Imagine visiting a grindhouse in Times Square circa 1973. Your nostrils are immediately assaulted from the smell of Trojans liberated from their packets, boric acid, rat turds, Microbrand-X disinfectant and the quick-drying fluids unfortunately associated with the Clorox industry—not to mention good ol’ mary-go-juana. The nasty tang of the atmosphere lies thickly on your tongue all the way to the back of the throat, furred as fungus. But that ain’t no nevermind, because you got the Saturday night fever, and you’re here to have a rip-roaring time. The audience is a rowdy bunch: speed freaks let loose from the flower-power closet, soul-fro brothers in Bruce Lee garb, pimps, prostitutes, easy marks, lowlifes, high steppers, loose-lip junkies and rabid bachelors. What’s up on the screen? Squinting through the smoke and the airborne kernels flung by the hooting crowd you see a sorry bunch miming human conversation, kitchen sink dialogue shot in a depressing granny flat, the reel scorched and seamed as if edited with a cutting torch and fretsaw, the sound out of sync, the colors garish, the lighting minimal. The actors are either of two speeds: super-manic, like workers paid not wage scale but in fishscale, their performances gauged by the sheer volume and weight of their hysterics; or so wooden it’s as if these budding thespians had just been released from medical freezer bags and defrosted seconds before the production assistant brought down the clacker. The men are hunk-a-meat types with alarming sideburns and the young women, of course, are bare-breasted.

What are they talking about? Why is the beefiest man holding a prop gun? Why are the young women suddenly gleaming, as if they’d been delivered from an enormous pat of butter? What’s with the score of dueling flutes that betray a theme of innocence? Does it really matter?

Tough questions to answer. You’d have an easier time of it curing a fifteen-year old of severe acne by dumping him in a vat of salicylic acid. The best thing to do is to just give sway—and if you can’t stomach it, then walk away altogether. The features projected in a grindhouse—those seedy bygone movie palaces along the strip on 42nd street, who got their name from the exploitation flicks they crunched together in a continuous “grind” at cut-rate prices—were not known for their high budgets and effective emotional drama. The movies were notorious for their shocking and gratuitous violence, the “exploiting” of naked female bodies, preposterous storylines, and execrable dialogue that, in a weird and wonderful way, can be about as much fun as a night in Pie Town, New Mexico. To quote one of my favorite lines, spoken with a sultry urgency by Barbara Bach in Jaguar Lives! (1979): “I’m afraid the whole Middle East is in danger.” Quick, someone call Jared Kushner!

The kapow factor in these movies was always to a purpose, for the purveyors were not in it for the art but to make as much dollars using as little sense as they could. No bona fide degree-holder in cognitive science would ever last a day in the exploitation trenches, though the movie business at the time was loaded with advertising geniuses such as William Castle, who installed buzzers beneath the house seats during screenings of The Tingler (1959) just to give the audience a jolt in the tuchus whenever the signature monster made its appearance, and the originators of failed sense-oriented concepts like Smell-O-Vision (the idea was to vent odors that corresponded with the projected action) and AromaRama, culminating in John Waters’ scratch-and-sniff ingenuity deployed for his 1982 film Polyester—which he called Odorama in triumphant homage. Those were the days!

Watching 42nd Street Forever, a 5-volume series of exploitation movie trailers from the 60s, 70s, and 80s (and not an impassioned plea to award permanent tenure to the long-running Broadway extravaganza), was like taking an economy-class time machine back to those days in Sleazeville. The series, whose first volume was distributed by Synapse Films in 2005, is more than anything else a hodgepodge, a mixed bag, a veritable whirligig tour through the years of the grindhouse. Who wouldn’t want to watch a flick with a title as amazing as Samson and the Slave Queen? (1963) And check out the taglines for the blaxploitation movies Savage! (1972) and Black Samson (1973): “Stronger than Slaughter, slicker than Shaft, more super-high than Superfly!” & “He’s mean and clean and rules the scene.” Right on!

In movies as varied as The Flesh and Blood Show (1972), Werewolves on Wheels (1971), and The Crippled Masters (1979) there’s a helluva lot of sex, geysers of gore, crippled kung-fu (I’m not kidding), streaming gore, more sex, hilarious fight sequences, drip-drip-dripping gore, yet another bout of sex, and generous doses in between of the strange gyrations on platform stages by tasseled 60s girls who move to the hepped-up music like the enormous inflatable air dancers on Route 69 beneath the pennants of Reynaldo’s Used Auto. These are the films that no doubt would have incensed the Catholic League and raised a squeal of protest from your cookie-munching auntie. But after just so many promos for Swedish soft-core, convent eroticism in Italy, motorcycle horror in the American heartlands, and sheer depravity on the Thames, the trailers begin to shuttle past in a haze, and the question begs: grindhouse or shithouse?

“I think it’s the best thing since popcorn.” This from the skimpily clad bar girl, who was asked what she thought of The Pill in the promotional preamble for the soft-core West German production Helga (1967). While I’d say that birth control is pretty awesome, the grindhouse fare served out in a cumulative fashion can be less so: aftertime I felt as if I had been consuming entertainment served in a steaming sauce of rancid butter. I might have missed out on the era of B-houses with their carbolic auditoriums and cadaverous ushers, sporting outrageous billings with titles like Bikini Girls Versus the Men From Mars, but I do like to indulge occasionally in the low and dirty and outright depraved, not so much to test whether or not I can keep my moral compass at true north, but to remind myself that it’s plain all right to devote’s one time to the unreal. Who doesn’t want to pull the lever and drop out of the bottom of the world every now and then? So though the trailers sometimes repulsed me, like that for Wicked Wicked (1973), in which a crazed killer—is there any other kind?—preys on ingénues in a deluxe hotel wearing a mâitre d’s uniform, head obscured in a mask that looks like the helmet of a penis that met with an industrial accident, and the skeevy Invitation to Ruin (1968), an impressive amount of the trailers were, to my happy surprise, quite alluring and hell-catching fun.

Just check out the striking titles for the Swedish exploitation revenge flick They Call Her One Eye (1973)–a beautiful bubble of yellow and black letters inserted broadly across the screen–which were most certainly a model for the opening sequence titles in Hobo With a Shotgun (2011), starring Rutger Hauer in a surprisingly wrenching performance. (The fire-breathing heroine of They Call Her One Eye, Frigga, was also a source of inspiration for Daryl Hanna’s villainous Elle Driver in Kill Bill). Hobo With a Shotgun actually began life as one of the “fake trailers” sandwiched in between Robert Rodriguez’s and Quentin Tarantino’s ferociously creative double-feature tribute to the era, Grindhouse (2007), along with Rodriguez’s cunningly contrived trailer for Machete (2010), starring the grizzled Danny Trejo as a former federale turned day laborer thrust into a governmental conspiracy.

If we consider the resistance to necessary movements like Black Lives Matters, and recall the violence done to young black bodies in the last few years, it’s heartening to delve into the era when “black is beautiful” moved beyond rhetoric and was stolidly embodied by powerhouse figures like Fred Williamson in the blaxploitation westerns The Legend of Nigger Charley (1972) and Boss Nigger (1974): “They rode into a white man’s town, bringing black man’s law.” If one needed to writhe out from under the boot of oppression, these are certainly inspiriting words to seize upon.

King FratOf course not every film has historical relevance. In 42nd Street Forever you’ll find university raunch like King Frat (1979), where the togas can’t hide the rampant hormones, and The Green Slime (1968), a gloriously cheesy MGM/Toei production with special effects evidently modeled after a fourth-grader’s C+ presentation of the Keplerian solar system. The whiplash of laser-beams and flailing tentacles in The Green Slime is an overall delight of technical inefficiency, and  the theme song is belted so funkily that I’m certain the singer wore rhinestone-studded velvet bell bottoms in the recording booth.

The vanilla voiceover narrating the keg-inspired shenanigans of sexploitation oddities such as the disturbing Delinquent Schoolgirls, AKA Carnal Madness (1975) (in which scantily clad young ladies must fight off escaped mental patients) is no doubt ripped from the sex-education videos my classmates and I were forced to watch in Catholic school in the late 80s, where I was not unlike little Alex in A Clockwork Orange with his droogy eyelids clamped unblinkingly wide. Not that I wanted to miss a thing, especially stern Sister Esther with her hag chin and trembling jowls sternly lecturing the class on the dangers of bodily friction, let alone penetration, and giving us the Book of Revelations lowdown on sex—in other words, all the hot hell and none of the fiery joys (and yet, though I found the patter entertaining, I was unconvinced—it took James Joyce’s lava-tongued clergyman in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to give me the heebie-jeebies, since for a number of  long nights thereafter I found myself in a roasting pan in the basement of the devil’s lair).

Most of the films could be described as a brace of bucks surrounded by a herd of a whole-lotta-mares. Just about every three minutes there is a nubile display amid the corny chick-a-wow-wow score, and if you ask me, stripping women down to their underwear leaves them at an unfair advantage—it’s like bringing piranha to a hippo fight. I say give them a chainsaw and a sawed-off shotgun to even up the odds.

Why place so many young women under subjugation?  Was this the preferred approach to the female sex, that is, to have them bound and quivering in abject fear? Were American men so imprisoned by their middle-class values that they required a trumped-up picaresque about a happy hooker to feel themselves liberated—from the stasis of work, marriage, the iron cage of family, the strings of steel that bound the puritanical heart? How can one adequately explain the male fantasies given a prime shellacking in just about every exploitation film?

And what are we to make of the repulsive caricatures of homosexuality? Either the men are mincing depravities or hole-in-the-wall freaks with lollipop addictions. It’s painful—even embarrassing—to watch, and not at all funny.

One can only imagine the shady investors behind these lobotomies masquerading as visual entertainment: dirt-and-deals lawyers, Penthouse-reading dentists, heat-treat proctologists with peppermint smiles, and crack-em whack-em chiropractors who operated out of plywood offices.

But amid the simply dreadful, the outright repulsive, and the moderately entertaining, the patient viewer will quite often stumble upon urban ore. This is the object in the busy dumpster whose glimmer catches the eye, and when given a proper hosing approaches the imprimatur of what the great film critic Pauline Kael called “pretty good trash.” There’s a tough, spitting-mad trailer for Abel Ferrara’s revenge thriller classic Ms. 45 (1981), and a promotion for the killer Alligator (1980), a movie notable for the sly social commentary injected into the script by the independent filmmaker John Sayles, and directed by Lewis Teague with panache. There’s an early–but awful–Wes Craven flick, Deadly Blessing (1981), starring a tenderly young and positively luminous Sharon Stone, and, I shit you not, an Amish Ernest Borgnine. And then there’s—no way!—Patrick Swayze playing the baddie in the roller-derby dance-off Skatetown USA (1979), dashed in glitter, evidently shazamed by the platform gods, strutting his stuff beneath the unceasing whirl of the disco ball.

And what to make of Godzilla transformed into a monster called Gigantis, who appears so frenzied it’s as if he spent the entire weekend holed up in the VIP room of Studio 54 with a chimney full of coke? And can someone tell me what the hell the legendary director John Huston is doing in a martial-arts farce like Jaguar Lives! (1979), starring the not-so-incomparable Joe Lewis, an actor who evidently did not forget to pack away his Cobra Kai underoos for those grappling scenes in Cairo?

There’s also Tommy Lee Jones, looking shockingly uncraggy in Paul Schrader’s early script for Rolling Thunder (1977), and poor Warren Oates, director Sam Peckinpah’s favorite punching bag, clearly slumming it and having a rootin-tootin time doin so in Dixie Dynamite (1976).

Aside from the general joy one experiences in finding old forgotten friends from childhood, achingly young or exhaustedly aging, what is also striking about these trailers is the unabashed diversity on display, reflective of the audience outside of the grindhouse and within (our Congress—not the most, er, colorful governmental body, to say the least—should take note of this), that is still very much missing in Hollywood. In fact, I’m certain there’s more diversity in one year of exploitation moviemaking than there is in twenty years of Hollywood studio productions. While it is heartening to see an increase in black characters in 2017 in American films who are more than just the comic relief, the one black high-school friend, the sidekick, the rapist/thief/murderer/drug dealer, the “social message” character, the warning, the code word, the splash of color in the room, and finally the savior of white folks who really need a helping hand, it must be remembered that there are other cultures aching for representation and exploration, be they Latino or Iraqi or Filipino or Indonesian or Korean—spin a globe and take your pick—and not just characters created to a appease a demographic either, but full-blooded beings, the very kind you would find walking in any modern-day American city, or mountain town in Colorado.

This is all to say that watching 42nd Street Forever can deliver much food for thought—in addition to being a throw-down showdown skirting the line between outright bad taste and limit-pushing entertainment. How should you take these greasy kisses from a grimy era? I’d say mosey on over to the SVA library and pluck a volume down off the shelves and see for yourselves. I strongly advise against binge watching, though, because a queasy feeling can set in: the nostalgia might curdle. So unless you wish to pay a visit to your local City MD in order to properly diagnose that dying croak in your tummy, ration the trailers out. But don’t watch them alone, because it’s a lot more fun to dance in the starlight of nostalgia when you’re hanging with peeps who are willing to party down. Break out the Cheetos, fill up the M & M bowl, and have yourself a good ol’ time—and warn your guests: check your good taste at the door.

 

Edwin Rivera is a poet, writer, Writing Instructor at SVA and Editor of The Match Factory.