With grindhouse cinema making a bit of a comeback in recent years with movies like “Black Dynamite,” “Hell Ride,” and of course, “Grindhouse,” Elijah Drenner’s documentary about the history of exploitation film couldn’t have come at a better time. Narrated by Robert Forster (who’s appeared in his share of B-movies), “American Grindhouse” tracks this shameless and shocking breed of moviemaking from its birth in the early 1900s to its illusory transition into mainstream cinema today. Featuring interviews with directors like John Landis, Joe Dante and Jack Hill, and film historians like Eric Schaeffer and Eddie Muller, “American Grindhouse” may be a little vanilla in its presentation, but it’s a pretty fascinating story nonetheless.
In fact, while exploitation movies have been around almost as long as the movie camera itself, what’s most interesting about the genre is how much it’s evolved throughout the years. Drenner’s film studies this evolution, beginning with the implementation of the Hays Code by the MPAA, which forced filmmakers to brand their movies as “educational” in order to feature nudity or any other type of suggestive nature. This led to the “birth of baby” films of the 1930s, and eventually, branched out into the post-war burlesque movies of the 40s. For my money, though, exploitation cinema didn’t really take off until the arrival of nudie-cuties like Russ Meyer’s “The Immoral Mr. Tease” (which many consider to be the very first porno) and “women in danger” films like Herschell Gordon Lewis’s “Scum of the Earth.”
Along the way, Drenner also covers the gore films of the 60s and 70s (including a lengthy discussion about Wes Craven’s controversial “The Last House on the Left”), as well Blaxploitation cinema, “women in prison” films, Nazi exploitation movies, and the mainstream success of “Deep Throat.” The film’s most interesting segment, however, isn’t really about grindhouse cinema at all, but rather studio-funded movies like “Jaws” that offered the thrills of a B-movie with the production values of a Hollywood blockbuster. It’s exactly this change in the Hollywood system that essentially put an end to grindhouse, but as director John Landis is keen to point out, the very term “exploitation” is subjective, because as long as there’s an element you can exploit, it falls under the category of an exploitation film.
Landis may be the most recognizable name in “American Grindhouse,” but without his insightful and often humorous commentary, the movie wouldn’t be nearly as entertaining. He brings some really great ideas to the table that the other interview subjects fail to even consider – namely the concept that mainstream hits like “Passion of the Christ” and “American Gangster” are actually exploitation films in disguise. It certainly makes sense, and if there’s one thing you should take away from “American Grindhouse,” it’s that exploitation cinema isn’t dead. In fact, if Landis is to be believed, it never will be. That may not be what Drenner was trying to accomplish with this film, but it’s a message I’m sure he could get behind.