Thursday, January 24, 2008

Today’s blockbusters were yesterday’s trash

“Cloverfield,” the new film from “Alias” producer J.J. Abrams, had a monster opening weekend, setting a January record with its three-day take of $41 million.

Not bad for a film you can sum up as Godzilla meets “The Blair Witch Project.”

In the 1970s, a movie like “Cloverfield” wouldn’t have been a national hit. It would have been a B movie, seen mostly at rural drive-ins and urban grindhouses. But in the nearly 40 years since the heyday of monster movies and exploitation flicks, genre films have come to define mainstream, blockbuster entertainment.

Of course, today’s genre movies are a lot tamer than the ones that unspooled in the ’70s and early ’80s. For instance, compare “One Missed Call,” a PG-13 horror movie now flopping nationwide, to the movies of the ’70s. The contrast is stark.

I’ve nothing against PG-13 horror movies in theory. An atmospheric ghost story like 2002’s “The Ring” doesn’t need sex and gore to work. But a movie like “One Missed Call,” with its disposable cast of pretty teenagers, is begging for gratuitous violence and even-more-gratuitous nudity.

Otherwise, what’s the point?

“One Missed Call” is an exploitation movie that’s woefully short on exploitation. That’s the pitfall of turning exploitation movies into mainstream fare. It’s a rare film today, like “Hostel” or “Saw,” that pushes the boundaries regularly broken during the grindhouse and drive-in era.

So, while moviegoers were flocking to “Cloverfield” last weekend, I stayed warm at home, hunkered down with some ’70s trash cinema.

BCI Entertainment has released 10 double-feature DVDs under its “Welcome to the Grindhouse” banner. Each features a “grindhouse experience” option that plays a couple of movie trailers, then the first feature, then more trailers and, finally, the second feature. In other words, it’s just like watching a double bill in a rundown theater, except your feet don’t stick to the floor and you’re not in danger of getting mugged. Unless your house is in a bad neighborhood.

My weekend viewing consisted of three double features: “Pick-up” and “The Teacher,” “Malibu High” and “Trip with the Teacher,” and “Black Candles” and “Evil Eye.” The first four are American-made teenagers-in-trouble movies, while the last two are European horror flicks. None is a great work of art, but all except two are entertaining examples of drive-in sleaze.

The bad apples are “Evil Eye,” a plodding story about a man possessed by evil spirits bent on revenge against their killers, and “The Teacher.”

“The Teacher” has its moments, but they’re way too few for a movie that runs 98 minutes, should have run 80 minutes and feels like 120 minutes. This story of an ill-advised relationship between a teacher and her former student (played by Jay “Dennis the Menace” North) often plays like an “ABC Afterschool Special” gone bad. Only with breasts.

Back in the drive-in days, truth in advertising was more of a guideline than a rule. When you see the poster for “Malibu High,” you think “teen sex comedy.” But what you get is a story about a girl who blackmails her teachers, becomes a hooker, gets involved with the mob and ends up a hit woman. And the trailer for “Pick-up” in no way prepares you for watching three hippies experience increasingly bizarre flashbacks and hallucinations while stuck in the Florida Everglades.

Lastly, a few words of warning. “Trip with the Teacher” is a nasty piece of work that desperately wants to be “The Last House on the Left,” complete with a similarly psychotic heavy, played here by future “Red Shoe Diaries” producer Zalman King.

“Black Candles,” meanwhile, reinforces a theory of mine that all ’70s Spanish occult films are thinly veiled excuses for Satanic orgy scenes, often involving people you don’t want to see naked. For that and other reasons, it’s not for the easily offended.

Of course, that’s why they don’t make ’em like they used to.

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