Exploitation cinema and Cheap Thrills

Originally published for Liverpool Small Cinema

Programmer Christopher Brown gives some background to the Cheap Thrills film night, launching with Freaks on April 30th

The IntruderI was at the Edinburgh Film Festival a few years back for a screening of Roger Corman’s exploitation film The Intruder, a tale of racism in the Deep South in the 50s which had a strong impact on its, admittedly bleary-eyed, Saturday morning audience. Its use of racist language, said in a relaxed, matter-of-fact way, jolted the unassuming audience members.

It’s that mix of “relaxed” exploitation, with an art-house crowd which interested me in my choices for Cheap Thrills, a new, regular, screening night at A Small Cinema Liverpool.

Cheap Thrills’ aim is not to shock but to ask us why we might be. Context is all and we can only watch films with our own personal experiences sitting alongside us, but it is that which makes them a cultural phenomenon.

Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks has been misunderstood through the years; indeed it was banned in the UK for 30 years for, what was considered to be, its exploitation of the side-show acts. With modern eyes many see the film for what the director intended – a love letter to the side-show acts he grew up with as a teenager at a travelling circus.

The story, one of a trapeze artist who tries to marry a side-show act for his money mirrors the exploitation of these people at the time.To this mix he added a sense of true family between the acts, strong community and identity (which people might recognise in American Horror Story: Freak Show) never leaving the audience in any doubt of who they should support.

It was a troubled production and MGM bawked at what he created, a lush film placing the acts at the heart of the story.  The film was cut, and lost money. It was a blow which Browning never really recovered from ending his career.

The film was shown on the grindhouse and drive-in circuit for years, further distancing Browning’s intentions from how it was shown on the screen. The tagline even included the tasteless, “can a full grown woman truly love a midget?”

With this in mind Cheap Thrills will be showing the film in an exploitation-style setting. The aim is to mix popcorn trailers, old B-movie trailers and the film itself. This will create a challenging environment to see the movie, reminding the audience of its roots.

It’s aim is to provide more historical context for the film and highlighting its misunderstood nature.

Freaks is a horror film, but to modern audiences that horror may come from a different place to those that went to see it in the 30s and onwards. The film is frozen in time but our own society and attitudes change around it.

Next up will be another controversial effort, the video nasty The Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue, now seen as a tame zombie effort but in the 1980s it was seized and destroyed by the police and courts. Cheap Thrills will ask, “do we still consider this film to be able to deprave and corrupt?”

In June Plan 9 From Outer Space will be shown, questioning the nature of the “bad  movie” and “guilty pleasure”.

Each of these films possess higher intentions than their grindhouse roots but it’s important to show them in the context they have come from. So come, take a look,and reassess what you may think of these oft maligned cinematic classics. They may be sold as Cheap Thrills, but they are far richer than that.

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