Friday, March 06, 2020

Blu-Ray Review | Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age of the Exploitation Picture, Vol. 1-3

MOM AND DAD (1945)

For decades the underground movie circuit has popularized  B-films from the 1930s and 40s that sought to exploit their subjects under the guise of being "educational." 

From the short-lived "nudist camp" sub-genre to didactic screeds against the evils of sex and drugs, these schlocky grindhouse films have been a staple of midnight movie screenings since their rediscovery sometime around the end of the Production Code, a set of rules many of these films were able to subvert by pretending to have educational value beyond their obviously titillating nature. Audiences flocked to these films for reasons perhaps less savory than their makers intended, but one can't help but imagine the filmmakers knew exactly what they were doing, slyly undercutting Production Code rules by covering up exploitation thrills in finger-wagging moralism. Kino Lorber has partnered with Something Weird Video to brings several of these midnight classics to Blu-Ray for the first time in their new series, Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age of the Exploitation Picture, featuring some of the most well-known films of the era.

VOLUME 1: MOM AND DAD 

Perhaps one of the most infamous "educational" films to be embraced by the exploitation circuit, Mom and Dad (1945) tells the story of a teenage girl who finds herself pregnant after a one-night stand all because her mother refused to allow her to be taught sex-ed.

Easily one of the best films of its kind, in that it actually feels like a real movie in places rather than simply a didactic finger-wagging screed, Mom and Dad is nevertheless an often self-important piece of propaganda that fancies itself more progressive than it really is. While it reserves much of its ire for the puritans who refuse to allow their children to learn about the facts of life, its essential message of abstinence makes its in-your-face presentation of graphic STD wounds and images of childbirth feel just as moralistic as the scolds it claims to rebuke.

On the other hand, unlike many of its contemporaries who sought to warn parents about the dangers facing the youth of its day, Mom and Dad has an actual story with real actors who are actually mildly compelling. It's something of a fascinating time capsule, as it pauses for an intermission in which a spokesperson would stand up and lecture the audience on "hygiene," before segueing back into the film to show several educational videos on childbirth, syphillis, and gonorrhea that feature some truly stomach-churning images, and are a big reason why the film was such a big hit on the midnight movie circuit, ultimately going on to become one of the highest grossing films of the 1940s. Selected for preservation by the Library of Congress' National Film Registry as "historically significant," it remains an intriguing window into the world of sex education in the 1940s and how many of the puritanical ideas of bliss through ignorance that it critiques are still widely prevalent even today.

GRADE -★ (out of four)


VOLUME 2: REEFER MADNESS/SEX MADNESS

Perhaps one of the most infamous exploitation films of all time, Louis J. Gasnier's 1936 anti-marijuana propaganda piece, Reefer Madness (aka Tell Your Children) became a midnight movie sensation in the 1960s due to its unintentionally hilarious depiction of the "dangers of marijuana." The film was designed as a warning to parents about "public enemy number one," and centers around a young man who is made to believe that he committed a murder while high on pot. The film is strictly an amateur-hour production, filled with laughably over-the-top acting and a silly sense of self-righteousness that make it the perfect exploitation camp classic.

Also included on this new release from Kino Lorber as part of their "Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age of the Exploitation Picture" series is Dwain Esper's 1938 film, Sex Madness, a film that takes the moralistic lecturing of Reefer Madness to new heights in its crusade against extramarital sex and the scourge of gonorrhea. Featuring graphic depictions of STD wounds, and a plot about a group of teenagers whose inability to say "no" lead to life-long afflictions of venereal disease, ruining marriages and destroying their lives for one night of passion. Even more amateur-ish than Reefer MadnessSex Madness may spend most of its brief running time wagging its finger at its audience, but its sensationalistic subject matter was clearly designed to titillate while preaching a very different message, which is part of what makes these films so goofy. They're not "good" by any stretch of the imagination, but they're such a joke now that it's hard not to get a kick out of them.

REEFER MADNESS -★ (out of four)
SEX MADNESS - ½ star (out of four)


VOLUME 3: UNASHAMED: A ROMANCE/ELYSIA, VALLEY OF THE NUDE

A biracial woman falls in love with her boss, but her beauty is consistently diminished by those around her for "looking like another race," despite having a nice body. So she devises a plan to get her boss to go to a nudist camp with her so she can show him her body and convince him to fall in love with her, only to face competition from a pair of beautiful tourists who stumble across the camp by accident.

Unashamed is a truly bizarre curio that came out of the nudist camp craze of the late 1930s that allowed nudity to be shown on screen for "educational purposes." Its racial politics are incredibly cringe-worthy even for 1938, especially in the way it treats its protagonist as an object of pity and her biracial heritage as some sort of disability (despite easily being the most beautiful woman in the film). But its real sin is being completely dramatically inert - like many exploitation films of its ilk, it's simply boring. You'll see plenty of butts and breasts, but that's really all the film is interested in, despite all the lip service it pays to the "health benefits of nude living." There's a goofy good time here if you're in the right frame of mind, but otherwise it's a bit of a slog.

In Elysia, Valley of the Nude, a reporter goes to a nudist camp to write a piece about the nudist lifestyle, and becomes enamored with the easy-going people he finds there. Billing itself as an educational film, Elysa is an exploitation picture through and through, in which much of the cast remains nude for the entire length of the film, with strategically placed objects and cheeky angles keeping their genitalia just out of view. This being 1934, the only way to get butts and breasts on the screen was through the lens of an educational piece on the health benefits of nudism, so most of the film is a dry lecture from the professor giving the reporter a tour of the camp - but you can bet most people who went to see it didn't go to learn about how exposure to sunlight can cure what ails you - they went to see nubile young men and women cavorting in the nude, and there's plenty of that to go around, despite the film itself being a dry as dust.

UNASHAMED -★ (out of four)
ELYSIA: VALLEY OF THE NUDE - ★ (out of four)


Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber!

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