Movies can be made for artistic expression. They can be made to give audiences two hours of mindless escapism. Or, they can be made purely to titillate, push buttons, and shock. That last category comprises what we call exploitation films, the primary goal of which is to deliver the most basic thrills in the most expedient manner possible. Whether it's sex, violence, gross-out gags, or something else altogether, exploitation films mainline their tawdry wares right into your system.
There are all different kinds of exploitation movies, too: Blaxploitation, sexploitation, Canuxploitation, splatter, slasher, mondo, and "women in prison" are all examples. You may not know what all of these are, so buckle up for a crash course.
Fans of exploitation cinema know there are lots of great films from which to choose. For this list, however, we've narrowed it down to the ones that are the most entertaining or have made a significant, long-lasting impact. If you're new to this kind of movie, the titles presented here are where you should start to familiarize yourself.
These are the 14 Best Exploitation Movies of All Time.
14 The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
Famed horror director Wes Craven once said, "The first monster you have to scare the audience with is yourself. They have to feel in the presence of someone not confined by the normal rules of decency." Tobe Hooper's 1974 shock classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre exemplifies that idea better than just about any other horror film ever. The low-budget movie about a chainsaw-wielding maniac named Leatherface who wears the skin of his victims has a raw, primal quality that is absolutely chilling. It was clear that the person responsible for the thing wasn't going to follow those rules of decency. He could show you anything. That the picture came seemingly out of nowhere added to the mystique for audiences who saw it during the initial run. They were caught off-guard by the brutal story unfolding before their eyes.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has become a horror classic, which can make it difficult to remember that its origins were pure exploitation. The movie has spawned sequels, remakes, and reboots, but in its original '70s form, it existed solely to scare the wits out of anyone who laid eyes upon it with abrupt shocks and horrific ideas. Creepy and deeply unnerving, TCM is never forgotten once seen.
13 The Last House on the Left
Speaking of Wes Craven, his first film was a vicious, no-holds-barred variation on (of all things) Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring. Released in 1972, The Last House on the Left is the story of two teenage girls who are kidnapped and raped by a gang of psychopaths. One of them is killed, the other left unconscious. The psychos are then offered the chance to stay overnight at a nearby house. They don't realize that their hosts are the parents of one of the victims. The parents quickly figure out that these are the lunatics who hurt their little girl. What follows is a bloody retribution for their crimes. At one point, the mother seduces one of the gang members and bites off his...well, you know.
The Last House on the Left was marketed with a brilliant tag line encouraging audiences to keep telling themselves, "It's only a movie...It's only a movie..." That approach underscored the grab-you-by-the-throat nature of the plot. Prior to his death, Craven often dismissed the idea that there was any deeper meaning to his debut film, although he did later acknowledge that a lot of the bitterness he felt during the turbulent Vietnam War era probably seeped in. And that makes sense, as the story is full of righteous anger that taps into our deepest feelings of rage and our darkest fantasies of retribution. To this day, the movie remains unrelenting in its look at eye-for-an-eye justice, and its Jennifer Lawrence-starring remake simply pales in comparison.
Comedian Rudy Ray Moore made his screen debut in 1975's Dolemite, and what a debut it was. The movie has become one of the quintessential "Blaxploitation" pictures of the era. Made by black filmmakers specifically for black audiences, Blaxploitation fare cast African-Americans as take-charge heroes, rather than as sidekicks or comic relief. Their messages were empowering.
By every conventional standard, Dolemite is a mess, filled with continuity errors, stiff performances, sound equipment that keeps intruding into the frame, and choppy editing. As a work of exploitation, however, it's something of a masterpiece. Moore plays the title character, a pimp sprung from jail in order to help police take down the local gangster who's tearing up the town. Dolemite does this with the assistance of his "girls," a bunch of kung fu-savvy prostitutes. Moore is terrific in the role, dropping a never-ending series of unique witticisms, most of them peppered with creative profanity. The supporting characters are fun, too, especially "the Creeper," a junkie who constantly begs for free hamburgers.
Despite its sloppy execution, Dolemite has its own weird way of addressing social themes that were relevant to black audiences at the time, including institutional racism. Those themes are still valid today, for audiences of all colors.
11 Beyond the Valley of the Dolls
In 1966, author Jacqueline Susann published Valley of the Dolls, a novel about a group of women, their loves, their show-biz careers, and their pills. Lots and lots of pills. It is one of the best selling novels of all time, with over 30 million copies sold. A hit film adaptation was released in 1967. Then, in 1970, noted sexploitation director/breast enthusiast Russ Meyer unleashed his own interpretation of Susann's work. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls makes the story about women in a rock band and generally spoofs its source material, taking an exaggerated comic tone. It carried an X rating, thanks to a cast of sexually insatiable characters, then-controversial lesbian overtones, and, of course, bare breasts. (Did we mention Russ Meyer was a breast enthusiast?) Susann was apparently so displeased about the film's content that she filed an injunction to prevent its release. She lost.
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is sexy and outrageous. Those qualities have made it an enduring cult classic. Perhaps the most interesting tidbit about the movie is that it was written by esteemed film critic Roger Ebert, who was both a friend to and an admirer of Meyer's. Ebert's longtime television partner, Gene Siskel, famously panned the film, giving it one star. He re-reviewed it for Entertainment Weekly more than two decades later, dubbing it "even worse than I thought." Nonetheless, Ebert's strange screenplay mixed with Meyer's particular obsessions in a way that has stuck. Fans everywhere will happily recite its signature line: "This is my happening, and it freaks me out!"
10 Slumber Party Massacre
Slumber Party Massacre, released in 1982, promised two things: attractive young women in revealing sleepwear and gruesome drill murders. On the surface, it's a pretty basic slasher flick about a high school girl who has a bunch of friends to her house for a sleepover. Unfortunately for them, a mass murderer has escaped from prison and is determined to hack some people up with his power drill. Guess whose house he goes to?
What makes Slumber Party Massacre noteworthy is that, unlike most films of its type, it was made by women. Director Amy Holden Jones would go on to write the Hollywood hits Indecent Proposal and Mystic Pizza, while screenwriter Rita Mae Brown later wrote a series of popular mystery novels, allegedly co-authored with her cat, Sneaky Pie Brown. Together, they crafted a movie that certainly delivers on the sex (gratuitous shower scene, homoeroticism) and violence (bloody drill murders aplenty). The cat's role in the production process has never been clarified.
The pleasant surprise of the film is that they also turned the slasher format on its ear via some subtle — and occasionally not-so-subtle — feminist undertones. For example, in one scene, the killer is shot from behind, the long drill bit hanging down between his legs like the male organ, while his terrified victim looks on. Slumber Party Massacre satirizes the silly obsession with size that some men possess, while also exploring the fear of sex that some adolescent girls (and boys, for that matter) have. It's not the most artfully-made movie, but the amazing subtext has kept SPM a cult favorite all these years.
"Canuxploitation" refers to B-movies made in Canada. Such fare proliferated following a 1974 tax credit designed to boost homegrown filmmaking. Mainstream pictures were made, too, but directors of low-budget horror fare took particular advantage of it. The best known of these individuals was a young man named David Cronenberg, whose 1975 chiller Shivers (a.k.a. They Came From Within) helped to launch what would be a career full of under-the-radar acclaim.
The story concerns a scientist tinkering with parasites. He implants his latest creation, a mixture of aphrodisiac and venereal disease, into his teenage girlfriend. She's a little "loose," subsequently spreading the parasite to others in an apartment complex, where it turns its victims into sex-craved lunatics. As with later projects, including Scanners and Videodrome, Cronenberg used Shivers to push some buttons, touching on the idea of sexual voraciousness. The story additionally incorporates incest, sexual assault, and promiscuity. Through it all, you can feel the director enjoying the opportunity to get a reaction with taboo subjects. Cronenberg brought a sense of art to Shivers that helped establish him as an ambitious, fearless filmmaker.
8 Pink Flamingos
Another director who enjoys tweaking taboos is Baltimore's John Waters. His career started with some shorts, followed by the features Mondo Trasho and Multiple Maniacs, but it kicked into overdrive with 1972's Pink Flamingos. Waters regular Divine plays herself, a woman who has proudly earned the title "the filthiest person alive." Her claim to fame is challenged by Raymond and Connie Marble (David Lochary and Mink Stole), a couple who sell babies on the black market. Divine refuses to let them steal her title. Thus begins one of the most intentionally tasteless stories ever committed to celluloid.
Waters gleefully indulges in every potentially offensive or gross concept his admirably sick mind could come up with. The most legendary moment in Pink Flamingos finds Divine eating real dog feces on camera. (Good luck suppressing that gag reflex!) If anything in the picture is even worse, it's the scene in which two characters have sex while holding a live chicken between them. The poor animal tries desperately to get out of the shot and is seemingly hurt in the process. What makes Pink Flamingos so important, aside from really putting Waters on the map, is that more than three decades later, it's still ridiculously shocking. Waters set the bar for offensiveness at such a high level that it's rarely been cleared by anyone else.
7 Foxy Brown
No single performer may be more associated with exploitation cinema than Pam Grier. The actress was cast in many exploitation films of several varieties. She was exceptional because she possessed true talent and versatility. One of her most popular works is 1974's Foxy Brown, which is a cornerstone of the Blaxploitation movement. Grier plays the title character, a woman who pretends to be a high-class hooker in order to get revenge against the mobsters who murdered her boyfriend.
Blaxploitation had a lot of male heroes: Richard Roundtree in Shaft, Fred Williamson in Black Caesar, Ron O'Neal in Superfly, etc. Like Coffy, another Pam Grier flick from the previous year, Foxy Brown gave urban audiences not only an African-American hero, but a female African-American hero. That was nothing short of revolutionary. And in the role, Grier doesn't pull any punches. She's sexy, she's tough, and she's fierce. The actress represented female empowerment in its most extreme form, and moviegoers ate it up. Incidentally, Foxy Brown was also a major inspiration for Quentin Tarantino's third film, Jackie Brown, which not-so-coincidentally starred Pam Grier.
6 The Big Bird Cage
Pam Grier was not only a Blaxploitation heroine, she also popped up in one of the other popular types of exploitation fare, the "women in prison" movie. Of these, The Big Bird Cage is considered by many to be the best. The goal of these pictures was to play into captivity fetishes. Beautiful, buxom women are shackled, confined, forced into strip searches, and subjected to sexual abuse at the hands of sadistic male guards. They tend to fight and have sex with each other. This one has all of those things, plus mud wrestling!
The Big Bird Cage focuses on a jungle prison in the Philippines where the hateful guards torture and brutalize the many shapely, half-naked female inmates. Thankfully, they have Grier to come and lead a revolt. The movie absolutely delivers all the things people expect from a women-in-prison story, and once again, the star's undeniable charisma proves vital. Eventually, this type of movie evolved into parody, 1986's Reform School Girls being a prime example of where it went. Still, The Big Bird Cage stands as the pinnacle of movies about women being held against their will — and fighting back.
5 Sleepaway Camp
November 1983 brought the world a slasher movie with a secret. Sleepaway Camp told the story of two children, Angela (Felissa Rose) and her cousin Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten), who get sent to summer camp. It's not a pleasant experience for Angela. She is bullied by other girls and preyed upon by the camp's pedophile cook. The people who harass her then suddenly begin dying in horrific ways, including bee stings, burning, and being sexually molested with a curling iron.
Sleepaway Camp introduces a number of provocative elements, including child murder and sexual abuse. But it's the final minutes that have cemented the film's place in B-movie history. (Warning: a big old SPOILER is about to be dropped here.) The very last scene reveals not only that Angela is the killer, but also that she is not, in fact, a female. She is actually a boy. Her brother Peter, to be specific. We learn through flashbacks that the real Angela was killed in the boating accident that opens the movie, and Peter was sent to live with his crazy aunt, who raised him as a girl since she already had Ricky. The last shot of Sleepaway Camp is of young "Angela" nude, a male organ in full view, shrieking a terrifying wail. The concept of living a transgender lifestyle was rarely, if ever, touched on-screen at the time. Making the transgender character a child was about as shocking as one could get. Seen today, the implication that transgender people are unstable or dangerous is pretty offensive. Still, there's no doubt that Sleepaway Camp gave audiences the exact kind of seismic jolt they craved.
Bela Lugosi. Lon Chaney, Jr. Boris Karloff. What do they all have in common? They all played famous monsters. Dracula, the Wolf Man, and Frankenstein's Monster, to be exact. Also, they're all white. Many of the actors who have portrayed monsters and creatures over the decades have been white, too. That changed in 1972, with the release of Blacula. The movie is just what it sounds like: a black version of Dracula. Suddenly, there was an African-American take on the famous bloodsucker. It was a fresh spin that turned the movie into a box office hit.
William Marshall stars as Prince Mamuwalde. He gets turned into a vampire by Dracula himself, then sealed into a coffin. The coffin is opened in present day and Blacula emerges, thirsty for blood. The idea of racially reinterpreting a classic horror character got the public's attention. Blacula was successful enough to inspire a sequel, Scream Blacula Scream, as well as another African-American monster tale, Black Frankenstein, also known as Blackenstein. While probably not anyone's idea of high art, Blacula marked an important step forward in establishing a market for more racially diverse horror films.
3 Blood Feast
Herschell Gordon Lewis was a shrewd businessman. After making a few "nudie" pictures in the 1960s, Lewis recognized a gap. He suspected that there was an audience willing to pay to see violent, gory stories filled with blood and guts. At the time, drive-in theaters were all the rage, and there was a need for "B" titles to play secondary to the main feature. Lewis cooked up 1963's Blood Feast, which featured levels of gore (in full color, no less) that were unprecedented for the time. He was right about the demand — it was a hit.
Widely considered to be the first splatter film, Blood Feast is the story of a deranged caterer who kills women and uses their body parts to bring an Egyptian goddess to life. It featured all kinds of brutality that had never been shown in such detail before. Achieving this quality was sometimes tough on the actors. Lewis wanted a shot of a woman's tongue being ripped out, so he acquired an actual sheep's tongue, which the actress had to hold in her mouth. Blood Feast was so gory that, as a promotional stunt, vomit bags were distributed at showings. All of this was catnip to people who craved rougher on-screen violence than was common. Lewis, dubbed "the Godfather of Gore," went on to make more carnage-filled films, including Color Me Blood Red, The Wizard of Gore, and Two Thousand Maniacs! He paved the way for the Saw and Hostel movies, among others.
Frankenhooker is both an exploitation movie and a parody of an exploitation movie. Released in 1990, it focuses on a medical student named Jeffrey (played by Andrew McCarthy-lookalike James Lorinz) who accidentally runs over his fiancee Elizabeth (Patty Mullen) with a riding mower. Riddled with guilt and grief, he reassembles what's left of her using the body parts of prostitutes to fill in the gaps. Jeffrey gets those parts by giving the hookers a strain of "super-crack" that he's invented. They smoke it and promptly explode. The reanimated Elizabeth is not herself, though. Her new body parts have an effect on her, and she begins roaming the streets, turning tricks.
If that sounds awesome, it is. Frankenhooker is hilariously funny. So funny, in fact, that no less a luminary than Bill Murray dubbed it "the best movie of the year." Frank Henenlotter's film manages to be extremely humorous, while simultaneously delivering all the sex, gore, and nudity that the exploitation genre demands. While not a box office hit (it only tallied $205,000), Frankenhooker is a cult favorite that continues to be discovered by new fans. The comedic slant on common conventions makes it work satisfyingly on several levels.
The exploitation movies we've just looked at — and others of their kind — rarely, if ever, played in respectable theaters. Instead, they were booked into "grindhouses," often run-down theaters in the worst parts of town. You'd see the movies in double features, and the prints were often filled with scratches and bad splices from having been hauled from city to city. Grindhouses really don't exist anymore, meaning that today's audiences can't have that particular type of moviegoing experience.
Except that you sort of can. Exploitation aficionados Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez released Grindhouse in 2007. The concept was simple. Both directors made an 80-minute exploitation flick. Rodriguez did the sci-fi splatter movie Planet Terror; Tarantino turned in a car-themed slasher picture called Death Proof. Surrounding the two films were fake exploitation trailers and period interstitials (coming attractions intros, ratings information, etc.). All of it was artificially made to look faded and scratched, or as though there were missing frames. The directors' goal was to allow modern audiences to have some semblance of a now-gone cinematic experience.
Different viewers have different opinions on Planet Terror and Death Proof as individual works, but it's hard to deny that, as a whole, Grindhouse is a wildly successful homage to exploitation fare. It has been created with genuine love and affection.
There are many more terrific exploitation movies out there. Did we leave out your favorite? Tell us which other ones you love in the comments.