Producer/director/editor Elijah Drenner keeps it all humming along at a nice clip through the decades, starting around the dawn of cinema and ending with recent tributes like Tarantino and Rodriguez's GRINDHOUSE. There's elements I would have put in (the rise of the VCR and subsequent Disneyfication of Times Square) and others I would have left out (THE TWO-HEADED TRANSPLANT, though it does make a great metaphor for America's geopolitic) but you'll never squeeze the whole history into a single film, and Drenner keeps it all from being too flashy or too slow, too normal or too head-spinningly weird --and does not spare the adult content: bare breasts, sexual assault and horrific gore are all here, with many of the most disturbing clips from the most disturbing films: ILSA: SHE-WOLF OF THE SS and the works of HG Lewis (pictured below), such as BLOOD FEAST, for example. And the clips all look really, really good. It's very strange that this stuff was once so shocking you could only see it as a legal adult in a sleazy theater at the stroke of midnight, and now it's nostalgia, and yet - the times are if anything more conservative and morally regressive than ever. I've even argued the two are linked - we're conservative because we're jaded.
|HGL and some of his 2,000 Maniacs|
Psychotronic Cinema Guide The Psychotronic Video Guide To Film is for! What we have here in AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE is a nice little summary of 100% American output, a carny's insider view of Yankee hooplah and pitchman ballyhoo, with art and culture pushed way to the side until it's off the table -- and lands with a lowbrow splat.
There's stuff here I didn't know about, which shocked me. I had no idea the film THE CORPSE GRINDERS was a huge hit for Ted V. Mikels. The grinding of corpses carries no appeal for me, personally, but I always kind of subconsciously associated it with the term grindhouse (or the shredding of old film in a cheap projector, grinding the sprockets). When I learned the name's taken from "Bump and grind" as a mark of when the country's once plentiful burlesque houses were turned into theaters to show films of girls stripping (cheaper that way), you coulda knocked me over with a feather from a rhinestone pastie. Imagine if it was called 'bumphouse' instead? Why just grind, man?
The whole stripper genre was a bit of a blind spot in my sleaze-education prior to this film but apparently there were an awful (in both senses) lot of them. Ed Wood fans still recovering from trying to stay awake through ORGY OF THE DEAD might be glad to know it's not anyone's fault that they failed. LSD fans who tried and failed to watch more than ten minutes of MANTIS IN LACE can also relax for the same reason. Apparently there was a time when looooong dull stationary camera striptease scenes (as with burlesque queen, Blaze Starr, atop with drum) were considered the height of decadence. Fascinating, yet tame and tedious in our age of readily ubiquitous nudity and XXX-rated websites.
On that note, no review of a movie on a topic like this would be complete without the word misogyny, so there it is. Surprisingly, the most feminist-friendly guy on the show seems to be HG Lewis! There's ample time devoted to his feminist-fave, SHE-DEVILS ON WHEELS, but where's Russ Meyer's FASTER PUSSYCAT, Abel Ferrara's MS. 45, that Hemingway sister joint, LIPSTICK, and the whole rape-revenge cycle? For that matter, where's the Satanic possession and the EXORCIST / ROSEMARY'S BABY knockoffs? Where's TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE? ERASERHEAD? Bette Davis' BABY JANE microgenre, and 70s telekinesis? BLACULA? And ballyhoo meister David Friedman's classic quote about how his movies were "all sizzle and no steak," and pornography gave people the steak, so the sizzle was out, and that's how grindhouse essentially died and became pornography?
Not to kvetch of course, just to flaunt my own expansive knowledge and hide my terror. Because not only am I afraid to see LAST HOUSE, I'm afraid to see PASSION OF THE CHRIST (above), which Landis astutely points out is "the last real grindhouse film!"
AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE never reaches much of a conclusion beyond confirming that Americans will always make films with both eyes on the ticket window and just a toe brushing up against the edge of art, and thus our baser instincts will always be catered to. It's a comforting but disturbing thought about the value of prurience and the way always getting exactly what you want to see can make you a perverse mess just like the anti-porn crusaders have always harangued it would. But at a brisk under-90 minute running time (it would be a perfect part of any exploitation double feature), AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE moves fast enough there's nary a dull moment. For casual fans you can really get an idea of what avenues you may want to explore. Just be prepared to be shocked, amazed, and... most of all, flabbergasted! Grind yourself deep into your seat as you enjoy a splice-ridden slice of film history, one bedecked with sound, fury, and sizzle. In the words of Pam Grier in COFFY (below) when her cop boyfriend tells her she can't just go around just killing everyone: "Why not?"