Directed By: Elijah Drenner
Starring: Robert Forster, Allison Anders, Judith Brown
Tag line: "Giving Audiences What They Want Since the Dawn of Motion Pictures"
Trivia: John Amero, Pam Grier, and Harry H. Novak were all approached to be interviewed in this documentary, but turned said offers down
For those who think Grindhouse cinema was a product of the 70's...think again. As director Elijah Dranner's fascinating documentary, American Grindhouse, reveals, the true roots of sleaze and exploitation stretch much further back. Take, for example, the 1913 movie, Traffic in Souls, a film about white slavery and prostitution. Despite its taboo subject matter, Traffic in Souls was a huge hit, and paved the way for the formation of Universal Studios. Even as far back as the days of silent movies, filmmakers were looking for new and exciting ways to titillate their audience, and American Grindhouse shines a light on some of their more memorable accomplishments.
Narrated by Robert Forster, American Grindhouse doesn't devote much time to any one period or genre, offering instead a concise overview of the history of shock cinema. There's a look at Hollywood's early days, when movies like Freaks and Night Nurse raised a few eyebrows, as well as the “educational” films of the 30's and 40's, where social issues (childbirth, sexually transmitted diseases) provided an acceptable excuse to show nudity on the big screen. As Hollywood tightened the reigns on sex and violence in motion pictures, the independents were pushing the boundaries of taste to their breaking point: teen rebellion and burlesque in the 50's, nudist camps and Bikers in the 60's, and the influx of violence onto the scene. By the time American Grindhouse finally gets around to the 70's, we've seen clips from dozens of films, some of which are more shocking than you would ever have imagined.
Along with the films, we learn about the filmmakers behind them (Tod Browning, Dwain Esper, Russ Meyer), and even hear from a few others. Besides such noted movie fans as directors John Landis and Joe Dante, American Grindhouse interviews some of the giants of sleaze, like Jack Hill (Coffy, Foxy Brown, The Big Doll House), Larry Cohen (Black Caesar, It's Alive), and the Godfather of Gore, Mr. Herschell Gordon Lewis (Blood Feast), all of whose insights are invaluable.
What I love most about documentaries like this is that I usually walk away with a veritable shopping list of movies I now want to see, and American Grindhouse is no exception: Dwain Esper's Maniac, Mom and Dad, I Wake Up Screaming, Dragstrip Riot, Lord Love a Duck, Hell Up in Harlem, just to name a few. This is what makes movies like American Grindhouse pure gold for film fans, the promise of uncovering a great new movie to explore that otherwise might have lingered in obscurity.
Well, maybe “Great” is too strong a word in this case. How about “Jaw-Dropping”?