Cash, trash and the art of the exploitation feature

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The Independent Culture

It spoke to the high-octane, daft confidence of Samuel Z Arkoff that he had died once already, 50 years before his legal demise two weeks ago in Los Angeles. Indeed, it's a wonder that he never took advantage of a title like I Was a Dead Man. Well, I exaggerate a little – but so did he. In 1952, Mr Arkoff didn't quite die. He had a cerebral haemmorhage and a seven-day coma. And when he came out of that deep sleep, he vowed there would be no more compromising with life. He was going to be a movie mogul; he was going to have fun; and he would chain-smoke cigars until the curtain fell. He made it to 83, and left an inspiring example.

Two years after his "incident", he teamed up with James H Nicholson to form American International Pictures – on a borrowed $3,000. For the next 20 years, mining the fields of B movies (and going on to X, Y and Z), AIP hardly made a flop. Their novelty was in seeing that after monopoly legislation had compelled the major studios to sell off the theatres they had owned, the trash end of the business was up for grabs. New, enterprising distributors had a way in, and the studios gave up making B pictures (the 70-or-so-minute bottom half of a double feature). AIP took over that burden, and did so just before rock'n'roll and teenage indulgence created their audience.

They were called "exploitation" pictures (in that the kids were being taken for a ride). But Arkoff and Nicholson were actually possessed by an enormous, innocent enthusiasm. They gave the kids a swell time with several staples: low budget sci-fi and horror flicks; a 1950s version of Bay Watch – good-looking kids in bathing suits on a beach; Italian costume epics; and biker and drug movies.

Such as? Such as Reform School Girl, The Premature Burial (he came close), Muscle Beach Party, I Was a Teenage Werewolf, How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (Sam was a titling genius – how could any kid resist that promise?), Dragstrip Girl, The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, Attack of the Crab Monsters, Bloody Mama. I could go on.

I know: you're reading a class Sunday newspaper, and it's close to offensive to have to take this gutter talk. Rest assured, Arkoff made serious money. The son of Russian immigrants, he was a graduate of Loyola Law School, and a cryptographer in the war. It took education to come up with those titles, and to supervise the comic-book posters that accompanied them. But it took a saint and a visionary to hire eager kids to direct them, and to leave the kids alone, so long as they didn't push the budget over $250,000. More than that, it was close to divine when Arkoff shrugged off profit, praise and even a tribute at the New York Museum of Modern Art with such remarks as, "We have so goddamn many arty-farties and pseudo-intellectuals in this business". "You look for certain elements. Such as sex and violence."

Take this example: AIP purchased an Italian epic called Sign of Rome. Dull title, said Sam. How about Sign of the Gladiator? Great, said assistants, but there is no gladiator in the picture. Not yet there isn't, said Sam. And he threw out the Italian soundtrack, wrote a new script and had one character talk about gladiating! Purchase price $20,000 – revenue $1.8 million.

How shameless was it? As time went by, Sam invented new systems for showing his films, such as "Superama" and "MagicVision". The beauty of these processes was that they cost nothing – they didn't exist. They were advertising come-ons in those sweet days when teenagers read the papers and believed what they read.

Should you let your mother see all the AIP pictures? No, not unless an inheritance is at issue. But if you're looking for energy, fun and a lust for movie sensation, AIP is your orgy. The company might be a curiosity. But here's their trick: AIP was the outfit where Francis Ford Coppola learned his art; it produced John Milius's Dillinger and Martin Scorsese's Boxcar Bertha; it was a home for Roger Corman, Peter Bogdanovich and Woody Allen – whose first film was a dubbed Arkoff-ised Japanese picture, What's Up, Tiger Lily? It was also the studio that helped scoop Charles Bronson, Bruce Dern, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Robert De Niro and Jack Nicholson off the streets and put them on camera.

Did Arkoff ever make a mistake? One, a big one. He once offered Fonda and Hopper $350,000 to do something called Easy Rider. Alas, they argued, so the arty-farties hit the road as their own business. But those bikes were fuelled on Arkoff.