Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Graphic: Jimmy Hasse

From Grindhouse to The Deuce: A decade of disrepute

Ten years ago, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez released Grindhouse, a double feature of the kind of exploitation insanity so often promised on bold, in-your-face ’70s poster art, but so rarely realized in actual ’70s films. (Perhaps the most egregious example of this bait-and-switch is 1971’s Werewolves On Wheels, which only delivers on its title in its final frame.) Rodriguez’s Planet Terror in particular blows out the film’s speakers with carnage and absurdity, taking advantage of its relatively astronomical budget and cutting-edge effects to give Rose McGowan a fully functional machine-gun leg that would have been only briefly glimpsed in the films that inspired Planet Terror, if it appeared at all.

And while Grindhouse quickly disappeared from theaters, its influence has been far-reaching. Tarantino and Rodriguez’s 2007 film wasn’t the first to raise the stakes on classic exploitation imagery: The filmmaking duo had explored the same aesthetic a decade earlier in From Dusk Till Dawn, and Rob Zombie is just one of the many horror filmmakers who have built their careers on self-aware excess. But their double feature, complete with fake trailers and a “missing reel” played for comedic effect, inspired a wave of imitators. Produced with the aid of After Effects’ “scratch,” “dirt,” and “flicker” tools, late-’00s and early ’10s titles like Nude Nuns With Big Guns, Sugar Boxx, and Hobo With A Shotgun took a loose collection of action, horror, and erotic films defined by their lowest-common-denominator appeal and combined them into a new subgenre. These neo-grindhouse movies not only reveled in a context where sex and violence could be pushed as far as possible without regard for “redeeming social value,” but turned what had once been practical necessities into aesthetic choices.

And that aesthetic, broadly defined as gonzo plot elements, deliberately stilted filmmaking techniques, faux-aged visuals, and winking disregard for good taste, is still alive 10 years later. Just look at Blood Drive, which wraps up its run on Syfy this week; a greasy diner hash of stock characters, clichéd dialogue, basic-cable edgy violence and nudity, and weekly detours into various subgenres ending with “-sploitation,” the show posits itself as “critic-proof” by reveling in its badness. But, as our own Alex McLevy questions in his review, are ironic mistakes and gratuitous vulgarity all that the grindhouse revival has to offer? Talking about Planet Terror, Rodriguez admitted that he was engaging with the idea of exploitation films more than the films themselves, saying, “the posters were much better than the movies, but we’re making something that lives up to the posters.” But while neo-grindhouse acolytes from the Planet Terror school are enamored with the promise on the theater marquees, the theaters themselves—and the sidewalks outside—were equally compelling.

Like film noir, grindhouse wasn’t defined as a genre until after the fact. In the glory days, long before AIDS and crack turned places like New York’s 42nd Street into graveyards, filmmakers didn’t think of themselves as making “grindhouse” movies, or anything with any real cultural cachet. They just thought they were making a quick buck. (Even the term doesn’t refer to the films, but to cheap independent theaters’ policy of “grinding” prints through projectors all day long.) The descendants of legendary 42nd Street grindhouse owners like Chelly Wilson put little to no value on the films their parents had devoted themselves to showing, and were more than happy to buy in to the city’s plan to rehabilitate Times Square. Reading Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford’s seminal text on 42nd Street, Sleazoid Express, it’s astounding how many now-legendary films were simply thrown away. It’s only through the efforts of die-hards like Landis and Clifford—and, yes, Tarantino—that exploitation movies were reappraised in the ’90s by critics and audiences nostalgic for the trash of their youth.

That nostalgia has, in turn, informed our cultural memory of these films. Exploitation has been around as long as there have been movies, but the style we call “grindhouse”—a term that’s become inextricable with “exploitation” as far as all but the most pedantic trash lovers are concerned—really only reflects a narrow period in exploitation history, namely the 1970s. Going back to the source material, while there are films like Ilsa, She Wolf Of The SS and Last House On Dead End Street that are still shocking today, many exploitation films were mostly hype, true to their carnival roots. (Before the suburban exodus that turned inner-city movie palaces into low-rent grindhouses, exploitation films were frequently shown in traveling tent shows.)

What made them truly disreputable was their context, showing in double or triple bills in dangerous parts of town amid peep shows, pornographic bookstores, and sex workers soliciting clients on the sidewalk. And the illicit thrill didn’t end when you walked into the theater; bathrooms were full of drug dealers, pickpockets, more sex workers, and their clients, none of whom were paying much attention to the dialogue scenes. Films from low-budget New York auteurs like Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 (1981) and Frank Henenlotter’s Basket Case (1982)—both denizens of Times Square themselves—depict the atmosphere that surrounded exploitation films in all its seedy glory, a world of run-down flea-trap motels and dog-eat-dog cruelty where you’re either on the take or being taken. It wasn’t an aesthetic choice or a deliberate pose—it was just what was outside their director’s windows, no set dressing necessary.

A recent film that captures this on-the-ground grindhouse experience is the naturalistic, uber-gritty Good Time, from sibling auteurs Josh and Benny Safdie; with Times Square long since sanitized, the city’s underclass has moved to Queens, but the sense of desperation in Connie (Robert Pattinson), a small-time criminal and irredeemable fuckup, is the same. in his essay on “The Return Of NYC Grime,Birth.Movies.Death’s Jacob Knight deems Good Time the pinnacle of what he dubs “Grime New Wave,” filmmakers who are reclaiming New York’s sordid filmmaking legacy for the outer boroughs. And while they may not have any Nazi werewolves on motorcycles, their down-and-dirty attitudes are as grindhouse as you can get.

These two threads of the grindhouse revival come together in HBO’s The Deuce, whose pilot is on HBO Go/Now and which begins its run this coming Sunday. The show meticulously, even fetishistically, re-creates Times Square in the early ’70s in the far northern Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights; as director Michelle MacLaren says in a behind-the-scenes featurette about the pilot, “when you see a sign that says two dollars for this or 50 cents for that, those are all real. Those are right out of 1971.” It’s as in love with the streets of New York as Grindhouse is with the films on the marquees, which, incidentally, are equally faithfully reproduced on the show. And while co-creators David Simon and George Pelecanos—unlike, say, early Martin Scorsese—can’t just walk outside and film pimps and hustlers plying their wares on the sidewalk, they share their predecessors’ ambition to elevate dirty business to operatic heights.

Whether it’s the aesthetic of grindhouse cinema or of grindhouse theaters that turns you on, several decades removed from the real thing, either is undeniably a fantasy. The grindhouses are now shopping malls, and the extreme sex and violence—or promise thereof—that used to define “exploitation” was subsumed into mainstream genre cinema a long time ago. But whether it’s schlocky faux B-action or handheld street-level crime thriller, there’s still an opportunity for today’s up-and-coming filmmakers to break into the industry by imitating the style of the movies that they (or, at this point, the generation before them) grew up on. They may not be as shocking to polite society as they used to be, but they’re still cheap to make and fun to watch. And that’s the real trick.