With the release of Tarantino and Rodriguez's Grindhouse coming up on April 6, I thought it might be fun to have a look at some of the greatest films of the grindhouse era. For those who haven't yet caught the retro wave, grindhouse theaters were inner city venues whose purpose was to crank out one exploitation film after another, often as part of a double feature and covering a variety of genres. The phenomenon had its heyday in the 60s and 70s, and eventually petered out in the 80s. Films of this type favored sensationalism over artistic merit, usually placing an emphasis on sex and violence. This stuff certainly isn't for everyone, but I find these films fascinating. Watching these movies now on DVD and seeing how extreme their content was, I often find myself muttering "this actually played in a theater?"
Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (1975)
This of course is the grandaddy of a particularly sleazy genre known as nazisploitation. Ilsa (Dyanne Thorne) is the commandant of a nazi concentration camp where she is conducting experiments on the amount of pain her female prisoners can endure. It is her goal to prove that women can bear pain better than men and should be allowed to serve on the front lines in the service of the Father Land, and she does this with flogging, pressure chambers, infectious diseases and various other depravities. The male prisoners are used to gratify Ilsa's sexual appetite, but the ones who do not satisfy her (and that's nearly all of them) end up castrated. It all seems even more perverse when you realize the film was shot on the same sets at the sitcom Hogan's Heroes. Rob Zombie's fake Grindhouse trailer for Werewolf Women of the SS obviously drew inspiration from Ilsa. The film spawned two official sequels, Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Shieks, and Ilsa, Tigress of Siberia, as well as an unofficial sequel best known as Ilsa, the Wicked Warden, though it's been released under several titles.
Please Don't Eat My Mother (1973)
Either Roger Corman and his lawyers never saw this movie, or perhaps they were just feeling generous. In any case, Please Don't Eat My Mother is a pretty blatant rip-off of Corman's The Little Shop of Horrors. The primary difference between the two is that PDEMM is a sexploitation film, working a lot of nudity and softcore sex into the tale of a lonely man and his giant talking carnivorous plant. Buck Kartalian plays Henry Fudd, a man who still lives with his mother despite being far too old to do so. Henry has a strong voyeuristic streak and usually spends his lunch break watching people have sex. When he buys an odd looking plant and starts talking to it, Henry is surprised to learn that it can talk back, and in a sexy feminine voice no less. The plant works its way up the food chain, progressing from eating insects to frogs, then dogs and cats, and eventually people, though it seems to prefer well-proportioned naked women. Produced by sleaze-meister Harry Novak through his company Box Office International and starring hardcore porn starlet Rene Bond, this movie differs from so many sex comedies by actually managing to be funny.
The Black Gestapo (1975)
While certainly not the first blaxploitation film (that honor is generally attributed to 1971's Sweet Sweetback's Badass Song) or the best known, The Black Gestapo, combines classic exploitation elements with an attention grabbing title and a pace that does not falter. General Ahmed (Rod Perry) is the leader of The People's Army, a paramilitary organization formed in hopes of protecting the black population of Watts from the Syndicate and others who might prey on their community. While Ahmed's methods are primarily peaceful, his second in command Colonel Kojah (played by Night Court's Charles Robinson) has other ideas. Kojah forms a well-trained and heavily armed security force that dresses in a gestapo style uniform. The Mob is soon driven away, but Kojah's organization quickly assumes control of the drug trafficking, extortion and prostitution, leaving the city no better than it was before. When Ahmed sees how his People's Army has been corrupted, it leads to a climactic confrontation between the two men. The violence is unflinching (particularly a bathtub castration scene), and there is ample nudity, provided in part by porn star and Russ Meyer collaborator Uschi Digard.
The Streetfighter (1974)
Martial arts films were grindhouse mainstays, and one of the biggest martial arts stars of the period was Sonny Chiba. Modern American audiences probably know Chiba best from his performance as sword-maker Hattori Hanzo in Kill Bill Volume I. In The Streetfighter Chiba plays Terry Tsurugi, a karate kicking soldier of fortune whose only loyalties are to himself and his profit margin. Terry turns down an offer from the Yakuza to kidnap the daughter of a deceased oil tycoon, thinking it more to his advantage to become the girl's bodyguard instead. When the Yakuza get their hands on the girl, Terry kicks the stuffing out of anyone who tries to stop him from getting her back. As with most martial arts films of the period, the story exists to string together scenes of both physical prowess and extreme violence, both of which are in ample supply here. Chiba's fighting style lacks the grace of someone like Bruce Lee, but he makes up for it with brute force and some pretty scary facial expressions.
The Ghastly Ones (1968)
Horror was a big part of the grindhouse experience -- the nastier the better -- and few horror directors could match the audacity of Andy Milligan. He wasn't a masterful filmmaker by any stretch of the imagination, but he knew what was required to get asses into seats, filling his movies with all manner of eye-catching depravities. In The Ghastly Ones, three sisters and their husbands are required to spend three nights in their late father's estate in order to receive their inheritance -- a hackneyed plot enlivened by Milligan's gift for sleaze. One of the husbands, for example, has had an incestuous relationship with his brother who is a priest, and the dim-witted hunchbacked handyman is kept in line by repeated floggings from his sisters. Cast members are soon bumped off left and right by way of gore effects that lack polish but not enthusiasm. There is plenty of nudity as well, often involving actors and actresses unappealing enough to have even the staunchest voyeur begging them to get dressed. Despite taking place in the 19th century, there are a few magnificent scenes in which a contemporary New York skyline can be seen in the background. Something Weird Video's DVD presentation of The Ghastly Ones is worth any exploitation junkie's time. Included is a second Milligan feature, Seeds of Sin, a black and white film from roughly the same period that manages to be just as over the top as the main feature.
Last House on the Left (1972)
I saw this movie at a drive-in back in 1979, which goes to show how long a theatrical run grindhouse flicks could have in the days before home video. This film is pretty well known even outside of cult movie circles because it was the directorial debut of Wes Craven, but rest assured it's just as politically incorrect as anything else on this list. Last House represents the rape/revenge genre which also includes the likes of I Spit On Your Grave and Ms. 45, while also serving as an unofficial remake of Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring. While on their way to a concert, two teenage girls make the mistake of trying to score some weed from the wrong group of people. Led by an escaped convict named Krug (David Hess), this group of psychopaths take their time raping and murdering the two girls. Krug and his followers take refuge in a rural home, not realizing their hosts are the parents of one of the murdered girls. When the truth is eventually revealed, vengeance is swift, brutal and uses a chainsaw two years before the release of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The villains are absolutely vile, and this film still manages to be disturbing even today. Last House was so successful it inspired a number of soundalike films like Last House on Dead End Street, and even Last House on the Left II, which was actually a new title slapped onto Mario Bava's Twitch of the Death Nerve.
Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
While the expression could be used to describe most of the movies I've listed here, Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust is one sick puppy of a film, and may well be the most extreme grindhouse film. A group of young filmmakers disappear on an expedition to make a documentary about a legendary cannibal tribe deep in the jungles of South America. When a professor from NYU (played by Robert Kerman, one of the stars of Debbie Does Dallas) tracks down the lost footage, he discovers not only the atrocities that befell the film crew, but also the similarly inhuman acts they inflicted upon the natives. The film is about as gruesome as you might imagine, with the shaky pseudo documentary-style cinematography both enhancing the reality and hiding any flaws there might be in the gore effects. While the violent rape and slaughter of several human beings is of course staged, several animals were actually killed on camera. Upon the film's release in Italy Deodato was arrested for obscenity, and the film has often been mistaken for a snuff flick. Cannibal Holocaust sets out to shock and offend and it succeeds.