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"American Grindhouse": The Intoxicating Pleasures of Genre Cinema

American

If the recent documentary "Roger Corman: The Pope of Pop Cinema" left you with an itch for genre cinema that needs scratching, Popflick got the thing for you. “American Grindhouse” is an indie documentary by Elijah Brenner, offering an encyclopedic overview of this cinematic phenomenon that flies against the traditional notions of cinema as fine art. It can be shoddy, dirty, dangerous, and thoroughly questionable. And yet, it remains an art.

“American Grindhouse” was released in 2010, but its focus on this cultural and commercial phenomenon from the XX century makes it impervious to the passage of time. It is history by now. None of its substance has changed or lost currency in the last decade. If the movie is dated at all, it is only due to superficial reasons.

Grinding the night away with disreputable cinema: 42nd Street and the Hollywood Boulevard were ground zero for "American Grindhouse" / Still image courtesy of Lux Digital Pictures and End Films.

Grinding the night away with disreputable cinema: 42nd Street and the Hollywood Boulevard were ground zero for "American Grindhouse" / Still image courtesy of Lux Digital Pictures and End Films.

Brenner recruited Robert Forster to record the voice-over narration. The Oscar-nominated actor for “Jackie Brown” (1997) passed away in 2019 and gets over the title credit. He was - and is - a big draw. The movie is helpfully divided into chapters with illustrative titles, like “In The Beginning: from Edison to Freaks” - yes, Grindhouse cinema has been around since the birth of the medium - and “It’s Not Vulgar…It’s Educational,” considering films that under the cover of being instructive, luxuriated on showing nudity.

The chapter headers look like an old interstitial piece of film burning as they run in the projector, with clicking sound effects including. A common occurrence before digital projection, this little flourish may feel mystifying to young audiences, but it does look cool. A string of talking heads deliver punchy statements and historical context, alternating with a barrage of archival clips and snippets of scenes, edited at the breakneck pace of a late 90s-early aughts MTV documentary.

A Grindhouse State of Mind

The grindhouse is a place undistinguishable of a distribution dynamic. The experts identify it with geographical exactitude in the seedy movie theaters of 42nd Street in Manhattan and Hollywood Boulevard. They would show one movie after the other - grinding away! - offering the comfort of darkness to lovers, bums, and film aficionados alike in exchange for a few cents. The model expanded beyond big coastal urban centers, finding ticket-paying audiences hungry for cheap entertainment in small towns. If you want to go further back, the grindhouse spirit first manifested itself in carnivals and county fairs.

It’s also an attitude, contrary to the mainstream. It is also a genre, or rather “genres”: dime-budgeted action, burlesque segueing into outright porn, foreign films re-edited and repackaged to highlight nudity, blaxploitation, and any other exploitative form of cinematic entertainment you can think of. It's not by chance that Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez joined forces, premiering their movies "Death Proof" and "Planet Terror" as a double feature theatrically distributed as "Grindhouse" (2007). That the gambit flopped is a testament to how much the Grindhouse spirit has influenced - or infected? - the mainstream. By now it is so Hollywood, there is no need for a homage.

Eddie Mueller takes some time off from TCM to promote a less wholesome kind of classic film in "American Grindhouse" / Still image courtesy of Lux Digital Pictures and End Films.

Eddie Mueller takes some time off from TCM to promote a less wholesome kind of classic film in "American Grindhouse" / Still image courtesy of Lux Digital Pictures and End Films.

On the Academic front, we get historian Eddie Muller, one of the towering figures of the embattled institution known as TCM, the cable channel dedicated to classic films, now under siege by the corporate overreach of Warner-Bros.-Discovery CEO David Zaslav. Eric Shaeffer, Ph.D., Associate Professor at Emerson College - Go, Lions! -and author of the seminal book “Bold! Daring” Shocking! True!: A History of Exploitation Films, 1919-1959” and “Sex Scene: Media and the Sexual Revolution.” There is also Kim Morgan, the film critic who eventually segued into screenwriting with Guillermo del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley” (2021). She brings a much-needed, if only too brief, feminine perspective. The only other woman is director Alison Anders.

Anders is part of a small cadre of film directors attesting to how the grindhouse circuit's ravishing hunger for movies and loose sense of propriety made it fertile soil for American independent cinema. We also get brief appearances by cult director Larry Cohen, who went from the blaxploitation classic “Black Caesar” (1973) to a string of inventive horror features, like “It’s Alive” (1974), the theological nightmare of “God Told Me To” (1976) and the creature feature “Q: The Winged Serpent” (1982).

Kim Morgan brings a much needed feminine perspective to "American Grindhouse" / Still image courtesy of Lux Digital Pictures and End Films.

Kim Morgan brings a much needed feminine perspective to "American Grindhouse" / Still image courtesy of Lux Digital Pictures and End Films.

Real-Life Tragedy Rears Its Ugly Head

There is a love-hate relationship between Hollywood and the grindhouse, with talent crossing back and forth over the fault line that separates them. The young guns that would helm cheapies for Corman and then head more expensive and reputable studio fare are represented with three high-profile directors who started playing in the muck and moved on big star vehicles fit for the multiplex. We have Joe Dante (Gremlins), one of the sources of "Roger Corman: The Pope of Pop Cinema." There is Jonathan Kaplan, who led Jodie Foster to an Oscar in the merciless rape drama “The Accused” (1988), and John Landis, who moved on from shlock - his first movie, literally titled “Shlock” (1973), followed the rampage of a murderous missing link in small town America - to popular comedies like “National Lampoon’s Animal House” (1978) and “The Blues Brothers” (1980).

Landis is enthusiastic and opinionated, but his presence sours “American Grindhouse” for reasons that have little to do with the quality of the movie. In 1982, Landis was directing a segment of the anthology film “Twilight Zone: The Movie'' (1983) when an on-set accident killed actors Vic Morrow, Renee Chen, and My-ca Dinh Le, two small children.

As gory as Hershell Gordon Lewis movies were, no human beings were harmed while filming them. / Still image courtesy of Lux Digital Pictures and End Films.

As gory as Hershell Gordon Lewis movies were, no human beings were harmed while filming them. / Still image courtesy of Lux Digital Pictures and End Films.

Landis evaded criminal charges in court, but investigative reporting from Stephen Farber and Marc Greene, who published his findings in the book “Outrageous Conduct: Art, Ego and the Twilight Zone Case'' (1988), revealed appalling disregard for the safety of cast and crew, all in the name of getting the next shot. It was a nightmare scenario. We have overzealousness, the championing of cutting corners, the romanticizing of endangering yourself and others to make your art go to deadly extremes. The attitude flourishes in low-budget filmmaking and goes nuclear in the penny-pinching capitalistic dynamic of studio filmmaking.

“Twilight Zone: The Movie,” inspired by the legendary TV series created by Rod Serling, may have been a Hollywood production backed by high rollers - Steven Spielberg was a producer and directed one of the segments - but in spirit and form, it fits in the populist realm of the Grindhouse. This tragic episode bursts the bubble of make-believe and pollutes the joyful simulacrum of violence, a prime ingredient of this expansive genre, next to sex.

True to the spirit of its subject matter, “American Grindhouse'' peppers its lightning-fast edition with images that could be offensive or triggering to some viewers.

True to the spirit of its subject matter, “American Grindhouse'' peppers its lightning-fast edition with images that could be offensive or triggering to some viewers. I, for one, could have gone on living without the few frames where you can see a hand scooping a cat’s eye out of its socket. There is plenty of nudity and theatrical gore on display, too. Bear in mind all these things are justified or taken from a particular movie discussed by the experts on screen. If you are curious about this subject, you will not hit the fainting divan. You know the drill.

It's a Grindhouse World After All

You can’t expect wholesomeness from a cadre of creatives that includes Hershell Gordon Lewis, the “Godfather of Gore” who founded a cottage industry of gruesome low-budget movies, including “Blood Feast” (1963) and “Two Thousand Maniacs!” (1964). There is also actor David Hess, still intimidating decades after his villainous turn in Wes Craven’s “Last House on the Left” (1972) - another link between high and low cinema, since Craven adapted Ingmar Bergman’s “The Virgin Spring” (1960) so closely, that original screenwriter Ella Isaksson shared the credit.

“American Grindhouse” is understandably centered in the United States, but the phenomenon is far from exclusively American. In every country there are filmmakers working outside the established industry and the mainstream. The spirit of Grindhouse cinema thrives. Sometimes, even established artists find themselves sucked into this realm by happenstance. Swedish film master Ingmar Bergman’s “Summer with Monika” (1953) first appeared on these shores in 1955, when exploitation distributor Kroger Babb bought the US rights. He trimmed it down to 62 minutes, dubbed it badly, used the naked images of actress Bibi Andersson to promote it, and renamed it “Monika, the Story of a Bad Girl.” One year later, Janus took the rights and re-released the movie in its original form, as a dignified foreign film. Only a few dollars separate the Arthouse from the Grindhouse. Take your pleasure where you can find it.

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A documentary about the history of exploitation movies, from the silent movie era to the 1970s.

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