What is a grindhouse movie?
In the years that I’ve been writing about horror movies, it’s a topic I’ve touched on occasionally, but never really delved deep into. As I look at the next supposed “grindhouse” film coming out on VOD or Shudder or Netflix, though, with its anthropomorphic animal protagonists and 100 gallons of fake blood and “ironic” meta-humor, I realize that it’s a question that warrants finally answering in detail.
I’ll get the etymology out of the way first, though it seems even those who egregiously misunderstand what exactly constitutes a grindhouse movie at least understands what the term means on a superficial level. Grindhouses were movie theaters that came into prevalence in the mid-20th century and lasted, depending on who you ask, into either the 1980s or early 1990s. They specialized in playing ultra-violent, ultra-sexual, low-rent movies catering to the roughest crowds looking to satisfy their basest instincts. Though, technically, going with this definition, there were grindhouse theaters all over America, the term is largely used to refer to the movie theaters along 42nd Street in Manhattan between 6th and 8th locally known as “The Deuce,” which also played home to a thriving criminal economy ranging from drug dealing to prostitution to homegrown pornography. Relics of the pre-television age, many of the theaters—once dubbed “The Movie Palaces”— still bore signs from the time when they were built to cater to the burgeoning post-war middle class. Some had mammoth fireplaces in the lobby; others elaborate chandeliers. Over time, those fireplaces filled with debris and the decaying chandeliers were pockmarked with bullet holes from botched robberies. White flight drove financially stable, middle-to-upper-class New Yorkers into the Ward Cleaver burbs or safer parts of the city, and The Deuce became the home of the destitute and disenfranchised. The Movie Palaces became the Grindhouses.
How the term came into being depends on who you ask. Some say that it’s a leftover phrase from the days when burlesque shows ruled The Deuce and dancers would “bump and grind” through the night. Others say that it comes from the theaters’ tendency to run double-and-triple features at all hours of the day and night, the projectors constantly grinding out films like hamburger meat. Wherever the phrase came from, it stuck, and over time, the kinds of movies shown in these theaters came to be known as grindhouse movies.
So, what was—or is—a grindhouse movie? If you came of age in the post-Kill Bill era, odds are it isn’t quite what you think. Yes, Tarantino did set out to make a film that would pay homage to the grindhouse films he grew up watching on low-quality VHS; and, yes, to a certain extent, Kill Bill is exactly the kind of movie that would’ve shown in a grindhouse, albeit one with an infinitely higher budget, better production values, and a far larger cast. Exported kung-fu revenge epics were a big draw to 42nd Street audiences, satisfying a taste for exotic cinema and tons of violence. Yet kung-fu was only what could be called a subgenre of grindhouse movies; they were a deviation from the norm. For most of their history, grindhouse films were a home-grown affair, many of them produced in the very city whose residents would soon be consuming them. They were ultra-low budget and, until the 70s, often black and white. They were sensational but in an unsettlingly real way. Serial killers, rapists, petty crooks and low-level gangsters were stock characters in the Grindhouse canon, though whether they were the antagonist or the hero depended on who was making the film. Writers and directors tended to be members of the low or working class themselves, and as America sank into Vietnam-era despair, those on the lowest rung of the societal food chain saw no way out of their present circumstances. That desperation translated to the screen. Grindhouse films were master classes in blue collar nihilism. There were no winners and often no survivors. Grindhouse films took place in a bleak, dirty world where men were killers and degenerates and women their victims. Their stock in trade was decay—both urban and spiritual. They were last gasps at artistic expression before life swallowed them up wholesale—stories by the damned for the damned. Damned souls like Michael and Roberta Findlay, the husband-and-wife team behind the Flesh films, an ultra-depraved trilogy about a misogynist serial killer who puts sex workers into Saw-like traps with no escape; souls like Andy Milligan, who laid bare New York’s homosexual subculture when it was still a clandestine entity operating in secrecy under threat of death; souls like Roger Watkins, a film student and amphetamine addict whose blood-soaked snuff epic Last House on Dead End Street was a primal scream at the cheapness of urban life. The budgets were low and the casts and crew were often high; the picture quality was usually cheap and audiences were lucky if they could make out the dialogue.
Were there off-the-wall grindhouse movies? Sure. They were often born of the West Coast, where, outside of San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, the worldview wasn’t quite as bleak. The grindhouse movies coming out of California had a little less nihilism; the drugs out there induced less aggressive states. California gave us The Psychopath, about a Mister Rogers stand-in who murders abusive parents while talking to his security blanket; it gave us the Dolemite movies, about a kung-fu pimp who fights gangsters and rival panderers. Too, the later grindhouse era saw a slew of Philippine exports, both homegrown and American funded, where the rules of reality were fast and loose. The political unrest in the country and welcoming attitude to western productions meant that a $500 budget could procure sets, extras, and locations unheard of in the States. Yet these were all exceptions to the norm, and even lurking beneath the anything goes veneer of West Coast and Philippine grindhouse was a dark undercurrent of fatalism. The Psychopath ends with a beaten, terrorized little girl coldly pulling the trigger on her attacker; the “boobies in the jungle” films of the Philippines (as Pam Grier dubbed them) had just as much rape and misogyny as any New York grindhouse movie; and California was responsible for The Candy Snatchers, which might as well be called “Nihilism: The Movie.”
What weren’t grindhouse movies? They were not Wolf Cop. They were not Hobo with a Shotgun. Somewhere along the line, popular consciousness conflated Troma movies with grindhouse movies and ran with the definition. Troma movies put the surrealistic, over-the-top, parodic exploitation formula on the map. Lloyd Kaufman properly deserves credit for turning that style of filmmaking into its own subgenre, and it’s an incredible disservice to his films and legacy that their aesthetic and sensibilities have been coopted by supposed “grindhouse” filmmakers in the 21st century. I lay a good deal of blame at the feet of Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, who upped the ante with their Grindhouse double feature, which included ludicrous trailers (including one for Hobo) that would have been seen as ridiculous even by the standards of west-coast grindhouse crowds back in the heyday. The letter was there—the film aesthetically replicates the experience of seeing a banged-up print that’d been shipped to twenty theaters in as many weeks—but the spirit was too gleeful, too happily anarchic. The anarchy of the grindhouse was anything but happy, and it was far more restrained. It was quiet and mean and brooding and it didn’t so much burst into the room as it did sit there in the corner, seething, until it exploded from the pressure.
So, what is the state of the grindhouse movie in the 21st century? Is the grindhouse movie dead in everything but name, co-opted by hipster filmmakers overdosing on irony?
The answer to that is no. And we here at Cinestate would like to invite you to the authentic grindhouse revival.
Please, standby. And try not to shank anyone in the meantime… Vince Vaughn will take care of that for you.