If there’s one genre of film that very few expected to make a comeback, it’s the exploitation film. Long thought to have died in the grindhouses of the ’70s which were themselves paved over for mainstream multiplexes, exploitation secretly stayed around via direct to video and overseas fare. Then, faster than you could say “Quentin Tarantino”, exploitation stormed back onto North American screens under a different guise, “grindhouse”, the name of the seedy theaters that these films once called home.This modern take on “grindhouse”, spearheaded by films like Machete and Black Dynamite, is a different beast altogether though: million dollar budgeted films made to look they were made on much smaller, much more modest, much less dangerous means.
American Grindhouse looks at the modest history of the smaller, modest, and dangerous original grindhouse, or exploitation, film from its very inception to the traveling shows until its eventual settlement in the titular downtown grindhouse theaters in metropolitans that would host them. The film is set up rather typically of a documentary of its kind. It’s narrated by genre stalwart Robert Forester (who has experienced his own Tarantino-led renaissance) and features several of the typical filmmakers in documentaries of this sort (John Landis, Joe Dante, Larry Cohen, Jack Hill, et al.), some special appearances, such as Don Edmonds in his last interview before passing away. Also included are interviews of film historians Eddie Muller and Eric Schaefer, filmmakers Allison Anders and Jeremy Kasten as well as plenty of film clips and trailers.
What’s atypical of American Grindhouse is the clear and concise treatment of its subject. One problem that genre film documentaries have is that they tend to lose their way among the multitude of clips, trailers, and talking heads meant to make sense, in a psychobabble manner, of its subject matter. Credit first-time feature length film director Elijah Drenner for, unlike many of the films documented, sticking to the script and offering a concise and fair look at the genre. It helps that Drenner is already an experienced special features director in the genre and self-expressed “fan for life”, giving him the experience and interest to do the subject matter justice. Even more important, however, is the reverence and heart put into the film. It would have been easy for Drenner to parade the genre out as the two-headed freak that exploitation film make it out to be (and, let’s face it, generally is), but it’s nice to see that freak get a hug every once in a while.
American Grindhouse is currently available via Video on Demand.