American Grindhouse -- Film Review



AUSTIN -- Grandpa, what was a "grindhouse"?

A grindhouse is the kind of movie theater where they don't stop the movie -- don't raise the house lights, even -- when an audience member is killed, and where (if you're director Joe Dante, whose anecdote gets this doc off to a great start) you stay in your seat the whole time because, after all, you came to see a movie.

If "American Grindhouse," a lively and stylish look at the history of illegitimate cinema, doesn't keep supplying that kind of irresistible color throughout, it's only because filmmaker Elijah Drenner has so very much sleazy ground to cover in his 81 minutes. From 1913's white-slavery opus "Traffic in Souls" to "The Passion of the Christ" (which John Landis describes as the contemporary mainstream's only true exploitation flick) the doc methodically ticks off the high and low points of history in Hollywood's shadow; it isn't rush-to-the-theater material, but on the small screen "American Grindhouse" will be an appealingly cohesive primer for this sprawling topic.

Despite some glaring omissions (can you sing the praises of these movies without interviewing Roger Corman or Quentin Tarantino?), the film effectively depicts a parallel movie industry made possible by taboos the major studios created for themselves. From "birth of a baby" films and nudie-cuties to extreme gore and the confused messages of anti-drug propaganda, Drenner brings out journalists and filmmakers to comment on each subgenre's social meaning and influence on the mainstream.

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It's amusing to see such cult figures as Jack Hill ("The Big Doll House"), Herschell Gordon Lewis ("Blood Feast"), and Larry Cohen ("Black Caesar") reveal what they thought of their trashy output while they were making it, but younger interviewees Landis and Dante steal the show pretty consistently, benefiting from having been both appreciators and practitioners of schlock over the years.

Film historians fill gaps in the timeline effectively, and appropriate flourishes like a melting-celluloid transition effect convey the filmmaker's appreciation for his material. If the feast of film clips included here doesn't have you rushing to the video store in search of women-in-prison flicks or the Nazis-vs.-Jesus film "The Tormentors," you have nothing but your good taste to blame.

Venue -- South By Southwest Festival
Production company: Lux Digital Pictures, Inc.
Director: Elijah Drenner
Screenwriters: Elijah Drenner, Calum Waddell
Executive producers: Jeff Broadstreet, Ingo Jucht
Producers: Dan Greene, Calum Waddell
Director of photography: Dan Greene
Music: Jason Brandt
Editors: Elijah Drenner, Andrew Goldenberg, Dan Greene
No MPAA rating, 81 minutes