SUBURBAN GRINDHOUSE MEMORIES
Special 50th Column: “My Grindhouse Wish”
by Nick Cato
Since I’ve spent 99% of this column’s space talking about the experiences I’ve had at my local theaters, I figured I’d take this special 50th installment of SUBURBAN GRINDHOUSE MEMORIES to reveal the top ten grindhouse films (that I’ve seen either on TV or video) that I WISH I could’ve seen at a seedy theater or drive-in upon their INITIAL release. While I enjoyed the following films for a variety of reasons, I’m sure each one of them would’ve been enhanced, surrounded by wise-cracking theater patrons during a scratchy, poorly-focused screening.
10) I think I was about 10 years old the first time I saw DON’T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT (1973) on late night television. After a surprising opening, the film drags for a good fifteen minutes, then slowly builds to a finale that (at the time) was quite intense. This underrated gem about lunatics running the asylum is currently being remade, but there’s just no way they’re going to capture the gritty, desolate tone of this low-budget shocker.
9) SHRIEK OF THE MUTILATED is an extremely low budget 1974 Yeti thriller that goes in a direction few first-time viewers will see coming. I saw this on TV for the first time around 1979 and couldn’t get enough. I’d love to have seen an audience’s reaction to the twist ending.
8) Released in the summer of 1972, I’d love to have been at a rural drive-in when NIGHT OF THE LEPUS first screened. This incredibly goofy film about giant rabbits attacking Janet Leigh, Rory Calhoun, and STAR TREK’s DeForest Kelly must be seen to be believed, and must’ve had the crowds in stitches. What makes it so good is how serious the filmmakers took the whole thing…
7) Every cult film fan has a favorite Russ Meyer film. Mine is SUPERVIXEN (1975), which is basically a sexy road trip chase film with a little MANIAC COP thrown in. But what blew me away was the dazzling editing during an early sequence split between a gas station and an apartment: every film maker should watch this at least once. There’s a good chance you’ll get dizzy trying to keep up with all the angles and shots. It’s also genuinely hysterical.
6) There must’ve been something seriously dangerous in the air during the early 70s. Case in point is 1972’s BLOOD FREAK, about a dope-smoking guy who eats turkey from an experimental turkey farm and is turned into a turkey-headed monster who needs the blood of other drug addicts to survive. Oh…and it also has a pro-Jesus message and stars Steve Hawkes, who had starred in a few Spanish TARZAN films (got all that?). I can’t even begin to think what theater-goers must’ve thought of this, but thanks to the lunatics at Something Weird Video, adventurous cinephiles can obtain a deluxe DVD edition loaded with extras. I’ve watched it too many times to admit…
5) In the late 90s I found a used VHS copy of 1975’s THE BLACK GESTAPO, a film I had never heard of despite being a life-long fan of blaxploitation cinema. But unlike other films in this subgenre, THE BLACK GESTAPO was just downright nasty and mean-spirited throughout its entire running time: tired of their women being raped by white guys, a group of black men band together and start taking their streets back. There’s plenty of action, classic dialogue, and violence (including a bathtub castration sequence that pre-dates I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE by four years) to keep any trash-film fan’s interest. I’d hate to have been the only white guy at a screening of this, but then again it could’ve been a real blast!
4) While the idea behind THE CORPSE GRINDERS (1971) sounds better on paper than it translated to film, this early offering from director Ted V. Mikels is a real piece of cinematic insanity: a floundering pet food company—in an attempt to save money—begin to dig up corpses and grind them into cat food. In turn, cats start going crazy and attack their owners. A couple of moronic cops get on the case. The corpse-grinding machine was made out of a refrigerator box and looks beyond cheesy, yet somehow certain scenes in the graveyard have fantastic atmosphere. The cat attacks are unconvincing, the acting is horrendous, and I would’ve given anything to have seen this with a group of like-minded film freaks…
3) Since my initial Saturday afternoon TV viewing of SATAN’S CHEERLEADERS (1975), I’ve been hooked: a Satanist (who is also a janitor at a local high school) kidnaps four cheerleaders who get lost on a road trip. He’s looking to sacrifice one of them in a ritual, but is killed by the Devil when he tries to rape one of them. A shady couple (the wife played by Yvonne DeCarlo of THE MUNSTERS fame) then attempt to finish the janitor’s job, only to discover one of the cheerleaders is actually a closet witch. In many ways this is the ULTIMATE 70s exploitation film: cheerleaders, backwoods Satanists, and four of the best looking actresses ever to grace a low budget feature add up to a true guilty pleasure. This slice of 70s sinema ends with the cheerleaders using their newfound powers to help their football team win! When I finally found a VHS copy of this sometime in the early 80s, I was surprised to see such a low nudity level (something most grindhouse films rely on), but the sheer nuttiness of this offering from director Greydon (BLACK SHAMPOO) Clark works well, despite its lack of skin.
2) When my family purchased our first VCR in 1983, I immediately ran to our local video store and rented 1963’s BLOOD FEAST, a film I had been reading about in FANGORIA Magazine since their fourth issue. In the middle of watching it, my dad came home from work and freaked out. He had seen this at a theater in Georgia a few weeks before he went to Korea with the army. He told me people—some soldiers—actually passed out during a few of the gore scenes and most of the theater was empty by the time it ended. NO ONE had seen anything like this at that time, and it was amazing to have first-hand proof that the accounts I had read in FANGORIA were true. I can’t even imagine what it must’ve been like to be in a theater when something so different and ground-breaking was unleashed for the first time. And being my old man was there, perhaps my love for this stuff was somehow passed through him to me at the time?
1) Despite the ground-breaking nature of BLOOD FEAST, I thought long and hard about what the A-#1 grindhouse film I wish I could’ve seen in a theater should be. It might seem a bit typical, but I can think of no better film than NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968). I remember reading an article from film critic Roger Ebert where he recalled his first viewing: a young child sat next to him, hiding his eyes and shaking in total terror, causing Ebert to write, “What kind of a parent drops their kids off at something called NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD?” I first saw it on late night TV when I was about seven years old, and it’s the main film responsible for my love of the horror genre. George Romero’s low-budget classic reinvented the zombie film, and, from all accounts that I’ve read, was one of the scariest experiences since 1960’s PSYCHO for many theater-goers. What more could any fan of grindhouse cinema ask for?
SO there you have it, folks: ten films I wish I could’ve seen in a theater from the “golden age” of the grindhouse film. Now it’s time for me to stop dreaming and begin searching my fading celluloid memory for the 51st column. See ‘ya in two weeks!
© Copyright 2012 by Nick Cato