Exploitation films have (thankfully) been around since the beginning of moving pictures. The 2010 documentary, American Grindhouse, provides an overview of exploitation films and its many genres.
While it’s hardly comprehensive, the 80-minute film covers a lot of ground. The highlights are clips from several exploitation films, and interviews with key players – including Herschell Gordon Lewis, Don Edmonds, Jack Hill and Larry Cohen - and those influenced by these movies and exploitation film historians.
The line is somewhat blurred, but grindhouse films are basically the same as exploitation movies. The term “grindhouse” is slang for theaters in the seedy sections of major cities – such as Times Square in New York City – that showed films around the clock featuring a lot of gratuitous violence and/or a lot of gratuitous nudity. In the 1950s, theaters that once played to burlesque switched over as that art form died and began running exploitation films. They were called grindhouses after the "bump and grind" of the burlesque, and the fact that they ground out these films regularly.
American Grindhouse takes an interesting perspective on exploitation films, astutely pointing out that the Hays Code (Hollywood’s morality provisions placed on major-studio movies from 1934 to 1968) gave rise to the popularity of exploitation films.
One of the final straws that led to the implementation of the Hays Code is Freaks, a brilliant 1932 MGM release about life in a traveling carnival with real-life sideshow acts and several shocking scenes. The movie was so controversial at the time that Tod Browning, who directed and produced it and is a horror-film icon, was essentially blacklisted and made only a few other movies, including the fantastic Devil-Doll, after.
American Grindhouse pays homage to Freaks, and its impact on the exploitation industry.
When the big-time studios stopped making exploitation films, the second-, third- and fourth-rate studios gladly stepped in with B-movies with a little more violence and a little more sex. The Hays Code put a final end to Pre-Code titillation, causing the major studios (and many of the minor ones) to abide by what the Code judged to be excess sexuality and violence.
This caused the exploitation film to go “underground,” as it were, playing in decrepit theaters and in carnivals and roadshows. To escape censorship and the law during the 1930s and ‘40s, exploitation films claimed to be “educational” in nature, “teaching” the viewer about the dangers of marijuana (Reefer Madness), pre-martial sex (Sex Madness, She Shoulda Said No!), and even showing the birth of a child (Mom and Dad). Freaks survived by playing the exploitation circuit.
As the years passed, the envelope got pushed more, and thanks to drive-in theaters, there was an outlet for these films. Monster films became more violent. Women in prison films became more violent and included nudity.
American Grindhouse discusses and shows clips from nudist-camp films, juvenile-delinquent movies and horror films. It became a totally new ballgame in 1963 when Lewis, who had previously made nudist-camp films, directed two landmark grindhouse features: Scum of the Earth! a “roughie” sexually-violent film, and Blood Feast, an incredibly terrible, but even more incredibly gory and violent, movie. While both were successful, the latter was the start of what is known as “splatter films,” primarily shown in drive-ins in the South, that turned huge profits.
Don’t bother with plots, and it’s too kind to say the acting is awful. The movies, in color (of course!), featured tons of violence, such as amputations and graphic murders, and more blood than you could imagine.
Not to be outdone, those making nude films also went much further in the 1960s than in previous decades. They even had names, such as the nudie-cutie (“erotic” films that featured naked women that no longer had them at nudist camps), the previously mentioned roughies (in which women were subjected to violent sex acts), and women-in-prison movies.
American Grindhouse also spends time, though not enough, on biker films, beach flicks and blaxploitation, and, strangely, too much time on something known as Nazisploitation, which apparently existed in the mid-1970s and featured women dressed in Nazi outfits – at least for a little bit before they got naked – brutally beating other women into bloody naked messes.
So what killed grindhouse/exploitation films?
There are several factors. First, the elimination of the Hays Code in 1968 allowed mainstream studios to make violent films that had real plots and real budgets, such as Bonnie and Clyde, and Jaws. The quality of those films was light-years better than what audiences were watching from the low-rent studios.
Second, sex became much more mainstream in the early 1970s with the rise of porno films. Again, not much on plot, but the sex in films like Deep Throat and the Devil in Mrs. Jones was more hardcore and surprisingly, these movies were of better quality. The theatrical hardcore sex film was killed for good with the rise of VHS and video, which enabled producers to market their wares straight to video and the viewing home.
While American Grindhouse ignores foreign films, they also played a role in the death of American exploitation movies. Because European censorship was vastly different from that of 1950s and early ‘60s America and allowed for occasional nudity and avant-garde subject matter, quality foreign films often had to play in grindhouses or what were called “art theaters.” Quality and compelling films, particularly from France and Italy, raised the bar on movie-making, and it was considered high-brow to watch a decadent foreign film in the name of culture.
The death of drive-in movie theaters also played a role in killing exploitation films, as did "Midnight Shows" at mainstream theaters.
American Grindhouse does a solid job of giving the viewer an overview of the various kinds of exploitation films. It also doesn’t pull any punches. There’s a large amount of nudity and violence in this documentary. But that is what exploitation films are all about.
(A special thanks to Ed Garea for his contributions to this article.)