Grindhouse: The Forbidden World of “Adults Only” Cinema,by Eddie Muller and Daniel Faris (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1996, 157 pp., $19.95)
Surrealist poet Paul Eluard once said, “There is another world, but it is in this one.” Adults-only grindhouse movies — from 1930s cautionary tales about syphilis to 1970s porno chic — were, until their death-by-video in the 1980s, one of those other worlds “in this one.” While Hollywood dutifully cranked out all kinds of respectable fare, legendary back-alley entrepreneurs like Kroger Babb and Dwain Esper would sneak into small towns across the heartland, rent a dilapidated theatre or pitch a tent, create a stir with grandiose (and grossly misleading) posters, and show their titillating exposés to awed audiences until the police arrived to shut them down. The relationship of these men — and occasionally women, like Doris Wishman — to mainstream movie exhibition was something akin to a leech on a warm body, gleefully undermining an entity much higher on the food chain.
This scene spawned a handful of sleazy auteurs and — dare I say it? — an oeuvre that included weirdly seductive titles like Lash of the Penitentes, Wages of Sin, andNature’s Mistakes. Longtime memorabilia collectors and “cultural archaeologists” Eddie Muller and Daniel Faris lovingly document this almost forgotten subculture in their tasty read, Grindhouse: The Forbidden World of “Adults Only” Cinema. The archaeological conceit can be taken literally in this case: the authors had to dumpster-dive to salvage much of the rare promotional material — lobby cards, posters, and cheap ad slicks — reproduced in the book.
Muller and Faris know this arcane subject well and treat it with just the right mix of scholarship, reverence, and wit. They trace the origins of grindhouse exhibition to turn-of-the-century traveling carnivals, which often featured an adults-only tent at the end of the midway that might contain something freaky or risqué. It was a short leap from these spaces to the small-town theatres where the pioneers of cinema sleaze could ply their trade. Their work was eased by several factors. First, there was always an audience for these films, particularly when they were presented with a moral at the end. Dwain Esper’s Narcotic (1933) was typical. The lobby card showed grinning, scantily clad women and screamed “One Night of Bliss . . . A Thousand Nights of Hell!” But the bliss occupied far more screen time than the hell.
A second reason for the success of these early potboilers was the sheer drive of the entrepreneurs, who got around Hollywood’s choke-hold on theatres by “roadshowing” — taking the film across the country and setting up anywhere from an Elk’s Lodge to a saloon. Since they were working in a legal limbo, they’d often have two prints, one “hot” and one “cold.” When the police came, they’d quickly substitute the less racy version. Another way they made money on this material was by selling it outright to regional film exchanges, who were then responsible for sneaking it onto screens.
Grindhouse moves giddily through the decades, passing from ’30s “road to ruin” pix to the ’40s burlesque and dope films, and into the ’50s, when grindhouses became “art houses.” The two strains collided in 1955 when huckster Kroger Babb bought the U.S. rights to Ingmar Bergman’s Summer with Monika. (Babb was notorious for his 1944 cinematic marriage manual Mom and Dad, which featured a birth in clinical detail.) Besides what the authors call “imported Euro-skin,” the 1950s saw the ascendance of Russ Meyer with his classic of voyeurism, The Immoral Mr. Teas (1959).
In this and the following decade, antiquated “clap operas” and anti-drug screeds gave way to Meyer-style “nudie-cuties” like Diary of a Nudist (1962) and “roughies” likeThe Animal (1967), whose tagline took full advantage of the new screen freedom: “He made her an animal… now all he needed was a leash!” One step further (or sideways) were the “ghoulies,” which added murder and mayhem to the mix, and the beloved “mondo” movies, which leeringly exposed an international array of anthropological oddities.
Meyer, Babb, Wishman, Friedman and the others profiled in this book laid the groundwork for the emergence of both hardcore sexploitation in 1972 (Deep Throat) and the increasing ability of mainstream filmmakers to incorporate frank sexual elements in their work, before video (starting in 1975) slowly strangled the life out of the scene.
“Le Cinema Grind” always existed in the shadow of “official” filmdom, but its denizens had more in common with Hollywood than is obvious at first glance. Their stock in trade, as Grindhouse shows in colorful detail, was the tease, the come-on to films whose lurid ad campaigns sometimes cost more than the film itself. Recent rumors claim Warner Bros. spent more on promoting Space Jam than they did making it, a strategy that, on a smaller scale, puts the studio in the same company as Dwain Esper’s threadbare Roadshow Attractions and Kroger Babb’s artfully named Hygienic Productions.