This past Sunday, Samuel Z. Arkoff passed away at age 83. Arkoff was one of the most prolific film producers in American history, yet one not respected by many of his peers. Arkoff, who had his hand in upwards of 500 (most wildly profitable) films, may just have been the grandfather of the exploitation film.
With such titles to his credit as “The Thing with Two Heads” and “The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini,” there is little question as to where his film-making motivation lay. Arkoff”s films were cheaply made and distributed, and they were intended simply for teenagers.
Arkoff began the American Releasing Corporation in 1954 with James H. Nicholson, a sales manager for the Realart Production Company. Two years later the company was renamed American International Pictures (AIP). Throughout the “50”s and “60”s, AIP moved to the forefront of expoloitation or “B” movie production, nearly always making back the little they spent with a tidy profit. Nicholson died in 1971, but Arkoff kept the studio running strong with dozens of horror movies throughout the “70”s.
Arkoff cared little about artistic merit and less about what his critics and so-called contemporaries had to say. He was interested in entertaining people and the bottom line. One of his many mantras was that all money spent on a film should be on-screen, not on big names or their egotistical whims.
As one of the original “Maverick” film producers, Arkoff and AIP turned out several films a year. Nearly all of these films were various genre pics intended to satisfy some urge or another in American teenagers. Zombie movies, biker-flicks, girl-in-cage classics, and some of the most memorable blaxploitation films ever made. Ground-breaking work like “Coffy” would never have made Pam Grier a sex symbol and “Blacula” would never have seen the light of day had it not been for Arkoff and AIP.
Arkoff also gave the world large doses of horror diety Vincent Price in all of his manic glory. By way of Arkoff protege Roger Corman, who directed and produced several exploitation films himself, Price appeared in some of the most famous films in his prolific career. Beginning with “The Fall of the House of Usher” in 1960 and continuing through “The Abominable Dr. Phibes” in 1971. Many of these films were loosly based on stories by the eerily disturbing Edgar Allen Poe, and starred such (washed up) screen legends as Peter Lorre, Bela Lugosi, and Boris Karloff.
Despite his rather laxed approach to blockbuster filmmaking, a handful of Arkoff”s films achieved a higher evolution than “schlock film,” to the status level of “cult classic.” He produced both Brian DePalma”s essential “Dressed to Kill,” as well as contemporary horror masterpiece, “The Amityville Horror.” He gave the world its first look at “A Nightmare on Elm Street” director Wes Craven when he purchased “The Last House on the Left.”
As an executive producer, Arkoff”s final film was 1985″s “Hellhole.” He stayed busy the last 16 years of his life appearing in various documentary films discussing his part in the history of American film, as well as commenting on the lives and work of others. He remained happily married to his wife of 55 years until her death this past July. The couple had two children. Their daughter Donna is married to producer/director Joe Roth.
It is an amazing feat that Arkoff lasted over thirty years in the film business without ever becoming obsolete or loosing the pulse of his core audience: teenagers. People went to the movies, Arkoff often said, in order to be titilated. He never lost track of the entertainment value of violence, gore, sex, mayham, and, of course, “Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini machine.” Arkoff was not an auture. He was not even a good filmmaker. But his honest desire to make money by giving people what they wanted is nearly honorable, especially in a world where Hollywood and billions of dollars cannot accomplish so seemingly easy a task.