Back to the Grindhouse - By Calum Waddell
Back to the Grindhouse
Grindhouse cinemas have long since ceased to exist and yet the movies that played in them continue to be idolized by new generations of directors and films buffs. With the release of GRIZZLY and ADULT FAIRY TALES, 88 Films tries to figure out why we remember these old films and pine for an era when going into an inner-city American cinema actually meant risking life and death!
By Calum Waddell
“It’s funny because so many of the young people that I come in contact with today are the crowd that flocked to Hostel and Silent Hill and They think that this movie, Grindhouse, is about some crazy guy that puts people in a grinder and grinds them up. But, no, the grindhouse was a sleazy, rundown cinema that showed different movies every week that seemed to be endlessly ‘grinded’ out from who knows where. I worked on a couple of them – The Prowler and Maniac are seen as grindhouse films.”
Tom Savini, special effects artist on Maniac, Dawn of the Dead etc and star of Grindhouse
Today, a lot of young folks look back in time to the cinemas of New York’s 42nd Street and Los Angeles’ Hollywood Boulevard and the low-budget films that played in the sort of places that you’d generally have to risk robbery, rape and fisticuffs to get to and have a whiff of nostalgia. As if they missed something truly pertinent - something lacking from today's multiplexes. Indeed, back in the 1960s and 70s, before VHS and during a time when directors could get away with showing more and more sex and violence onscreen, a number of renegade filmmakers and films surfaced – each one breaking new taboos. Nowadays such shockers or sexploitation are loosely dubbed ‘grindhouse’ movies due to the frequency of their production (hence the ‘grinding’ aspect): roughly made, non-studio features were designed to appeal to the sort of viewer who rates a movie in regards to how much blood, breasts and bonking is present in the storyline. At the time, did anyone know what a grindhouse was? Of course not. Did anyone get 'excited' about making a film for such rundown outlets? Don't be daft. For the curious, yours truly would recommend the excellent book by Prof David Church - Grindhouse Nostalgia - which talks about how the term has been re-imagined and reappropriated as a vague selling point for nostalgic 'excess'. And for anybody who wants an on-the-ground look at the period of 1970s 42nd Street, I would point them to The Rialto Report podcast and 42nd Street Pete's new book A Whole Bag of Crazy.
The king of the grindhouse movie is sometimes said to be Jack Hill, the influential mind behind Pam Grier’s blaxploitation hits Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974), the girl-gang shocker Switchblade Sisters (1975) and who popularised the women-in-prison flick with The Big Doll House (1971) and The Big Bird Cage (1972) - both filmed using tax incentives from the Philippines when it was still under the iron fist of President Marcos. "Directors are stereotyped just like actors, and you need prestige from good critical notices to be taken seriously by the big studios," states Hill. “No matter how profitable your films were, being called a grindhouse director never inspired stars to want to work with you.” Nevertheless, Hill’s movies were popular enough to reach a wider spectrum than what was originally intended. “Coffy and Foxy Brown were made for inner-city black audiences,” he continues, “But when word of mouth got around, the films attracted a crossover audience. The reviews were condescending at best, hostile at worst, but in my opinion that attracted more viewers who wanted to see what all the controversy was about. You couldn’t predict who your audience was going to be - The Big Bird Cage had its longest run in a gay neighbourhood in Hollywood.”
Caged women and blaxploitation features – in which rugged, handsome African-American studs seduced white ladies and brutalized the racist police forces – played for years in independent cinemas. Meanwhile, in the early seventies, audiences began to flock to a new phenomenon popularized by 1972’s Deep Throat. The era of ‘porno chic’ had arrived and for a brief period everyone was heading to their local rundown fleapit. For some oddball reason hardcore is often ostracised by fans who use the term 'grindhouse' but no other trend was as popular in 42nd Street than this - with leading men and women such as Jamie Gillis and Samantha Fox attracting their own fan followings and acting as a curious alternative to the Hollywood A-list. As with everything, though, eventually fatigue set in - and Variety magazine stopped reviewing proper sex movies in 1977. That is the year, considered by many, that the 'golden age' of pornographic films finally wound down. From thereon in, the budgets and imagination - typified by leadings directors such as Radley Metzger - would be in far shorter supply. No surprise, perhaps, that something such as Adult Fairy Tales (1978) became an audience attraction as the mainstream attention turned, once again, to risqué rather than real.
As the novelty of blaxploitation, porn and soft-core violence began to wane, the grindhouse entered its most notorious period – whereby ideas-starved filmmakers would attempt to out-disgust one another with increasingly more barbaric displays of onscreen gore. Although the splatter flick had been invented by Herschell Gordon Lewis with 1963’s Blood Feast, the increasing leniency of what could be permitted in regards to onscreen nudity resulted in a nasty marriage of sex and violence. Come the mid-seventies, however, and inspired by the success of Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a series of films threw out any semblance of good taste and made even the most seasoned fan of deviant cinema reach for the sick bag.
Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS, for instance, which was made in nine days for $50,000, and lensed on short-ends, was unleashed in 1975 and became a huge hit. In his aforementioned book, 42nd Street Pete claims it would play on 42nd Street every month. Seen today and it is still a tough watch - albeit one with more technical merit, and better acting (thanks to a scenery-chewing Dyanne Thorne) than many reviewers have given it credit for.
As the so-called grindhouse cinemas were traditionally located in inner-city areas the bulk of the audience would be more ethnic than what was seen at the local multiplex - something that the directors of the time believe was pivotal to their movie’s success. “I saw Squirm on Broadway and 44th street on opening night,” says Jeff Lieberman – the filmmaker who also grossed out viewers with 1981’s slasher gem Just Before Dawn. “It’s still on my personal highlight reel... the audience was more than half black and I wasn’t aware of the ‘custom’ of not only talking during a movie, but talking at the movie – you know, yelling at the characters and telling them what to do next. Squirm actually went on to play one of the hardcore 42nd street grindhouses a few blocks away for a few months.”
Matt Cimber had gone from marrying screen siren Jayne Mansfield to carving out such classics as The Candy Tangerine Man (1975) and The Witch Who Came from the Sea (1976). As with Jeff Lieberman, Cimber remembers that the ethnicity of the audience would make the grindhouse experience all the more satisfying. “I went to Chicago to see Candy Tangerine Man and I never forgot it,” reflects the director. “I attended the 9am performance. It was sold out. I had never really gone into a theatre that was filled with just African-Americans and I stood in the back and they were yelling at the screen. I never saw any audience enjoy a movie so much in my entire life. If you ever try and talk to the screen in a theatre full of white people you get told ‘shut up’ but here it was this wonderful atmosphere. They were altogether in this experience – it was fantastic.”
Although VHS would kill the appeal of the 42nd Street experience and related blocks in Los Angeles, Chicago and all across the South (why risk life and limb to visit your local red light district when all manner of schlock became available for rent in the comfort of your own home?) the inherent grunginess of the period has become something fans want to learn more about. Yours truly knows - my own 42nd Street Memories documentary was one of the most popular I ever made. Still, regardless, as Bill Landis mentions in the introduction to his snarky but essential Sleazoid Express - today anyone can programme their own double and triple bills in the comfort of their own living room. Shipping right now from the 88 Films web site are Adult Fairy Tales and Grizzly. Just the sort of crazy programming that you might want from that idolised depiction of The Deuce that exists only in your head (really kids? You want to be at that same 42nd Street that played cut Anglicised versions of The Beyond? How would the crowd there have reacted to you moaning about the spider scene being truncated at full volume?). And why not throw in a cannibal gut-muncher (Amazonia? Zombi Holocaust?) or a kung-fu classic (Dragon Missile?). One thing is for sure: when it comes to the 'grindhouse' - 88 Films has your torrid tastes served.
- 88 Films