Project X and Modern Exploitation Films

The marketing for “Project X” suggests a new wave of exploitation films.

If I wanted a movie with a flimsy plot, crazy stunts, low production values and a lot of hot women in a softcore porn setting, wouldn’t I usually go to a shady, straight-to-DVD bargain bin?

Then why is a movie like “Project X” screening at multiplexes everywhere this Friday as though it were the next “Hangover?”

Watching “Project X,” a horrible, offensive and sexist film, I realized a lot of the adjectives I used to describe how much I hated it also applied to cheesy fun exploitation films from the ‘70s.

But I was convinced the exploitation genre was dead. I interviewed film scholars studying the genre who explained that most exploitation films today have either migrated to video and DVD starting as early as the ‘80s home video boom or are now self-referential parodies of older films, like the ones Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez crank out.

And that audience who craved a unique form of action and other pleasures has transferred over into cult fans for graphic novel based movies. One such example is “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” which ironically or not shares co-writer Michael Bacall as a screenwriter for “Project X.”

My question is, did the exploitation genre morph or evolve into found footage films without anyone noticing?

Here is a genre of movies that prides itself on DIY filmmaking and is typically intended for modern monster and horror movies like “The Blair Witch Project,” “Cloverfield” and “Paranormal Activity.” And now with “Project X” the genre includes the lewd sex comedy, all of which are attributes loosely associated with traditional exploitation films.

The confusion may have arisen with the clever adaptation of found footage cinematography. Mumblecore arguably grew out of the visual style, and films like this year’s excellent “Chronicle” have tweaked the found footage technique to make it purposeful on a narrative level and not just on an aesthetic one.

But other films seem to capitalize on the low production values by, well, exploiting those features to get a scare or create a mysterious buzz. Red Band Trailers pop up on the web, footage of people being filmed in night vision inside a theater are used as marketing promotions, movies like “Catfish” are pegged as faux-documentaries with Earth-shattering twists.

This is exploitation marketing in a digital age.

The difference between now and the ‘70s is that these movies are competing for space right inside our local multiplexes. Without grindhouse theaters or drive-ins peppering the inner cities, exploitation films can no longer slap an X-rating (or today, NC-17) on a film touting boobs, blood and badass black people without critics and the MPAA jumping all over them.

So marketers for something like the vaguely named “Project X” have had to become creative in dealing with critics. I doubt any of my colleagues are fooled into thinking a majority of these low-budget films are actually indie horror productions, but if the marketers don’t get the negative coverage given to Michael Bay blockbusters, part of their work is done for them.

And if a movie can really polarize a critic, say something like “The Human Centipede” and its sequel, the publicity that this is not only the horrible movie you shouldn’t see but simply cannot see for legal and moral reasons catapults that film into an untouchable realm of marketing success.

So I have to wonder how well “Project X” will do at the box-office. “The Hangover” or “Superbad” it is not. The movie plays like a collection of montages with occasional dialogue breaks filling the void of techno music, but that’s not entirely obvious from the trailers, and that’s exactly the point.

If the movie succeeds, do we get more mindless films like it? Will the hypothetical sequels “Project Y” and “Project Z” be big summer releases? And yet if the movie fails, it’s not as if that’s killed the exploitation film before.