Exploitation films get a bad rap. Mostly because they’re so terrible, and as a result the filmmakers are forced to prey on our basest instincts to be of any interest at all – namely violence and nudity. Yet when done well they can be transgressive, even tapping into the cultural milieu of the time, tackling and embracing taboos where a conservative Hollywood commonly fears to tread.
Bonnie’s Kids is definitely exploitation done well. The production values are high, with gorgeous colours, depth of field, inventive camera shots, multiple, even outdoor locations, and gasp, great acting.
This 1973 US exploitation flick, written and directed by Arthur Marks (Detroit 9000, Centrefold Girls), is a crime thriller that borrows heavily from the noir genre, though sets most of the scenes during the day – possibly because that’s when its easier to see bare breasts.
It begins with Bonnie’s kids, the 24-year-old Ellie (Tiffany Bolling) and 15-year-old Myra (Robin Mattson), living with their sleazy drunken stepfather (Leo Gordon) after the death of their mother. When step daddy gets a little too hands on with Myra, Ellie blows him away with a double-barrelled shotgun and the two hit the road.
This initial scene is quite representative of the film of a whole. All men (and even the majority of women) the sisters come into contact with, whether family, friends or random people in post offices, have only one thing on their mind – as does the camera, which relentlessly ogles the girl’s bodies. It sets up a fascinating dynamic, particularly when it becomes clear that the girls perhaps aren’t as innocent as they initially appear, and actively use this power to get what they want.
It’s a fascinating film. No one escapes with impunity. It’s all quite morally ambiguous, as everyone has an angle and is willing to use everyone else to achieve their aims. So the rules of Hollywood – to root for the least tainted characters don’t tend to apply here.
It’s all filled with an abundance of bit part talent, with actors who would go on to work in Mash, Star Trek, Flipper, General Hospital, Captain America, and Cagney and Lacey as well as numerous exploitation and feature films such as Nashville and The Godfather.
It’s also impossible not to mention Tarantino. There’s something of a trainspotters game attempting to discover what films he took his ideas from. In fact the deeper you dig the more it becomes apparent that his films are really just complex tapestries of other disparate films all stitched together. In this case it’s the bickering hit men, one black with a large afro, one white, both dressed in suits, pursuing lovers on the run – who bear a striking similarity to Travolta and Jackson in Pulp Fiction. But it’s also the look of this film that possesses a similarity to Tarantino’s films.
It’s been widely documented that in the 70’s US cinema experienced something of a golden age, and whilst they’re commonly referring to the likes of Friedkin, Coppola or Scorcese, with Bonnie’s Kids it’s quite apparent that the gold trickled down.
Bonnie’s Kids also comes with great features such as an interview with Tiffany Bolling (Ellie), Steve Sandor, director Arthur Marks, as well as a feature length hyper nerd-out commentary with Terror Transmission, who go into intricate detail about the tiniest bit player.