AIP's drive-in movies defined youth culture in '60s, '70s|
January 8, 2004
By Franklin Harris
While thumbing through "Trash: The Graphic Genius of Xploitation Movie Posters," a book I recommend to any fan of cult cinema, I was reminded of the important part American International Pictures played in American movie history. About every fourth poster in the book promotes a film AIP either produced or distributed.
AIP was once one of the most successful independent film companies in Hollywood. Founded in 1954 by Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson, AIP helped define the '60s and '70s with films aimed squarely at the nation's teenagers. Arkoff and Nicholson were savvy businessmen who knew exactly what their audience wanted, in part because they pioneered the use of focus groups. They built AIP on a foundation of low-budget horror flicks and drive-in double features.
The list of actors, directors and writers who worked with or got their start at AIP is legendary. It includes Jack Nicholson, Dean Stockwell, ex-football star Jim Brown and "Twilight Zone" screenwriter Richard Matheson.
Much of AIP's success in the '60s was the work of director Roger Corman. Corman had two things going for him. First, he knew how to appeal to the youth audience Arkoff and Nicholson wanted to reach. Second, he was infamous for his ability to pinch pennies. He and AIP were a perfect fit.
Corman's films for AIP included "Teenage Cave Man" and "The Trip," written by Jack Nicholson and starring Peter Fonda, Susan Strasberg, Bruce Dern and Dennis Hopper. But Corman's most memorable contribution to AIP was his series of Edgar Allan Poe movies starring soon-to-be horror icon Vincent Price. Corman and Price collaborated on seven Poe films, including "Masque of the Red Death," "Fall of the House of Usher" and "The Pit and the Pendulum."
As the '60s closed, however, major changes came to AIP. Corman left to form his own company, New World Pictures. Another director, Gordon Hessler, knocked out a few last Vincent Price films for AIP before the public's taste for gothic horror waned. Then, in 1971, Nicholson died, leaving Arkoff to confront the new decade and the more permissive environment that came with the end of censorship and the establishment of the Motion Picture Association of America's movie ratings system.
The now tame teenybopper fare AIP had been producing gave way to a new breed of hard-edged exploitation movies. Action-filled thrillers, women-in-prison flicks, biker movies and blaxploitation films were all the Next Big Thing.
Director Jack Hill, a favorite of Quentin Tarantino, worked for both New World and AIP. His AIP films starring Pam Grier, "Coffy" and "Foxy Brown," are some of the best of the blaxploitation genre. And the 1975 AIP thriller "Killer Force" featured the B-movie equivalent of an all-star cast, including Telly Savalas, Peter Fonda, Maud Adams, Christopher Lee and O.J. Simpson. (I admit it was a more impressive cast in 1975 than it is now.)
Arkoff pumped more money into AIP's sci-fi films, which included "The Land That Time Forgot" and "At the Earth's Core," both co-financed with Britain's Amicus Productions. But he was fighting a losing battle. After the release of "Star Wars" in 1977, audiences expected B-movies to have A-movie production values, and even with overseas partners, AIP couldn't keep pace.
AIP's last hurrah came in 1979 with "The Amityville Horror." Afterward, Arkoff sold AIP to Filmways. Eventually, Filmways became Orion Pictures. Then Orion went bankrupt and was purchased by MGM. Now, MGM is releasing the AIP film library on DVD, starting with AIP's horror and blaxploitation movies, released under the Midnite Movies and Soul Cinema labels, respectively.