DEPRAVED! SHOCKING! TRUE! A NIGHT at the GRINDHOUSE
Apr 5, 2007, 05:52
The complete history of “adults only” sexploitation cinema has yet to be written, though Grindhouse: The Forbidden World of “Adults Only” Cinema (St. Martins Griffin, 1996) is an excellent place to dive in. Co-written by Eddie Muller and Daniel Faris, Grindhouse details the secret history of Grade Z dirty movies, from the '30s (High School Girl) to the mid-'70s (Behind the Green Door, Pink Flamingos), concluding with the introduction of the VCR into America's living rooms, which effectively marked the end of the genre. As Muller states, the VCR turned the relatively tame adult film into “modern hardbodies pistoning away like steroid-infused sex machines.”
A grindhouse was a big, smelly, molding old movie theater, usually located in a disreputable downtown neighborhood, which showed adult films. Take a look at the movie section in a newspaper from the '60s or '70s and you'll see many examples. With rare exceptions, grindhouses do not exist anymore. There are porno theaters still around, but they don't show film, they project videotape—not even close to the same experience. In fact, I'm only aware of two theaters left in North America that show X-rated fare on film: the Metropolitan in Toronto, and the Mini-Adult in San Francisco. Otherwise, the seedy thrills offered by the world of the grindhouse have been taken over by the slick, antiseptic environment of the modern day lap-dancing club.
Grindhouse kicks off in the '30s, with the exploitation pioneers the “Forty Thieves,” a loosely affiliated bunch of degenerate businessmen (most were former carnival hucksters), who stepped in to fill the void when Hollywood's Hays
Code (forbidding sex and unpunished violence in films) went into effect. The Forty Thieves mostly showed films on the “roadshow” circuit. To circumvent obscenity laws, they would drive all over the country with a trunk full of films and posters, set up shop for a weekend in small towns, saturate the place with lurid advertising, and, usually, hit the jackpot. They were quick to head off to the next town before anyone in authority got wise to the scam. Muller explains it best, “from carny barker to holy-rolling evangelist, to the grindhouse sleazemeister, the goal has always been the same: promise something extraordinary, get the cash up front, then get the hell out of town.” Perhaps the most prominent man of this period was Dwain Esper, “King of the Roadshows,” who made zillions exploiting drug use (Narcotic), mental illness (Maniac), and venereal disease (The Seventh Commandment).
In the 1940s, burlesque gained in popularity and many “adults only” films from this time were simply recorded burlesque acts. Lilli St. Cyr, Tempest Storm, and Bettie Page were the stars of the era. There was no actual nudity, just costumed tease. One of the biggest money-making exploitation films of all time came out of the '40s, Mom And Dad, from the legendary hustler Kroger Babb. Mom and Dad was a stiff, turgid drama about illegitimacy, with actual footage of the birth of a baby. Babb came up with the brilliant idea of separating the audiences for the film by sex—a gimmick that worked wonders. It made people think that the film was so dirty that men and women couldn't see it together. In addition,
thousands of bogus sexual hygiene pamphlets were sold during the intermission by shills working for Babb. Mom And Dad is said to have grossed well over 100 million dollars.
Nudity began to creep into America's screens during the '50s, with spicy Euro imports starring Sophia Loren and Brigitte Bardot, and the bizarre, only-in-America genre of “nudist camp” films, such as World Without Shame, Nude On The Moon, and Diary Of A Nudist. People (well, men, actually) forked over their hard-earned dollars to watch boring black-and-white footage of nudists playing volleyball, riding bicycles, and casually cavorting.
Genitals were not allowed, just buns and breasts, resulting in some pretty sophisticated mise-en-scÃ¨ne to hide people's privates. Russ Meyer changed everything with The Immoral Mr. Teas, an entertaining “nudie” that men and women enjoyed.
Things got really weird during the '60s, when “adults only” films had to offer something a bit stronger than wholesome sunbathers whacking tennis balls. Thus was born the “roughie,” sex films which mixed violence and aggression with their lovemaking. Perhaps the quintessential “roughie” was Lee Frost's The Defilers, a sordid tale of sexually depraved kidnappers, billed as “a shattering study of the shameless â€˜sick set' for shock-proof adults!” This led to “kinkies,” which upped the ante, concentrating more on specific fetishes, usually sado-masochism. A few notable “kinkies” were Joseph Mawra's “Olga” trilogy, Bob Cresse's still shocking Nazi-sex thriller Love Camp 7, and the notorious, sickening “Ilsa” films. And finally, the “ghoulie” was born, movies which combined harsher elements of horror films (blood, murder, knives) with sex. The best example of the “ghoulie” is Mantis In Lace, the story of an LSD-crazed go-go dancer with an axe. The floodgates started to rip open in the 1970s with the sexual frankness of I Am Curious (Yellow), a Swedish import which showed simulated sexual intercourse and fellatio with unprecedented clarity. Sexploitation auteurs such as Harry Novak, David F. Friedman, and Radley Metzger (Muller's favorite of the bunch) all pushed the sexual envelope right up the edge of the real thing.
Then, in 1972, it happened... Deep Throat. Gerard Damiano's classic hit the screens and things have never been the same. While not technically the first feature-length, hardcore sex film (that honor goes to Bill Osco's Mona), Deep Throat was the first to reach mainstream audiences. Jill and Joe America lined up to see the most talked-about film of the year, and the era of porno chic was born. Of course, at this point, the game was over. By showing everything, the element of tease, which kept audiences coming back week after week for more, was lost forever.
Make no mistake, with few exceptions sexploitation films were made by men for men. The underlying story of all of them ultimately boils down to men watching women take their clothes off. As disconcerting as that may seem today, it was only a reflection of the larger culture. If American society was (and still is) geared toward the objectification of women, why should the movies be any different? Further, “adults only” movies were one of the only ways for independents in the movie business to make money, by providing a product Hollywood was afraid to. Many people involved in this industry deserve respect if only because they absolutely refused to play by the rules—this was truly an outlaw cinema. Now, Hollywood (and most of the programming on the Fox network) has co-opted most of the exploitation techniques and genres; far from being something new, films like Basic Instinct and Fatal Attraction are simply gussied-up “roughies.”
Stunningly designed and illustrated with hundreds of rare ad mattes, Grindhouse is as much about the art of movie advertising as it is about the movies themselves. This is a truly beautiful American folk art form from a lost era. Muller explains, “print was the primary advertising medium, and producers and distributors were brilliant at milking every last drop of titillating temptation out of their promotional material, while keeping it just this side of unprintable.” While it doesn't pretend to be complete, Grindhouse is strong on the big names of adult cinema, but a little skimpy on the minor players. Whole volumes could be written about many of the directors and genres only briefly touched on in the book. Gay adult cinema gets just one page.
A decade ago, there was nothing like this book in existence. Only one, Sinema, by Kenneth Turan and Stephen Zito, from 1974, offered anything resembling an intelligent overview of adult movies. In the early '80s, a few pioneering fanzines like Sleazoid Express, Gore Gazette, and Trashola held up the torch for sleaze cinema, but they were quite underground. Even a few eccentric film programmers tried to keep this garbage alive on the big screen; Dennis Nyback in Seattle, Jack Stevenson around the globe, Bill Landis in NYC, Anthony Timpson in New Zealand, myself in Minneapolis, and a few others, with varying degrees of success. Now there are literally dozens of trash film magazines and books, with new ones appearing, it seems, every week. Something Weird Video has resurrected most of the sexploitation junk from the '60s and released it on videotape, but it just isn't the same as watching film in a big, disgusting movie theater with a bunch of people exactly like you.
This article originally appeared in Your Flesh #36,1997