Indie Docs: American Grindhouse (2010)

Theatrical Poster for AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE (2009)
Theatrical Poster for AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE (2010) — image source: Technicolor Dreams

Directed by Elijah Drenner and narrated by Robert Forster, AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE is a fascinatingly informative documentary about the history of exploitation films in the United States. It premiered at SXSW in 2010 and went on show to several other festivals before its release on DVD in 2011. According to IMDB, the filmmakers originally planned on doing a movie on Jack Hill, but when that plan fell through, they decided to make this broader film instead.

AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE takes an in-depth look at the films, filmmakers, actors, actresses, and promoters who made it all happen. Its own filmmakers were able to secure exclusive interviews with filmmakers, actors, and critics like Herschell Gordon Lewis, Joe Dante, Larry Cohen, John Landis, Fred Williamson, and Kim Morgan. It also features over 200 clips from the landmark movies of the genre.

While it is true that grindhouse is founded on cheap sex and violence (after all, the “grind” in grindhouse comes from burlesque), it grew and changed as it gave the people what they really wanted. Ground out by independent producers and directors, these films were shown wherever there was an available venue (that wasn’t a mainstream Hollywood theater). Emerging from the tents of carnie sideshows, grindhouse changed with the times. There were the rebellious teen flicks and “Nudie Cuties” of the Eisenhower 50s, bloody gore-fests and drug movies of the turbulent 60s, and the Blaxploitation boom in the 70s, echoing the Black Power movement.

I was particularly interested in the connection between Hollywood noir films and grindhouse. The latter showed what the former hid in the shadows of its chiaroscuro. There are numerous other examples given by the film of the interaction between mainstream Hollywood (pre- and post-Code) and the independent grindhouse scene. It would be a mistake to think that these two worlds were separate and unconnected.

For me, this film was worth the watch just for the film history that it teaches (from Thomas Edison to the 21st Century). Yet there is so much more here. Interviewees include John Landis, Joe Dante, Jack Hill, Don Edmonds, Fred Williamson, Allison Anders, James Gordon White, Larry Cohen, William Lustig, Herschell Gordon Lewis, Judy Brown, Jeremy Kasten, Jonathan Kaplan, Bob Minor, Lewis Teague, David Hess, and Fred Olen Ray. The documentary also features commentary by film historians Eddie Muller, Kim Morgan, and Eric Schaefer.

I took advantage of being an active member of Seed & Spark by using my accumulated “Sparks” to watch AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE online via streaming video. It is also available on VOD on Amazon Prime and on DVD via Netflix.