is marked by many self-conscious proclamations, ironic twists and intertextual moments as both work against notions of low cultural ascription.  This is not to suggest that forms of banality or crudity are not present - they are - but they are, at the same time rendered as densely coded (sub)cultural significations, not for the 'uninitiated'. Howling III can be read, on the one hand, as a highly insulting representation of Aboriginal culture, drawing a parallel between the Tasmanian tiger and the Australian Aborigine as endangered species. Their extinction is saved only by a transformation into werewolf-marsupials! Or, on the other hand, it can be seen to handle notions of Aboriginality quite perceptively, showing their relationship to the land by playing on the exploitative ventures of large mining companies' destruction of sacred sites. So, depending on your reading of these motifs - Jeboa being lured to the city, Burnum Burnum parodying 'Oz culture' with "G'day, you wanna put another shrimp on the barbie?" or the appropriation of didgeridoo music over the opening credits - this film is either highly insulting and/or profoundly aware of the Aboriginal situation in Australia.
Howling III relies quite heavily on intertextuality for its effects as a send-up of the horror genre. An exemplary instance of the intertextual can be first seen on the film's dust-jacket where Scarephanalia magazine claims it "gently spoofs the horror genre ... it might have been called Werewolf Dundee". Also the use of moon songs throughout clearly functions as references to previous horror pics. The bedroom scene in which Donny (Leigh Biolos) discovers Jeboa's pouch is accompanied by "Bad Moon Rising", and as such is strongly reminiscent of the sex-shower scene in An American Werewolf in London. The dream-sequence that depicts Jeboa's dream of an outrageous (creature) birth is a straight 'steal' from Alien. Even a most monstrous illustration of Dame Edna Everage comes under fire in a scene where she is shown presenting the 82nd Annual Academy of Laser Arts and Sciences Awards. Here Jeboa, who now masquerades as the film star Loretta Carson, is presented with an award and during her acceptance speech begins to transform into a werewolf. A close reaction shot of Dame Edna's face distorting in disbelief leaves an audience inquiring as to whom, in the end, is the more monstrous.
Hostage: The Christine Maresch Story (Frank Shields,1983) does not fit simply into a general exploitationist category. Spanning the period 1974-79, it is a semi-historical account of a personalised ordeal. Christine (Kerry Mack) a side-show worker is pursued by a co-worker Walter (Ralph Schicha). A German by birth, Walter has a few deep-seated hangups about his past and his allegiance to a national identity. The scene of their meeting - a puppet playfully dangled before Christine by an off-screen Walter - provides an apt metaphor for the launching of their spurious relationship in which Walter continues to pull the strings. From this moment onward the film revolves around the sado-masochistic forces attracting the heterosexual couple set against the equally fanatical upsurge of right-wing neo-fascist groups in Germany. The juxtaposition of an Australian suburban context alongside an 'alienated' European one provides an interesting inter-cultural mix. A boy meets girl story with a difference! This difference not only stems from the protagonists' differing cultural backgrounds, but is also represented (on a much more fundamental level) by their attitudes to life in general. From the onset it is clear that any initial attraction that existed between them soon becomes the site of in/difference. The marriage (like most of the events that follow) is forced and kept in order by Walter's obsessive need to dominate and Christine's tendency to conform to his outrageous patriarchal demands.
This film appeals largely through the psychological trauma it essays. To refer to Hostage as 'melodramatic' is to (in some ways) understate the horror - and the close examination of horrific situations - that the text produces in its deployment of episodic violence. We are shown, for example, a climactic scene (not unlike the scenario played out in Dead Calm between Nicole Kidman and Billy Zane) in which a bizarre series of confrontations between the couple take place whilst on board a sailing boat. The isolated situation gives rise to two chances whereby Christine can rid herself of her overbearing husband once and for all. Firstly, during a reversed power situation where (the now armed) Christine can shoot Walter, and secondly, by leaving him to drown after his fall overboard. Both instances see a failure of nerve on her part and a re-incorporation of Walter into the narrative. Yet this weakness-of-character functions powerfully as a final ironic twist in the film. During the closing chase sequence Christine is able to walk away from the demented Walter who, on cocking his rifle and calling after her "Stop ... I have you in my sights", is unable to pull the trigger. This whole scene - working as a dramatic montage of the violent thematics developed earlier - stands as a plausible and effective climactic rendition of the storyline.
Interestingly, as with other films discussed here, much of the specific narrative development of the film would go unnoticed if the text was immediately consigned - by virtue of what is seen as being inappropriate material for filmic presentation - into a miscellaneous 'exploitation' category. One cannot help thinking that the presentation of domestic violence in Hostage, seen by some as being really sensational material, stands as the actual 'unspoken' criteria for tagging this film. It would appear that if a film has a well-known director (e.g. Phil Noyce on Dead Calm, with industry backing) or handles 'legitimate' areas of violence (of war/and or the police) the exploitation tag is rarely applied. The discussion of these films shows the danger, noted by Raymond Durgnat and others, of defining genre in terms of some perceived formulaic and stereotypical structures that are considered to be the property of the films themselves - a highly tautological enterprise. 
David Bordwell, who has charted the typical functions of this sort of tautological critical practice, clearly notes that what is involved is a self-sustaining cliched pattern of reviewing practices. He terms this process 'the canonical enthymeme'.
In film reviewing, the canonical enthymeme runs this way:
a good film has property p
This film has (or lacks) property p
This is a good (or bad) film.
There are only few properties that can fill the p slot: important subject matter, realistic treatment of the subject, a logical story line, spectacle, intriguing characters, a valid message, and novelty within sameness (for example, revamped remakes, significant sequels). 
In terms of the 'exploitation film' category, the key definitions here are those of 'important subject matter' and 'a valid message'. In such a scheme, defining the decision as to what constitutes importance and validity in the area of subject material is quite obviously the result of ideological constructions that have little or nothing to do with the specifics of filmmaking.
The role of ideological constructions and their defining operations (what David Bordwell calls "the interpretive optic")  raises the question of the formation of film canons. In particular, the politics of the film canon: the politics of admission, the politics of selection and the politics of critical practice. In a situation where some films are in Tania Modleski's words "engaged in an unprecedented assault on all the bourgeois culture is supposed to cherish"  (the nuclear family, law and order and other cornerstones of the middle-class realm), these texts will be marginalised. The exploitation film is a convenient marginal category in this situation. One of the most persuasive studies of these processes of political activity in the area of film classification has been carried out by Janet Staiger. Her work is strikingly appropriate if applied to the 'exploitation' category. It points to the fact that any recognition of what are defined as being marginal texts is difficult because their presentations threaten the centre of cultural power. Such a threat creates fear. That is, the fear of a popular culture and its challenge to hegemonic notions of good taste:
Fear of "dwarfs with huge bellies and immense heads in charge of the library" is a strong nightmare for those who assume selection by their evaluative criteria is necessary for the perpetuation of knowledge as a societal good. 
What better strategy to employ here than to define any films that contribute to this nightmare as the mutant offspring of a mainstream cinematic parent? The so-called exploitation film, then, is not so much the locus of a simple genre definition as the site of cultural struggles regarding value.
Many thanks to Hugh Webb for his constructive criticism.
1. Quoted in Kim Newman, Nightmare Movies: A Critical History of the Horror Movie from 1968 (London: Bloomsbury, 1988), p.127.
2. Jim Schembri, Review of Bloodmoon in Cinema Papers, no. 79, May 1990, p.66.
3. Ephraim Katz, The International Film Encyclopedia (London: Macmillan, 1979), p.396.
4. Ira Koningsberg, The Complete Film Dictionary (London: Bloomsbury, 1987), p.107.
5. This notion of deliberate bad taste need not be regarded negatively, as David Stratton pointed out during an edition of The Movie Show (SBS television, 18-3-90), where he suggested that the AFC should take a leaf from the New Zealand Film Commission's book on its backing of the highly entertaining and successful sci-fi/gore production Bad Taste (1990).
6. William D. Routt, "Creature" in Philip Brophy (ed), Stuffing, Film: Genre (Northcote: Stuff Publications, 1987), p.82. This article appeared in a different form as "The Menace", SubStance, No. 55, 1988.
8. A point noted in a video review that referred to Sons of Steel as a "Futuristic, sci-fi adventure about a hard-living, peace-loving rock'n'roller destined to save the world from an impending nuclear disaster and the shackles of a fascist Government. Punk and heavy metal come together in this pastiche ...". Paul Kalina, Cinema Papers, no. 78, March 1990, p.60.
9. John Foam, "Club Video: More, More, More" in Stuffing, Film: Genre, p.89.
10. Ibid, p.90.
11. This figure frequently interrupts the narrative as 'social-conscious' story-teller. It also functions as an intertext.
13. Barbara Klinger, "'Cinema/Ideology/Criticism' Revisited: The Progressive Genre" in Barry K. Grant (ed), Film Genre Reader (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986) p.78.
14. Philip Brophy, "Violence On The Screen: 'This Isn't A Film It's A Disease'", Cinema Papers, no. 62, March 1987, p.20.
15. Ibid, p.21.
16. A continuity of production is satirically stressed here with Shape Shifters being on its eighth sequel.
17. The film within a film concept is doubly present in Howling III. We are also shown a scene in which Donny takes Jeboa to see her first Horror pic, It Came from Uranus. Again, the send-up dimension of this film is highlighted in the latter's use of gaudy colours, an exaggerated werewolf transformation and an equally 'horrified' cum delighted audience response.
18. Though unlike Sons of Steel, writer/director/producer Philippe Mora claims that the cast in Howling III is playing it straight. "Absolutely not campy", he says. See Cinema Papers, no. 61, January, 1987, p.32. The film has, however, turned up as a camp icon in the suburban cinema scene of Death in Brunswick (John Ruane, 1991).
19. See, for example, Raymond Durgnat, "Up Jumped the Devil or, The Jack In Pandora's Box", Monthly Film Bulletin, no. 644, September 1987.
20. David Bordwell, Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989), p.37.
21. Ibid, p.260.
22. Tania Modleski, "The Terror of Pleasure: The Contemporary Horror Film and Postmodern Theory" in Modleski (ed.), Studies in Entertainment: Critical Approaches to Mass Culture (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), p.158.
23. Janet Staiger, "The Politics of Film Canons", Cinema Journal, 24, no. 3, Spring 1985, pp.18-19. She takes the dwarf's phrase from Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose, trans. William Weaver (New York: Warner Books, 1984), pp.78-79.
New: 7 November, 1995 | Now: 21 March, 2015