So Grindhouse is upon us, and fans of exploitation cinema everywhere are no doubt bathing in the warm glow of nostalgia for bygone sleaze and spooky cinemas many of us were too young to enter, but that nevertheless were surrounded by an aura of forbidden fascination. Here in Winnipeg, I remember, in my formative years as a film fan, being simultaneously frightened and attracted by the ad campaigns for movies playing at the likes of the Downtown and the Eve. The era has passed, of course, never to return, but t…e movies live on, often in DVD releases that present prints far more pristine than anything theatregoers would have experienced during the original releases. At any rate, in the name of nostalgia and history, here are a few books to completely immerse you in the grindhouse spirit.
A little digression first, however. Some time ago, I listed some worthwhile magazines in the field, and that Shock Cinema, in particular, is dedicated to keeping the spirit of Times Square and 42nd Street alive. Its website (www.shockcinemamagazine.com) opens up all sorts of further gloriously dubious avenues to explorer. Okay, end digression.
Let’s look at the exploitation world from the perspective of history. All stories must start somewhere, and no better exploration of that beginning can be found than Eric Schaefer’s “Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!” A History of Exploitation Films, 1919-1959. Still in print from Duke University Press, Schaefer’s impressive work is a rigorous study of how the films were made and distributed, as well as being a thorough examination of the principle forms of the exploitation film took during this period (the sex hygiene film, the drug film, and so on). Schaefer deliberately stops just as the exploitation film enters into a rather spectacular transformation and flowering in the 60s and 70s, and one can only hope his next volume won’t be too long in coming.
In the meantime, Sleazoid Express, by Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford, though out of print, will amply reward the diligent searcher. Springing from their magazine of the same name (and check out www.sleazoidexpress.com), the book is a virtual travel guide to the Deuce. Each chapter is devoted to a particular grindhouse, describing the theatre and providing its history, and then explores the type of exploitation film that particular theatre specialized in. Some sample chapter headings: “The Findlays and Ameros Invent the Roughie at the Globe,” “Bitch Goddess of the Apollo: Ilsa, Queen of Pain.” You get the idea. Breezy, in love with the movies but not blind to their faults, the book will have the soles of your shoes feeling sticky from decades of spilled unmentionables. A terrific read.
After making your way through Landis and Clifford’s survey, you may have a hankering to learn more about some of the more colourful characters mentioned therein, and here we must bow down before Jimmy McDonough. Big Bosoms and Square Jaws: The Biography of Russ Meyer, King of the Sex Film and The Ghastly One: The Sex-Gore Netherworld of Filmmaker Andy Milligan are two monumental works, and as compellingly page-turning as any novel. Meyer is the better known of the two filmmakers, of course. One reason (SURPRISE!) being that he actually was extremely talented. But if you really want the greasy feel of the grindhouse, read the Milligan biography, which plunges readers into a world few would want to experience at first hand. Milligan’s films are pretty much unwatchable (something that McDonough cheerfully admits, so we can be grateful he watched these things for us), but reading about them and the circumstances from which they emerged is engrossing, especially given that the behind-the-scenes tales are often just as lurid as the movies themselves.
Right. There’s your necessary does of moral turpitude.