Psychotic baby-sitters, a mobbed-up magician, a kung fu-crazed preteen boy and one nymphomaniac -- these are just a few of the beyond-the-pale characters coming to theaters this year in a trio of movies that openly (and gleefully) pay homage to the lowbrow "exploitation" films of the 1960s and '70s.
"Smokin' Aces," "Grindhouse" and "Black Snake Moan" all promise to be pure, outrageous pulp as they draw energy and inspiration from the kind of down-and-dirty movies that have thrived, in their own ways, outside the orbit of mainstream Hollywood.
It's no accident that these directors are all in their 30s and 40s, putting their influences to work by picking up the anything-goes aesthetic that was the hallmark of such cult favorites as "Mudhoney," "The Last House on the Left," "Bone" and "The Candy Snatchers."
They saw these films in their formative years and are now looking to push the envelope even further for a new generation whose sensibility has already been subject to the coarsening effects of "Girls Gone Wild," the Ultimate Fighting world, and Grand Theft Auto.
"It does represent some sort of paradigm shift in how we view the things that influence us," says writer-director Joe Carnahan, whose "Smokin' Aces" hits theaters this month, "without the reductive thinking of 'That's just trash.' "
At the beginning of the teaser trailer for "Grindhouse," written and directed by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, a card defines the title as "a theater playing back to back films exploiting sex, violence and other extreme subject matter," giving some sense of the outlaw, boundary-pushing aesthetics that follow.
Opening April 6, it is perhaps the most direct homage to exploitation films, down to replicating the grubby, washed-out colors of a faded film print, for little reason besides the sheer fun of it.
"Grindhouse" is a self-styled double feature with each filmmaker directing his own section -- Rodriguez the zombie-fighting "Planet Terror" and Tarantino the killer-with-car "Death Proof." The two push the exploitation aesthetic into truly surreal realms -- actress Rose McGowan plays a stripper who is outfitted with a machine gun for a prosthetic leg -- yet strive to make the world of the film seem legitimate on its own terms. To link the sections, they've also cooked up trailers for fake films, such as "Machete," during which the announcer booms, "He gets the women and he kills the bad guys!"
Over-the-top doesn't quite convey the near-hysterics of the sensibility at work.
"Smokin' Aces," which opens Jan. 26, involves competing hit men (and women) all converging on a Lake Tahoe casino to collect the bounty on magician-turned-mobster Buddy "Aces" Israel.
Carnahan's previous work, 2002's "Narc," was consciously done in the style of early '70s films such as "The French Connection." After that, Carnahan was attached to direct "Mission: Impossible III," although he left the project. He says the frustration of putting so much effort into something that did not come to fruition had a direct effect on the high-energy, thrill-hungry style of "Smokin' Aces."
"I wanted to do something that was so my own," he said, "the darkest parts of my humor, the most aggressively visceral action. I just wanted to punch people in the chest. I wanted to feel the air in my lungs and really go."
Showing off the breadth of Carnahan's influences, each team of assassins seemingly comes from a different genre -- blaxploitation, gangster, gritty cop, post-apocalyptic madness -- and there is a frenzied feel to the film as it constantly shifts styles. Carnahan culls from influences as wildly divergent as the Coen brothers and Sam Peckinpah, and no genre is off-limits.
"I made this thesis early that whatever character is occupying the frame," Carnahan says, "I'm going to let that personality dictate the way I shoot it. What you run into is it goes from this really outlandish over-the-top cartoon violence to these really desperate moments."
"Black Snake Moan," which opens Feb. 23 after its premiere at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, is writer and director Craig Brewer's follow-up to "Hustle & Flow." That film drew from the '70s blaxploitation genre to tell the story of a Memphis pimp who wanted more out of life. With "Moan," Brewer dips into a strain of race-baiting exploitation films, purposely pushing the limits of already loaded imagery.
This time, Brewer draws out the existential blankness of his exploitation predecessors to craft a raw fable of redemption, suffused with the spooky, unadorned feel of the rural folk blues that is part of its milieu. A young woman with a compulsive sexual appetite (Christina Ricci) is taken in by a blues musician-turned-farmer (Samuel L. Jackson) looking to exorcise some demons of his own.