- No Parents, No Church, No Authorities in Our Films:Exploitation Movies, the Youth Audience, and Roger Corman’s Counterculture Trilogy
From Bikinis to Bikers
in early june 1966, james h. nicholson, president of American International Pictures (AIP), the US film industry’s most important “major-minor” studio and its leading producer of low-budget, independent movies for youth audiences, announced a sharp change of direction for his company. The era of saucy-but-wholesome “beach and bikini” pictures that had been AIP’s stock-in-trade for the past three years—ever since the success of Beach Party (1963) had birthed a lucrative cycle of movies built around the vacation frolics of scantily clad high-school hotties—was over. Henceforth, AIP would offer its customers stronger, more challenging fare in the form of what Nicholson called “a series of protest films” (qtd. in “From Sand in Bikini”) designed to both reflect and exploit the turbulent, antiauthoritarian turn taken by American youth culture at mid-decade.1
The first of what Box Office labeled AIP’s “protest dramas” was The Wild Angels (1966), according to Variety an “almost documentary style” depiction of the transgressive lifestyles of California’s outlaw motorcycle gangs most closely associated with the Hell’s Angels, which were then enjoying a period of nationwide notoriety thanks to exposés in the Saturday Evening Post, Newsweek, the Nation, and Time and Life magazines.2 Only a couple of years before, Nicholson had stridently defended his beach-bikini pictures as “the epitome of morality,” deflecting accusations of prurience by insisting that “there are no overtly sexy sequences and no sex talk among the kids”; “the stars of AIP’s beach pictures,” he noted, “are always talking about getting married” (qtd. in McGee 219). Now, though, his company reveled shamelessly in the shockingly antisocial content of its product. AIP’s publicity notes for the press screening of The Wild Angels sensationalized the film’s biker gang as “a group of fanatical rebels . . . bent on kicks” that, “guided by a morality of its own,” seeks to “revenge itself harshly on society . . . for what it feels are unwarranted intrusions and frustrations” (The Wild Angels press-book). A provocative advertising campaign poster screamed, “Their credo is violence, their god is hate!” And reviewers played their part, dwelling on the film’s multiple instances of depravity and moral turpitude: “a sick, unclean, revolting spectacle,” concluded the Hollywood Reporter, remarking that “even necrophilia, the most loathsome of perversions, is presented with detachment” (Powers).
Trading bikinis for bikers was an unqualified success. By the end of 1966, The Wild Angels, which cost AIP only $360,000 to make, had grossed over $5 million, becoming by far the company’s highest-earning film to date and ranking thirteenth in Variety’s year-end box office chart. AIP embarked on a cycle of biker [End Page 3] films, comprising a further twelve pictures over the next five years, while the company’s competitors in the youth exploitation market jumped on the biker bandwagon, creating a flourishing subgenre that between 1966 and 1972 would encompass some three dozen films in total.3
Even the majors took note. Easy Rider (1969), the joint project of Wild Angels star Peter Fonda and AIP alumnus Dennis Hopper, and a property on which AIP itself passed, was picked up by Columbia. When this variant of the disreputable AIP biker formula became the fourth-highest-grossing film of 1969, making over $19 million from a meager $370,000 budget (Hill 30), Hollywood was shocked into rapidly recalibrating its production practices to cater to the hitherto-derided youth audience that AIP had spent the previous fifteen years cultivating. As Paul Monaco argues, “Easy Rider convinced the industry that movie production for the future would have to be based largely on a search for formulas and aesthetics that could truly excite the core audience of moviegoers—now composed almost entirely of adolescents and young adults” (188). AIP’s shift from bikinis to bikers precipitated a fundamental change in the model of American film production and transformed the industry’s perception of its market. The Wild Angels can thus be seen as a key precursor...