SLEAZEMANIA!: Catch The Exploitation History Fever

Transport your mind back to the distant era called “the mid-’80s.” The VHS revolution was in full force in that glorious time before Blockbuster took its ultimately fatal stranglehold around the video rental business.  A hungry cadre of VCR owners swarmed their way through a newly-formed ecosystem of mom-and-pop video shops, willing to try out all sorts of exotic delights to fuel their new home theater-s. Video labels big and small sprang up to fill this demand, testing out all sorts of niche fare in search of profit.

During this time, a new generation of film fanatic sprang up. They were too young to have experienced the grindhouse or the drive-in when they were at their peak but they were eager to learn about the films that fueled their renaissance periods… and a handful of savvy operators had their fingers on this pulse, releasing vintage films and compilation tapes for the eager-to-learn kids reading Fangoria and self-published ‘zines that touched on that culture.

One of the best early releases in this vein was Sleazemania, a pioneering VHS release from Rhino Video. It offers a heady mixture of exploitation film previews ranging from the ’30s to the ’80s, peppered with a few intermission promos and clips from vintage burlesque and stag reels. It was an eye-opener for many a young viewer learning the ways of cult cinema and remains a potent little blast of sleazy fun no matter what your level of grindhouse experience is.

Sleazemania‘s magic carpet ride of sleaze and shocks begins with a one-two punch from the thirties: a preview for Lash Of The Penitentes turns a real-life cult of religious obsessives into a pretext for bondage fantasies and Marihuana (“The weed with roots in hell!”) is a racier variant of Reefer Madness-style anti-drug tactics that suggests any woman who takes a puff of a joint becomes a nympho eager to strip out of her flapper gear. A section of 50’s trailers includes a dash of Ed Wood via Jail Bait, a wrestling melodrama called Pin Down Girls that puts an emphasis on girl-on-girl roughhousing and The Flesh Merchants, a hysterical “art racket” expose that suggests any aspiring model is doomed to become a victim of sex trafficking.

As the tape cruises into the ’60s, things get more outlandish. For example, Orgy Of The Dead (also penned by Ed Wood) mixes vintage horror iconography with bump-and-grind stripper performances in eye-popping color while The Smut Peddler offers a cornucopia of kinks narrated onscreen by the title figure, a grotesque fellow with a facial complexion that falls somewhere between Baron Harkonnen and Pizza The Hutt.  There’s also a trio of Herschell Gordon Lewis trailers that show his work outside the world of gore films: the female biker epic She Devils On Wheels, the j.d. expose Just For The Hell Of It and the paranormal-themed sexploitation of The Psychic (under the alternate title Copenhagen’s Psychic Loves).

The sleaze really gets intense once the ’70s is reached. The Young Seducers is a prototypical example of German sexploitation from this era, offering an anthology-styled glimpse into the sex lives of nymphets via a series of lascivious seduction scenarios. It’s awash in miniskirts, full-frontal nudity, leering men and bouncy lounge music. Jailbait Babysitter isn’t as explicit as its German predecessor but peddles the same sort of sleaze and Escape From Women’s Prison has female cons taking over a house with kidnapping victims as a pretext for roughie kink and plenty of skin.

Things close out on a ’80s note with Prison Ship, a promo reel that Fred Olen Ray shot for a project that would ultimately be made and released as Star Slammer.  It’s got a mix of jiggle, zap gun fights, purloined spaceship dogfight FX and Aldo Ray mumbling in scar-faced makeup.  Everything winds down with the closing credits, which unfurl over footage from a ’60s short called Music To Strip By.

Sleazemania was expertly assembled by Johnny Legend, a fringe figure who has done everything from make porno flicks to manage wrestlers to record rockabilly music, and the assemblage of trailers and clips is informed by the passion for outsider culture suggested by his c.v.  The result was a cult success: Rhino released three sequel tapes plus a “special edition” that combined material from the first two volumes.

This original entry in the series remains potent. Watching it gives you the sense that there is a secret history of cinema, one thriving in the dank spaces ignored by conventional film critics.  If you’re of a cult film mindset, it makes you lean forward and want to learn more. Thus, Sleazemania did exactly what it was supposed to do… and if you haven’t seen it yet, it just might give you the fever, too.

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