Big kids, of a certain age, would most likely be familiar with Flash Gordon. He was, after all, one of the great cultural icons of the twentieth century. Originally the subject of a 1930s comic strip, he would also, during the same decade, be the subject of a matinee serial. On that occasion Flash would be portrayed by former swimmer Buster Crabbe. However, over the ensuing years, Flash would go through various incarnations. These would include a well known sexploitation style parody from 1974. This, of course, was the famous Flesh Gordon. In this re-imagining of the story, Flash, erm... Flesh, and his friends, Dr. Flexi Jerkoff and Dale Ardor, would face the perils of Emperor Wang the Perverted and his Sex Ray. It had a sequel. Surprisingly, though, despite being a teensy bit camp and silly, that sexed-up version appears to be a paragon of modest restraint. Or at least this seems to be case when it is placed alongside the peerless 1980 version from Mike "Get Carter" Hodges. For, his Flash Gordon is a tripped out, technicolour vision. It is something to behold! It's awesome! This Flash Gordon is Star Wars' psilocybin soaked cousin. Hausu on acid. A candy coloured, Bava-esque Barbarella, in a blender. A gold plated, Georges Méliès re-imagining of Starcrash that is bobbing in the overpill of a paint factory... mostly red! Yeah, it's that colourful! You see, this may come as something of a surprise to fans of Mr. Godfather, but Lucio Fulci's New Gladiators is not, in fact, the most garish movie ever made. For, that crown lies elsewhere. We are talking about the Fabergé egg of questionable taste. The film that goes far beyond garish. So much so that it becomes a thing of rare, exquisite beauty. We are talking, of course, of Flash Gordon! It truly is a spectacle! Here, for this, we must thank those whos names tend to appear further down in the credits. We are, of course, referring to the special effects folk, the art department, the costume people and so on. For there truly is some masterful trickery afoot here. For example, how the skies are created with coloured dyes swirling in water. The result? They look simply fantastic. But, beyond this, there are also some lovely matte paintings, wonderfully detailed miniatures and all realised with a delightful Art Deco ambience throughout. And the reason for this brilliance comes down to, among others, the vision of Pasolini and Fellini costume designer, Danilo Donati. Here he is responsible for both production design and costuming. Because, while every performer hams it up to the nth degree, the visuals are out of this world! As a result Flash Gordon could be added comfortably to a résumé that includes the likes of Decameron, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom and Fellini Satyricon. Also, among the multi-national production team, we find make-up artist Massimo De Rossi. Aside from working on Flash Gordon, his more notable exploitaiton credits include Fulci's dark western Four of the Apocalypse, Castellari's The Big Racket and the final installment of the excellent Schoolgirls in Peril Trilogy. But the Italian connection doesn't stop there. Not that it would be expected to, given that the film was produced by Dino De Laurentiis. So, among a cast of the noteworthy, we find Ornella Muti. Here, almost a decade after making her début in Damiano Damiani's Most Beautiful Wife, she is legally old enough to take her kit off. As, indeed, she had been for some time! Though this certainly wasn't the case back in the early 70s when she appeared topless in Summer Affair! Naughty Ornella! However, in Flash Gordon, she choses to remain fully clothed. So there are, to squeeze a little giallo quip into the mix, no Dirty Pictures here! Badum-tish! Though this doesn't mean that this is a family film. Indeed, shocking as it may seem, someone says "bastard"! Oh and there is a little blood. This is blue. Anyhow, the star of this Flash Gordon is Sam J. Jones. He follows a story that is, pretty much, laid out in the Queen hit entitled Flash. Here the former Playgirl centrefold takes a role originally earmarked for Kurt Russell. He is the titular Flash. Ahaaa! Saviour of the Universe! So we learn that Flash is just a man, nothing but a man. Yet, he stands for every one of us! This means every man, every woman and every child. He does so, as Freddie Mercury informs us, with a mighty Flash! But this is not seen in the film. The song even tells us how long our heroes have to save the earth. Not long! Oh, and we find out what they do with War Rocket Ajax. So, the song really does give aways a few major plot developments. However, thanks to this spoilertastic rock hit, much fun can be extacted from the act of shouting "Ahaaa!" every time someone in the film says "Flash!". "Ahaaa!" See! The film open to some narration. This, incidentally, would later be used in Orb's Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld. Anyhow, then a storm of flaming hail hits the earth. This accompanies an unprecedented eclipse. Only Flash. Ahaaa! Can save the universe. So, he unites with Dale Arden, a love interest played by Melody Anderson, and also his scientist sidekick: Topol's Dr Zarkoff. The trio set off for outer space. They are going to confront Ming the Merciless who is played by a barly recognisable Max Von Sydow and his golden masked assistant: a totally unrecognisable Peter Wyngarde. He of Department S! To win the day Flash has to unite the clans of Mongo. These are led by a booming Brian Blessed, here with wings, and Timothy "I used to be a Bond, you know!" Dalton. Thanks to flash these warring rivals become friends and allies. Rusty Goffe is in Flash Gordon. Rusty used to do the weather. Remember? No? Well, he did spend a number of years on L!ve TV where he joined the likes of the good-as-it-sounds Topless Darts and the cheap-as-chips, Gong Show-esque, Spanish Archer. Then he was known as Britain's Bounciest Weatherman. In this role, likeable midget character actor Goffe would jump up and down, on a trampoline, while delivering the daily forecast. Alongside Goffe we find the astounding Richard O'Brien. Yes! Him from The Crystal Maze! Here he plays a clarinet. Also we get a brief glimpse of Robbie Coltrane. However, he is only in the film for a couple of seconds. His role here consists of closing an aircraft door. He has no lines. Digger Duncan from Blue Peter makes a little more impact. He delivers his line, then is poisoned by a scorpion, he falls over. Dies. And all this, my friends, despite being a stellar offering in itself, is just the supporting cast! I mean, who the hell wouldn't pay good money to see a film starring that lot?
He was born as Russell Albion Meyer. However, to the world, he would be better known as Russ Meyer, the King of the Nudies. Meyer made his feature début with the 1959 sexploitation flick, The Immoral Mr. Teas and would be responsible for some of the most familiar cult and exploitation films of the sixties and seventies. Films such as Vixen! As the first of Meyer's Vixens trilogy, Vixen! is an American production that is set in Canada. Despite this, it has a certain Euro-erotica aesthetic. Maybe it's the use of the familiar pastel palette of the Eastmancolor process. It may even be the breezy score that wouldn't feel out of place in a Radley Metzger film. Whatever it is, Vixen! has an ambience that would easily allow it to sit comfortably within the catalogue of Audubon Films. That said, at the same time, there is no doubt that this is a Russ Meyer film. As Russ, who produced a body of work that included the likes of Motorpsycho, Mondo Topless, Black Snake and Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, was very much the auteur. He would come to be known for a parade of strong, pneumatic, sexually confident, predatory, female leads. Vixen, for example. Vixen, who is played by the physically accommodating Erica Gavin, ticks so many of the boxes from the Russ Meyer female-lead check list. So, her boobs are as large as her presence, and her appetite for loving proves to be insatiable. Anyhow, Vixen is married. Her husband, Tom, is played by Garth Pillsbury. Tom is a Canadian bushranger. He is honest, hard working and dependable. In some respects he is a little like Max Parodi's Masetto from the Tinto Brass comedy Frivolous Lola. He does everything by the book. However, for Vixen, this proves to be not enough. Because, Tom is also conventional, lacking spontaneity and is a little dull. In fact cardigan wearing and pipe-smokingly so. He also frequently works away from home. So, it appears that while the mouse is away, then the vixen will play. And what games our vixen called Vixen plays! This, it seems, is because Vixen is a bit of a sex addict. She simply cannot get enough! So, while Tom is out and about, she likes to get her leg over. Indeed, in a scene that is nearly identical to one in Massimo Dallamano's Venus in Furs, she mounts the local Mountie. She also fellates a fish and even, in the ultimate act of taboo, boffs her brother after a shower seduction. Through all this the viewer is invited to act as a sort of voyeur. It is as if almost every erotic scene is shot from behind things, such as trees or bushes or through windows, bedsprings and even legs. However, when her husband returns, she assumes the role of dutiful wife. It seems that barely a man, woman or fish is safe when Vixen about and Tom is not. She will sleep with anyone! Well, erm.... almost anyone! For, she won't sleep with Niles. Instead she calls him Rufus, she calls him shoe-shine. She refers to him as chocolate drop and "boy". She also calls him spook. Yet, some of the racist terminology deployed seems archaic, even for 68. Indeed, at times, she seems to reference a time way before the end of segregation. That's right! Vixen is a racist. Niles is black. Vixen even, when all else fails, starts to make new words up. Or, at least, this is what Vixen's brother, Judd, claims. Judd, who is played by Jon Evans, sort of understands that there is something simmering beneath the surface. However, he wrongly attributes this to Vixen being attracted to a fetishised view of black men. Judd sees this as a weakness on her part and it is one he is prepared to exploit. But, he is wrong. It is clearly not what she is about at all. So, who is this Niles? Well, Niles, who is played by Harrison Page from Sledge Hammer, is a friend of Vixen's brother. He is a draft dodger. Politically conscious, he has fled north, in order to avoid conscription. Vixen hates him. Or at least this what her behaviour suggests. But yet, deep down, it could well be that Vixen admires him. Niles, you see, represents all the things that she finds attractive in a man. He is decisive, he understands who he his, he knows what he wants. Unlike others around her, Niles does not allow himself to be beaten down despite a bidding-up of prejudice from Vixen. So is this it then? Is this, despite the nods toward the counterculture, simply a tale of a bored, racist, sex maniac, housewife? Well no! It isn't. Things aren't that simple. You see, the racism that is articulated, here in the context of Vixen, is more about the expression of power than of prejudice. Think, therefore, of Vixen! as being a musing on the dynamics of submission and domination. Especially in how this differs from relationship to relationship. Vixen, like so many characters crafted by Meyer over the years, is a strong woman who happens to inhabit a world of weak and meek men. She is conscious of this and seeks, but fails, to fully attain sexual fulfilment with men who she hopes to be strong enough to meet her on equal terms. After all, her conquests include those in authority: an older brother, a law enforcement officer, a husband who seems to be more of a father figure than partner.... Most submit too readily to her without challenge or chase. All, that is, except Niles. He not only proves able to resist Vixen, but also, he doesn't allow himself to be ground down by her bigotry. Which, as the story progresses, become increasingly desperate. Indeed, it all sounds more like the attention seeking words of a spoilt child who is, for once, not getting her own way. Anyhow, aside from Vixen herself, there is another who seems to be willing to exploit Niles. So, late in the feature, Meyer plays his joker. You see, while this may seem a little bizarre on first glance, he introduces an Irish republican communist into the pot. However, despite all the talk of liberation, equality, of Cuba or of the brotherhood of man, our IRA man turns out to be another racist. The result is a showdown between Niles and the overbearing Marxist-Leninist. At this point Vixen, if nothing else, learns to respect Niles.
Occasionally, exploitation films do nothing more than capture a prevailing mood of the time. They needn't be sex films, nor monster movies. They needn't be biker flicks, nor kung fu films. They could simply be considered exploitation on account of the fact that they latch onto current events, or even older news stories that have cut deep into the public consciousness. They could be exploitation films by, for example, telling the story Bonnie and Clyde or even that of Ed Gein. Indeed, the latter would be re-imagined in number of exploitation films. Texas Chainsaw Massacre for example. While, the Charles Starkweather spree would be referenced within The Sadist. These are dark subjects that are used to titilate, to excite. But, this particular exploitation film would take a different tack altogether. It played on contemporary hopes and even fears. As with Japan's Godzilla movies, which spoke to the hopes of a nuclear free world that is counterposed to the fear of nuclear anhilation, so this is a film that counterposes the change that accompanies the march of history with those who would fear where such changes could lead. It is a film that is cautiously optimistic. In taking such a perspective, The Black Klansman was not alone. For example Roger Corman would direct the excellent Intruder. This would cover much of the same ground. Also, Joseph P. Mawra's would touch upon similar in the trashy Shanty Tramp. Albeit from a more sensationalist perspective. Meanwhile, for zombie fans, George A. Romero would cover a Civil Rights Movement theme in his iconic and genre defining Night of the Living Dead. After all, if exploitation cinema can and does address the prevailing political climate then, it stands to reason that exploitation directors would deal wth the subject of civil rights. In the case of The Black Klansman, this was during the immediate aftermath of the Watts Riots. You see while, in London, England were busying themselves with the preparations for hosting the football World Cup, the United States was going through a profound transformation. As Dylan, not Thomas, would famously note, the times were definately a-changin'. Communism also was the subject of an abundance of filmic fretting. This too dovetailed with the concerns of those for whom The Civil Rights Movement would represent a step too far. Indeed, along with drugs and teen delinquency, communism proved to be the drive-in bogey man par excellence. For example with Invasion USA. Indeed, both version manage to tap into the red-scare as poopers flapped to the rhythm of the cold war. The original version tries, and fails spectacularly, to be dark and sombre. While, on the other hand, years later, a Chuck Norris version hyperactively taps into a more hubristic vein altogether. This is understandable! After all, for the USSR, by the eighties the game was up. Indeed, this was the age of political necrosis that accompanied the Gorbachov era. Norris clearly knew this, and so he kicked ass with a rocket laucher. In Rocky 4 Stallone did similar without. However, despite this, these films would seldom represent a sincere polemic. After all, the directors who primarily produced grindhouse and drive-in theatre films were not all about the sweetness and light. Their primary concern would be to get bums on seats. To make money. In order to do so they would be prepared to shock if necessary. After all, business is business! Anyhow Mikels, born Theodore Mikacevich, once said that, in order to make a film it takes "everything you possess within you!". If this is the case then it stands to reason that Mikels must possesses a grindhouse within himself. Because that is what he makes: grindhouse films. To get a bit of a flavour of what it is that Ted V. Mikels is all about then just take a look at that filography! As a director he would bring us such colourfully titled fare as The Corpse Grinders, Blood Orgy of the She-Devils and The Doll Squad. As a producer he would be responsible for the co-producing of Steve Barkett's wonderful work of post-apocalyptic auteurship, The Aftermath. This, of course, featured genre stalwart Sid Haig! Therefore it is, by default, brilliant. So, with that said, on first inspection it may come as something of a surprise to learn that Ted V.Mikels dives headlong into the civil rights debate with The Black Klansman. What may surprise even further is that this does not, in fact, represent an especially trashy intervention. Indeed, The Black Klansman is a fairly robust drama with a certain Southern Gothic noir ambience. Nevertheless, it is still exploitation cinema. For, after all, what is exploitation film if not an attempt to tap into the themes that interest, or even stun, audiences? This means not merely generic exploitation but also thematic exploitation too. This also means, at times, topicality. That is, capturing the mood of the day. The Zeitgeist if you will. If there is something deceptive, indeed exploititive, about The Black Klansman, though, it is the title. You see, despite holding such promise, the film bears no relationship to The Black Gestapo. Nor does it offer the comedic black-and-under-bedsheets hi-jinx of Blazing Saddles. Indeed, surprisingly, it is a film that plays it all fairly straight. Indeed, the film is a fairly serious take on a serious subject matter. The Black Klansman is definately not a film that seeks to put the grin back into grindhouse! You see, this is not blaxploitation as such. This is no Disco Godfather, nor a Foxy Brown or Human Tornado. Indeed, this is despite the presence of Max "The Mack" Julien. Who, by the way, turns in a delightful, scene stealing performance. Max even gets to make a speech that seemingly presages that of Cyrus from The Warriors. You dig? Instead, think of The Black Klansman a being close to John Mackenzie's biopic The Infiltrator from 1995 . After all, this is what the film is about. Infiltration of the far right. Because, although played by a white actor Richard Gilden, this is the story of a fair skinned black man who is able to pass for white. He is therefore able to get under the robes of the KKK. Gilden is able to achieve all this by simply wearing a ridiculous Elvis wig. Though this is a somewhat fanciful and implausible idea. But things border on the crazy when he whips off the hairpiece to reveal that he is not, in fact, white. Apparently! His "Tadaa! I'm black!" moment will most likely provoke laughter. Because Gilden clearly isn't. Anyhow, here, Gilden even sleeps with the daughter of the Grand Cyclops! That's a sort of Klan boss. Indeed, she was only the Klansman's daughter but she was certainly a wizard under the sheets! Old joke, sorry! Couldn't resist! Anyhow, ahem, so... Joking aside, what The Black Klansman, represents is something a little downbeat. Neverthelss, it still sets out to shock. Possibly for sensationalist reasons. Because the story includes what was still, at that time, the largely taboo subject of interracial relationships. And set in Alabama too! After all, this was still a number of years before a time when even a song performance, during which Petula Clarke gently touches Harry Belafonte's arm, was enough to cause a frothing, swivel-eyed uproar. However, despite this, the film would nevertheless represent an incredibly potent political statement. Albeit one that may have far less traction amongst contemporary thrill seeking audiences. However, back then, this would be a case of portraying that which seldom gets portrayed. It is a film that showed that which was almost never shown. The Black Klansman then, was taking risks. It was being edgy. As an aside, it is also known, among other titles, as I Crossed the Color Line.