SXSW Review: American Grindhouse

By  · Published on March 15th, 2010

American Grindhouse was my most anticipated film of SXSW 2010. Two years ago, after a pair of amazing road trips to Austin, Texas, I uprooted my life and moved across the country to be nearer to the Alamo Drafthouse and submerse myself in the cult film appreciation scene here. Since then, I have studied grindhouse and exploitation cinema with the fervor of a doctoral candidate. But my research has been limited to simply getting my hands on as many of the films as possible so it’s all based on knowledge of the product. So the documentary American Grindhouse seemed gift-wrapped for me.

I have to say I really enjoyed American Grindhouse, but it was not exactly what I was expecting. I was anticipating a retrospective of the individual films that populated 42nd Street with the same kind of unbridled enthusiasm as Mark Hartley’s Not Quite Hollywood spotlighted Ozploitation films. Instead, American Grindhouse takes a far more academic approach and looks at exploitation cinema historically. Let me just say that I was not expecting a documentary with this title to begin its coverage in the year 1913. But there are excellent examples of exploitation films made seemingly days after the technology was discovered.

At the risk of sounding pompous, I was surprised by how much I didn’t know. I don’t count myself as an exploitation expert, but I am no novice. I was however completely ignorant of the origin of the word grindhouse. I was under the impression that the term was indicative of the endless number of films that were perpetually churned out by these tiny studios specifically for the 42nd Street theaters. Turns out it was a reference to the sex films that used to be shown in these theaters that were essentially just filmed performances of burlesque dancers grinding their bodies for our pleasure. I also didn’t know about the code system in the 1930’s that essentially aimed to “clean-up” motion pictures but ultimately gave rise to exploitation theater systems.

The list of interviewees reads like a who’s who of people I love. John Landis, Joe Dante, Fred Williamson, H.G. Lewis, William Lustig, Lewis Teague, and it’s narrated by Robert Forster! Are you kidding me? I did my very best to keep my geek crushes in check to provide objective analysis but it wasn’t easy. These are the people who were so important to exploitation and the masterminds behind some of my favorite titles. They are tempered by film critics and historians who are equally fascinating.

To the adept exploitation palate, the segments about film noir and beach comedies may seem like criminally loose associations to our beloved cult cinema. But frankly, the more academic approach that American Grindhouse takes than say a film like Not Quite Hollywood supplies the necessary framework for their inclusion. Yes, film noir is not necessarily grindhouse cinema, but it represents an era when violence and vice started to be legitimized and they made mainstream all the seedy subjects that were the lifeblood of exploitation industry. It serves as a benchmark for when actual grindhouse filmmakers had to change their methods.

As to the beach blanket comedies, they were an offshoot of American International Pictures’ teen exploitation films made for the sole purpose of making money off of teen culture. So again, Beach Blanket Bingo isn’t a grindhouse film, but these movies are still historically significant when the timeline of exploitation is widened to the turn of the century. If it weren’t for teen exploitation films of that ilk, there would have been no necessity for drive-in theaters, which became the playground for the grindhouse films we do love and recognize as integral to the subgenre. In the same breath they mention Lord Love a Duck which recently played Weird Wednesday at the Alamo Drafthouse; one place where they definitely understand exploitation.

I will say comments by certain interviewees are convoluted and make it a bit hard to decipher the point of their arguments, but those are few and far between. Also, and this is tantamount to its short runtime and comprehensive approach, it’s a mile wide and an inch deep. By the time they get to our favorite compartments of grindhouse films, we only get three to four minutes for blaxploitation, for Russ Meyer, or for splatter films. So this should be taken more as an interesting backstory for the genre and not the definitive deconstruction.

Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.