American Grindhouse

Certificate: 15
Running time: 80 mins
Director: Elijah Drenner
Starring: Robert Forster, Kim Morgan, John Landis, Herschell Gordon Lewis
Genre: Documentary
Country: USA

In theory as double bills go American Grindhouse should sit perfectly with something like Machete Maidens Unleashed or the recently released Corman’s World.  Where Machete Maidens was a reminiscence of a time that was chaotic and hugely entertaining, a stroll through the memories of some of the cornerstones of the Exploitation era American Grindhouse is, in theory, a homage to the venues that kept stars like Marlene Clark, Pam Grier and Judy Brown coming back to our screens time and time again.  American Grindhouse is quick to point out the difference between Exploitation and Grindhouse which is much like having to point out the difference between the abattoir and a McDonald’s restaurant but quickly lapses into a trap that was all too evident from the beginning.

What the name suggests, what the name promises, is a retrospective look at the 24/7 come hell and high water we never shut Grindhouse cinemas, how they went about their business and how they kept the doors open, kept their punters coming and the experience fresh.  Exploitation cinema is a wash with stories from the more gimmicky offerings which saw the audience marry Satan before the film, drink demon blood, undergo hypnosis etc.  These stories belong as much to the venue as they do the films but all this was barely touched upon.  42nd Street is, for all fans of Exploitation cinema, Mecca and sadly one we can never experience as that time has gone and those involved failed to see the importance of preservation.  Rather than explore the characters operating there New York’s beautiful 42nd Street is simply used as a frame of reference, a backdrop in which the origins, history and evolution of Exploitation cinema is mapped out by those involved and film historians.  This in itself is of interest, Kim Morgan’s knowledge alone is something I’d give several digits on my right hand to be able to paw at but unlike Machete Maidens Unleashed the talking heads of American Grindhouse felt as they there were detached from the process, the enthusiasm that Joe Dante seemingly exudes with every recollection is missing and though there are a handful of films you add to your ‘watch list’ (mainly from the pre-code era) there’s little that genuinely enthuses you about a subject matter that is, by definition, nothing but enthusiasm.

The film suffers from a lack of Kim Morgan, Joe Dante, Herschell Gordon Lewis not to mention some of the 42nd Street exhibitors.  All of these individuals not only have great insight but a screen presence that’s contagious, you know they love the subject matter and that sort of emotion could only help in a film that felt very much like a visual history assignment.  Robert Forster (as narrator) does a solid job, his voice is the voice of an omniscient guide and is perfect suited for American Grindhouse, the film footage is well considered and researched and some of it is so rare that you do genuinely feel like you’re being treated to something special but is hampered by it’s presentation and, at least in my mind, a few wrong directions along the way.  Interestingly the film picks up, in tempo, passion and pleasure when they reach the 1960’s and the work of HGL.  He has that ballsy and brass way about him that was reminiscent of Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry and was the shot in the arm that American Grindhouse needed.  Regardless of what you think of Lewis’ work, personally he’s as important to Exploitation as John Ford is the Western, the man can tell a story and does it in such a way that even the most mundane recollection has all the suspense and intrigue of a John Le Carre mystery.

American Grindhouse is a perfect introduction, an Exploitation 101 if you will, for those who have the desire to encounter the genre of cinema but perhaps wish to know more before they make their decision as to where to begin.  For the rest of us it’s an opportunity missed.  There are countless documentaries about Exploitation cinema and more coming, this was a chance to build a cinematic monument to the venues that have long since closed their doors and been swept away in the ever changing landscape of twenty-first century America and I for one would like to one day see that monument.


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