Film Review: American Grindhouse

Entertaining and knowledgeable history of American exploitation movies.

Like the 2008 Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!, Elijah Drenner’s smart, affectionate but clear-eyed history of American exploitation films combines talking heads and well-chosen clips from movies that range from now-quaint 1913 white-slavery “exposé” Traffic in Souls to the still-scurrilous Nazi sexploitation classic Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS.

Drenner’s ambitious, self-imposed mandate for American Grindhouse is to simultaneously chart the development of exploitation pictures, which staked out a lucrative niche by gleefully tackling topics deemed too vulgar, shocking or disreputable for the tender sensibilities of middle-class moviegoers, and to situate them within the context of broader social and cultural developments.

Drenner covers the waterfront, from road-show birth-of-a-baby pictures, which staked their claim to educational value on live, post-screening lectures about sexual hygiene, to drug-scare movies like Reefer Madness (1936), to burlesque movies and wholesome nudist-camp “documentaries” which paved the way for ever-more-explicit depictions of onscreen sex. Blaxploitation, juvenile-delinquent dramas, naughty Nazi sexploitation, gross-out gore pictures, biker flicks and mondo movies are also represented. He taps a small but well-chosen cadre of film historians to handle the hard history, from the way Hollywood’s 1930 Production Code—which encouraged filmmakers to uplift the human race (or at least that portion thereof who went to the movies) by refraining from bad language, interracial relationships, violence and vice (including but not limited to drug abuse and “sex perversion”) and anything related to the nuts and bolts of child-bearing—kept generations of fringe players in business, to the game-changing influence of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, whose success erased the line between high- and low-culture moviemaking.

For on-the-ground color, he turns to trash-movie writers, directors and actors like Fred Williamson, who chuckles that he learned how to “steal shots and do big scenes without permits” by starring in Larry Cohen’s Black Caesar, a master class in guerrilla filmmaking, and Don Edmonds, who matter-of-factly labels himself a whore for agreeing to direct the shameless Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS (which was shot on standing sets from the TV sitcom “Hogan’s Heroes”) and its campier sequel, Ilsa: Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks.

But it’s Piranha director Joe Dante who astutely sums up Jaws as “a big-budget version of The Creature from the Black Lagoon.” John Landis (who shared equipment with Melvin Van Peebles when they were simultaneously shooting Schlock and Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song) makes the connection between ’70s blaxploitation and the “race pictures” of the 1930s and ’40s, low-budget movies that repackaged the conventions of westerns, crime pictures and melodramas with all-black casts and played in segregated theatres across the United States. He also gleefully dubs The Passion of the ChristTexas Chainsaw Jesus,” implicitly placing it on a continuum with religious freak-show movies like Lash of the Penitentes (1936) and Trapped by the Mormons (1922), and declares that “the whole point [of ’60s Beach Party movies] is to see tits and ass…but wholesome tits and ass.”

Both informative and slickly made—the melting emulsion transitions between segments is an especially nice touch—American Grindhouse is a fine introduction to the history of marginal movies and an enjoyable stroll down memory lane for connoisseurs.