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Categories: Interviews

Dr. Ian Hunter is an esteemed Reader in Film Studies at De Montfort University, where he teaches about British cinema, Exploitation films and Trash.

With several publications under his belt and his current book British Trash Cinema on the shelves, I thought Dr. Hunter would be the perfect authority to discuss the finer aspects of this rough and ready genre…ian-hunter-dmu

What led to your affinity with Trash Movies?

I’ve always liked Trash, possibly because I have very bad taste in movies. As with many ageing cinephiles in the UK much of my interest in trash was energised by the ‘Video Nasties’ scandal of the 1980s, which politicised enthusiasm for the horror and exploitation films that had suddenly popped up in video stores and were being prosecuted and banned. Liking trash goes hand in hand with disliking censorship as well as sympathising with cinema’s underdogs.

More recently my academic work has focused on British exploitation, which little had been written about outside fan magazines. There is still a good deal of this secret history of British cinema to excavate as over 400 British exploitation films were released from the 1950s to 1980s. Admittedly many of them are now covered in depth in fanblogs by obsessive completists, but there is still work to do beyond listing the films and raving over their craziness and nostalgia value – for example, analysing their production, screenplays, distribution, audiences and reception.

I’m like a lot of film academics – I started as a fan and cultist and contrived to turn that into a career.

Increasingly I’m interested in films – and audiences – that even cultists look down on – my latest article, for example, is on British R18 hardcore DVDs, which virtually no one admits to watching.

Often people interchange the terms “B-Movies”, “Trash Cinema” and “Exploitation film”. What in your opinion are the nuances between them?

B-Movies were cheap short films that played on the second half of the bill, and were churned out by small studios and independents in the US from roughly the 30s to the 60s.

Exploitation, strictly, refers to low budget films on sensational subjects that were often made outside the Production Code. They started in the US in the late 1920s and 1930s, but by the 1950s exploitation had come to mean any low budget films on exploitable topics such as horror, sex, and juvenile delinquency that were shown in places like drive-in cinemas and grindhouses. In the 1950s they were mostly teenpics such as I Was a Teenage Werewolf but later the market leaders were Sexploitation movies and films for specific audiences such as Blaxploitation. Exploitation in the UK only got going in the 1950s because of censorship, but we then of course became world leaders in horror with Hammer.

Trash is trickier to define as it’s about taste as much as a kind of movie. Usually it refers to films that are sleazy or camp or deliberately in poor taste; films with no budget and little shame.

That said, films like Taken (which I like) are trash in all except their budget and high-profile stars – guilty pleasures for nice liberals.

Subversive film can sometimes be countercultural. How do you feel about the idea that B-Movies are a reaction to contemporary society?

“Subversive” like “transgressive” is one of those words whose currency has weakened with overuse, but it’s certainly true that B-Movies and exploitation have often got away with more than mainstream films, though their challenges were quickly absorbed. Films under the cultural radar can offer representations that are unusual or bracingly outrageous – the sympathetic treatment of transvestites in Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda, for example, or the sexy but alarming images of dominant women in Russ Meyer. Exploitation was quick to reach out to the counterculture in the 1960s, in films like The Wild Angels and The Trip, when Hollywood was still trying to recapture the family audience. All films vaguely respond to contemporary society but you could argue that exploitation films echo what’s going on in especially revealing ways, because they are made so quickly and are less worried about appealing to wide audiences or being respectable.

How do you think cultural norms are challenged in these movies, if at all?

With exploitation and trash, definitely – think of gay filmmakers like John Waters, who made Pink Flamingos. Exploitation can encourage a very independent punk DIY aesthetics.

Have you found popular interest in B-Movies has changed over the years? 

It’s become more mainstream. The fandom around Horror and Sexploitation is immense, and at the same time Hollywood draws more than ever from trash cinema (Horror and Sci-Fi rather than Sexploitation). Most of the big films, like Godzilla,would once have been B-Movies but now they have massive budgets and state of the art special effects.

For Trash cultists, the Internet and weakened censorship have changed everything. Films it once took literally years to track down on fourth generation video are instantly accessible in HD online. I had to go to Paris to see Salo uncut; now it’s on Blu-ray in HMV. Even the nastiest video nasties, like Cannibal Holocaust, gets lavish re-releases on labels like Shameless and Arrow.

Why do you think B-Movies can create such a cult following?

With the original B-Movies, like Detour and Gun Crazy, it was often because they were very good but overlooked.

Cultists love hunting down obscure films no one knows about and perversely arguing for their superiority to the mainstream.

Really trashy films administer shocks and thrills and offer the pleasures of bad taste and visceral extremes you don’t get anywhere else. The sheer weirdness and surrealism, for example, of incredibly bad trash films, like The Room and Birdemic: Shock and Terror, make for genuinely disorientating and intoxicating experiences.

How do you think European, British and American Exploitation films compare with one another?

The B-Movie died out in the 1960s once double bills were no longer standard, but Exploitation films continued to cater to audiences with specific needs and interests. British ones, which are what I know most about, were always hemmed in by censorship. In the US you can bypass the censors, but until the Internet that was difficult in the UK. So in the 1970s we ended up with very mild Exploitation subgenres like the softcore sex comedy (Confessions of a Window Cleaner and so on) while other countries could make hardcore porn films and ultra-violent sexy horror. The sex comedies now seem very British indeed in their embarrassment and awkwardness about sex. European exploitation is generally regarded as more extreme, at any rate in the 70s and 80s, when Italy had highly imitative cycles of brutal police, cannibal and Nazi exploitation films.

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What is your view on the excessive violence, sex and adult themes in many Trash films?

Naturally, I think they are a delight. But they can get pretty boring too, especially as so many trash films are still aimed at men.

Other genres in the Film Industry have seen women filmmakers bridging the gap. Do you feel like Trash Culture and Exploitation films are still male-dominated? Do you have any ideas why this could be?

I don’t have a ready answer to that. Women still seem way behind numerically as directors, so I imagine the same is true in Trash and Exploitation. I can’t name many female Exploitation directors aside from Doris Wishman and Roberta Findlay. Exploitation has always predominantly targeted male audiences, though women are big consumers of horror, and the staples of Exploitation, such as nudity and violence have always been coded as ‘male’. The archetypal cult trash fan is still the nerdy young man in a black T-shirt, but I suspect that doesn’t reflect the actual audiences for the films.

But you’ve got to remember that ‘trash’ for women has different connotations – whether soap operas, romcoms, Fifty Shades of Grey, or Dirty Dancing – and ‘women’s films’ and the vanilla, female-friendly mainstream are what trash taste has self-consciously often pitted itself against and sought to ‘subvert’.

Nothing is so looked down as stuff young women are said to like (think of the disdain for Titanic and Twilight). The whole field of Trash, Exploitation and indeed Cult is very gendered.

What is your favourite Trash film or canon of films, and why?

I’m a connoisseur of Jaws rip-offs of which there are countless. British Trash fascinates me because it is still relatively unknown beyond Hammer and some other Horror and Sexploitation films. There is lot there to cherish – Horror auteurs like Pete Walker and David McGillivray, weird one offs like Secrets of Sex, incomprehensible sex films like Come Play with Me. The late 60s and 70s were a Golden Age of British Trash; in fact in the 1970s it was one of the few areas of British cinema that was in good health and provided regular work. And of course a lot of films once thought of as trash such as Peeping Tom, Blood on Satan’s Claw, Performance and The Wicker Man are now classics and influence filmmakers like Ben Wheatley and Edgar Wright, who draw happily on Britain’s Trash heritage. That is one of the most exciting aspects of film – tastes do change over time and what was once thought of as disposable trash, from Horror to Film Noir to Melodrama to Russ Meyer, is now part of the canon.

As for favourites, I’ve long adored Verhoeven’s Showgirls, which is a trash masterpiece, and Hammer’s oddball cave-girl epic, Prehistoric Women (Slave Girls).

Right now I’m working on a book on Psychomania – a British Horror film from 1973 about suicidal zombie bikers that is frankly indescribable. Beryl Reid turns into a frog. It’s mad and quite wonderful.

Finally, what is your advice for filmmakers who are involved in making Trash movies?

Trash has always been a great place to start and to make calling-card movies. Cronenberg, Jackson, Coppola, Raimi and many others all started out making Trash or Cult films. Most of the New Hollywood directors (Scorsese, Demme, Dante) were of course graduates of Corman’s exploitation production line. Their films are steeped in an unembarrassed interest in Trash and its potential for visceral impact.

It’s easier than ever to make Trash films and get them seen, though distribution beyond the Internet is an issue and there is a bewildering glut of Trash available now on cable and DVD, much of it prefabricated intentionally bad trash like Sharknado.

Trash has very much come in from the cold – as someone like Tarantino, whose films are completely imbued with the spirit of Trash, demonstrates.

A good deal of contemporary Trash is very repetitive and fanboyish so more films by women would certainly be tremendous.

I.Q. Hunter is Professor of Film Studies at De Montfort University, Leicester, and author of British Trash Cinema (BFI/Palgrave, 2013). He is currently finishing Cult Film as a Guide to Life (Bloomsbury) and writing (with Jamie Sherry) a book on Psychomania for Auteur.

To read a sample chapter of British Trash Cinema go to: http://www.palgrave.com/page/detail/british-trash-cinema-iq-hunter/?K=9781844574155

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Christabel Samuel is a writer, director and editor. Having graduated from University College London with a BA in English Literature and an MA in Film Studies she is now a self-taught filmmaker, writer and perpetual learner. She won funding in 2011 for Lust in Translation and has gone on to judge at the London Film Festival, been appointed Head of Film for The Book Magazine and is currently editor-in-chief for The Spread.

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