The low-budget exploitation film of the golden grindhouse heyday ('60s through early '80s) comes in many shapes and colors, from the clumsy, quirkily "erotic" sexploitation quickies of Harry Novak, to young Abel Ferrara's stark tales of blood-soaked city streets.
The exploitation films that tend to resonate the most with horror fans are the darker, grittier films that are uncompromising and seemingly cloaked in danger and doom. When it all works correctly, the grimy residue of a lurid, unsettling exploitation movie's atmosphere will haunt you for days. Certainly, this atmosphere can be (and often is) achieved via on-screen violence and gore - which is fine by me. However, especially when working with a shoestring budget, more goes into crafting such a nightmare world than just blood and guts.
Sometimes, the elements just line up right: the tiny budget, the circumstances of the production, the attitude and talent of the filmmakers, and the outside forces (that may support or hinder the filmmakers' intentions) all mesh to make an exceptionally gruesome exploitation film. In this edition of Overlooked and Underrated, we will eyeball five gritty, nasty exploitation/horror films that achieve an exceptional tone of blood-chilling menace.
I Drink Your Blood (1970)
Here's a harsh little tale about a satanic hippie cult who transform from despicable lunatics into even worse despicable lunatics when they chow down on a batch of rabies-infected meat pies. The movie takes on a genuinely unsettling tone with the "rat hunt" sequence and fails to let up on the filth and insanity until the end credits roll. Directed with enthusiasm by David Durston, I Drink Your Blood features Lynn Lowry (The Crazies, They Came from Within) in a supporting role.
Don't Look in the Basement (1973)
Also known as The Forgotten, this S.F. Brownrigg film is about an isolated insane asylum and the newly-hired nurse who arrives to discover the doctor in charge has died. An ensemble of great nut-job characters populate the clever story in an oppressive atmosphere of tension and dread. Don't Look in the Basement is a fine example of blending writing, direction, and location perfectly to create a standout exploitation film with a uniquely grimy, disconcerting air.
In this brutal giallo directed by Sergio Martino (All the Colors of the Dark), the police are baffled as an elusive psycho kills off college students, leaving a red and black scarf as the only clue to his identity. Most of the movie is presented in the glaring light of a whodunit slasher, but its starkness is broken up by sequences that are rather otherworldly and poetic. This checker-boarding of tonal shades gives Torso a particularly grim and fascinating personality.
Titled The Naked Prey for its U.S. release, this film charts the nightmare of a married couple on a road trip who are taken hostage by a bank robber. Directed by Pasquale Festa Campanile (When Women Had Tails), the film stars Franco Nero (Force 10 from Navarone), Corinne Cléry (The Story of O), and David Hess (The Last House on the Left). A road trip film crossed with a horror/thriller/exploitation movie, Hitch-Hike is fortified with attention-grabbing plot twists, hopeless and claustrophobic scenarios, and the stomach-knotting peril only David Hess could provide.
Beyond the Darkness (1979)
Also known as Buio Omega and Buried Alive, this is one of the best and most disturbing films from the one and only Joe D'Amato (Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals, Porno Holocaust). In Beyond the Darkness, Frank's fiancée is murdered (with a voodoo doll) by the housekeeper who wants Frank all to herself - but Frank preserves his would-be bride's body and keeps it around. The violence and gore are presented so straight-faced that the movie maintains a deeply sinister, queasy feeling throughout. It's an exceptionally shocking and grotesque achievement in exploitation/horror cinema. Upon release of this film, director D'Amato was accused by authorities of mutilating actual human corpses for the film.