On May 16, 1977, grindhouse filmmaker Michael Findlay was infamously decapitated by a rogue helicopter blade in an accident as horrific as his trademark nasty on-screen murders. The New York Daily News reported that pieces of bodies were scattered over the Grand Central area; an eyewitness described the scene as "like a butcher shop."
The 39-year-old was on the roof of the 59-story Pan Am Building (now MetLife) in Manhattan, waiting to board for JFK airport, en route to the Cannes Film Festival. The idling helicopter tipped over, and the main rotor broke off, spinning out of control and gruesomely dismembering Findlay and three other passengers. The wreckage also killed a pedestrian waiting for a bus a block away. This was an abrupt and shocking ending to Findlay's 13-year career in exploitation cinema.
Findlay's films are not good. "Lowbrow" doesn't even begin to cover it. They were made quickly and cheaply, with astonishingly bad plots, acting, dubbing, and editing. Some fit into the Ed Wood category of so-bad-they're-good; others are completely unwatchable. But they're representative of the New York grindhouse scene in the 70s, and the sleazy neon-lit theaters of 42nd St. Times Square. Alongside directors like Herschell Gordon Lewis, Doris Wishman, and Andy Milligan, Findlay screened his "roughies" at these theaters: B-movies featuring dirty things not seen in mainstream Hollywood films at that point, like explicit sex, violence, and drugs.
Findlay's movies are barely more than a collection of scenes featuring nude women, usually dancing or having sex. He used various pseudonyms (including Julian Marsh and Robert Wester), often using several at once to disguise his multiple roles as director, producer, writer, actor, cinematographer, and even camera operator. He worked closely with his wife Roberta Findlay, who also worked under pseudonyms (usually as Ana Riva). By the time of his death, they'd separated, and she forged her own career making horror films and hardcore pornography.
Findlay co-directed his first feature, Body of a Female (1964), with John Amero—and John and his brother Lem continued to work regularly with the Findlays. In 1965, he directed The Sin Syndicate, and edited together two films with completely separate stories as Satan's Bed, notable only for starring Yoko Ono in her first role. A Thousand Pleasures (1968) moved away from the recurring theme of women-in-peril to women-as-predators: a man named Richard is kidnapped by two lesbians who want his sperm, with a secret man-hating goal of creating a world where men are dispensable.
Findlay found his niche in 1967 with which became a trilogy in 1968 with and . He worked on the films as a director, writer, producer, editor, and lead actor; he played the vile weapons dealer Richard Jennings, who's hit by a car after he finds his wife topless in their bed with another man. After the accident, he wakes up as a wheelchair-bound, eye-patch wearing sadist who calls himself Stanley Blender and desires vengeance. To him, all women deserve painful deaths because, he claims, "strip any girl naked and you'll find a filthy slut." The trilogy focuses on punishing women for being wicked, desirous, and provocative; he rants toward the end of the trilogy, "Burn slut, burn symbol of women." The Touch of Her Flesh,The Curse of Her FleshThe Kiss of Her Flesh
Findlay's most notorious film is Snuff (1976), but its infamy has nothing to do with him. Originally titled The Slaughter (1971), Findlay somehow turned the scandalous real-life story of Charles Manson into a boring film; in 1976, distributor Allan Shackleton repurposed the film to goad the moral panic surrounding FBI-fueled rumors about snuff films brought in from South America. Director Simon Nuchtern filmed an extra five minutes of footage for a new ending, the credits were excised, and the film was released as Snuff. Shackleton purposefully fueled rumors that the lead actress was actually murdered in the new footage, giving the film an X-rating and arranging protests before the hoax was confirmed.
In the 70s, Findlay moved into horror. This career move made sense financially, as cheap independent films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre were finding an enthusiastic market. The fantastic Shriek of the Mutilated (1974) follows a standard slasher narrative: A group of attractive students (check) travels to a remote location (check) where they are all slowly killed off (check). The Yeti they're hunting is actually a cover for a secret international cannibal cult, reflecting the growing trend of cannibal-horror like Blood Feast (1963) and Deep River Savages (1972). This film maintains its humor until its final line: "Mr. Hencher, white meat or dark?"
Findlay's films are especially comical when it comes to their outrageous and perverse murders. There's a dildo with a hidden blade, an acid-spiked douche, poisoned darts, thorns, underwear, cat paws, and, inexplicably, semen: "My poison semen should take care of you well enough. So long, sucker!" is uttered in Kiss of Her Flesh, and it's surely one of the best lines in exploitation film history. That film also features a woman tortured with a lobster claw and salad tongs before she's electrocuted through her earrings. While these inescapably misogynistic films mostly feature women being killed in cruel and bizarre ways, men are murdered too: In A Thousand Pleasures, Richard is smothered by the breasts of Boobarella—definitely more of a fetishistic gesture than an expression of retribution for killing his wife.
These bizarre deaths locate Findlay in a lineage of unusual and shocking of acts of violence on screen. Devising new ways of killing people is now so familiar it's taken for granted: the practice is common in popular procedural television shows like CSI or Criminal Minds, which sustain viewer interest through their outlandish murders; the seemingly endless Saw franchise featured an escalation of violent mutilation until it became mind-numbingly boring; the torture-porn genre continues the grindhouse legacy of offending viewers and challenging what you can show on screen.
Now, we don't just tolerate objectionable things—we expect them. As cult cinema critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas explained to me, "The influence of roughies in particular is hugely underplayed in slasher film history—they're as much the polished bastard son of Italian giallo films, Hershell Gordon Lewis's Blood Feast and the Findlays roughies as they are a response to the more highbrow (and thus more oft-cited) supposed point of origin, Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho."
Findlay's work exists alongside international films designed to shock and disgust, with sub-genres sure to offend everyone, like rape-revenge, nunsploitation, blaxploitation and nazisploitation. Grindhouse made space for boundary-pushing representations of obscenity, sex and violence on screen. This legacy is evident in enthusiasts like Quentin Tarantino and Nicholas Winding Refn, as well as exploitation films like Showgirls, Hostel and Baise-Moi. "I suspect it's as much about a kind of broader spirit and aesthetic tone than direct influence", said Heller-Nicholas. "The Findlays films may not be exactly tight, but they are often a hell of a ride."
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