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Feature Film Online: American Grindhouse

Cinematic sleaze has been with us as long as … Well, as long as cinema has been invented. What else are you going to do with a camera except convince some woman to take her clothes off in front of it? The history, trajectory and influence upon mainstream media of the exploitation film circuit is lovingly chronicled in Elijah Drenner‘s fun romp American Grindhouse. However, like the salacious marketing gimmicks and hucksterism that drew in audiences to tawdry theaters that this documentary gleefully covers, could equally apply to the way Drenner has structured his film. (NOTE: Film is 100% NSFW.)

American Grindhouse starts off with a bang with aficionados of cinema’s dark underbelly, like directors John Landis, Joe Dante and William Lustig, exuberantly describing the seedy neighborhoods of Hollywood Boulevard and Times Square of the ’70s where one could go see gore, mayhem and nudity for cheap on the big screen. This is the typical image one thinks of when one hears the term “grindhouse.”

However, to describe how the grindhouse scene of the ’70s came about, Drenner shifts his documentary back about 60 years to the dawn of cinema. The film claims, through interviews with historians like Eddie Muller and Eric Schaefer, that the first true exploitation film was a white slavery exposé, i.e. the filmmakers invented a scandal to exploit, called Traffic in Souls produced in 1913.

From there, Drenner focuses in-depth on pre-code Hollywood, the institution of the Hollywood Production Code, the scandal swirling around Todd Browning’s classic Freaks, the career of Code-ignoring filmmaker and distributor Dwain Esper and other historical sleaze merchants.

Director John Landis in a sit-down interview

So, while American Grindhouse initially promises a sordid, shocking account of ’70s cinematic vileness, it ultimately delivers a bawdy, though PBS-esque classic history lesson for its first half or so. That period is still fun, though, and Drenner packs his film with loads of great clips where you feeling like copying down all the film titles he’s grabbed scenes from to add to your viewing queue, even when the interviewees say specifically how awful they all truly are.

But, that’s the point of exploitation: Sitting through loads of wretchedness to get a few fun scenes and perhaps a glimpse of a pretty, naked girl. People who love exploitation typically have a high tolerance to bad acting, dialogue, cinematography, cheap effects, etc. Why? Because they understand that film, although composed of visual and audio information, is really about ideas. And a good enough licentious, wanton, nasty idea is good enough fuel to have a good time.

Read the original movie review of American Grindhouse on the Underground Film Journal.

Plus, if you don’t want to watch this film with commercial interruptions, you can rent it on Amazon VOD.


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