So we love us some exploitation films here at Film Critics United, so much so that if we had our way, it would be all that we’d ever watch, but we never get our way. So when filmmaker Elijah Drenner’s documentary ‘American Grindhouse’ popped up, which as of this writing you can watch absolutely for free on Hulu or through the films IMDB page, you knew we had to augment our Grindhouse / Exploitation education experience. An educated we were.
Drenner opens his film with a history of film itself, letting us know that the very first films were probably grindhouse films in spirit thanks to, surprisingly, Thomas Edison. If you have a new visual technology, might as well load it up with sex and violence. Makes sense to us. In fact there were so many films of suspect moral fortitude being made in the late twenties and early thirties that Hollywood decided to police itself so their films could fall under a strict moral code. Naturally, that opened the door for the less than scrupulous filmmakers to work outside that code and make movies that people actually wanted to see, mostly in rundown theaters in bad neighborhoods, and the Grindhouse genre was unofficially born.
Numerous talking heads from filmmakers such as John Landis and Jack Hill and film historians Eddie Muller and Eric Schaefer guide us through the various periods of the exploitation genre, many of which that I didn’t know existed, such as the segment presented on these bizarre ‘baby being born’ movies and the like. I’ve seen childbirth, so why anyone would want to film it and then have people pay their hard-earned money to see it, is completely beyond me. But then childbirth is brutal, violent and bloody so I guess it qualifies in a way.
There was also a segment on those 1960’s Beach Blanket movies, which I don’t think I ever thought of as exploitation, but sill possibly the most bizarre genre of film ever created in my opinion. Who watched that junk? The legendary Fred Olen Ray, many of his films represented right here on this sight… admittedly none of those being positively represented… educated me on these movies. Since I’m a bit too young to have lived
through that bizarre genre directly, Mr. Olen Ray informed us that he and his kind had very little interest in these movies, but his dad would watch them so he and his fellow old-timers could watch Annette Funicello shimmy in a little bikini. Oh dad and his freaky friends. They followed this conversation up with film historian Kim Morgan showing us a scene from the movie ‘Lord Love a Duck’, arguably the most disturbing scene in any movie ever, a scene that featured Tuesday Weld, as a high school student, trying on different sweaters for her father (Max Showalter) with the both of them become aroused by the whole incident. They tried to pretend they were all pure and stuff back in the fifties and early sixties, but these were some seriously disturbed, repressed people. This is why you don’t suppress this stuff, because you get warped images like that. And who names their movie ‘Lord Love a Duck’?
Eventually the film gets to the sex charged late sixties with my man Russ Meyer doing his thing, the gore filled early seventies, and you know can’t do an American Grindhouse film with at least glossing over a little Blaxploitation… with all of this eventually leading to the birth of hardcore pornography which pretty much killed the grindhouse movement. That and the fact that the big studios decided to start making their own exploitation films.
One of the more educational moments for me personally, while watching American Grindhouse, was the conversation our filmmakers had with the late Don Edmonds, the director of ‘Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS’, one of the more disturbing exploitation, grindhouse style films I’ve ever had the displeasure of seeing. Mr. Edmonds describing how he came to direct this film was pure gold, and me and Mr. Edmonds can agree on one thing, that being if you’re going to make a movie like that, then for goodness sakes, make the damn movie the way it needs to be made. He did that with Ilsa, and the world is a worse place for it.
‘American Grindhouse’ is entertaining, but since it runs at a scant 80 minutes, it is also mighty sketchy on most of its subject matter. The truth of the matter is that almost every segment that Drenner touches on could probably use its own stand-alone documentary. Think you could a fill up a whole movie on Blaxploitation? Russ Meyer? 70’s gore flicks? You could probably make a whole movie on Wes Craven and the genesis of ‘The Last House on the Left’ all by itself lonesome, so there isn’t a lot of depth in this otherwise entertaining movie.
And since the movie is called ‘American’ Grindhouse, that means we will be making no special trips to Italy or Japan or to Spain, nations that more times than not, put our exploitation gems to absolute shame.
If you do watch this movie and if you are a fan of exploitation styled films, which I certainly hope you are or why else would you be watching this movie, watch the end credits and the lengthy list of films that scrolls by and count how many you’ve seen. It’s a list that has to go a couple hundred deep and I’ve only seen about forty three of them. Clearly I have some work to do. ‘American Grindhouse’ is a good documentary. It gives you the information, it has fun with this information, it’s entertaining, and it doesn’t take sides. It’s sketchy and it is Grindhouse 101, but starter Grindhouse is better than no Grindhouse at all.