Any regular readers of this here webbity page can probably tell that I love watching B movies, cult movies, and other such cinematic oddities. I love the strange and fantastical, and many of my favorite movies are the ones that show me things that I have never seen or even imagined before. As an extension of that, I also love watching documentaries about such films. After watching them, I always end up with huge lists of movies I want to check out.
Elijah Drenner's documentary American Grindhouse is basically a complete history of exploitation movies, going back all the way to the dawn of cinema. It's highly informative, demonstrating through footage and interviews with experts, fans, and participants in the genre, how the societal mindset of each era was reflected in the usually cheap, often seedy films that played in the dingier, more rundown theaters across America.
I learned a lot, and perhaps saw some things that I can't unsee, such as a live birth (surprisingly, I handled it well), and footage from Tod Browning's Freaks, which I always kind of avoided, because that kind of stuff always makes me sad (it still made me sad).
I loved the section of the film about the films of the 1950's. I thought it was hilarious that there was an entire genre of Nudist Camp movies, just showing naked people frolicking and playing volleyball and stuff. That's such a strange, sexless way to sell sex that it could only have come from the repressed 1950's, you know?
The sixties are when things started to get pretty sick, which also makes sense because society was getting pretty sick, too. You know, turbulent times, and stuff. That's when the nudie movies got violent, and the horror movies got gory. I liked learning about Herschell Gordon Lewis, AKA the Godfather of Gore, who most of you might know from the scene about him in Juno. I'm not sure if I want to see his movies, but the guy was a trailblazer, taking horror movies to the over the top, Grand Guignol level.
A great debt is also owed to Roger Corman, who I have a particular appreciation for. He directed and produced so many independent movies, and found so many major movie talents in the process, that you could make an entire movie just on him. (What? They already have? I plan on watching that one too!) He was always able to tap into what the youth were looking for and, well, exploit it.
Eventually, in no small part due to Corman and the generation of talent he discovered and mentored (Scorsese, Nicholson, Dante, Demme, the list goes on...), exploitation movies became the mainstream blockbusters that we go and see today. Which is exactly why knowing this history should be important to anyone who loves the movies.
I seriously love documentaries like this. I always end up with huge lists of movies I want to see after I watch them. Did I mention it was narrated by Robert Forster? Pretty cool, right? Just be warned if you watch it: lots of nudity, lots of gore. Put the kids to bed!
Anyway, if you watch American Grindhouse and are still interested in learning about movies like this, might I direct your attention to the fantastic documentaries of Mark Hartley? Instead of the broad picture that American Grindhouse paints, Hartley narrows his focus to specific global movements or subgenres and digs deep. Not Quite Hollywood covers the Australian "Ozsploitation" movement, and Machete Maidens Unleashed covers Corman's exploits making movies on the cheap in the Phillipines in the 70's. Fascinating, educational and funny stuff. All three of these movies are on Netflix Instant (if you're in America, at least).