“American Grindhouse” (2010)
Studio: Lorber Films
Starring: John Landis, Kim Morgan, Joe Dante, Herschell Gordon Lewis, William Lustig
Directed by: Elijah Drenner
Running Time: 82 min.
Synopsis: A documentary on the history of grindhouse films in America.
If you love grindhouse movies of any shape or form, then you will love American Grindhouse, which is a documentary on the history of exploitation films and grindhouse theaters. It’s a great documentary that takes you back to see how exploitation films started, then to the peak in the 60’s and 70’s, and then its end in the mid-80’s. Also the documentary has a ton of great interviews with filmmakers, actors, and historians plus many clips and trailers from some of the greatest schlock you’ll ever see.
First off the film starts off with some quick interviews, some scenes of a few movies, then a great intro to the film that is put together nicely with graphics that fly off the screen and good editing and music. Then the doc starts off with how grindhouse films got started. One historian who is interviewed says the minute Thomas Edison invented the camera for moving pictures, five seconds later exploitation was born. Once people had access to a device that could record moving images the first thing they thought of is what they wanted to see and many wanted to get women to go nude in front of the camera or do something that was taboo.
In the early 1900’s major studios were the ones who mostly made exploitation films. This was before any type of censorship, so the majors did any type of film they wanted. Then in the 1930’s when the Hays Code came into effect major motion pictures now had censorship and rules they had to go by and independent filmmakers kept on making exploitation films. Many have said this is when exploitation grindhouse films were really born. Now you had to go to a certain theater or be a certain age to see these types of films. Most of these theaters were in seedy sections of town and this added to the atmosphere of the film going experience.
The documentary touches on different types of exploitation films. Exploitation films that were popular in the 1940’s were drug films or sex ed ones. Some of them tired to get by and say that these films were educational and talked about how drugs were bad and what they did to kids and how people can learn about sex or how a baby is born. There were even films that showed an actual childbirth.
By the dawn of the 1950’s the Hayes code started to let up just a little and some of the majors started to produce films with themes that exploitation films used. So now the exploitation films had to compete with the majors, so they decided to venture into new themes that the studios wouldn’t touch. This started a string of films that would feature nude or semi-nude dancers from burlesque shows. Also the nudist camp films were born, where filmmakers would just go to nudist camps and film people naked.
As the 50’s drew to a close, exploitation filmmakers were thinking of new ways to make films. Russ Myer came up with a new brand of exploitation called the nudie cutie, which was like a nudist camp movie, but it had a plot. Other filmmakers followed like Herschell Gordon Lewis and David F. Friedman and Doris Wishman who produced their own nudie cutie films. Lewis and Friedman also were pioneers when they invented the gore film starting off with Blood Feast. They also created another sub-genre called the roughie, which were films that include nudity, but also had violence and had a dark film noir vibe to them.
During this time Drive-Ins were popular and showed lots of this grindhouse greats, but the theaters on 42nd street in New York and on Hollywood Blvd. in L.A. were the places you wanted to see grindhouse movies. They were sleazy, dark, and the crowds were out of control at times. That is the total grindhouse experience. The documentary continues on and talks about different sub-genres like biker films, drug films of the 60’s, schlock horror, women in prison, sexploitation, Naziploitation, blackploitation, etc.
The documentary has some great interviews with legendary filmmakers and actors such as John Landis, Joe Dante, Jack Hill, Don Edmonds, Fred Williamson, Judy Brown, Herschell Gordon Lewis, Larry Cohen, William Lustig, David Hess, Ted Mikels, and Fred Olen Ray, plus it has historians Eddie Muller, Kim Morgan, and Eric Schaefer. The doc did a good job with getting a lot of the key players that made grindhouse what it was and some people that were big fans and had lots of knowledge of that genre.
One of the most entertaining interviews is John Landis. Now Landis is mostly known for making comedy films like Animal House, Blues Brothers, and Trading Places and in the horror world he is known for directing An American Werewolf in London, but I have to say he has tons of knowledge about exploitation films and from hearing him talk he really is a big fan of that time. Other good interviews and stories are with Jack Hill and when he talks about making The Big Doll House starring Pam Grier and Judy Brown. It was one of the first popular women in prison films that spawned a bunch of spin-offs and rip-offs throughout the 70’s. I also enjoyed interviews with Larry Cohen and Fred Williamson and how they talked about making films together like Black Cesar and how they got away with not having any permits to shoot big crowd scenes in New York.
One of my favorite parts in the film was when they were talking about Lewis and Friedman’s Blood Feast and making comprises with that film and Psycho. Although the films are different, they mentioned how the bathtub scene in the opening to Blood Feast is like the famous shower scene in Psycho. They also mention how Lewis and Friedman gave birth to gory violence on screen where Hitchcock tested those waters with the violence in Psycho. There has been debate on this subject for years on what is the first slasher film or who invented the slasher film. Many people say it is Psycho and Blood Feast is the first splatter film or gore movie. In my opinion, the seeds of the slasher film were planted in Psycho with the shower scene, but Psycho is not a slasher film, but more of a suspense thriller or just a horror film. Blood Feast is the blueprint for not just the splatter and gore film, but also the slasher with its elements of the lone demented killer with a sharp weapon, scary music, high body count, scantly clad women, and of course gore. This is the formula to all slasher films that came after.
Overall the doc was great, but like all documentaries I always want to see more. They did an excellent job of going over everything, but I thought towards the end they rushed some of the sub-genres that they were talking about. I’m sure the filmmakers had more stuff, but just had to cut it to get a decent running time. I think if the movie ran for two hours or even longer it would still have kept my interest. The subject of grindhouse movies is always entertaining and they could probably make a mini-series out of it.
American Grindhouse is a great documentary and is worth checking out and buying on DVD. There are some great extras on the DVD like a making-of featurette, which includes interviews with the filmmakers that made the doc, deleted scenes and outtakes, there is even an old interview with Lewis and Friedman from 1987, trailers from some of the movies that were talked about in the doc, and a photo gallery. This documentary is very highly recommended and go check it out or buy it on DVD if you haven’t already.