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How and where the Grindhouse spirit survives (and whether it should)

The opening sequence to the recent stripper-takes-revenge-on-her-rapists thriller Cherry Bomb looks like it could’ve been swiped in its entirety from some 1983 straight-to-video action movie, with its grainy, underlit shots of a grimy urban landscape, and its pulsing, bass-heavy hard-rock score. The similarity is no accident. It’s the effect director Kyle Day and screenwriter Garrett Hargrove were going for, to recall the seedy quickies of their youth. The same goes for Michael Biehn’s new-to-video directorial debut The Victim, which stars veteran actor Biehn as a backwoods loner who helps a stripper fend off two rogue cops who killed her best friend. In spite of the modern-day setting, The Victim has the style and tone of gamy ’70s drive-in fare. Cherry Bomb and The Victim are both pretty terrible movies, but they have a context. And they owe some of that context to a box-office flop from five years ago.

During the run-up to the release of Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s 2007 B-movie double-feature homage Grindhouse, the two filmmakers talked about making a whole series of Grindhouses, with the help of friends like Eli Roth and Edgar Wright, working in shifts to give other trash-cinema genres like kung fu and sexploitation their turn. Then Grindhouse stalled at the box office, and the only official spin-offs from the franchise have been feature-length versions of two of its fake trailers: Machete and Hobo With A Shotgun. The failure of Rodriguez and Tarantino’s big idea was a disappointment, because it’d been a while since nationwide multiplex chains regularly played host to genre movies so cleverly, enjoyably scuzzy.

Movies today aren’t lacking the kind of elements that were once the province of drive-ins and disreputable downtown theaters. The original grindhouse wave was more or less done in by two developments: the rise of the blockbuster in the ’70s, which elevated ideas like “killer shark” and “outer-space shoot-’em-up” from their B-movie origins, and the home-video boom, which gave grindhouse-style fare better footing in the marketplace than when it was limited to a few screens in shady places. And the former phenomenon is still very much ongoing, in that most of the big-budget, big-grossing movies today have premises that would’ve been the stuff of low-budget movies 50 years ago. (In the early ’70s, The Hunger Games, for example, would’ve been more likely to come out of the Roger Corman stable than a major studio.)

As for home video, the business still exists—now supplemented by online streaming and VOD—and it’s still the venue where a large number of contemporary horror movies and cheap action pictures find their biggest audience. But there’s too much product now for even the best of those movies to stand out, and market conditions aren’t what they were in the ’80s, when low-ambition genre films that barely opened theatrically could become modest VHS hits. Oddly enough, with no reliable theatrical home, with video having become a sketchier proposition, and with cable television more focused on original programming than on buying cheap movies to pad out schedules, the biggest remaining showcase for independently produced splatteramas and fantasy fare has been film festivals, where all the earnest awards-bait is regularly counterbalanced by the far more “extreme” programming of Midnight Madness slates.

Does any of this matter? Well, it matters to fans of these kinds of movies, who would like them to continue to be made and seen. It also matters to the art of cinema as a whole. Just as avant-garde filmmakers stretch the form of movies in ways that sometimes filter down to the mainstream, so exploitation movies have stretched the content. And that doesn’t just mean opening Hollywood up to more sex and violence. In the ’60s and ’70s especially, low-budget genre movies were often a lot more daring about race and sexuality than their big-studio counterparts, proving there was an audience for films that were more bluntly honest. Plus, some of the best filmmakers of that era—Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Francis Ford Coppola—apprenticed in B-movies. Over the years, we’ve gotten a lot of treasure from trash.

But what kind of trash? What was so unusual about Grindhouse wasn’t that it flung old-fashioned sleaze onto thousands of screens at once, but that it was self-conscious sleaze, with fake scratches and splices that marked it as a product of remix culture, not just a throwback thriller. And Rodriguez and Tarantino took advantage of the kitschy premise and postmodern touches to make their kind of movies, with Rodriguez’s Planet Terror showing off his usual DIY effects and gleeful genre-mashing, while Tarantino’s Death Proof combined showstopper setpieces with long, winding conversations. 

The Grindhouse spin-offs Machete and Hobo With A Shotgun are less complex, but still fundamentally well-constructed movies with heavy retro trappings. The Grindhouse-like films that followed, though (and Cherry Bomb and The Victim are far from the only proudly trashy B-movies lately to style themselves as homages to exploitation’s past) have been more like the too-cool, gun-toting, pop-culture-referencing black comedies that spewed forth in the wake of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction in the ’90s. They’ve taken potentially corrosive material, watered it down, and put it in a dull retro package.

None of this is unprecedented. “Tongue-in-cheek” has been a popular mode for horror movies since the days of James Whale (if not earlier), and has often produced good results. Joe Dante built an impressive career out of mocking the kinds of films he loves, while some of John Carpenter’s best movies have been at least partially comic. The difference is that a lot of the post-Grindhouse pictures aren’t just going for “irreverent” or “spoofy,” but rather “intentionally awful.” When Rodriguez and Tarantino were promoting Grindhouse, they talked about making movies that were as good as what the trailers for the old grindhouse movies promised. They weren’t looking to bury genre fans in more Syfy Channel-level schlock, where titles like Sharktopus or Arachnoquake sound like they’re going to be more fun than they turn out to be.

The problem with these winking, retro-styled B-movies is that the more this becomes a viable mode for attracting investors and telling stories—the more the likes of Strippers Vs. Werewolves become the norm—the less room there is for more original genre movies like Richard Bates Jr.’s deeply personal body-horror teen pic Excision, or Evan Glodell’s bad-breakup-as-apocalyptic-crisis drama Bellflower, or Ti West’s much smarter retro-horror efforts The House Of The Devil and The Innkeepers. It even means that some genuinely fun mainstream B-movies like the escape-from-space-jail action picture Lockout don’t get as much attention as they deserve, because they lack a gimmick. Not all genre fans like those movies, granted, and none of them are without flaws. But they’re at least trying something bold, and unapologetically so.

By contrast, many of the post-Grindhouse movies declare themselves as bad, and thus legitimize incompetence. One of the reasons “found footage” horror films have become so common is that the format forgives a lot of sins, letting young filmmakers make aimless, poorly shot movies that excuse their own artlessness. (That’s one of the reasons Barry Levinson’s upcoming found-footage eco-horror movie The Bay is so impressive, because it imposes some classical filmmaking/storytelling virtues onto an amateurish genre.) The Grindhouse-esque films are following that same pattern. The Trost brothers’ quirky festival favorite The FP is a case in point: It runs a charmingly weird idea, about a grim future where foul-mouthed gangs square off in life-or-death Dance Dance Revolution matches, through a one-joke ’80s-video-store-remainder-bin filter, which gives the film a license to be badly acted and annoyingly repetitive.

It’s good to see B-movies that have some sense of history, and that are trying to be entertaining, not heavy. But sometimes injecting kitsch into a film is like injecting steroids into an athlete: It’s a shortcut, and one that adds beef while shrinking balls. There’s nothing wrong with an exploitation film that tries to make its audience feel uncomfortable, or even genuinely titillated. It’s okay to be badass, not just “badass.”