Metropol: What Is Grindhouse?

Hi. My name is Roy Blake and I’m a fan of exploitation media. A lot of people don’t what that means these days, so I give them a bit more simpler version of what “exploitation media” is.

I’m a fan of Grindhouse film.

By this time, everyone now understands what it is, but I know they really don’t. A lot of people equate Grindhouse to the movie that was made last year by a slew of directors whose sole aim was to replicate the poor but brilliant splendor and quality of a grindhouse film stock. I can tell you that what Quentin and the gang did was in the right direction, but it just grazed the tip of the iceburg of the Exploitation genre. Calling Exploitation, “Grindhouse” is on the same level as calling all electronic music “Electronica”. Sure Moby, BT and Paul Okenfold are part of electronic music, but they’re not all of electronic music. Their styles isn’t the core of electronic music either. In order to understand a genre, you must dwell in it.

So what is “Grindhouse”? Where did it start? Where did it come from? Well have a seat. Let me tell you what I know.

The beginnings of the exploitation film is a very convoluted tale of production codes, states rights and outlaw independent filmmakers bucking the Hayes Production Code of the late 1930’s and 40’s. Because the codes were so draconian, the filmmakers had to figure out a way to buck the Hayes and State codes but also create a large amount of revenue for each showing. Thus the “educational roadshow” was created. By branding a movie “educational” they were above the codes. They dealt with hot button issues and boy did they push those buttons hard. Of course they would set everything right in the end of these films in order not to upset communities. These “educational roadshows” where also considered the last medicine shows. You had the carnie barker selling up his movie in and down a town, plastering any flat space possible with his posters and watched the crowd come in droves. While Dwain Esper’s Maniac proved this idea worked, it was Kroger Babb who up’d the anti. Babb sold Mom and Dad not only by canvasing areas with poster but also by segregating audiences and hiring actors to be “medical professionals” selling sex hygiene material one could pick up at the hospital for free. He was rolling in dough all over the country.

Their reign would, however, be short lived. After World War 2, many of the vets coming home started to leave cities and towns to live the quiet life in the suburbs. While many theaters pulled up stakes to form outdoor motor-theaters called “drive-ins”, many more theaters suffered. The advent of television wasn’t doing any favors for people either. Those that could still make a dime somehow either crawled along or turned themselves into adult theaters or burlesque shows in “bump ‘n grind houses. However, where Babb and Esper fell, American International Pictures took up the banner.

AIP started out as a movie production company for westerns. See as the market was oversaturated with the genre, Sam Arkoff and James Nicholson went out in search of their own piece of cinematic property. Something to define it from all the rest. They went out and talked to drive in owners, big theaters and even the owners of the bump n grind houses just to see what everyone was missing. What wasn’t touched on yet. The answer was that there was no teenagers going to the movies, mostly due to the increased appeal of television. So after polling teens on their likes and dislikes and with the help of the cost saving measures of Roger Corman, AIP establishes itself as the leader in teen fare and later on, exploitative media. AIP gave the grindhouses new clientele and while they still haven’t quit showing berlesque films, it gave the theater a less negative image as well as a new source in revenue.

AIP also helped further the scope of cinema and helped international movies make it big in the US. While in Rome, Arkoff and Nicholson run into cinematographer Mario Bava and he shows them his final print of his first one man venture, La Maschera del Demonio, a story about a witch returning from her grave to take revenge on her achestors. Both Arkoff and Nicholson liked the movie, but thought it was a bit too gruesome by American standards, so when they bought the film, the shaved three minutes off of it and replaced the beautiful soundtrack with a bit more generic tune by Les Baxter. In 1959, AIP let loose Black Sunday upon the masses. The film garnered not only positive reviews from teens but from major critics as well. Couple this with AIP’s involvement with Toho and Kadogawa Picture, the two studios largely known for their Kaiju fare and the company was on top of the world in genre cinema.

By the time the 60’s and 70’s came around, everybody wanted a piece of that action. Even with AIP sticking on top of things. The old playhouses and theaters of Market St, in San Fransisco and the theaters of 42nd St (aka The Deuce) in New York City doubled as production and distributing studios that made low end, high thrill movies. If you had a vice, there was probably a movie for you. Like fast cars and wild youth? There was the JD film. Fascinated by the Hell’s Angels? Bike-sploiation is in your direction. Still want some tits in your face. Sexploitation was making larger and larger headway. No genre and no hot topic was left covered. It was laid out before you on a double bill in a rundown theater with burnt popcorn and watered down soda. Even Big movie companies got in on the action using offset offices to handle the movies they buy screening rights for but just can’t seem to distribute. A lot of them were good movies as well.

With the end of the 70’s coming, it also ment for the rise of VHS. The stranglehold that the grindhouses had on foreign film was broken since now they could distribute anywhere in the world without the use of the middleman. The end of the 70’s also heralded the “blockbuster” format of moviemaking that relied on more flash then actual story and imagination. Grindhouses started to close down, Drive-ins abandoned for the new thing known as a multiplex where several movies can play at the same times at x amount of times. Without anything to show and finally beat out by theater chains, the Grindhouse finally faded away in the mid-80’s.

Does that mean that the exploitation style of film making is gone too? No, not really. It just switched formats. The “Make a creep on the cheap” style later lived on in VHS and then carried over to DVD. DVD literally saved the exploitation film of days gone back from extinction. Companies like Blue Underground, Dark Sky, Mondo Macabre and others have been restoring the old while distributing the new. Opening new eyes to the shock silliness and awe of the Grindhouse cinema.

Hey! If you have any comment or you’d like to ask a question or two feel free to either leave it in the comment box or email me at [email protected] Love to read from you.

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