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Movie Review: American Grindhouse

Director John Landis in a sit-down interview

(This film was sent to the Underground Film Journal as a screener from the 2010 Boston Underground Film Festival, which runs March 25-April 1.)

After a bombastic opening credits sequence and an introduction that promises tons of gratuitous and sleazy sex, nudity and violence, the documentary American Grindhouse settles into something really hardcore: A hardcore history lesson.

Directed by Elijah Drenner, this chronicle of the seedy underbelly of film history does a damn fine job of showing how the notorious exploitation cinema racket is really the history of all cinema, that even from the days of Thomas Edison, all movies focused on the salacious and the bloodthirsty in order to draw in audiences. However, it is the grindhouse films that makes no bones about appealing to prurient interests while so-called mainstream films hide their licentious side under the cover of art.

One type of obscure, mostly-forgotten film covered in American Grindhouse are the ’50s childbirth films that were produced and promoted as allegedly educational tools, but were for the most part a cover so perverts could publicly gawk at a woman’s exposed hoo-haw and feel like stand-up pillars of their community.

Drenner takes the opposite approach than that with his own documentary, promising the most vile, degrading acts ever committed to celluloid and offering up an actual, educational history lesson. Don’t get me wrong, though, American Grindhouse is packed to the gills with primo clips and trailers from the outrageous films being discussed. If you happen to want to gawk at a woman’s exposed hoo-haw — albeit with a baby popping out of it — and feel like a budding film historian, then this is the film to see.

Lots of experts walk us through this seamy history, from film professors like Eric Schaeffer (Emerson College) to historians like Eddie Muller and Kim Morgan. In fact, even though the word “grindhouse” typically conjures up images of Times Square palaces showing horror, blaxploitation and skin flicks 24 hours a day in the ’60s and ’70s, American Grindhouse seems to linger more on the prior evolution of the exploitation film, including the wild, pre-Hays code days of Hollywood and the institution of that code, which set the stage to independent film hucksters to create the sordid types of entertainment that audiences truly crave.

It’s a truly fascinating history and presented in a truly entertaining way by Drenner. In addition to the professors and historians, there are lots of great interviews with the actual makers, including established directors like Joe Dante and John Landis who got their start making exploitation-eque type features and obviously big fans of the genre. Although, at certain points, one almost wishes the entire documentary was just a long sit-down with the giddy, over-opinionated — in a good way — Landis mouthing off about different films and filmmakers. He’s interview gold.

But there are also interviews with a few masters of the exploitation circuit, such as Don Edmonds (Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS), Jack Hill (The Big Doll House), Ted V. Mikels (The Corpse Grinders) and the wizard of gore Herschell Gordon Lewis. In fact, one of the most intriguing sections of American Grindhouse is the debate over whether Alfred Hitchcock‘s Psycho (1960) or Lewis’ Blood Feast (1963) was the beginning of the modern slasher movie craze.

The only place where American Grindhouse falters is by being struck with title-card-itis, a disease that afflicts many documentaries. Generally, the film follows a linear path, moving from the birth of cinema up to the ’70s. But even with that structure clearly in place, Drenner still breaks up each time period, and the types of exploitation picture that dominated them, with a title card to tell the audience what it’s about to watch.

However, once the documentary hits the free-for-all ’70s when all manners of perversion and slaughter were exploited for entertainment, that clear linear flow gets tossed out the window and the title cards jump from genre to genre no matter what specific year is being covered. Thus, the film gets too jumpy for it’s own good and it feels as though certain subjects get crammed in and glossed over just to make sure nothing gets overlooked.

For a quick example, there are title card sections for “horror” and “blaxploitation,” yet a film like Blacula only gets a brief clip in the “horror” section without a discussion of hybrid exploitation because the overall documentary is hamstrung by it’s title cards. With so much loving detail exhibited in the first three-quarters of the films, the lack of detail towards the end is incongruous and jarring.

Overall, though, all history lessons should be as much fun as American Grindhouse. Drenner has crafted a very loving tribute that should satisfy those who are already fans of the world of exploitation and those who know nothing about it. The fans get the great clips and trailers and serious discussion of their beloved medium, while the novices will actually learn a thing or two. Of course, those things will be a little disturbing, but that’s the fun and the thrill of the grindhouse experience.

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  • This was a pretty good documentary. The early parts on the origins of exploitation films are excellent, and then the history from the Nudie Cuties onward is a bit sketchy and not given enough detail. This easily could have been a 12 hour long installment television show. Also, most of the films that are most famous on the Grindhouse circuit in the 1970s are not mentioned like the Kung Fu films, the Mondo films, etc. The focus here is on American grindhouse films and the foreign films that played at grindhouse theaters, and often dominated them, are not mentioned even in passing. Overall though it was well done and there are lots of good, exploitative film clips in the movie. It also gave me some good ideas for movies to look for.