Exploitation Film

Ernest Mathijs

in Cinema and Media Studies

ISBN: 9780199791286
Published online October 2011 | | DOI:
Exploitation Film


Exploitation film is a type of cinema, often cheaply produced, that is designed to create a fast profit by referring to, or exploiting, contemporary cultural anxieties. Examples include films about drug use, nudity and striptease, sexual deviance, rebellious youths or gangs, violence in society, xenophobia, and fear of terrorism or alien invasions. Ostensibly, exploitation films claim to warn viewers about the consequences of these problems, but in most cases their style, narrative, and inferences celebrate (or “exploit”) the problem as much as critiquing it. The low costs of production allow for quick turnarounds, enabling the exploitation film to address issues of high topicality. This also gives the films a ragged and rickety look that often fits the marginality of their topics. Within the exploitation film, numerous small and sub-genres operate, many of which are highly formulaic. To further complicate matters, the term “exploitation” is not uncontested. Terms such as “grindhouse,” “trash,” or “cult” (or “cinéma bis” in French) are often used to denote (largely) the same films. Because of the low reputation of the exploitation film, scholarship has long remained scarce. Since the 1990s, however, there has been a steady increase in attention, much of it propelled by fan scholarship from outside the academic world. Overall, the history of the exploitation film is divided into a “classical” period, which runs roughly until the 1960s, and a “modern” period. The classical period is characterized by production routines that mimic those of Hollywood, with the key figure that of the showman-producer, and by provocative marketing and advertising, renegade distribution, and scattershot reception patterns. The modern period is distinguished by a higher degree of explicit material in the films, as well as a larger sense of self-awareness in its presentation to viewers, meaning that exploitation films knowingly place themselves in an existing tradition, commenting on the very notion of “exploitation” and catering to audiences who know what they will be accessing. This self-awareness has led scholars to observe that the viewing tactics audiences employ for exploitation films simultaneously celebrate and ridicule the films, thus upsetting distinctions between highbrow and lowbrow culture. In the modern period the key figure is that of the auteur-director. The classical period of exploitation film is largely studied through a historical lens, whereas the modern period has led to extensive theorization of viewing practices. This focus on viewing practices is partly the result of the increased visibility of exploitation fandom, and of the wide variety of forms of exhibition (such as drive-ins, video, festivals, cable television, DVDs), through which modern exploitation films can be consumed. Because of this focus on viewing practices, it can be argued that the exploitation film is no longer a type of film, but rather a kind of film viewing.

Article.  35174 words. 

Subjects: Media Studies ; Film ; Radio ; Television

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