Film RadarFilm Radar


advertise with Film Radar
Karie (site owner) Written by Karie (site owner)
Jan. 11, 2005 | 10:38 PM

Email Print

Grindhouse Diary

... from those wonderful people out there in the dark.
FILMRADAR presents a series of thoughts and essays by esteemed members of the film community.

GRINDHOUSE DIARY by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
I’m an avowed grindhouse junkie. In the late seventies, I would climb the trees that outlined the local Texas drive-ins I lived near in order to watch the cinematic swill that would ooze from the gigantic screens. Silently, for me, as I wasn’t equipped with an AM radio. I wasn’t as smart as I should have been. Since then, I’ve kind of chased this sort of film down as it represents for me a time and place in cinema which will never exist again, but it’s not just nostalgia. I’ve always felt these films are underappreciated. Many of them are crap, but a surprising number are great works of art, and most have moments at least that leave indelible marks on your memory. That’s more than can be said of most big budget mainstream movies, if you ask me. Beside the movies themselves, there is the culture of grindhouse cinema. They’re movie lovers with unabashedness and lack of pretense and etiquette, but that’s totally appropriate for these movies. They’re meant to affect the audience on a purely visceral level. So if you’re sitting in the audience bored, annoyed or freaked out, you’re gonna say so. Thankfully, that’s pretty much who showed up at the Vine Theatre in Hollywood recently for the Shock-A-Rama-A-Go-Go Festival. It was a showcase of grind house cinema. Most of the movies were from the era of grind house (roughly the seventies) and some were modern day exploitation. That basically now means some movie you’ll see on cable or video only. Also included were several music and burlesque acts. The festival/marathon lasted from Friday evening at 7:00 until early morning on Sunday. Attendees were invited to bring sleeping bags and be cool about sneaking booze in. Appropriately, there were people with sleeping bags and carefully smuggled alcohol. What follows is my diary, not a comprehensive account of all that happened. I saw things others didn’t and missed chunks of time along the way. I didn’t move into the Vine for the weekend, but I saw more than most.
Though the doors opened at 7:00 and the first movie (Flesh For the Beast) premiered at 7:30, I chose to wait until 9:00, when Ilsa: Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheicks was set to roll. I have a warm spot in my heart for all the wacky exploits of this Aryan goddess played by the busty and lusty Dyanne Thorne as seen in three legitimate and one illegitimate feature films featuring the Nazi dominatrix. My luck was starting well when I met the director of the three legal Ilsa movies. Don Edmonds walked up as I was standing at the table selling cult DVDs of the infamous schlock director, Ted V. Mikels. The man sitting behind the fold-out banquet table selling these DVDs? Ted V. Mikels. The cult movie world is an odd, sometimes sad place. So after chatting up Edmonds about TV directors who moved to cinematic exploitation, I settled down to watch the man’s work on the big screen. It’s less hate-filled exploitation than the first in the series. It’s more about fun displays of gratuitous nudity and wacky violence than about grotesque images of depravity. Following the directions of the organizers on their website, I had smuggled my liquor (Jameson’s Whiskey) successfully in a Jansport backpack. The Ilsa movie was followed by two punk bands, Street Trash and Penis Flytrap. After two raucous sets, we began the Asian Invasion part of the program. First up was Versus, a gore-soaked zombie/samurai epic. It’s a highly accomplished low-budget action fest which never slows down for an instant. It also doesn’t make a lot of sense or have much of a point beyond showing off its many effects. Fun for a while, it eventually wears thin. By this time, the crowd for the night was settled in. Looking around, it seemed many if not most people had come alone, which probably accounted for the lack of hollering at the screen. Such behavior is usually committed by those in small, rowdy groups, but there were friends who had decided to indulge in this weekend of schlock together.

The next movie was a truly great one which will probably never get a legitimate theatrical release in this country due to the extreme subject matter. It’s the late great Kinji Fukasaku’s final film. Battle Royale has been described as an inarguably great film by Quentin Tarantino and I must say I agree. The magnificent bored malevolence of “Beat” Takeshi begins the film as he tells a group of high school aged kids what will happen this year. They’ve been taken to an island where they are simply ordered to kill each other until only one survives. What transpires is a film of shocking violence, profound sadness and an understanding of humanity versus a cynical society that makes this not only a successful film but an important one as well. Unfortunately because of our current political climate, it doesn’t seem like Battle Royale has a prayer of being released here any time soon. Though I was lucky enough to have seen it theatrically in London, it was a real treat to see it again. That is all but the last half hour. That’s when two girls who had been sitting behind me a couple of rows brought their blanket to the front of the stage to lie down. I was the only person in the front row and I had a singular view of what was going on. They lay down and proceeded to make out for half hour. Lit only by the light of the screen and with their clothes on, I found what was going on directly in front of me to be even more compelling than the great filmmaker’s cinematic landmark. After their extensive goodnight make-out session, the third girlfriend lay down next to the first two and they all fell into a presumably restful slumber. Not much could hope to follow all that and indeed what came next didn’t. Eaten Alive is the lesser of Ruggerio Deodato’s cannibal movies. Zombie Holocaust is a below average err…zombie movie by Umberto Lenzi. Glen or Glenda is the most personal and probably most interesting of Ed Wood’s inept oeuvre, but I’ve seen it countless times. Jean Rollin has never made any movie that moved me even a little, so skipping his Two Orphan Vampires was easy. These movies were the reasons I went home for five hours rather than sleeping on the floor of The Vine.

I arrived back at the theater in the morning in time to see Teenage Tupelo, an homage/parody of Juvenile Delinquent and Elvis movies. Director John Michael McCarthy is influenced by JD movies the way Kill Bill shows Quentin Tarantino is obsessed with Shaw Brothers movies. It’s funny, dirty and clearly the cast is having a great time. Photographed in black and white, it still is able to remain sleazy and somehow classic at the same time. Beware the live birth scene inserted in the last reel. It was quite a sight at breakfast time. Fear of a Limp Planet was next. I’m pretty sure the fact that the organizers of the event were the folks behind this movie has everything to do with why it was screened. It has almost no reason to be included otherwise. It’s a self-indulgent, amateurishly shot on video project which is always funny to those who were there and a waste of time for all others. Halfway through, I went out for piece of chicken at Popeye’s. When I came back, nothing had changed for the better. But you know what? The Shock-O-Rama-A-Go-Go fest is so great, I think these guys are entitled to show their work whether or not it’s kinda crappy. Oh, the plot… It has something to do with a coalition of vampire fetish porno actors who do battle with Republicans. Not very good, but sleazy, so it sort of belongs in this lineup.
I was excited to see Blood Gnome, which made its world premiere next. Not because killer garden gnomes hold a fascination for me, but because Julie Strain was a co-star and would be at the screening. Years ago, I had worked with Julie on a film called St. Patrick’s Day, which was Julie’s attempt at a mainstream, no-nudity role. It wasn’t terribly successful and Julie was back to doing what she may do better than act: take off her clothes. Julie’s a warm and funny person though, and I was eager to make contact with her. She was easy to find in the back row because she was cheerleading for the movie before it even began. So I went from the front row to the back and we greeted each other warmly. I was introduced to Julie’s sister Lizzie and invited to watch with them. The movie was amusing, but not so much that Julie and I couldn’t crack a few jokes and catch up a bit. Blood Gnome is a fairly silly exercise in lukewarm exploitation but more professional than Fear of a Limp Planet. You won’t see this killer gnome in another theater, but perhaps it will be spotted on a couple of video store shelves.
The next movie had me shaking my head in disbelief from the beginning and by the end, my neck was sore. Death Bed: The Bed That Eats is the actual title of this nearly forgotten oddity from the mid-seventies. Shot on a budget that didn’t allow for much of it to be shot with sync sound, this gonzo horror flick may or may not be meant to be taken seriously. It will have you bewildered. When a victim lies down on the titular bed, yellow foam comes up through the mattress and eats either the victim or perhaps the food and wine that the person brings to bed. The bed not only eats people with the magic foam, it also belches and chews loudly! Though that may make it sound like a comedy, I’m not so sure. Most of it is played completely straight and with a tone of low-rent dread that usually accompanies a horror movie. Most of the characters speak to themselves in voice over so the scenes can be shot without sound, saving a ton of money. If I didn’t know better, I’d say it was a horror movie as Doris Wishman would’ve directed it. Death Bed: The Bed That Eats has been inexplicably released on DVD. I encourage people to see it simply for the experience of it.
Next, we had a perfect example of a grind house classic. Frank Henenlotter’s Basket Case is not just a successful exploitation movie. It’s clever, gleefully gory and incredibly well-written with more interesting and varied secondary characters than most movies with twenty times its budget. It tells the tale of an amiable young man and his formerly attached twin, Bilal, who lives in a basket his brother carries with him. They’ve come to the Times Square area to track down and get revenge on the doctors responsible for separating the two boys years ago. This one is a winner from the beginning. The use of real NYC locations is brilliant, capturing a time and place as well as any documentary. The script is always funny but without sacrificing any of the horror elements. It’s truly fun and scary. Not like Scream at all.
Now it was time for Ted V. Mikels to make his onstage appearance. He’d been around for most of the festival out in the lobby selling copies of his DVDs and posing for pictures; his trademark handlebar mustache photogenic as usual. The movie was The Doll Squad, a movie known primarily because of its superficial resemblance to Charlie’s Angels, which premiered a couple of years later. The evidence of plagiarism is pretty thin. Both are about a gang of good looking women who fight crime using athleticism and feminine wiles, and the smart one in both is named Sabrina. Predictably, when introducing the film, Mikels mentioned this and implied that Aaron Spelling has him to thank for the franchise. As bad as Charlie’s Angels was, this is far worse. So if Spelling did rip it off, he certainly improved on it. The Doll Squad is a super-low budget movie that thinks it’s a huge blockbuster. Alas, it doesn’t have charm to carry the day. Instead, it just invites ridicule and lies limp. Fans of stock footage, cringe-worthy dialogue and cheesy 70s decor and style might find some worth. I hit my Jameson’s bottle more during this movie than most.

The real fun of the evening came next and it wasn’t even a movie. One of the great things about the Shock-o-Rama-a-Go-Go Festival is that it wasn’t just trash flicks. There were performances both nights. The last night was to feature a burlesque show. Not strippers and poles and dollar stuffed G-strings. These women were old-fashioned tease to please performers. The act of real burlesque is a talent only a select few women possess. It’s not as easy as taking off your clothes. The eroticism is at a heightened level and most of the women are truly talented dancers. The emcee was Mistress Persephone, an attractive, if surly dominatrix. She first had a couple of us up on stage to answer a trivia question. “What was the color of the nighty worn by Tura Satana in The Astro-Zombies?” I happened to win this contest with my correct answer, pink. Soon after this, she antagonized some in the audience. Many of us thought it was part of the act that she picked a fight with a heckler. She then dared the guy to come up on stage and say his peace to her face, which he did. What he had to say is not the kind of thing most women who are typically worshipped are used to hearing. After that uncomfortable confrontation, Mistress Persephone wasn’t seen again that night. Her duties were taken over, quite ably, by the woman who’d been dressed as a scullery maid and was cleaning up after the dancers.
Burlesque was interpreted in very different ways by the likes of Slymenstra Hymen of G.W.A.R. and the extremely sexy duo The Fishnet Floozies. The most traditional and rewarding show was put on by Miss Exotic World of 2002 Kitten DeVille, a statuesque and radiantly beautiful blond who had a full command of the stage and all the attention in the theater. Dame Darcy showed up with a guitarist to accompany her in a selection of sea shantys. Her homemade pirate maiden dress and great feel for the material made for an unexpectedly satisfying set. Closing out the musical portion of the night was Nora Keyes. I don’t know how to describe her act, exactly. She put a harpsichord between two chairs and played the instrument while singing in a way that resembles primal scream therapy more than anything else. However, I don’t mean for that to sound critical, because I did love it even if I don’t at all understand it. She is definitely performing in a unique and startling way. I’d like to see her again. I was tired by now and felt that things had peaked. Because of this, I skipped watching Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, which I’ve seen many times. It’s the only studio film Russ Meyer made that didn’t completely suck. Written by critic Roger Ebert, it is a loopy and twisted sex, drugs and rock-n-roll epic which deserves its glowing reputation, but tonight, I felt it would be somehow anti-climactic… I stumbled bleary eyed into the late night on Hollywood Boulevard.
I had, for only $15, enjoyed a weekend of schlock, shock and exhibitionism that satisfied me on several levels. I have to thank the organizers at Anxiety Films and promise myself to show up every time another one happens. Let’s hope it’s soon. Hollywood deserves such ballyhoo.