What makes good grindhouse cinema and why it's coming back


In self-defense, she kills her second attacker, and after hiding the body, she wanders the street at night seeking revenge on any man who makes a pass at her.

This is the story of “Ms. 45,” an exploitation film directed by Abel Ferrara that once attracted howls of approval from teenage boys in dingy drive-in movie theaters.

Exploitation films were violent, sexually explicit, offensive to women, stereotypical of African Americans and a whole lot of fun. Today, the drive-ins and inner city grindhouses are closed, and the teenage boys watch their direct-to-video movies alone in dingy basements, but a few cinemas are still clinging to that gory nostalgia.

One of them is the IU Cinema, which starts its Kinsey Collection Grindhouse Series with a screening of “Deep Red” at 9:30 p.m. today. The event continues through the weekend and features an appearance and lecture by exploitation filmmaker William Lustig.

IU Cinema director Jon Vickers said the series will be a direct throwback to the feel of watching a 1970s exploitation movie in a grindhouse, right down to the scratchy, beat-up film prints that were common for these low budget movies.

“There’s a term for this sort of thing today. They are of grindhouse quality,” Vickers said. “You will see faded prints, scratched prints and spliced prints. It will not be a pristine viewing experience, but that adds to the nostalgia.”

In simplest terms, an exploitation film is one with a low budget and limited, independent distribution that would use shocking, exploitative advertising and provocative subject matter to get audiences in the seats.

“Trailers, posters and lobby displays in theaters were all really brash, lurid and in your face,” said David Church, a Ph.D. student researching exploitation films. “Those were a way to suck the viewer in and compensate for the fact that they may not have had big stars, budgets or good special effects.”

Under those confines, the genre has given us revenge action movies, Hong Kong karate films, zombie, slasher and splatter horror movies, Blaxploitation exhibitions, stylized Italian murder mysteries called “giallo films” and adult films that bordered on soft and hardcore pornography.

Filmmaker Lustig, whose film “Vigilante” is showing at 6:30 p.m. Sunday, said why no matter what the subject is, exploitation films can appeal to anyone.

“They are designed to be nothing more than crowd pleasers,” Lustig said. “There’s no intellectual pretense about it. They are intended to be pure entertainment for the masses.”

And for Lustig, seeing one of these films in a group setting at a venue like the IU Cinema is precisely what makes the exploitation genre so fun.

“I loved the communal feeling of audiences watching these films. It’s something you really can’t find today,” Lustig said. “They would play in these big grindhouses and audiences would just go nuts watching them. The audiences coming out to the revival of these movies really react in the same ways I remember seeing them in the theaters.”

Vickers has known his share of similar screenings.

“It lends itself automatically to taking you out of the formal confines and allowing the audience more talk-back and to be freer and more casual about the viewing experience,” Vickers said. “It is typically a more active audience that is usually more vocal.”

But scholars like Church feel exploitation films deserve more attention than audiences give them credit for.

“(With) some of these films, you can look at and laugh at them because they certainly seem campy and dated by today’s standards. But other ones like ‘Deep Red’ and ‘Vigilante’ are films (that) I think are trying to speak to something more serious, and they hope to be watched with something more than tongue-in-cheek irony,” Church said.

In fact, exploitation films represent an important subsection of film history.

“Often, exploitation films were made to cash in on a more successful film or on a controversial subject matter,” Church said. “You start to see little cycles or clusters of films, and you can track these weird connections of influences from one cycle to another and see how they descend over time.”

That film history is reflected in the movies of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez today. Church called many of their self-aware films that verge on parody a kind of “retrosploitation.”

Their films acknowledge the exploitation market is not what it once was in the 1970s and the genre they once loved is now relegated to direct-to-DVD bargain bins with the rise of home video and Netflix.

Lustig, who is also a distributor of exploitation films with his company Blue Underground, described how this has affected the industry.

“When home videos came in, it led to the demise of the grindhouses,” Lustig said. “The exploitation film is really relegated to video, which defeats its purpose, but that’s where the industry has gone for the last 20 years.”

Church said this ever-growing collection of exploitation films on DVD has led to modern filmmakers doing all they can to make people aware of the overwhelming number of films in the market.

“What do you make of that when there’s so much film history available to you?” Church asked. “If you want to make an exploitation film today, you have to include some sort of acknowledgment of that sheer accumulation of history that you didn’t have to the same extent before home video technology.”

Despite the drastic changes in the exploitation landscape, a niche audience still exists to seek out these types of movies.

“Technology compensates for one loss of the fan aspect,” Church said. “So many of these films are now commercially available, it cuts down on the interpersonal trading of tapes that people do. But now you have the rise of the Internet and fan forums that still give people the ability to network with each other and form a bond of shared cult taste.”

“There’s still an interest in these films. There’s a big interest in these films,” Vickers added. “They are much more accessible than ever before. However, some of these titles are a little more rare, aren’t available on DVD and are still unique to see in a setting like this.”

And Church said as long as there are movies, there will be exploitation films.
“People will always want to make exploitation movies,” Church said. “It’s just the question of how widely are they going to be seen.”

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