Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

More gore


Director John Landis in a scene from American Grindhouse.
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A few suggestions from the second week of the Another Hole in the Head film festival:

American Grindhouse This film manages to provide a lucid underpinning for the whole festival. Elijah Drenner's madcap tutorial through seven or so decades of some of the worst movies ever made – not in the Ed Wood sense, but badness that involves real questions of aesthetics, morality, intelligence and taste – raises more issues than it addresses, but in a pretty entertaining way, with guest "lecturers" like the truly witty John Landis, a dude who has a foot in both the mainstream Hollywood and outlaw grindhouse camps.

The film attempts a distinction between grindhouse theatres, meaning big-city cinemas open 24/7 that often served as flophouses as well as informal sex arcades, and the exploitation films that these theatres would sometimes but not always program. Gremlins director Joe Dante recalls being horribly conflicted when a grindhouse he patronized was raided by the cops. "There was a murder there, and so there's this big pandemonium – and I'm still sitting there, I want to see the movie! The police came in, and they never turned on the house lights."

(Years ago, a good friend and I witnessed the police summoned to put out a fight during the last day of the legendary Strand Theatre's colorful existence. We stayed for the improbable double-bill Point Break and What's Love Got To Do with It? The Strand was famous for terrific bargain triple-bills, coupled with hardcore restroom action that was both exhilarating at times truly scary.)

American Grindhouse devotes the bulk of its jam-packed 80 minutes to a colorful guide to films that were produced specifically to cater to tastes outside the Hollywood production code. The film is especially rich in its description of the divergent paths taken by fringe filmmakers to depict depraved behavior vs. the elaborate artistic universe created from the mid-1940s to mid-50s by Hollywood film noir, where crime was always punished, and taboo sex was suggested rather than openly shown.

The 1948 Supreme Court decision divesting the studios of control over thousands of theatres led to the implosion of the production code, and an era where the studios increasingly competed for the exploitation dollar, with fare like the Tennessee Williams-inspired, Catholic Church-condemned Baby Doll.

American Grindhouse is wildly entertaining in its exploration of the 1960s/70s era of "toughie" blood-engorged films, as well as the "Blaxploitation" and "Nazisploitation" genres.

The best and least typical of the Blaxploitation fare was Sweet Sweetback's Badassss Song, Melvin Van Peebles sublimely entertaining reverse-racism drama, where he stars as a stud who's defiantly on the wrong side of the law. Song, opening initially on only two screens, would gross four million bucks, and paved the way for the Shaft series. John Landis proudly notes that he shared equipment with V

Scene from Fell.
an Peebles during the filming of his 1973 horror film spoof Schlock .

Sadly, American Grindhouse makes the typical omission of gay male-produced cinema, some of which, like Wakefield Poole's Boys in the Sand and several by San Francisco-based Artie Bresson, were legit contenders in pushing the envelope on social/sexual taboos during arguably the most exciting period for American freelance filmmakers.

Film historian Kim Morgan puts in a good word for soft-core, women-in-prison movies overflowing with lesbian subtext, like the 70s' The Big Dollhouse. "Women like to watch other women naked and doing things, I'm sorry it's something that women like. Women don't have a problem with it, women get turned on by it, too!" The camera stays on Morgan's bemused face for an extra beat as she doubles down on this point to an obviously skeptical male audience behind the camera.

Perhaps the most bizarre film explored is Elsa, She-Wolf of the S.S., one of the rare examples of the Nazisploitation genre, which sports one of the all-time best schlock-fest titles. I was so impressed by seeing Elsa advertised at a San Antonio, Texas multiplex that I never wanted to spoil the fun by experiencing the let-down of watching the movie. (Roxie, 7/18; Viz, 7/25, 27)

Strigoi This weird Romanian-produced comedy is perhaps the most off-beat entry in the vastly overcrowded vampire field. Vlad, a young would-be doctor who dropped out of medicine because of his squeamishness, returns home after exile in sunny Italy. In his absence, both kin and townspeople have gotten a little nutty over their suspicions regarding the undead status of a local aristocrat and his wife. Faye Jackson's spoof – in English, which gives those Transylvanian accents an extra-campy bite – explores why vampires can develop ravenous appetites and not just for human blood, as well as making satirical points at the expense of Gypsies, Communists, Capitalists and dog-killing priests. (Viz, 7/27)

Dr. "S" Battles the Sex-Crazed Reefer Zombies I won't spoil your anticipation of the Festival's hands-down best title with too much information. (Viz, 7/23, 26)

Fell Christopher Rusin's ambitious and handsomely-lensed psychological horror piece attempts to create a female Norman Bates and follow the origins of her peculiar madness in a wildly abusive daddy and a sickly co-dependent, now invalid mom. A promising first act eventually meanders into artistic self-indulgence as the filmmaker fails to develop his thesis and falls in love with his own pretty pictures. (Roxie, 7/18; Viz, 7/27)

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