A film which focuses on morbid elements a lot, the type of morbid elements that fascinate or excite people. For example, a crime movie which focuses more on the details of committing the crime or its effects on the victim, rather than the efforts to solve it. Or a movie that's excessively violent for no real reason. In fact, that - excessive violence or sexuality - seems to be the main definition of an exploitation film. "Raw" is the name of the game. Bonus points if the production has that "low-budget" feel to it, though it isn't strictly necessary.
In the past, such films were sometimes made featuring lurid scenes with the supposed intent to be educational, such as Reefer Madness. However, the lurid scenes were often meant to be the main source of entertainment.
In The '60s and The '70s, these films reached something of a Golden Age—perhaps in response to the "arty" mainstream films of the Hollywood Renaissance. This was the era of drive-in "grindhouse" double-features and limited releases touring around the country with crackly prints and at times missing reels. It was also the era of Blaxploitation.
It's sometimes debatable as to whether a given film is an Exploitation Film or not. If there's a heavy emphasis on plot and background detail, yet at the same time the visceral elements are emphasized and played up in detail, then people will disagree on whether or not it fits this category. For example, The Passion of the Christ goes into a ton of detail in watching Jesus be tortured. Yet, many churches were turning out in droves to see it, despite it being a film that consists of two hours of torture followed by the death of the lead character. Due to the movie's theme and background material, some argue that it isn't exploitation at all, since Jesus's torture was not intended for the audience's excitement, while others argue precisely the contrary.
That's part of the dividing line. Is the violence or sexuality contained within a movie gratuitous, meant largely for entertainment? Or is it used to enhance the plot or theme? Since The Girl Next Door is a fictionalized story based on a true crime involving a real girl who was systematically abused by her family, what is it? Is it exploitation because the story itself is fictionalized and involves made-up characters instead of literally retelling the story of the crime? And even if it did retell the story of actual crime, would it still be exploitation?
Because one person's "gritty realistic drama" is another's form of entertainment in the "grit" itself, the line can sometimes be pretty thin.
Most exploitation films, by their nature, tend to be B-movies.
Compare Video Nasties (moral panic about these films that occurred in Britain in The '80s), Gorn, Torture Porn, Euroshlock (which is commonly accused of this) and Murder Simulators (The latter is the video game version of this trope).
Examples will be subjective:
- There were also a large number of OVAs and anime movies in the 80's and 90's that were exported across the pond (mainly because of Manga Entertainment picking them up because they were so bad that you could get the license to them for a song) that practically reveled in graphic violence, nudity and sex. For every Ghost in the Shell or AKIRA that brought anime into the mainstream and influenced the culture with their stories, animation quality, and themes, there was a large handful of Mad Bull 34 and Genocyber.
- Rin Daughters Of Mnemosyne features so many lesbian sex scenes, attempted rapes, torture scenes and gore that it feels very much like the anime version of an exploitation movie.
- Genocyber took full advantage of the tendency for anime in the 90's to be ultra-violent. Genocyber is as gory and violent as it gets, featuring characters getting mutilated and killed in the most extreme ways possible. Children running through a field, then getting their brains exploded from their head and turned into a fine pink mist by attack helicopters. A meddling detective getting knocked out and then waking up just moments before he dies to find his intestines were decoratively scattered all over the room while still attached to his body. That sort of stuff.
- Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt is a comedy Grossout Show that focuses on sex and swearing. Special mention goes to the English dub, who at the request of the original Japanese producers, threw in as many swear words as they could think of, just to teach them new forms of profanity. Panty alone says "Fuck" and variations there-of no less than 282 times over the course of 13 episodes composed of 26 11MinuteShorts, and that's just the F word alone. By comparison, the 26 half-hour episode series Black Lagoon doesn't even reach half that, and South Park needed numerous seasons to reach the same number. Many people believe that the dub is much funnier with all the new swear words added in and the more sexual references.
- Killing Stalking is a Gorn-filled Korean manga that focuses on the abuse of the relationships between two psychopaths with constant near rape scenes and strong sex scenes as well as masturbation. There's strong amounts of necrophilia and it is very depraved with very high amounts of Squick. It's typically compared to A Serbian Film due to how graphic it's themes are.
- The Kiss (1896): This movie features a couple kissing and gives the audience exactly what it wants to see within the 18 seconds of its length. Rather tame according to today's norms, but at the time it was considered daring and caused moral outrage. Many people felt this picture was "disgusting" and "pornographic" and tried to have it banned.
- Traffic in Souls (1913), about "white slavery" (forced prostitution) is probably the Ur-Example.
- Reefer Madness (1932) is an odd case. It was originally created by a church in an attempt to warn about the dangers of marijuana, and was titled Tell Your Children. A company specializing in exploitation films bought the rights to it and spiced it up with extra scenes and a new title, changing it into an intentional exploitation film.
- Maniac (1934) was made by the same people who turned Reefer Madness into an exploitation film. It's a completely crazy story about a Mad Scientist doctor and his even crazier sidekick who kills him and tries to take his place. It has a Cat Fight, it has a topless woman being raped by a crazed feral man, it has hot women lounging around in lingerie for no damn reason, it has a crazy guy who kills a doctor feeling up a topless patient...
- Child Bride (1938) was a rather infamous one back in the day. It was supposed to be an indictment of irregular marriage laws in the Appalachian Mountains. So why the extended scene of a naked 12-year old girl going swimming? This one is infamous for being a movie the MST3K crew refused to riff on. (and while The Cinema Snob did review it, claiming that he had no standards, even he had a difficult time reviewing it as well!)
- Mondo Cane (1962): A "documentary" showing bizarre scenes filmed at various places across the world. Became a series that inspired various rip-off movies, all featuring shocking imagery of sex, nudity, violence and death. Sometimes staged. Sometimes not.
- Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965): A Russ Meyer film about three buxom go-go dancers who plan to rob a crippled, perverted old man. This is after their leader, for no good reason, beats the hell out of a guy rather graphically until he dies, then kidnaps his girlfriend who spends the whole film in a bikini.
- Teenage Mother (1967) was described by several reviews as basically everything that Juno was not.
- They Saved Hitler's Brain (1968): As its title suggests, Nazi war criminals preserve Hitler's brain on a small tropical island until the time is right to resurrect him and, along with him, the Third Reich.
- Hell's Bloody Devils (1970): A secret agent infiltrates a neo-Nazi crime group that prints counterfeit U.S. dollars with the help of a fellow undercover agent, where they discover that the group uses a vicious Swastika-clad motorcycle gang to do their dirty work. It should be noted that the appearance of outlaw bikers in this movie is the result of a quite particular production history: It began shooting in 1967 as solely a spy thriller, but after the film couldn't be sold to a proper distributor, new footage featuring bikers was filmed and incorporated into the plot, which then did find a release.
- The Honeymoon Killers (1970): A docu-drama about the Real Life "Lonely Hearts Killers", Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez, done on No Budget with an over-the-top score and a general air of grime throughout.
- The Corpse Grinders (1971): A cat food company in financial trouble turns to a new, cheap source of meat — the local graveyard. Only one problem — the new food makes cats develop a taste for human flesh, and kitties are tearing out throats all over town.
- Goodbye Uncle Tom (1971) is a Mondo film showing the degrading conditions in which black African slaves used to live. The film is far from subtle and notorious for creating walk-outs and riots among viewers.
- The Last House on the Left (1972): Wes Craven's debut film about a group of girls who get kidnapped, raped and murdered by a bunch of psychopaths who are then killed off by the girls' parents.
- Black Mama, White Mama (1973): Early Pam Grier movie that starts in a women's prison and then follows the two protagonists as they escape and have to make their way, still chained together, across a tropical island while hunted both by the police and two criminal gangs. It contains a fair amount of graphic violence but is notable mostly for the enormous amount of Fanservice and female nudity.
- The Candy Snatchers (1973) is a crime movie about the kidnapping of a Catholic schoolgirl (called Candy, hence the name). The movie focuses heavily on her plight, and the things that go wrong with the kidnapping. Meanwhile, the poor kidnap victim is seen Bound and Gagged an awful lot throughout the entire movie. It does not end well.
- Forced Entry (1973) is said by some to be the first "deranged Vietnam veteran" film, and follows an unnamed former soldier as he stalks, rapes, tortures and kills random women. It features a lot of actual war footage, so we're shown women being abused alongside shots of gun battles, the wounded and dying, mass graves, bombs being dropped, etc. Oh, and it's a hardcore porno.
- Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS (1974) is a erotic film set in a Nazi concentration camp, featuring the most famous example of Nazisploitation ever.
- Bloodsucking Freaks (1976): A man runs on shows which feature women being tortured and killed in grotesquely depraved ways. Unbeknownst to the audience, these acts are not staged but are authentic, and the women are not actresses but kidnapped and captive victims. Doesn't just take Refuge in Audacity, it invades Audacity and takes no prisoners.
- The Faces of Death series (1978 – 1996), which was pretty much just a bunch of allegedly-real graphic footage strung together (though some of the footage was real...though the real footage slowly disappeared from the movies as the series went on.)
- Mr. No Legs (1978): Two cops fight to stop a drug kingpin and his enforcer, the titular "Mr. No Legs"... called as such because he's a double leg amputee armed with two shotguns built into his wheelchair.
- I Spit on Your Grave (1979): A woman gets raped in a long sequence and then takes revenge on her former attackers. Spawned a remake and two sequels.
- Cannibal Holocaust (1979/1980) is a film within a film featuring a documentary team's ill fated journey into the "Green Inferno" of South America. It sparked murder charges in Italy when it was released due to the graphic portrayals of violence onscreen leading to accusations of being a Snuff Film, as well as charges for animal cruelty due to the onscreen deaths of real animals. It also was banned in Britain as one of the Video Nasties.
- Caligula (1979): This infamous adaptation of the life of Roman Emperor Caligula is rather odd for an exploitation film, as it had a relatively large budget and featured A-List actors (including Malcolm McDowell, Peter O'Toole, and Helen Mirren). However, it also featured enough controversial imagery, including strong violence and extremely hardcore sex, to make it a definitive example of this trope.
- Mad Max (1979) and its sequel Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981): "Low-budget" Australian thrillers making use of the Outback desert, trucks, cars, leather, and garbage. The films that made Mel Gibson famous. The third movie, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, doesn't have the low-budget "feel" to it and isn't nearly as "raw".
- The Clones of Bruce Lee (1980) is one of the most notorious of the so-called "Brucesploitation" movies, made to cash on the late Bruce Lee's popularity. Three Bruce Lee Clones work together to stop a Mad Scientist from Taking Over the World.
- Men Behind the Sun (1988), a Chinese film about the war crimes of Imperial Japan's infamous Unit 731, which blurs the lines between exploitation & docudrama. Which is quite appropriate, considering it's about a bunch of people who made their living not so much blurring the line between scientific research & sadistic torture, as injecting horse urine into its kidneys & feeding it to its cellmate...
- The Untold Story (1993) is a supposedly true story about a restaurant owner who killed a family (and a few employees) and fed them to his customers.
- Freeway (1996) was described by the director as arts-ploitation with Reese Witherspoon and Kiefer Sutherland.
- Paparazzi (2004): A celebrity whose family is hospitalized after a car wreck caused by over-the-top evil Paparazzi embarks into what feels like some celebrity's revenge fantasy when he starts going on a paparazzi killing spree.
- Hard Candy (2005) is about a teenage girl who knocks out and ties up a pedophile photographer whose house she visits. The entire movie is pretty much about her trying to extract information and confessions from him, using threats and torture.
- Sin City (2005) is exploitation-noir, which is probably a bit of a rarity. It may be that exploitation films are what Film Noir evolved into, since Noir represented the first push against the restrictions of The Hays Code, and exploitation films broke the Code down completely. Exploitation films tended to deal with material much darker even than Noir.
- The Girl Next Door (2007, do not confuse it with the 2004 film) is about a teenage girl who is held captive and horribly mistreated by her adoptive family. It's based on a novel which in turn is inspired by a similar horrible real life case.
- An American Crime (also from 2007) is based on the case more directly, but goes out of its way to humanize the characters and go into detail about other things, leaving most of the tortures implied rather than shown. Yet, ironically, perhaps because it's directly based on the real life torture case and not simply being inspired by it, some reviewers accused this movie of being exploitative, even though it held back in the portrayals of violence.
- Grindhouse (2007) was an Affectionate Parody of the exploitation films of the 1970s. ("Grindhouse" being a slang term for the type of theater that specialized in showing actual films of this trope.) And both of the films spun out of Grindhouse Fake Trailers, Machete and Hobo with a Shotgun.
- Tokyo Gore Police (2008). The main page says it all: "What ensues is almost two hours-worth of decapitations, dismemberments, disembowelments, katanas, chainsaw duels, penises that double as guns, vagina monsters that eat people, breasts that squirt acid and people propelling themselves into the air with gouts of blood among other things."
- Big Tits Zombie (2010): A Japanese fantasy-horror film based on an obscure manga starring several known faces from Japan's adult movie industry. An exotic dancer named Rena Jodo who has returned from Mexico and is now staying with a group of other strippers struggle to get by in their lonely club that receives few customers. When their boss closes the club, they are forced to live in a local bath house and entertain gangsters for a job. When a horde of zombies is unleashed, it's up to this Ragtag Bunch of Misfits to stop the Zombie Apocalypse.
- Machete (2010): "Mexploitation" revenge flick by Robert Rodriguez. The title character (Danny Trejo), a disgraced former federale turned illegal immigrant day laborer, sets out on a Roaring Rampage of Revenge against an anti-immigrant senator (Robert De Niro) after being drawn into an Evil Plan on his part to justify the mass deportation of Mexican laborers. Spun off from one of the fake trailers Rodriguez produced for the above-mentioned Grindhouse. Features Cheech Marin, Don Johnson, Steven Seagal, and Lindsay Lohan in minor parts.
- A Serbian Film (2010): Infamous Serbian film about a retired porn star who is forced back to his occupation to commit all kinds of depraved sex scenes.
- Hobo with a Shotgun (2011): In a City with No Name which has become a Wretched Hive of scum and villainy, a nameless drifter (Rutger Hauer) spends his begging money on a shotgun and goes on a Roaring Rampage of Revenge against those who prey on the innocent. Also spun off from a Grindhouse trailer.
- The Human Centipede 2: Full Sequence (2011) is a somewhat notorious example in that while the original film was very controversial on its own, this film delivered the much-anticipated gore that was missing from the original, upping the victim count from 3 to 12 and including gems such as barbed wire rape, sandpaper masturbation, newborn stomping, tongue extraction and laxative-induced coprophagia. Some of it's scenes were extreme enough for it be Banned in the UK and, allegedly, converted to black-and-white to allow for a wider release.
- Savaged (2013): A young woman is raped and murdered by rednecks, possessed by an Apache ghost, and seeks revenge. Features a man being disemboweled with a broken bottle.
- A lot of the Spaghetti Westerns were either these or interpreted as these, although by the standards of nowadays they seem quite tame and kind of arty.
- Many of The Asylum's movies, especially the horror rip-offs, would fit right in here, to the point that they wouldn't seem that out of place playing in a 70's Grindhouse theater. This is largely due to them being direct to DVD, and therefore able to get away with a lot more sex and violence than the movies they're ripping off.
- Not Quite Hollywood is a documentary on Australia's exploitation film industry of the 1970s and 80s, dubbed 'Ozsploitation'. Films featured include Alvin Purple, Barry McKenzie Holds His Own, Dead End Drive-In, Long Weekend, Mad Max, The Man from Hong Kong, Patrick, Razorback, Road Games, Stork, Next of Kin (1982), and Turkey Shoot.
- Its followup, Machete Maidens Unleashed!, is about Filipino exploitation films.
- Pretty much anything made by Troma.
- A number of Lifetime Movies of the Week feel like this, regularly reveling in plot elements like abusive husbands or fathers, evil teenagers, modern technology, and other things that would be scary to middle-aged housewives, until such movies became a punchline in the public consciousness.