Being Different (1981)

Being Different (1981) movie poster

director Harry Rasky
viewed: 05/08/2018

Being Different is a quasi-Exploitation documentary about “human oddities” or “freaks.” Director Harry Rasky mixes titillation with a more humanistic approach, interviewing his cast of characters, allowing them to tell their own stories of lives of difference.

By 1981 a lot of the classic freak shows had stopped touring, and yet, many notable stars of the scene were still available to interview. As cultural mores were changing, and as the freak show was falling away into the past, the beginnings of interest in this disappearing world were stirring. Perhaps this started with Daniel P. Mannix’s 1976 book Freaks: We Who Are Not As Others, but Being Different also winds up being a nice document.

The most famous fellow detailed here is doubtlessly Billy Barty, who was leading the way with his Little People of America at the time. But we also have Johann Petursson (the world’s tallest man), Dolly Reagan (the human doll), Siamese twins Ronnie and Donnie Galyon, Sandra Elaine Allen (the world’s tallest woman), and the “World’s Strangest Couple,” Percilla “The Monkey Girl” and Emmett “The Alligator Skin Boy” Bejano.  Rasky even employs a classic barker to introduce some of the folks in the lively patter that drew the curious into the tents.

This was a timely re-watch for me, having just finished re-reading Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love. I’m kind of in the mental milieu.

Faces of Death (1978)

Faces of Death (1978) VHS cover

director  Conan LeCilaire
viewed: 11/18/2017

In the 1980’s, having seen Faces of Death was de rigeur for any horror fan. It was one of the most outré things on most family video store movie racks. As far as Exploitation goes, it might have been the video era’s greatest success.

The bait-and-switch of veritable horrors with hammy fakes fit is well within the carny sideshow tease and titillate. The reality, though, was always cheapened by the fake. And it still is. The voice over doesn’t help though it’s strangely politically progressive.

But these days much worse is readily available on the internet. So, out of the context of its reputation and the scrutiny of fake to realism, where does Faces of Death stand now?

It’s definitely in the Mondo mold, and I imagine that is the best way to categorize it today. It shares with Mondo the faux documentary style, the all-knowing narrator moralizing the stuff, the mixture of real life violence and staged material, especially the use of gruesome animal sequences that set the table and tone for verity and horror.

I d say that it’s flaws start with its structure, a seeming randomness that fails to sense its own strengths and weaknesses. It ends up meandering and working through no pattern of development. Interestingly, the music seems an ironic commentary throughout. Which might help to explain the mind-boggling credit sequence and song.

I appreciate Exploitation movies, though I doubt I need to re-watch this again ever. It’s still eerie and gross.

Goodbye Uncle Tom (1971)

Goodbye Uncle Tom (1971) movie poster

directors Gualtiero Jacopetti, Franco Prosperi
viewed: 12/23/2015

The ultimate audacious exploitation film is an utter mind-fuck of a movie.  It’s outrageous and shocking, jam-packed with scenes and images that sear into your brain, a near nonstop barrage of titillation and terror, shock and awe.

Never has there been a film that works so hard to be anti-racist that totally subverts itself into exploitation insanity.  It seems clear that Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi are trying to make a radical anti-racist film, invoking Eldridge Cleaver and LeRoi Jones and the black power movement, while delving into a bizarre pure Mondo attempt to depict a modern day film crew back in the days of slavery, highlighting cruelties and brutality, animalization of blacks by evil naive whites.

The Italian production, filmed in Haiti, features a cast of hundreds in what seems like very exploitative participation.  It’s almost impossible to know from simply watching the film exactly what was going on on the sets but Jacopetti and Prosperi strive for epic disgust and outrage, showing things as they were at the worst in America’s past.  Certainly a lot of their claims and images have truth in historical fact, but it’s such a whacked out and insane approach, shoving things endlessly in the audiences’ faces, it’s hard to analyze each thing on its own and it’s also certainly questionable to sort facts from possible embellishments.

Goodbye Uncle Tom well earns its reputation as one of the most offensive and shocking of all exploitation films.  It’s really hard to affix a star rating to the film.  Its audacity and concept is either utterly bankrupt or alternatively pure genius.  Provocation is baked deeply into the whole concept and it’s executed to the Nth degree.  It’s agitprop at its most effective.  It’s hard to imagine anyone being able to watch this film with a mild response.

But its notoriety isn’t that its message is clearly understood.  Upon release and no doubt today, a lot of people would find this film shocking and offensive and totally racist.  As clear as it was to me that Jacopetti and Prosperi invoke black power and beat the drum of outrage about the true horrors of the past, a just invocation, highlighting the evils of racism, the shock and exploitation totally upends their intention.  The grotesqueries are so lurid that they wind up appearing as racist themselves as the things they mean to depict.

This runs throughout the entirety of the film, a constant through the full 136 minutes.  The atrocity exhibition is nonstop bananas.   Seriously, as bizarre and outrageous as anything I’ve ever seen.

The Forbidden (1966)

The Forbidden (1966) movie poster

directors Benjamin Andrews, Lee Frost
viewed: 09/05/2015

The B-side to the Ecco (1964) Mondo disc is Forbidden, another Mondo film with a somewhat less sprawling focus.  This one is largely, though not entirely, about strippers and nude performers around…the world?

Oh yeah, and it begins with a really weird sequence where two half-naked women open their door to a bald rapist and subdue him with a knife in the eye.  This is described as an advertisement for a martial arts studio in Los Angeles.  And then there are some displays of women throwing men.

Most hilariously, the film features a very judgmental (and incessant) narration.  A sample from a scene describing the quality of the French strip performers to their American counterpoints notes that they are considered “performers instead of garbage that has to resort to stripping for lack of any other skill”  such as “cheap morally depraved acts worthy of viewing by only the most base of men”.

What you can discern from these films is probably up to each viewers herself.  That which is staged, that which is inaccurately or misleadingly described, that which is potentially revealing or real.  That said, a girl revealing herself is often at least that, a girl revealing herself.

Ecco (1964)


Ecco (1964) movie posterdirector Gianni Proia
viewed: 09/05/2015

Have you ever seen a girl castrate a reindeer with her teeth?  Ecco!

Ecco is an early Mondo Cane (1962) knock-off, a first wave of “Mondo” documentaries, this one perhaps one of the higher-end samples, also featuring a soundtrack by Mondo Cane‘s Riz Ortolani (“More”).  And for a narrator?  George Sanders, offering a certain level of class and a certain level of humor.

Like a lot of Mondo films, this one is kind of all over the place, literally and figuratively.  It’s a globe-trotting freakshow with varying degrees of fakery or misinformation constructing the things that the audience is shown as factual.  Satanic ritual in England? Brazilian Carnival? San Francisco female impersonators? Japanese youth in loincloths vying for ?  Parisian butt club?

It’s a moderately entertaining array of nonsense, with only a couple of really cringy bits.  There is a bloody whale hunt, though done by guys in a canoe not some big hunting ship.  Still kinda gross.  There is the reindeer scene, though it’s more delicately edited.  Blink and you might miss it.

And then there is the human pincushion dude.  If you ever really wonder what the Mondo genre is all about, here is a key example.  It’s a freakshow, some far more freaky than others.

Still the Laplander girl in traditional costume.  The Lapp’s costumes are pretty awesome on their own.  Ecco!

Primitive London (1965)

Primitive London (1965) movie poster

director Arnold L. Miller

Sometimes (perhaps more often than not), someone has done a rather good job of summarizing a movie better than I can do it.

Vic Pratt of BFI Screenline describes “Primitive London, like other ‘Mondo’ films, is a bizarre hotchpotch of loosely linked and entirely disconnected sequences, mixing the salacious and the supposedly shocking with the banal, the ridiculous and the bewilderingly mundane.”

He adds in details “Among the elements included are interviews with mods, rockers and beatniks; bloody footage of a birth; battery chickens being killed; a grisly re-enactment of a Jack The Ripper murder (inserted at the last minute to ensure that the film was given an ‘X’ certificate); flabby men in a sauna bath; women modelling topless swimsuits; a wife swapping party (which inspired Long’s later production, The Wife Swappers (1970)); ‘violent’ sports such as kendo; the life of a Soho stripper, and even a chiropodist at work.”

The mods and rockers are perhaps the most culturally interesting thing caught on camera, but the totality of randomness that producers Arnold Miller and Stanley A. Long end up getting on film makes you really wonder what they were really interested in when they set about this film.  It’s an interesting oddity.