In college I had a pal named Grady who was the rare college film studies major drawn not to highfalutin Kurosawa, Bergman, Antonioni-type films, but instead to the ultra-lowbrow exploitation films of the 50s, 60s and 70s – “Blood Feast”, “Wild Angels”, “I Spit On Your Grave” and the like. He was an ardent collector of badly-recorded VHS copies of these and many other like-minded sex, violence, Nazi, Blaxploitation, biker, “mondo”, Russ Meyer etc. films, and this world of cheapo film intersected nicely with that of punk rock and record collecting, both of which were high on our agendas as well. Thus, many a drunken night in the late 80s and early 90s was spent watching these films. Our exploitation fandom was well-timed, too. “THE PSYCHOTRONIC ENCYCLOPEDIA OF FILM” and “RE:SEARCH INCREDIBLY STRANGE FILMS” had come out in the recent half-decade, and both books became absolute bibles for me and many others of that time, as we sought to see and dissect some of the worst and the weirdest films of all time. An exploitation revival crested hard in the 1990s, and mini-genres like 70’s Blaxploitation and women-in-prison movies “finally got their due”.
So here’s this recent documentary film called “AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE” that delves into the history of these sordid pictures in a light, and moderately successful, manner. I feel like this is maybe the third time I’ve seen a history-of-exploitation-films documentary, or perhaps it just feels that way, because the only one I can call to mind at the moment is the excellent, better-than-this-film “NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD”, which tackles the history of Australian exploitation films. Anyway, as someone who actually got to walk on New York’s 42nd Street in the early 80s and saw endless marquees showing “Cannibal Holocaust”-esque films all day and all night, and who also remembers the glory days of 1970s horror schlock and softcore teen-porn film very well, I’m still interested in how it all came to be, and why it was so successful. At 44 years of age, actually taking 90 minutes from my life to watch a film like this doesn’t interest me in the least anymore, but hey, I’m really glad they were around when they were.
“AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE” follows the standard this-is-a-documentary-about-films convention to the letter: Talking heads sitting in chairs and laughing about the “old days”, lots of lurid film clips, and chapterized sections for each phase of the subject’s development. You get the sense that this particular film was really made on a shoestring, though. When clips are called for from a film like, say, the landmark horror cheeser “Blood Feast”, there are times when only outtakes from the film are shown – not clips from the film itself. And yet they got the rights to show real scenes from “Psycho”, “Wild Angels”, “Easy Rider” and other biggies (public domain?). Some of the talking heads are great – Hershel Gordon Lewis and John Landis (!) in particular – but others are just awful, like a twentysomething writer named Kim Miller and a guy who still bugs me from the time I saw him do his poseur film-expert shtick live, Eddie Muller.
I did learn some things, though. I didn’t realize what a big cash-cow craze those “birth of the baby” films were in the 1950s, in which squeamish, repressed Americans paid money for the privilege of watching filmed, live births of children. The crazy-Nazi exploitation film genre was more rich than I thought it was, and a clip from a film called “THE TORMENTORS”, in which two American hippie actors dressed as Nazis chase a blonde guy who’s supposed to be Jesus, really took me back to my teens & twenties and made me wanna drink a Mickey Bigmouth six-pack and watch this one. Twice. All told, I’ll cautiously recommend “AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE” for its cornucopia of classic clips from the many eras of exploitation. They’re a real pleasant assault on the eyes and the depraved pleasure centers of the brain.