Thursday, April 12, 2007

Culture Shock 04.12.07: Reliving the era of exploitation

It was a golden age, when anything seemed possible.

Throughout the 1970s, teenagers swarmed to rural drive-ins to make out beneath a flickering glow of horror and exploitation. New York City's 42nd Street was a den of iniquity, where seedy "grindhouse" theaters screened everything from kung-fu films and soft-focus porn to blaxploitation and revenge yarns like "They Call Her One Eye."

Zombies, madmen, criminals, cannibals, prisons full of violent women with lesbian tendencies, Nazis and hormonally charged teens mingled on the silver screen in an orgy of celluloid sin.

Then it ended. Multiplexes drove the drive-ins into the ditch, and former New York City mayor and current presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani turned 42nd Street into a sanitized tourist trap — a Disneyland without the lines.

But nostalgia for the grindhouse era is in full bloom, and not because of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez's aptly titled double bill "Grindhouse." It opened last week to positive reviews but disappointing profits, in part because of its three-hour-plus running time, and in part because no one in the South or Midwest knows what a grindhouse is.

Grindhouse. n. an often shabby movie theater having continuous showings especially of pornographic or violent films.

Those of us in rural America grew up with drive-ins, not grindhouses. But the movies were the same.

Boutique DVD labels are raiding the vaults of long-gone movie distributors in search of exploitation films no one has seen since the first generation of mom-and-pop video stores liquidated their worn VHS stock.

Synapse Films has found a niche selling DVD compilations of exploitation movie trailers. To date, there are three volumes of "42nd Street Forever." The first two cover a cross-section of trash cinema, while the third, adults-only disc focuses exclusively on movies with lots of heavy breathing, if you know what I mean.

Books like Jacques Boyreau's "Trash: The Graphic Genius of Xploitation Movie Posters" celebrate the lurid, pop-art posters that once lured people into theaters showing "Blood Feast" and "The Centerfold Girls."

But not everyone is celebrating.'s Grady Hendrix writes, "The affection people have today for exploitation movies is misplaced, because these movies stink."

There's no accounting for taste, but I'll take "Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!" over "Titanic." And who can deny that a truly bad movie is more entertaining than a merely mediocre one?

Hendrix makes one point that is almost true: "Exploitation movies are as dead as disco today because every movie is an exploitation movie."

Yes, recently we've seen a revival of exploitation, including "Hostel" and Rob Zombie's "House of 1,000 Corpses" and "The Devil's Rejects." But these gory, mainstream throwbacks are tame compared to, say, "Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS." Even low-rent, direct-to-DVD films don't go there.

Modern filmmakers can get away with only so much. If it's Nazisploitation you want, you'll have to settle for Zombie's fake trailer for the nonexistent movie "Werewolf Women of the SS," sandwiched between the two features of "Grindhouse."

The most extreme '70s exploitation films are morally challenging. They make audiences complicit in the onscreen acts. A viewer who walks out of "I Spit on Your Grave" unshaken has missed the point.

At the other end of the spectrum, exploitation movies, however bad, are just plain fun. And they're fun in ways their modern, direct-to-DVD descendents are not. Maybe it's because they were shot on film rather than on videotape, and maybe it's because their actresses didn't have silicone enhancement. But there is an authenticity to '70s exploitation that '00s exploitation can't match.

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