Chained Heat (dir. Paul Nicholas, 1983) is as sleazy an exploitation film as they come, a women-in-prison drama loaded with gratuitous female nudity, quease-inducing rape scenes, and ugly, clumsily staged acts of violence. So why watch it? What pleasures, if any, do such films afford?
In writing about psychotronic films these past several weeks, I’ve been trying to think about how and why they offer us different kinds of viewing satisfaction that we can’t get from mainstream Hollywood. (Some of them, however, don’t seem to offer any kind of satisfaction at all; they’re just duds.) With its excessive female nudity and soft-core lesbian sex, Chained Heat obviously aims to titillate straight male viewers. But how does its appeal extend toward other kinds of viewers—namely, the kinds of discerning, liberal-minded filmgoers who frequent the Brattle Theater here in Boston, where Chained Heat screened back in 2009 as part of a grindhouse series? My assumption is that most of that audience’s members weren’t there primarily to ogle Sybil Danning’s naked breasts (though I suppose some didn’t mind being made to gaze at them). They (the breasts) certainly weren’t a draw for myself or a gay male acquaintance with whom I saw two of the Brattle’s grindhouse features that year. It seems to me that irony plays no small part in the ability of an enlightened film viewer to “enjoy” a film like Chained Heat—that the pleasure comes in looking at its conventions, its sleaziness, from some sort of outside vantage point.
Psychotronic films are complicated films to theorize. They often afford different kinds of viewing pleasures simultaneously. Some of that pleasure may be “guilty,” the pleasure of indulging in a kind of lowbrow excess (the pleasures of, say, the exploitation actor’s nudity, or the over-the-top gore of a Herschell Gordon Lewis film). This pleasure has an undeniable pull for many viewers, and is related in some ways to the most primal kinds of spectatorial pleasure—the sheer, undisciplined, childlike pleasure in looking, especially at lurid, taboo, or bizarre images. The guilty pleasures of the psychotronic film are about returning to the kinds of images for which we still feel a child’s stab of shameful curiosity. But that guilt is mediated—maybe even absolved—by an ironic distance, a remove from the more primal or libidinal desires to which such films appeal. To the kind of audience member that I’ll call the Brattle viewer—the smart, hip filmgoer who has an equal appreciation for Bresson and Fulci—Chained Heat allows for a giving-in to the basest kinds of cinematic pleasure (namely, those related to images of sex and violence) at the same time that it lends itself to ironic mockery of its cheap construction, bad dialogue, and the very gratuitousness to which the scenes of sex and violence owe their near-constant presence. The Brattle viewer is thus inside and outside the psychotronic film at the same time, aware of the mechanisms by which it delivers its cheap thrills, but not above indulging in those thrills.