We aren’t talking about movies with an X rating, which are their own category. And we aren’t talking about movies like Serpico, The French Connection and Mean Streets that depict sleaze but aren’t sleazy themselves.
We’re talking about movies that ruthlessly shock and pander to audiences for the sake of shock and titillation, often with delightful results. We like good sleazy movies, sometimes.
So here we go with our list.
When Penthouse founder Bob Guccione set out to make a mainstream movie, the result was Caligula — a story of the indulgent Roman emperor with big names attached.
Led by rather fearless Clockwork Orange veteran Malcolm McDowell, the film stars Teresa Ann Savoy (above), as well as Helen Mirren and Peter O’Toole. But what it’s best known for is its over-the-top sex scenes.
It was written by the very respected Gore Vidal, who disavowed it after director Tinto Brass substantially altered his script.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
A sleazy movie (starting with that title) that uses sleaze to its great advantage. It’s one of the most effective and captivating horror movies ever made thanks to its hardcore atmosphere, oozing with sex and violence.
Filled with the sounds of animals and buzzing flies, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre makes clear from the start that it has no limits, even before we hear the first rev of Leatherface’s chainsaw. It’s one of the all-time most effective sleazy movies.
Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (1975)
Among the sleaziest of sleazy movies, Ilsa, She Wolf of the S.S. affects high-minded ideals with a ridiculous opening card (see above), but it’s all just an excuse to tell the story of Ilsa, an evil Nazi warden who wants to prove women are better at suffering than men, and should therefore be allowed to fight for Hitler.
Of course, she proves this through a series of “experiments” on women who are scantily clad, at best. Let’s all say it together now: “They couldn’t make this today.”
A Canadian film by director Don Edmonds, it managed to get reviewed by Gene Siskel, who called it “”the most degenerate picture I have seen to play downtown.” We can’t tell if that’s a thumbs up or thumbs down.
The Driller Killer (1979)
Abel Ferrara has made some straight-up classics — including King of New York and Bad Lieutenant — but the Bronx-born director cut his teeth with The Driller Killer. (His debut was an adult movie in which he also performed.)
Ferrara also appeared in The Driller Killer (above) about a New York City artist who deals with his urban angst by going on a killing spree with a power tool.
The film made it onto the United Kingdom’s list of “video nasties” criticized as sleazy movies for their extreme content.
Look, we love Dolemite, but when the hero of the movie is a pimp, you’re watching a sleazy movie.
Rudy Ray Moore’s endlessly entertaining Blaxploitation icon sprang from his filthy standup comedy routines: He passed on stories of a streetwise hustler named Dolemite who explained, “Dolemite is my name and f—ing up motherf—ers is my game.”
Dolemite was also a triumph of DIY, indie moviemaking — as spelled out in the recent Dolemite Is My Name, starring Eddie Murphy.
Big congratulations to Dolemite for also making our list of movies that make sex work seem fun and exciting.
Thriller: A Cruel Picture (1973)
Widely regarded as one of the best exploitation movies ever made, this Swedish film by director Bo Arne Vibenius stars Christina Lindberg as as a mute woman who endures a series of unbelievable traumas — which Vibenius isn’t shy about showing onscreen.
She eventually finds herself a double-barrel shotgun and goes on a revenge mission that she — and her targets — very much deserve.
The Last House on the Left (1972)
We hate this movie, because it’s so incredible effective. One of the sleaziest sleazy movies ever made, it has a handmade quality that makes it violence and cruelty feel all the more real.
Director Wes Craven made his debut with Last House on the Left — a story of abduction, brutality and vengeance, scored by eerie hippie music — before going on to create the classic Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream horror franchises. With all due respect to those films, they aren’t remotely as scary as Last House on the Left.
Maybe we should say we hate this movie, but respect it.
Another movie we hate, but don’t respect, to be perfectly honest.
Inspired by the writings of Marquis de Sade, this film by Pier Paolo Pasolini is about a group of fascists who round up a group of adolescents and do horrible things to them for 120 days. Just make a list of things that gross you out, and we promise they’re in Salo.
Interestingly, Abel Ferrara, who you may remember from our Driller Killer entry, made a movie about Pasolini in 2014 about his life around the time he was making Salo. It stars the great Willem Dafoe, a good friend and frequent collaborator of Ferrara’s. They’ve made plenty of terrific not at all sleazy movies.
Taxi Driver (1976)
Taxi Driver didn’t care about respectability — but got it anyway.
It separates itself from all the 1970s films that merely depict sleaze without being sleazy by taking the side of the second-sleaziest character in the film: Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle is a dirtbag who takes a clean-cut woman (Cybil Shepherd) to an adult movie on a first-date and practices firing his gun in the mirror.
Though director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader allow us to keep an observational distance from Bickle for most of the movie, we can’t help but take his side at the end of the movie as he takes on its No. 1 sleaze, the monstrous Sport (Harvey Keitel), who is disgustingly exploiting Iris (Jodie Foster, above). Because it takes a sleaze to beat a sleaze.
So Taxi Driver is a sleazy movie — and one of the all-time great movies.
Saturday Night Fever (1977)
You probably remember the disco, but not the desperation.
Saturday Night Fever is a nuanced and gritty character study of Tony Manero (John Travolta, above) that unflinchingly depicts racism and sexual violence. Tony is deeply flawed, and no hero by today’s standards, but the movie tries to win back our affection for him by the end.
For such a successful film, it’s a very sleazy movie and a rough watch — but the dancing is fantastic.
The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977)
A movie we both love and respect, The Kentucky Fried Movie is a sendup of grindhouse and sleaze that is also, itself, pretty sleazy — but in a good way. It leaves no offensive joke unturned, and parody-movie sendups like Catholic High School Girls in trouble go waaay further than necessary to satirize the things they’re satirizing. Countless 1970s teenagers didn’t seem to mind.
The Kentucky Fried Movie is one of funniest sleazy movies, and it led to more mainstream, less sleazy success for director John Landis and writers David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker, who would later go on to make Airplane.
What Are Your Favorite Sleazy Movies?
Let us know in the comments.
Main image: The Kentucky Fried Movie.