Monday, March 12, 2007

Welcome to the Grindhouse

Yet another reason to live in L.A…

THE LOS ANGELES GRINDHOUSE FESTIVAL 2007 at the New Beverly Theater, hosted by Quentin Tarantino!

The festival – a celebration of exploitation cinema and a hype-machine for Tarantino’s new movie Grindhouse (due out on April 6th) – kicked off last week with a double feature of The Mack and The Chinese Mack. Proudly flaunting its eclecticism, the festival continued with a double feature of Italian crime films (Machine Gun McCain and Wipeout) and a T&A triple feature over the weekend (The Van, Pick-up Summer, and Summer Camp). We made it to the theater yesterday for the premiere of a “southern-fried carnage” double-feature: Rolling Thunder and The Town that Dreaded Sundown. Neither of these films is currently available on DVD, but I had seen them both on video a few years back.

When I was 14 or 15 years old, I found a dusty VHS copy of Rolling Thunder on the shelves at a mom-and-pop video store in Crozet, Virginia. During the summers, my best friend Ben and I used to ride our bikes to the store every Monday, when all rentals were 50 cents, and pick out 7 movies each. As you might imagine, with rental habits like this, we were always searching for something different and, at 50 cents a pop, we were willing to take chances on films we’d never heard of. We picked up a lot of movies based purely on the cover art… and exploitation films of the 1970s undoubtedly had the best cover art. (I still remember the day we discovered The Texas Chainsaw Massacre… not to mention Women’s Penitentiary.) That was my introduction to exploitation cinema – which, for the uninitiated, might be defined as “a genre of films that typically sacrifice the traditional notions of artistic merit for a more sensationalistic display, often featuring excessive sex, violence, and gore” (Wikipedia). Blaxploitation, sexploitation, women in prison, chop-sake, outlaw bikers, zombies, cannibals, Faces of Death, you name it… We watched everything and anything.

I imagine that most members of my generation who became interested in exploitation cinema went through the same process I did. Once I had exhausted the easy access options, I researched books and magazines to find new titles, then scoured other mom-and-pop video stores and searched late-night cable TV listings for the ones I wanted to see. It was always exciting to run across an old gem in some out-of-the-way video store, or in a bargain bin at the local Wal-Mart (where I found The Town that Dreaded Sundown, along with Day of the Triffids). When I found a copy of Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Blood Feast at a video store off of Route 33 in Harrisonburg, Virginia, I wanted to take it up to the clerk and shout: “Do you realize what you have here?!”

USA’s “Up All Night” and (later) TNT’s “MonsterVision” occasionally played a few rarities, though they were always depressingly truncated. But within a few years, these movies disappeared from late night TV, and video stores started drying up as the DVD format took over. For older fans of the grindhouse cinema, it must have seemed like these films were dying a second death. For a few years, things looked bleak – prompting more fan books and magazines, to champion overlooked films. Sleazoid Express remains the definitive grindhouse guide, and there are now countless books on cult cinema, Eurotrash, and filmmakers like David F. Friedman, Herschell Gordon Lewis, Russ Meyer and John Waters. Eventually, DVD distributors like Anchor Bay, Something Weird, and Blue Underground realized that there was a new market for the films. While many fan favorites are now available on DVD, a few of them are still missing in action… except at the New Beverly.

The New Beverly is L.A.’s only 7-day-a-week revival movie house, and it apparently draws a pretty good crowd. Anywhere else, a festival like this might only fill two or three rows. (I still remember feeling slightly embarrassed when John Waters came to my school in 1999 and only a handful of people showed up to hear him speak. I wanted to stand in the middle of campus and shout: “Do you know what we have here?!”) On Sunday, the Beverly was 3/4 full of eager fans, bathed in blood-red light. When the previews started, I suddenly felt more excited to be in a theater than I have in a long time. Rolling Thunder was preceded by glimpses at four upcoming festival films: Chinese Hercules starring Bolo Yeung (you may remember him as the villain in the Jean Claude Van Damme vehicle Bloodsport… or not), the gut-munching giallo film Autopsy (which I confess I haven’t seen… Ben, is it worth it?), Roger Vadim’s Pretty Maids All in a Row (written by “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry), and “the funniest adult cartoon ever” Tarzoon: Shame of the Jungle (featuring the voices of John Belushi, Christopher Guest, and Bill Murray).

The lights came up and went down again, and then the opening verse of the Denny Brooks ballad “San Antone” crackled out of the speakers, announcing the start of the feature presentation. Rolling Thunder is allegedly one of Quentin Tarantino’s all-time favorite revenge movies. He even named his now-defunct distribution company after it. The film was written by Paul Schrader, post-Taxi Driver and pre-Raging Bull, and stars William Devane and Tommy Lee Jones as recently released Vietnam POW’s. It’s a shame that this film isn’t more readily available, because the performances and characterization can easily compete with the best New Hollywood films of the 1970s. Watching that cracked and faded print, it was not hard to imagine the tensions of the time and place in which the film was made - before the country had come to terms with the Vietnam War. At one point, sexpot Linda Haynes asks the icy William Devane, “Why do I get stuck with the crazy men?” Devane replies, flatly, “Because that’s the only kind left.”

The film was followed by vintage previews for several other memorable revenge films: Straw Dogs, Death Wish, Fighting Mad (an early Jonathan Demme film starring Peter Fonda) and Trackdown, starring Jim Calhoun. I haven’t seen Trackdown, but the preview reminded me of another Paul Shrader film, Hardcore, in which George C. Scott goes looking for his daughter in Los Angeles – only to find that she has been kidnapped by ruthless pornographers.

The previews kept coming – for the shockingly lurid serial killer film The Centerfold Girls, the more cautious true crime drama The Boston Strangler (legitimized by the presence of Henry Fonda and Tony Curtis), and a trio of trailers for films by Charles B. Pierce. I can’t claim to know much about Pierce, beyond his infamous horror films The Legend of Boggy Creek and The Town that Dreaded Sundown. It seems he was a pioneer of mockumentaries in multiple genres. We saw previews for Winterhawk, Greyeagle, and The Evictors (with a young Jessica Harper... what ever happened to her?) – all featuring the same monotone narrator who constantly interrupts The Town that Dreaded Sundown, to remind us that we are watching A TRUE STORY.

The Town that Dreaded Sundown is a fictionalized account of the Texarkana Moonlight Murders in the 1940s, and has been cited as a source of inspiration for slasher films like Halloween and Friday the 13th. The killer wears a white sack over his head and uses a wide variety of murder weapons (including a trombone!), and there are constant shots of the killer’s feet – all of which reminded me of early Friday the 13th films. There were also a few serial killer POV shots – a la Halloween. But, stylistically, those films owe more to Mario Bava’s Twitch of the Death Nerve and Bob Clark’s Black Christmas – both of which are easier to sit through than The Town that Dreaded Sundown.

Pierce’s film is tiresomely schizophrenic. Every time it starts to build a little momentum, the narrative falls back into the hands of the obnoxious narrator, which made me feel like I was watching an episode of “The FBI Files.” There are no real attempts at characterization, unless you count the comic relief segments with a goofy patrolman named “Spark Plug” (played by the director himself). These sequences are even more unbearable than the Barney Fife-type sketches in Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left – another film that has more to recommend it.

There were quite a few groans in the audience during the second feature, but it still warranted applause at the end. Exploitation fans, after all, have learned to sit through a lot of uneven movies in their search for something different. When we left the theater, there was a long line of moviegoers waiting for admittance to the next showing. I expect it will be like that all month.

The Los Angeles Grindhouse Festival continues through the end of April. You can view the schedule on the official website for the New Beverly, or on their MySpace page.

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