At the drive-in 

Samuel Z. Arkoff didn't get a "spiritual executive producer" credit on American Pie, but he probably should have. It sounds like an Arkoff clip job from the git-go: Find a titillating topic (teen sex), fill out a script with outrages (spunk-guzzling and pie-porking will do nicely), hire cheap nobodies to star, spend next to no time or money making it, and sit back and reap the outsized return of teen dollars. What do the chin-stroking critics and the guardians of decency say? Who cares? Onward to a string of even schlockier sequels and spin-offs, until the audience's patience (and payments) dries up.

The cigar-chewing B-movie mogul, who died on Sept. 16 at age 83, wasn't just a master of teen exploitation — he practically invented it. For 25 years, the logo of Arkoff's American International Pictures functioned as a sort of Good Housekeeping seal of disapproval, the mark of a film sure to enthrall any 14-year-old and appall any parent. Arkoff had no agenda, wasn't interested in capital-A art; he was a businessperson. But his vampiric hunger for allowance money led to a vibrant, gloriously kitschy body of work some 500 films strong that boasts many of the dirty-little-secret cinematic loves of two generations.

Despite a middle-initial/last-name combo that made him sound like a sinister mastermind from one of his own flicks, Samuel Zachary Arkoff was a cornfed Midwesterner, born in sleepy Fort Dodge, Iowa, in 1918. A regular reader of Variety by his late teens, Arkoff served as an Air Force cryptographer during World War II, came home and got a law degree on the GI Bill, and hung out a shingle as an entertainment lawyer in Hollywood. After a few toe-dipping deals, he joined forces with fellow Tinseltown toiler James Nicholson in 1954 to form the production / distribution company that would become American International two years later.

Arkoff and Nicholson's genius was to aim AIP product at a then-ignored demographic — the Clearasil set, just coming into the postwar parental largess that would come to be called disposable income. While the big studios lost much of their adult audience to the new medium of television, AIP packed in the kids with lobby posters promising lurid thrills they wouldn't see on the small screen: The Beast With a Million Eyes, I Was a Teenage Werewolf, Girls in Prison, High School Hellcats, The Brain Eaters. The movies themselves were financed in five figures, shot in a week or two, and rarely as good as the posters, but it hardly mattered — Arkoff and Nicholson reaped exponential profits and happily churned out more double-feature fodder.

As adolescent tastes moved away from atomic creatures and juvenile delinquency, AIP mutated as well, spawning a series of atmospheric Edgar Allan Poe adaptations starring the likes of Vincent Price and Boris Karloff, kicking up sand with the Frankie Avalon-Annette Funicello beach movies, and cashing in on crazed '60s culture with films such as The Wild Angels and Wild in the Streets. By the early '70s, Arkoff had recognized another "underserved" market and moved into blaxploitation — that Russian surname pops up in the credits of everything from Blacula to Coffy to Cooley High. Along the way, Arkoff and AIP gave early gigs to many of the young turks who would go on to finish the studio-system demolition job he gets little credit for starting: Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Jack Nicholson (no relation to James), Robert De Niro.

James Nicholson died in 1972, taking with him the more creative hemisphere of the AIP brain trust, and by the mid-'70s exploitation films were a booming industry to which even the big studios were party. Arkoff seemed to forget his own commandment that "Thou shalt not put too much money into any one picture" and rounded out the decade with such relatively high-end fare as the Burt Lancaster-starring The Island of Dr. Moreau and the smash hit The Amityville Horror. But AIP struggled financially, and Arkoff sold out to Filmways in 1979. A handful of final Arkoff projects made the rounds of the few remaining drive-ins in the early '80s, but cable TV and home video undermined him just as surely as he once undermined MGM.

American teenagers are now the most hotly coveted moviegoing demographic in the known universe, and Arkoff's oeuvre has enjoyed re-evaluation as boffo, unpretentious popular art. There is, after all, something appealing and durable about the idea of cheap thrills. This past fall, HBO and Cinemax rolled out Creature Features, a series of straight-to-cable remakes of Arkoff's old horror flicks, co-produced by his son, Lou. While the 2001 versions of She Creature and Earth Vs. the Spider may be "better" than the originals, quality isn't really the issue. Fun is. And it's a good bet no one's going to lose money on them either.

The Art of Living - Balthus, 1908-2001
No Big Eyes - Jane Greer, 1924-2001
Living in Darkness - James Carr, 1942-2001
Catch a Wave - Jeanne Loriod, 1928-2001
Talkin' Picture - Fred Neil, 1936-2001
The Smell of the Grease Pit - Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, 1932-2001
Do the Math - Iannis Xenakis, 1922-2001

People who died - A salute to some of 2001's dear departed cult culture heroes

Lee Gardner writes for City Paper, where this piece first appeared. Send comments to

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