SUBURBAN GRINDHOUSE MEMORIES PRESENTS:
MODERN MEMORIES No. 2: “Back to the Grind
By Nick Cato
It’s that time again, faithful readers— time for me to cover a new film. And considering the subject matter of this 2010 documentary (that made its New York City debut this past weekend) I’m sure you’ll agree it fits perfectly with this column’s bi-weekly theme.
AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE is an ambitious (although nowhere near comprehensive) history of exploitation films. To my surprise, the majority of the film focuses on pre-60s cinema, going all the way back to Thomas Edison and explaining how the earliest of films often featured themes and scenes that were precursors to the sleaze that came decades later. While younger audiences might groan at this, I found most of it interesting, and for those who haven’t read much on the subject, there are many things to discover. Director Elijah Drenner does a fine job of highlighting the seedy side of early American cinema, from the silent era through the explosion of “nudie” films that came on the heels of World War 2. There’s actually so much pre-60s material in the first 60-70 percent of AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE that I’m looking forward to a second viewing just to hear what I missed (there’s plenty of laughs and “I can’t believe they showed that in the 20s/30s/40s!” throughout the film).
When we get to the 60s (specifically, the gore films of Herschell Gordon Lewis and the “Nudie Cuties” of Russ Meyer) the film seems to “speed up.” There are many on-screen interviews with 60s and 70s exploitation film icons such as Lewis, Ted V. Mikels, and Jack Hill, yet the film seems as if it struggles to stay within its brief 80-minute running time by rushing through most of final quarter. Had there been the same amount of time given to the post-60s films as with the pre-, AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE could’ve easily been a two-hour (or longer) epic.
Yet, as it stands, it’s still incredibly entertaining (if these films interest you).
For the fan boys: there are multiple talking heads-interviews, and thankfully most of them are funny and you might actually learn something about the plight of the low-budget filmmaker. The most entertaining interview is easily Don Edmonds (director of two Ilsa films, most notably ILSA: SHE WOLF OF THE SS ). He reluctantly took the directing job after reading the screenplay then basically figured he may as well do it as outrageously as possible. Herschell Gordon Lewis doesn’t say too much that his fans haven’t already heard, and he even makes one statement that even I—as a major Lewis fan—had to laugh at. He claims the tongue-ripping scene in BLOOD FEAST (1963) changed the direction of American cinema. Perhaps the ‘ol Wizard of Gore’s getting a bit silly in his golden years? Any horror fan knows that credit goes to the shower scene in PSYCHO (1960). There’s a great comparison of Hitchcock’s classic and Lewis’s BLOOD FEAST, as well as a look at PSYCHO’s grindhouse-style marketing campaign. Ted V. Mikels gives a funny synopsis of his classic THE CORPSE GRINDERS (1971) and Jack Hill speaks of his two women-in-prison classics, THE BIG DOLL HOUSE (1971) and THE BIG BIRD CAGE (1972), but I was disappointed there wasn’t even a mention of SPIDER BABY (1968) or a personal favorite of mine, SWITCHBLADE SISTERS (1975). There’s a LOT of talk with director John (KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE) Landis, so if you’re a fan of his you’re in for a major treat. William (MANIAC) Lustig gives some of the best memories of New York girndhouses, as well as the rise of the hardcore porno film. Blaxploitation is briefly covered, with some short (but sweet) interviews with Fred Williamson and Bob Minor. There’s many other appearances, including Joe (GREMLINS) Dante, David (LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT) Hess, Judith (THE BIG DOLL HOUSE) Brown, Larry (IT’S ALIVE) Cohen, Fred (HOLLYWOOD CHAINSAW HOOKERS) Olen Ray, James (THE TORMENTORS) Gordon White, and Jonathan (NIGHT CALL NURSES) Kaplan. Despite all these famous (and infamous) exploitation personalities, the audience gave the biggest laugh and applause to the relatively new film critic Kim Morgan (she’ll be on a revamped “AT THE MOVIES” TV series this year) when discussing sex on film.
There was some talk in the lobby afterwards on how many more films could’ve/should’ve been covered. My biggest gripe is how the 80s are all but forgotten (the film DOES mention a few post 70s films, including—shocker here—Tarantino’s GRINDHOUSE ). 42nd Street in NYC was home to many grindhouses up until the mid-late 80s (which is where I saw countless slasher, zombie, and action films during my teenage years). The whole 80s slasher/gore re-kindling was ignored (despite it being a MAJOR part of the latter-day grindhouse scene), and the small amount spoken of women’s prison films was surprising, especially how popular they became in the 80s (mainly due to the mainstream Linda Blair film CHAINED HEAT). I also found it odd to see a segment on blaxploitation films with no mention of Rudy (DOLEMITE) Ray Moore.
Again, AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE is a fine primer for those interested in where the sleazier side of cinema came from. While I learned a couple of things—especially about the older films—most of what’s on display here should be common knowledge to trash film aficionados. And yet as a fan of this stuff, I sat through these 80 fun-filled minutes with a (mostly) satisfied grin across my mug, hoping director Elijah Drenner will give us a sequel (or at least a ridiculously extended “director’s cut” DVD).
© Copyright 2011 by Nick Cato
(Author’s Note: AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE has been playing on many cable in-demand services since June, 2010, and is currently screening at festivals and in several cities)