This post was written in contemplation of the Juxtaposition Blogathon at Pussy Goes Grrr.
In 2008 documentarian Mark Hartley scored an unanticipated film festival hit with Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!, an examination of obscure Australian exploitation movies of the 70s and 80s. (Striking while the iron was hot, Hartley rolled out a spiritual sequel of sorts with Machete Maidens Unleashed!, which braved the even more bizarre jungle of Filipino exploitation cinema). 2009 saw another surprise critical success in Best Worst Movie, the story of the disastrous making, and triumphant cult legacy, of the ultra-ridiculous vegetarian-goblin horror movie Troll II, which managed to score an astonishing 95% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer. Whatever the reason (maybe its the flowering of seeds planted by Quentin Tarantino), at this moment in time mainstream critics seem eager to recognize, examine, and even embrace the pleasures of schlock. Since the last horror/exploitation doc cycle—the duo of The American Nightmare (2000) and Mau Mau Sex Sex (2001)—came about a decade ago, it appears the time is ripe for another down-home survey of the dark and shady sides of American cinema.
The thesis of Nightmares in Red, White and Blue, the 2009 examination of the American horror film, is that particular social conditions and historical anxieties shape the nature of the shock genre from decade to decade. Brian Yuzna asserts that the variety of disfigured, limbless freaks Lon Chaney specialized in playing in the twenties were inspired by the horrors of World War I and the sights of returning veterans maimed by modern munitions. The viewpoint that American horror is strictly linked to American angst breaks down fairly early in the analysis, however, as the documentarians are forced to acknowledge that it was German Expressionism, exotic European folktales about nosferatu and werewolves, and immigrants like cinematographer/director Karl Freund, director Edgar G.Ulmer, and actors Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff that were mostly responsible for American horror’s first great boom in the 1930s. The doc’s decision to focus solely on American productions helps limit Nightmares‘ dauntingly broad subject, but the parochialism inevitably leads to some distortions; because there’s no discussion of Mario Bava and his seminal gloved-killer giallos like Blood and Black Lace (1964) and Twitch of the Death Nerve (1971), the slasher film appears to spontaneously arise in the 1980s U.S. as a purely American invention. There are times when the doc’s insights approach the profound (the observation that Jason Vorhees is always associated with the forces of nature, and may represent God’s judgment on a licentious world). At other times, the theories are more peculiar (e.g., the talking head who suggests Ronald Reagan resembles Freddy Krueger, because they both prey on the next generation—Freddy by killing them off in their dreams, and Reagan by running up the national debt. I think he may be
onto on something). But in truth, any pretensions the Nightmares might have to novel analysis or academic rigor are beside the point. There is so much ground to cover—-a centuries worth of clips from over 200 features are shown!—that any insights must be clipped to soundbite length, making the doc more a parade of trivia (King Kong was Hitler’s favorite movie!) than a legitimate essay on how pop culture artifacts reveal cultural preoccupations. The film works exquisitely well, however, as a trip down repressed-memory lane. It’s a chance to revisit favorite shock clips (Linda Blair’s head-spinning and pea-soup spitting) and to check out gruesome teasers for flicks that might have slipped your attention. It’s hard to imagine non-horror fans tuning in to this, and Nightmares displays clear elements of fanservice (often beautifully arranged, as when the entire Friday the 13th series is cleverly compressed into a 90 second montage of beer, boobs and bloody punishment). Essentially, this patriotic terror tour is inessential—more a refresher than a primer—but still tremendous fun for fright fanatics.
Since it covers the most influential, and therefore the most mainstream, films in the horror genre, the more surreal breed of horror films lurk on the margins of this already marginal genre. We do see footage from, and sometimes even get brief comments on, Certifed Weird films like Carnival of Souls, Eraserhead, Phantasm, Evil Dead II, Silent Hill, and Pan’s Labyrinth, along with a few films that are not yet on the List but are destined to make it.
Nightmares in Red, White and Blue: The Evolution of the American Horror Movie (2009). Dir. Andrew Monument. Featuring Lance Henriksen (narrator), John Carpenter, Joe Dante, Larry Cohen, George A. Romero, Roger Corman, Brian Yuzna (interviewees)
In contrast to Nightmares, which faced the challenge of trying to encapsulate a sprawling genre in a manageable 96 minutes, American Grindhouse covers its shallower subject in more depth (if that makes sense). No one claims exploitation movies evolved over decades to mirror Americans changing desires. Men did not suddenly become interested in seeing naked women with the advent of the nudist movies of the 1950s. Instead, the story of exploitation movies tracks the history of American film censorship, and tells the tale of the brave and venal hucksters who invented ways to feed forbidden sights to hungry eyes. Along the way they produced a popular underground transgressive cinema that was deliberately outrageous, and frequently bizarre. The Hays production code tied Hollywood’s hands with respect to depicting nudity, white slavery, premarital sex, drug abuse, and a horde of naughtily entertaining adult subjects, but in doing so it created a market for showmen like Dwain Esper, Dave Friedman, Kroger Babb, and “the Forty Thieves,” who could bypass the studio system and take spectacles like Freaks and the birth-of-a-baby epic Mom and Dad directly to the people. Later, when the Production Code broke down and the studios replaced it with the MPAA rating system, the exploitationeers were able to release movies unrated, or with self-imposed “X” or “adults only” ratings that allowed them to offer something the big boys couldn’t (although the venues they could show these flicks were limited—thus the “grindhouse,” the cheap 24-hour exploitation theater that becomes a virtual character of its own in the doc). As Hollywood became bolder, treating previously verboten subjects like promiscuity (Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice) and opiate addiction (The Man with the Golden Arm), the Thieves were forced to further extremes, focusing the one subject that still scared the studios—sex—in a big way. Grindhouse traces the development of the American sexploitation film from the burlesque movie to the nudist picture to the “nudie cuties” to the “roughie,” and finally to the hardcore sex film. Other disreputable genres touched on include the VD film, teensploitation (juvenile delinquent movies, beach pictures, biker flicks), Nazisplaoitation, the gore movies of Herschell Gordon Lewis, women-in-prison movies, and blaxploitation. Grindhouse‘s construction—background narration alternating with interviews with directors and historians, illustrated by lusty clips—is similar to Nightmares‘, but even at a brief 80 minutes, the exploitation side of the equation is covered at a more leisurely pace, with more time spent breaking down “important” individual films like Scum of the Earth and Ilsa, She Wolf of the S.S. This, along with the schematic history of the exploitation industry, which lends itself to a coherent narrative involving continuous one-upmanship, gives Grindhouse a small leg up on the more meandering tale told in Nightmares, partly compensating for the narrower appeal of the subject matter. Both films wind up being equally valuable and entertaining, so long as you have an underlying interest in sex and/or violence.
The only Certified Weird movie American Grindhouse discusses is the amazingly deranged mad scientist/metal illness/eyeball eating extravaganza Maniac (1934). We now have a certain yen, however, to check out a previously-unknown-to-us “Nazis vs. Jesus action thriller” called The Tormentors (1971).
American Grindhouse (2010). Dir. Elijah Drenner. Featuring Robert Forster (narrator), John Landis, Kim Morgan, Don Edmonds, William Lustig, Herschell Gordon Lewis, Jack Hill, Fred Olen Ray, Joe Dante, Allison Anders, David Hess (interviewees)
Nightmares in Red, White and Blue and American Grindhouse were made by different directors and crews (although Joe Dante appears as an expert in both). Each was created by the same production company, Lux Digital, accounting for the compatibility of style. The two docs are sold together or separately, and they make for an excellent evening’s double feature. Watch both and you’ll be up-to-date on the underbelly of American film with a time investment of less than three hours. Lux is currently working on yet another companion project, tentatively (we hope) titled Films of Fury: The Kung-Fu Movie Movie, scheduled for release later this year.