Wednesday, May 16, 2007
I meant to put this up here weeks ago, but it slipped my mind. "Grindhouse" was a great experience and was an intersection of two of my pet film theories. The first is "Trash chic," in which film elements once commonly thought as bad by mainstream critics and audiences are lauded by niche audiences. Interestingly enough, while "trash chic" was once the province of film nuts and fan boys celebrating the "it's so bad it's good" aesthetic, it's now considered almost mainstream.
The other theory is "The Movie Boys" in which there is now a handful of directors whose roots are not in journalism, fiction, still photography or theater, but in the appreciation of film. Sam Raimi and Joe Dante are two examples. They reference favorite films and use actors whom they admired as fans. Richard and Alex Gordon were the first "movie boys," especially Alex, who sought out characters actors he loved – he tried always to find a place in his films for Frank Lacteen, for example.
Anyway, I loved "Grindhouse," although the Tarantino sequence was too talky.
For many of us who grew up during the drive-in era, the new movie "Grindhouse" brought forth a number of memories about that movie-going experience.
The recently released film is a double feature of two new movies that capture the spirit of drive-in classics. The three-hour show is complete with trailers for other outrageous films that don't exist. The only thing that could make the experience more authentic is if the stereophonic sound was replaced with the tinny noise that used to come out of those speakers that hung on your car's window.
Although "Grindhouse" had great reviews, industry pundits noted it didn't make the money its opening weekend many thought it would. "Grindhouse" is not a film for everyone. In many ways it has the specialized appeal of an art house film. While I think its hyper-violence is so over the top it becomes satiric, the zombie blasting of "Planet Terror" and the serial killer antics of "Death Proof" might offend others.
Unless you lived in a major city, you couldn't experience a real "grindhouse" the movie industry term for a theater that ran about 18 hours a day with continuous showings of both main stream Hollywood fare and exploitation movies.
In markets such as Western Massachusetts, though, the place for low-budget exploitation films were drive-ins such as the Airline in Chicopee, E.M. Loew's in West Springfield, or the Parkway in Wilbraham.
With the weakening of the major studios in the late 1940s due to Supreme Court decisions that made them divest their theater holdings and the rise in the popularity of television, there was an opening for independent productions and foreign imports. There was also a rise in the teen population and the explosion of the suburb that created a new market for theaters located outside of traditional urban settings.
Add those ingredients with the fact that theater owners were investing in drive-in theaters and eager to try new productions to lure people away from their television sets, and you had everything you needed to create a fascinating 30-year slice of American movie history.
The restrictions of television carefully censored productions shown on a small screen in black and white were used by independent producers to their advantage. They realized they did have big stars or big budgets. To make their films work, they emphasized elements that the major studios shunned: controversial drama, sex, skin, actions and violence.
The producers frequently used the horror, crime and science fiction genres as their vehicles of choice.
The delirious violence and action in "Grindhouse" is way out of the budget league of the filmmakers Robert Rodriquez and Quentin Tarantino emulated. The two contemporary directors, though, effectively caught the subversive qualities of the exploitation film.
Although many people who made these low-budget wonders took pride in their work, the goal was not art, but money. The producers were more concerned with box office receipts than with reviews.
I must admit that after seeing "Grindhouse" my first reaction was to go through my videotape and DVD collection and assemble my own double-bills. Here are some suggestions if you want to continue the "Grindhouse" experience in your own home.
Something Weird Video (www.somethingweird.com) is the home for a wide variety of forgotten films and they feature some double feature DVDs. One great set is "Blood Suckers/Blood Thirst," a pair of films that have the very exploitable word of "blood" in their titles. Starring Peter Cushing and Patrick MacNee, "Blood Suckers" is an odd vampire film set in Greece and England that revolves around academics (!), while "Blood Thirst" is a vampire tale set in the Philippines that mixes the conventions of that genre with those of the detective fiction.
Another hysterical double feature is "Death Curse of Tartu/ Sting of Death," a pair of horror films from Florida director William Grefe. You haven't lived until you've seen a walking jellyfish man!
Something Weird also features collections of previews from dozens of drive-in movies. Since previews have to show you enough of the good parts to lure you to a show, they are frequently more entertaining than the actual movie.
Parents should be aware there is adult material on the Something Weird site.
There are dozens and dozens of drive-in movies available on DVD. Producer Roger Corman specialized in these films and among my favorites are "Death Race 2000," a darkly funny look at America's future, and "Hollywood Boulevard," a film that first time directors Allan Arkush and Joe Dante did for Corman on a remarkably low budget.
Corman produced a number of films in the Philippines that offered low labor costs and good filmmakers such as director Eddie Romero. Romero's trilogy of "Mad Doctor of Blood Island," "Brides of Blood" and "Beast of Blood" would make one of those great "all night" shows all the drive-ins featured.
While the era of the drive-in and the grindhouse is over, the films they featured live on and can still provide some low-rent guilty pleasures.
© 2007 by G. Michael Dobbs