Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Schlock! The Secret History of American Movies


At a certain point in my life, Doris Wishman was probably my favorite film director. Not that I knew it; when you’re 16, 17, 18 years old and perpetually horny you aren’t likely to read the credits of a movie. But at that age me and some friends used to drive to Houston (no local theaters were enlightened enough to show a Wishman film) to see brilliant spectacles like Nude on the Moon, Hideout in the Sun, Diary of a Nudist, and Gentlemen Prefer Nature Girls. Plot? We didn’t need no steenkin’ plot! It was enough to see all that bare female skin as they played volleyball (never turning to face the camera) or just walked around holding towels to cover the really naughty bits. Then they’d turn and walk away from the camera, and golly, they really were naked! (And they tended to have big asses.) It’s probably hard to imagine in this age of raw pornography on the Internet, but that was about as racy as it got in the early ‘60s. Doris Wishman was the Queen of the nudie-cuties, just as another cinematic genius, Russ Meyer, was the King of the voyeur peep-show comedy with great films like The Immoral Mr. Teas and Eve and the Handyman.

Now, at long last, the story of these neglected cinematic greats has been told, along with people like Samuel Z. Arkoff and Roger Corman, with commentary from the likes of Forrest J. Ackerman! The “science fiction” part of this saga has been covered pretty well in other documentaries about giant ants and radioactive killer shrews. This one gets into the down and dirty side of independent movie production in that era. In a word: Sex!

The totally amazing thing is that the main realization these producers and directors came to, the moment of genius, was to realize that nobody was making movies aimed at the teenage audience. It seems incredible in this day when teenagers—in particular, shithead fanboys—completely control major movie-making, driving the production of $200,000,000 pieces of crap like Transformers. I guess the critical factor here is disposable income. We didn’t have much. The spoiled brats of today have lots of it. But even we had some money to spend on bubble gum and comic books and a cherry coke down at the malt shoppe, and we would spend it if somebody made a movie we’d like to see. Thus was born I Was a Teenage (Fill in the Blank), and all its low-budget, no-budget, drive-in progeny.

This movie covers the ground pretty well, from the nudie-cuties (enabled by a court decision that, since nudist camps existed, movies about them could not be deemed obscene) and the peep shows, to the steamy “expose” film, right on into the very disturbing “roughies,” which mainly showed sexual violence against women. It was at this point that I largely lost interest, both back in the ‘60s and here and now. Though it is educational to see the depth of rage in these awful films, and wonder about the guys sitting out there, one hand in their popcorn sack and the other in their pants. Sad to say, Doris Wishman made some roughies, too. She said she’d make damn near anything if people wanted to see it. And is she any worse than the slime that make the Saw movies of today? I think not.

And you know what? Some of these movies were fabulously profitable. Many of them were made for $10,000 or less, and took in $25,000,000.

I have to mention Vampira. She opens this movie with some reminiscences. I never saw her show, which debuted in the early ‘50s in Los Angeles, but I did see one of the spin-offs. Very quickly TV stations all around the country were producing their own hokey late-night horror-fests, with a lot of cardboard gravestones, fiberglass cobwebs, and studio fog. Each of them had a host, often as not dressed up like Dracula. KBMT had one called (I think) “Shock Theater!” and it was hosted by the speech teacher at my high school, Joe Peacock. (I guess all speech teachers are frustrated actors.) He came on at every commercial break and made bad jokes with a Transylvanian accent. We all got a kick out of watching him, then discussing the show with him the next day. I’ve been trying to recall the name of his character, but it escapes me.