"Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!": A History of Exploitation Films, 1919-1959 by Eric Schaefer is one of those books that tells you pretty much everything you need to now about a particular subject. It succeeds because Schaefer doesn’t try to cover too much ground. He doesn’t attempt a history of all exploitation movies, but focuses on a very specific type.
The movies he is concerned with are what he describes as the classical exploitation films, a very particular and peculiarly American phenomenon. These were movies that were not just made outside the studio system. Everything about them marked them as being different. They were distributed in a completely different way, and the style of film-making was quite distinct from what had become the Hollywood norm. Most notoriously, they are not subject the Production Code an in fact they focused almost exclusively on subject matter that was specifically prohibited by the code - drugs, prostitution, venereal disease and of course nudity. By the 1950s new types of exploitation movies were emerging, and by the beginning of the 60s the classical exploitation movie had vanished forever.
Schaefer describes in detail the way this shadowy alternative film industry worked, and then goes on to examine the types of movies that were produced. It’s a story enlivened by a collection of colourful and cheerfully disreputable characters. He neither glamourises nor condemns the movies, but he does point out the fascinating contradictions they contain. He also points out that the exploitation movies were a constant thorn in the side of the major Hollywood studios.
He does get a little ideological at times, but generally it’s quite readable and non-judgmental. It’s an intriguing subject, and it’s a book I recommend highly.