Night Nurse (Wellman, 1931) is an example of early exploitation in American Grindhouse (2010)
Over the past ten-to-fifteen years documentary filmmakers have become increasingly interested in the history of horror and exploitation cinema, charting the fleapit timeline with titles such as Schlock! The Secret History Of American Movies (Greene, 2001), Midnight Movies: From The Margin To The Mainstream (Samuels, 2005) and Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story Of Ozploitation! (Hartley, 2008). Together these documentaries have provided me with hours upon hours of drive-in schlock, some of which is awesome, but most of which is awful. Going into American Grindhouse I was excited about the possibility of adding some new titles to my viewing checklist, but was wary that maybe I'd seen all of this before - the 70's were a renowned hotbed of cinematic perversion, and there are dozens of comprehensive books available on the subject. But American Grindhouse is a fascinating and hugely entertaining documentary which widens its gaze and takes us all the way back to the release of Traffic In Souls (Tucker, 1913), a film about the sex trade and prostitution in New York. Exploitation, as it turns out, has been around since the birth of cinema, and none other than Thomas Edison helped stamp an early mark on screen violence and nudity.
The titles mentioned in the first half of American Grindhouse are largely new to me, and therefore are hugely exciting discoveries. Night Nurse (Wellman, 1931), for example, which stars Barbara Stanwyck in a tale of alcoholism, nymphomania and child murder, is a lost gem of exploitation cinema which can match anything from the corrupt 70's zenith. Movies like these - distributed by major studios such as Warner Bros. and Universal - were big money-spinners in their heyday, existing in a pre-code Hollywood which meant that audience values could be easily and cheaply exploited. Movies such as Maniac (Esper, 1934) displayed graphic nudity and violence which you wouldn't even find in a studio movie from the 1950's. Indeed, Esper (who would later redistribute Tod Browning's Freaks, 1932, to grindhouse crowds under the title Nature's Mistakes) could probably be credited as one of the most important and boundary pushing filmmakers of his time. Various talking heads on the documentary inform us of star scandals in the 1920's (normally involving sex or drugs), the impact of Will Hays on the exploitation market (he unintentionally boosted it) and the way films such as Slaves In Bondage (Clifton, 1937) created a platform for film noir to emerge onto. Directors needed to think up artistic ways to hide what they wanted to show, and American Grindhouse compellingly argues that noir came to fruition because of censorship, which forced filmmakers to present sex and violence in more subtle and shaded ways.
At a short n' slick 80 minutes American Grindhouse is a terrifically paced documentary, highlighting a forgotten cinematic gem or some quiz-winning trivia every thirty seconds, which means that you'll have to re-watch it numerous times to pick up every glorious detail. I could spend the rest of this review telling you about awesome forgotten flicks - for the record, check out The Tormentors (Hewitt, 1971) (a Nazis vs. Jesus picture) and Night Of The Lepus (Claxton, 1972) (a giant rabbit feature) - but the real joy is in hearing them talked about in a cultural and historical context that I couldn't hope to match here. Whether they be film historians or filmmakers, the insight on offer by the interviewees here is incredible. We swiftly advance through sexploitation, psychedelia, blaxploitation and parody, all given sufficient context which place the films in a light not just as blood-bathed oddities belonging at the bottom of a bargain bin, but as hugely important cinematic documents - at one point Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960) is put side-by-side with Blood Feast (Lewis, 1963), a shockingly feasible comparison which has forced me to reevaluate both films. I'm shocked at how much I've learnt watching American Grindhouse, a documentary on a subject that should be long worn out but clearly has much more to offer. An essential watch for anyone who loves movies - and if you've read this far, that's probably you...