by Heath Holland
In my mind, there is no studio more synonymous with exploitation than American International Pictures (AIP). The brainchild of entertainment lawyer Samuel Z. Arkoff and production manager James H. Nicholson, AIP was the first studio to market low budget movies specifically to a young and rebellious audience, giving teenagers exactly what they wanted to see.
Let’s look at some of the great offerings in exploitation cinema made between the 1950s and 1970s: all those great Vincent Price horror movies, from the Roger Corman adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe to the Dr. Phibes films, are AIP movies. The Beach Party series and many of the biker movies of the late ‘60s were AIP. The Blaxploitation movement that brought us Slaughter, Black Caeser and Hell Up in Harlem was led by AIP. The studio is even responsible for bringing a few Godzilla films to the western world via their distribution program. And, in my favorite contribution to exploitation, it was AIP who saw the incredible potential in Pam Grier and made her a STAR in films like Coffy, Foxy Brown, Sheba, Baby, and Friday Foster.
Over the years, Samuel Z. Arkoff developed a formula for making great exploitation movies using the letters of his last name. The A.R.K.O.F.F. formula, which every AIP movie needed to adhere to, consisted of Action, Revolution (usually rebellion), Killing, Oratory (as in memorable dialogue), Fantasy, and Fornication. Looking at that formula now, it’s hard to argue that he didn’t know exactly what he was doing, and when an exploitation movie (either from AIP or another studio) fails to entertain, it’s often because it didn’t stick to those six necessary ingredients.
American International was so great at what they did that major studios followed their lead and started either producing or distributing exploitation movies themselves. Warner Brothers had Super Fly and Black Belt Jones, 20th Century Fox had Vanishing Point, and Paramount had Death Wish, to name just a few examples of big studios dipping their toes into exploitation.
Thankfully, the bulk of the American International catalog is in the possession of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and many of the classics have found cleaner DVD transfers than the films likely saw during their original release. The legacy of the little studio still looms large; what they did was so fantastic and so FUN that their movies and movies that other companies made to be like them are still watched today, over thirty years after they made their last film.
The biggest and most pleasant surprise for me is when I sit down with a DVD of an exploitation movie that’s new to me and see the American International logo. When I see that name, I know I’m in good hands. I know I can sit back and enjoy the ride because Arkoff and his six ingredients for a great movie rarely disappoint. I salute American International for the chances they took, the new ground they constantly broke over 26 years, and for doing something so incredible that the rest of Hollywood actually changed the way they made movies.