Friday, October 12, 2012

Dynamite Baby, Grindhouse Dynamite!


Written By: Terri Pressley

Grindhouse is an American term for a theater that mainly shows exploitation films. Named after the defunct burlesque theaters located on 42nd Street in New York City where 'bump n' grind' or striptease was featured.

Grindhouse films characteristically contain large amounts of sex, violence or bizarre subject matter. One genre of film featured were "roughies" or sexploitation, a mix of sex, violence and sadism. Quality varied, but low budget production values and poor print quality were common. Critical opinions varied regarding typical grindhouse fare, but many films acquired cult following and critical praise. Double, triple, and "all night" bills on a single admission charge often encouraged patrons to spend a long time in the theater. The environment was faithfully captured at the time by the magazine ‘Sleazoid Express’.

By the 1980s, home video and cable threatened to make grindhouse obsolete. By the end of the decade, these theaters had vanished from Los Angeles's Broadway and Hollywood Boulevard, New York City's Times Square and San Francisco's Market Street. By the mid-1990s, these particular theaters had all but disappeared from the United States and very few are in existence today.


The Robert Rodriguez film, ‘Planet Terror’ and the Quentin Tarantino film ‘Death Proof’, which were released together as Grindhouse, were created as homage to the genre. Similar films such as ‘Machete’ (also by Rodriguez) and ‘Drive Angry’ have appeared since. The video games ‘House of the Dead: Overkill’, ‘Wet and Shadows of the Damned’ serve as homages to grindhouse horror movies. The author Jacques Boyreau released the book ‘Portable Grindhouse: The Lost Art of the VHS Box’ in 2009 about the history of the genre. The genre is also the focus of the 2010 documentary ‘American Grindhouse’ directed and produced by Elijah Drenner. The film made its world premiere at the South by Southwest film festival in Austin, Texas on March 13, 2010.


Elijah Drenner’s smart, affectionate but clear-eyed history of American exploitation films combines commentary and well-chosen clips from movies that range from 1913s white-slavery “exposé” Traffic in Souls’ to the Nazi sexploitation classic ‘Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS.’

Drenner’s ambitious mandate for American Grindhouse is to simultaneously chart the development of exploitation pictures, which staked out a lucrative niche by gleefully tackling topics deemed too vulgar, shocking or disreputable for the tender sensibilities of middle-class moviegoers, and to situate them within the context of broader social and cultural developments.


Drenner covers the waterfront, from road-show birth-of-a-baby pictures, which staked their claim to educational value on live, post-screening lectures about sexual hygiene, to drug-scare movies like Reefer Madness (1936), to burlesque movies and wholesome nudist-camp “documentaries” which paved the way for ever-more-explicit depictions of onscreen sex. Blaxploitation, juvenile-delinquent dramas, naughty Nazi sexploitation, gross-out gore pictures, biker flicks and mondo movies are also represented. He taps a small but well-chosen cadre of film historians to handle the hard history, from the way Hollywood’s 1930 Production Code—which limited filmmakers by disallowing bad language, interracial relationships, violence and vice (including but not limited to drug abuse and “sex perversion”) to the game changing influence of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, whose success erased the line between high and low culture moviemaking.


For’ on-the-ground’ color, he turns to trash-movie writers, directors and actors like Fred Williamson, who chuckles that he learned how to “steal shots and do big scenes without permits” by starring in Larry Cohen’s Black Caesar, a master class in guerrilla filmmaking, and Don Edmonds, who matter-of-factly labels himself a whore for agreeing to direct the shameless ‘Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS’ (which, by the way, was shot on standing sets from the TV sitcom “Hogan’s Heroes”) and its campier sequel,’ Ilsa: Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks’.


Piranha director Joe Dante who astutely sums up Jaws as “a big-budget version of The Creature from the Black Lagoon.” John Landis (who shared equipment with Melvin Van Peebles when they were simultaneously shooting Schlock and Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song) makes the connection between ’70s blaxploitation and the “race pictures” of the 1930s and ’40s, low-budget movies that repackaged the conventions of westerns, crime pictures and melodramas with all-black casts and played in segregated theatres across the United States. He also dubs’ The Passion of the Christ’ “Texas Chainsaw Jesus,” implicitly placing it on a continuum with religious freak-show movies like Lash of the ‘Penitentes’ (1936) and ‘Trapped by the Mormons’ (1922), declaring that “the whole point [of ’60s Beach Party movies] is to see tits and ass…but wholesome tits and ass.”

Both informative and well made, ‘American Grindhouse’ is an enjoyable stroll down memory lane.

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