×

American Grindhouse

A sprawling but amusing CliffsNotes-like history of various disreputable subgenres.

With:
Narrator: Robert Forster.

Not so much an authoritative study as an avid fan’s mash-up, “American Grindhouse” is a sprawling but amusing CliffsNotes-like history of various disreputable subgenres — everything from nudie cuties to sci-fi cheapies, blaxploitation melodramas to blood-soaked splatter pics — that define exploitation cinema. Documaker Elijah Drenner neatly balances wink-wink irony with enthusiastic affection while employing an extensive array of film clips to illustrate the sometimes serious, sometimes snarky commentary by film historians, veteran actors and moviemakers who have produced and/or enjoyed exploitation fare. Aimed squarely at aficionados of celluloid schlock, docu likely will reach its target aud through homevid and VOD.

Drenner and co-scripter Calum Waddell structure “American Grindhouse” as a series of interlocking (and often overlapping) chapters, each devoted to a specific era or genre. Definitions are vague and lines of demarcation are smudgy — there’s even some debate over what a true “grindhouse” really is, or was — but the lack of precision seems altogether appropriate for a pic about such unabashedly slapdash product.

The filmmakers dutifully note, and narrator Robert Forster helpfully announces, that exploitation pics date back to the silent era, and that “Traffic in Souls,” a 1913 white slavery drama from Universal, was the first bonafide exploitationer released by a major studio. By instituting restraints on language, imagery and subject matter in the 1930s, Hollywood inadvertently encouraged a shadow industry of sensationalistic showmen — brassy independents who, unfettered by the Production Code, offered low-budget, high-concept pics ranging from nudist-colony “instructional films” to ultra-graphic gore fests to softcore sexploitation (and, ultimately, hardcore porn).

“American Grindhouse” identifies the golden age of exploitation cinema as the 1960s and ’70s, the heyday of unruly bikers, drug-addled hippies, unregenerate Nazis, African-American avengers, chainsaw-wielding pyschos and scantily clad female convicts at theaters and drive-ins everywhere. The filmmakers stretch their definition of “exploitation” to include some unlikely suspects — beach-party romps such as “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini,” camp classics such as “Night of the Lepus” — but make room for fascinating interviews with directors Jack Hill (“The Big Bird Cage”), Don Edmonds (“Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS”), Jonathan Kaplan (“Truck Turner”), Larry Cohen (“Black Caesar”) and other B- and Z-movie vets of the era.

The filmmakers rarely attempt to defend even the most unsavory items in their oeuvres. But it’s worth noting that no one — not even Herschell Gordon Lewis (“Blood Feast,” “2,000 Maniacs”) — feels any great need to apologize, either. (Edmonds admits to having a few qualms prior to filming “Ilsa,” but evidently got over them once shooting began.) Nor do the docu’s “expert witnesses” — a lineup that includes helmers John Landis and Joe Dante — express anything but appreciation for the zesty excess of the schlockmeisters. Indeed, Landis goes so far as to suggest Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” is no better, and maybe worse, than any exploitation film he’s ever seen.

Ironically, “American Grindhouse” boasts far slicker production values than most of the exploitation pics it excerpts.

Popular on Variety

American Grindhouse

Production: A Gravitas Ventures release of a Lux Digital Pictures production. Produced by Elijah Drenner. Executive producer, Jeff Broadstreet, Ingo Jucht. Directed by Elijah Drenner. Written by Drenner, Calum Waddell.

Crew: Camera (color/B&W, HD), Dan Greene; editors, Drenner, Greene, Andrew Goldenberg; music, Jason Brandt; sound, Garrad Whatley. Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (Spotlight Premieres), March 16, 2010. Running time: 81 MIN.

With: Narrator: Robert Forster.

More Film

  • Amanda Awards

    ‘Out Stealing Horses’ Tops Norway’s 2019 Amanda Awards

    HAUGESUND, Norway —  Hans Petter Moland’s sweeping literary adaptation “Out Stealing Horses” put in a dominant showing at Norway’s Amanda Awards on Saturday night, placing first with a collected five awards, including best Norwegian film. Celebrating its 35th edition this year, the Norwegian industry’s top film prize helped kick off the Haugesund Film Festival and [...]

  • Editorial use onlyMandatory Credit: Photo by

    Richard Williams, 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit' Animator, Dies at 86

    Renowned animator Richard Williams, best known for his work on “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” died Friday at his home in Bristol, England, Variety has confirmed. He was 86. Williams was a distinguished animator, director, producer, author and teacher whose work has garnered three Oscars and three BAFTA Awards. In addition to his groundbreaking work as [...]

  • Instinct

    Locarno Film Review: 'Instinct'

    Now that “Game of Thrones” has finally reached its conclusion, releasing its gifted international ensemble into the casting wilds, will Hollywood remember just what it has in Carice van Houten? It’s not that the statuesque Dutch thesp hasn’t been consistently employed since her startling 2006 breakout in Paul Verhoeven’s “Black Book,” or even that she’s [...]

  • Good Boys Movie

    Box Office: 'Good Boys' Eyes Best Original Comedy Opening of 2019

    Universal’s “Good Boys” is surpassing expectations as it heads toward an estimated $20.8 million opening weekend at the domestic box office following $8.3 million in Friday ticket sales. That’s well above earlier estimates which placed the film in the $12 million to $15 million range, marking the first R-rated comedy to open at No. 1 [...]

  • Pedro Costa’s 'Vitalina Varela' Wins at

    Pedro Costa’s 'Vitalina Varela' Triumphs at Locarno Film Festival

    The 72nd Locarno Film Festival drew to a close Saturday with Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa’s dark and detached film “Vitalina Varela” coming away with several awards together with superlatives from segments of the hardcore cinephile crowd, including jury president Catherine Breillat. In announcing the Golden Leopard prize for the film, as well as best actress [...]

  • Vitalina Varela

    Locarno Film Review: 'Vitalina Varela'

    Frequently beautiful compositions and the theatrical use of a fierce kind of artifice have long been the hallmarks of Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa, regarded by a small but influential group of aesthetes as one of the great filmmakers of our era. For those in tune with his vision, the director’s films offer an exciting lesson [...]

  • Notre dame

    Locarno Film Review: 'Notre dame'

    Not to be too cynical about it, but might the recent horrific fire in Paris’ cathedral attract audiences to a film in which the gothic gem plays a major role? It’s likely a wiser marketing strategy than promoting the unrelenting silliness of Valerie Donzelli’s oh-so-kooky comedy “Notre dame,” the writer-director-star’s return to contemporary Paris following [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content