Flipping through the latest issue of Rue Morgue, I happened on a capsule review that mentioned how most grindhouse fare (whether actual or neo) rarely delivered on its promises. This is, of course, absolutely true, and I don’t for a moment pretend that this comes as news to anyone reading these words. I do want to consider this factor from two angles, though.
The first is that the fact that we all know this is in itself telling. Many film fans of my generation would have likely grown up knowing ONLY of the promises. We would see the posters and the ads in the paper, but whether because we were too young, or the movies weren’t playing nearby, or for a dozen other possible reasons, we would never actually get to see the movies themselves. Result: near-mythical status for these forbidden-fruit films. But now, thanks to the magical world of the DVD, just about every film we could ever imagine is now available in immaculate prints. This is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, we can finally see these movies. On the other, seeing them invariably punctures the mythological bubble. Nonetheless, it is now easier than it has ever been before to see just about anything, anytime. How’s that for a golden age?
The second thing I want to say is to propose the joys that these films DO offer. Sure, the promises of their posters, advertizing campaigns, and even titles are rarely kept. But if we get past that, then there are other, alternative, quirkier pleasures that may be had. Take, for instance, Papaya, Love Goddess of the Cannibals, which I reviewed a few days ago. Now, anyone lured in by the promise of sex and cannibalism is going to be horribly disappointed by a) the almost complete absence of cannibalism beyond one brief scene (two if you want to count the oral castration at the beginning, but it seems to me that biting and spitting doesn’t really qualify); and b) the dull and utterly unconvincing sex scenes. Without wanting to completely exculpate the film and its ilk, I should nevertheless point out in its defense that a) cannibalism is not mentioned in the film’s original title (Papaya of the Caribbean); and b) the number of sex scenes in cinema that are not dull and unconvincing are very few and far between.
So what are the other joys? Firstly, some of the would-be “erotic” scenes become fascinating in spite of their lack of charge, sometimes thanks to their own incompetence (and so the film gives us the gift of laughter) and sometimes thanks to other elements. Thus, this film benefits from an utterly bizarre delirium during the big orgy/cannibalism/dance/Spaghetti Funk scene.
In the above examples, though, one is laughing at the film. But if the filmmakers have any love at all for their craft (as D’Amato does, I think, and Jess Franco certainly does, even if it is often a very lazy kind of love), then there will be something to reward the patient and sympathetic viewer. Get past the poster, and look at what the filmmaker is actually interested in. The joys may be small. One might not get any further then, say, the carefully wrought atmosphere that surround scene after scene of wandering through dilapidated streets and corridors in Papaya. Or it might be the self-critical genre deconstruction of Black Emmanuelle/White Emmanuelle. Certainly, there are plenty of films out there that offer precious little for the viewer to hang on to. But there are many, many out there that present strange and glorious rhythms, sights and themes. Far more than the broken promises might lead one to believe.