Since the earliest days of American cinema there has been a shadowy counterpart to the commercial mainstream: exploitation movies — pictures whose appeal lies in their sensational treatment and leering promotion of often lurid and prurient material. Pre-1960, when mainstream Hollywood worked within severe restrictions on content, exploitation movies offered audiences titillating glimpses of the deliciously taboo, usually under the guise of being some sort of instructional cautionary against the very subject matter being exploited i.e. sex in “hygiene” movies like The Road to Ruin (1934), drugs in anti-drug movies like Tell Your Children (1936, re-released in the 1960s/70s as camp classic Reefer Madness), and gambling in the anti-vice Gambling with Souls (1936).
By the 1950s, as the studios entered their long post-war decline, downscale producers launched a new vein of exploitation moviemaking, churning out low-budget thrillers (mostly sci fi and horror) aimed squarely at the burgeoning youth audience. Again, the movies were cheap, the stories ritualistically formulaic, and the thrills purely visceral and often gimmicky. Writer/director/producer William Castle, for example — one of the most colorful of the 1950s low-budget showmen — tickled youth audiences with such gimmicks as “Emergo” in his feature The House on Haunted Hill (1959): a plastic skeleton flying across the theater on a wire over the heads of screaming teens. For his 1959 The Tingler, a number of auditorium seats received mild electric shocks every time the eponymous creature appeared on screen.
The heroes of these cheaply ground-out thrillers were often misunderstood youths, an archetype with automatic appeal for their intended teen audience. Young heroes saved the world from alien invaders in Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957), from an all-devouring pile of goo in The Blob (1958), from an oversized lizard in The Giant Gila Monster (1959). There were misunderstood teenaged aliens (I Married a Monster from Outer Space, 1958), misunderstood teenaged cavemen (Teenage Caveman, 1958), misunderstood teenaged monsters (I Was a Teenage Werewolf, (1957), and so on and so forth ad nauseum.
With the 1960s, exploitation movies moved into yet another cycle. Most of the major studios were in dire financial straits, and content restrictions – which had been gradually easing for years – almost completely collapsed. Desperate to pull viewers away from their TV sets, the sex in movies became raunchier, the violence bloodier, and once-taboo subjects were now considered legitimate subjects for exploration (and exploitation). Nowhere was the sex raunchier, the violence bloodier, or the subject matter more outré than in exploitation movies.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the exploitation arena boasted its own peculiar array of genres, a canon including “sexploitation,” “blaxploitation,” “splatter” and “chop-socky” movies. Whatever the genre, they were invariably cheap – often made for just a few thousand dollars – and skated along (and often teetered over) the edge of absurdity and stomach-turning grotesqueness.
In some cases, exploitation genres took their cue from mainstream hits as was the case with blaxploitation movies. The success of upscale, racially-charged releases like murder mystery In the Heat of the Night and comedy Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (both 1967) alerted Hollywood to a long-underserved urban black audience starved for entertainment expressly designed for the black audience, preferably made by black filmmakers, and which – even if in lightweight or sensational fashion – somehow reflected the black experience. The exploitability of the situation was further confirmed by the success with black audiences of the seriocomic Watermelon Man (1970), the uncompromising and angrily defiant Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), and the first black-oriented thriller to come from a major Hollywood studio (MGM), Shaft (1971), with a script from The French Connection scribe Ernest Tidyman, and directed by noted black photojournalist Gordon Parks.
Quick to capitalize on this emerging opportunity, Hollywood began sausaging out a steady stream of what were soon dubbed “blaxploitation” movies. While a few of these urban thrillers – i.e. Across 110th Street (1972), Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970), Super Fly (1972) — tried, at least in some measure, to earnestly reflect identifiable aspects of the lives of their intended audience, as a rule blaxploitation movies were produced on the cheap and looked it, with cartoonish storytelling interrupted at regular intervals by major doses of bloody violence.
The biggest blocs of blaxploitation films were knock-offs of mainstream horror forms tailored for black audiences – Blacula (1972), Blackenstein (1973), Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde (1976), The Exorcist clone Abby (1974) — and formulaic, shoot-‘em-up crime stories like Black Caesar (1973), Slaughter (1972), Hammer (1972), Black Mama White Mama (1972), Coffy (1973), Gordon’s War (1973), Cleopatra Jones (1973), Black Godfather (1974), The Mack (1973), Trouble Man (1972), Dolemite (1975), Foxy Brown (1974), Hell Up in Harlem (1973), Truck Turner (1974), Three the Hard Way (1974), Friday Foster (1975).
Another low-end 1970s fad kicked off by a breakout hit were rural-set thrillers spinning off from the success of Billy Jack (1971). Made for a meager $800,000, this independently-produced back-country story of a Vietnam vet espousing peace while karate-chopping his way through bigots and rednecks went on to bring in an eye-popping $35 million, in the process inaugurating a wave of similarly simplistic actioners set in the American south and southwest.
Again, here was a genre boasting a few more-polished studio efforts like White Lightning (1973), Smokey and the Bandit (1977), and Convoy (1977), but more typically, movies looking to exploit the so-called “bubba” market – many of which received only regional releases – were low-budget quickies flogging the same few formulas to death: either a “good ol’ boy” of a hero looking to mind his own business (or one engaged in light criminality) is impressed, persuaded, or otherwise incented into combating a corrupt establishment (White Line Fever , Vigilante Force , The Black Oak Conspiracy , A Small Town in Texas , Macon County Line , Jackson County Jail , Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry , High Ballin’ , Smokey Bites the Dust , Breaker! Breaker! , Thunder and Lightning ), or, the protagonist is involved in impish but more-or-less innocent fun tweaking a repressive, sometimes corrupt law enforcement establishment (Eat My Dust , The Great Smokey Roadblock ).
The regional grass roots appeal of these “redneck” movies was never better illustrated than with Walking Tall (1973). Based on the true story of Tennessee sheriff Buford Pusser, Walking Tall was made for a modest $500,000 with minor stars (Joe Don Baker played the lead), a long-time B-list director (Phil Karlson), and released initially with little media support. Next to the hamfisted moralizing and Constitutional transgressions of Baker’s Sheriff Pusser, Dirty Harry Callahan’s frequent legal oversteps pale by comparison: Baker waylays villains with a massive club, tortures a confession out of a corrupt deputy with a beating and a threat to blow the man up, and responds to a demand to produce a search warrant with, “I keep it in my shoe!” before kicking in a door. Yet, in one southern city alone, the movie played for 21 straight weeks at a downtown theater before continuing for another six weeks at a second venue. Ultimately, Walking Tall grossed a commanding $23 million nation-wide.
While some exploitation genres keyed off mainstream successes, others belonged almost wholly to the exploitation circuit. There were the stomach-churning gore fests – dubbed “splatter” movies – like Blood Feast (1963), The Driller Killer (1979) and Maniac (1980); and “sexploitation” films like Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965), Caged Heat (1974), and Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (1975), which combined a lurid, often fetishistic eroticism with overdone violence.
The exploitation circuit also cornered the market on martial arts films during a 1970s explosion in the genre’s popularity. While there were occasional upscale American-produced forays into the martial arts scene, like Enter the Dragon (1973) and Circle of Iron (1979), the American market for “chop-socky” movies was, for the most part, strictly downscale, dominated by foreign imports from two Hong Kong-based companies, The Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest.
As a rule, the product from either company was indistinguishable from the other. Their films were all made cheaply, quickly, with the flimsiest of plots, horrendous dubbing, featuring sadistic violence and blood spilled by the bucketful, and were packed with the most outrageous renditions of Asian hand-to-hand combat. Just to name a few: The Street Fighter (1974), Master of the Flying Guillotine (1975), Fist of Fear, Touch of Death (1977), Fists of Fury (1980), Chinese Connection (1973), Return of the Dragon (1973), The Chinatown Kid (1978).
Whatever the genre, the key to the exploitation market was cost. Most exploitation movies were so cheaply produced it was nearly impossible for them to lose money despite the limited distribution they usually received. Even returns any major studio would have considered microscopic were enough to keep the exploiters and their exhibitors in business.
The exhibition cornerstone for exploitation movies was the urban “grindhouse.” Despite the pornographic ring of the sobriquet, “grindhouse” simply referred to a movie house which “ground” out its fare, running movies head-to-tail without interruption or even coming attractions, from the time the auditorium doors opened until they closed usually in the wee hours of the morning…providing they closed at all. Some grindhouses remained open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Typically located in economically disadvantaged urban areas, grindhouses were often once reputable cinemas or one-time live theaters which had deteriorated along with their surrounding neighborhoods. They offered a hodge-podge of less-than-prime film entertainment at low prices. Depending on where a grindhouse was located, patrons were likely to find themselves sitting in close proximity to working prostitutes, college students taking a break from all-night cramming sessions, or junkies and the homeless looking for a cheap night’s shelter.
One of the most impressive collections of grindhouses existed in New York City’s Time Square area from the 1970s into the 1980s. One block of Manhattan’s famed 42nd Street between Eighth Avenue and Broadway was lined on both sides with nearly unbroken ranks of 24-hour porn shops, strip joints, “skin flick” theaters and grindhouses. This block of “The Deuce,” as locals dubbed 42nd Street, was, during an economically troubled time for the city, considered so much the epitome of urban physical and moral decay it was often used as the background for crime thrillers and dramas set among the demimonde i.e. Shaft, and Midnight Cowboy (1969).
Grindhouses benefited from the limited exposure movie releases had in those days before wide national releases became the norm. A grindhouse might not receive a print of a mainstream release for six months or better after the film had first hit theaters, and by that time the print might be pitted and scratched, perhaps even missing footage. Still, with the grindhouse likely the only convenient and affordable cinema in the neighborhood, it offered the one chance for area residents to see that movie – or any movie – on the big screen.
Also working for the grindhouse was the limited aftermarket-exposure movies had at the time. A major feature during the period might’ve been in theatrical exhibition anywhere from one to three years, gone through a cooling off period thereafter, then later be sold to one of the then three broadcast networks which would air it once or twice a year for a few years. Lesser features might not make it to network TV at all. After the network TV license expired (or in lieu of it), a title would be “packaged” with other titles from its studio and put into syndication with individual local stations around the country licensing the package for from five-twenty years. Since these packages were sold on a market by market basis, some markets – particularly smaller ones with few local stations, none of which might have much money to spend for movie programming – might never see any number of syndicated titles.
This preserved the value of older studio product for the grindhouse and its patrons. To give an example of how this might work for an exhibitor, one 42nd Street house capitalized on the 1973 release of Battle for the Planet of the Apes – the last entry in the original film series – by bringing back the previous four films – some of which hadn’t been seen in years — offering patrons the opportunity to, as the marquee read, “Spend the day on the Planet of the Apes.”
In fact, it was not unusual for grindhouses to pad their bills by supporting a new release with an older (and therefore, cheaper to acquire) actioner. For example, another 42nd Street grindhouse backed up its plays of new release Ben – the 1972 sequel to 1971’s horror hit, Willard – by bringing back 1969’s special effects spectacle, Krakatoa, East of Java. So that the 131-minute Krakatoa wouldn’t be a drag on the program when coupled with the 94-minute Ben, the management trimmed down the dramatic sections of Krakatoa shortening its running time and emphasizing the action elements for its thrill-hungry audience. That this also made the movie occasionally incomprehensible was of little consequence to the management or, for that matter, the grindhouse customers.
Because they were usually the last stop in the life of a mainstream release – or were sometimes skipped entirely by the major distributors – urban grindhouses were consistently hungry for product. Consequently, the bread-and-butter for most houses were exploitation films. Where there was more than one grindhouse in an area, it was not unusual for different theaters to specialize, some offering only tired prints of mainstream releases, while another might exclusively present chop-socky films, another only blood-soaked splatter titles, another solely blaxploitation pictures, and yet another specialize in cannibal films and “shockumentaries” about grotesque cultural practices around the world. Exploitation titles changed weekly, with distributors “bicycling” their small number of prints from one market to the next, booking them into individual theaters.
With the 1980s, the network of circumstances supporting the grindhouse – and its rural counterpart, the drive-in — began to disintegrate. Rising real estate values induced some owners to sell-out, while other theaters folded unable to meet rising rents and property taxes with their bargain basement offerings. Still others fell victim to urban renewal programs targeting blighted neighborhoods for razing and redevelopment. Such was the fate of the Manhattan grindhouses along The Deuce as the Times Square area was transformed through the late 1980s and 1990s from a nationally-recognized bit of urban infamy into a glittering and family-friendly tourist Mecca.
Changes in film distribution dealt the grindhouse circuit another body blow. The limited release patterns which had maintained the theatrical value of a title months after its debut gave way to national saturation releases, while the blossoming cable and home video markets kept older titles constantly exposed and easily available to the viewing public. Individual neighborhood movie houses were replaced with shopping mall multiplexes; venues where, at prices far above grindhouse rates, chop-socky flicks and other shabbily-produced exploitation movies couldn’t compete in head-to-head competition against major studio gloss and heavily-hyped blockbusters. By the 1990s, the grindhouses were gone.
The extreme nature of grindhouse movies in the 1960s/1970s was, in its left-handed way, a mark of the same changes in the domestic movie business which had produced the best-remembered films of the day. The old strictures were crumbling, and the same creative freedom producing an incredible body of high-quality and daring mainstream cinema was also responsible for the exploitation boom. Though most exploitation moviemakers may have been purely mercenary in their aims, some exploitation film fans saw in their work a blatant rejection of Hollywood homogeneity; they were movies whose very outrageousness and contrariness to acceptable norms was their attraction.
In contrast, in this age of the multiplex, wide releasing, and the blockbuster, outrage seems to have been outlawed, and the homogeneity against which the exploitation movie and its fans rebelled now reigns, not by banning the extremes of the grindhouse shockers, but by co-opting them.
Any episode of cable programmer AMC’s Walking Dead series now offers as much gore and dismemberment as the old splatter flicks of the 1960s, and mainstream releases like the Scream movies, The Watchmen (2009), Hannibal (2001), et al go much further. The Green Hornet (2010) features martial arts derring-do every bit as outrageous (if not more so) than the absurdities of vintage chop-sockies. The abnormal, the freakish, the taboo, as well as the absurd, the improbable, and the over-the-top, has become de rigueur.
It was perhaps this absorption into the mainstream which undercut Grindhouse (2007), a cinematic salute by writer/directors Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez to the seedy theaters and delightfully awful movies which had occupied so many hours of their respective youths. Tarantino and Rodriguez sought to recreate the grindhouse double bills of old, though in more polished fashion, with a tongue-in-cheek double bill of their own: faux grindhouse horror flick Death Proof (Tarantino’s contribution), and faux grindhouse sci fier Planet Terror (from Rodriguez), along with coming attractions for equally over-the-top fare produced by several guest writer/directors like Eli Roth and Rob Zombie.
But Grindhouse may have worked better as a demonstration of why the exploitation movie had died out than as a campy tribute. Despite a major promotional push by production company Dimension Films (the horror arm of The Weinstein Company), and predominantly supportive (and equally nostalgic) reviews, the movie’s earnings capped out early at just $25 million – a particular disappointment in light of the picture’s $53 million cost.
Perhaps today’s youth dominated audience – too young to remember the originals Grindhouse was referencing, too cinematically illiterate to appreciate the homage, and to inured to the kind of outrageousness which had once been, well, outrageous – didn’t get the joke.
Deathproof, Dirty Harry, Faster, Grindhouse, I Married a Monster from Outer Space, Invasion of the Saucer Men, Master of the Flying Guillotine, Midnight Cowboy, Planet Terror, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, Quentin Tarantino, Shaft, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Teenage Caveman, The Blob, The French Connection, The Green Hornet, The House on Haunted Hill, William Castle
By Bill Mesce
Bill Mesce, Jr. is a produced screenwriter and playwright, and a published author of fiction and nonfiction, including Overkill: The Rise and Fall of Thriller Cinema. He spent 27 years with pay-TV giant Home Box Office, and now teaches at several universities in his native New Jersey.