One EW critic argues the movies that fill today's multiplexes owe more to the grindhouse era than many want to admit. Here's why a film like ''300'' might have felt right at home on the old 42nd St.

By Owen Gleiberman
Updated April 18, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT
Credit: Everett Collection
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Owen Gleiberman on how ’70s sleaze ate Hollywood

The floors were sticky with things you didn’t want to know about (today, at least, you can be fairly sure it’s Diet Coke), and there were a few scattered vagrants in the seats, but once you got past the general dilapidated air of urban sleaze, what defined the experience of a grindhouse movie theater, more than anything else, was the way that the audience talked back to the screen. I swear, you couldn’t make up those comments. I recall sitting through a particularly hellacious slasher film — I can’t remember which one, though this must have been the late ’70s — and the jaded gore fiends in the audience weren’t just hootin’ and hollerin’. They were cheering for the killer, as if he was the hero — which, in effect, he was. (He was certainly the master of ceremonies.) The crowd’s only true loyalty, however, was to the last cheap thrill. At the climax, the killer was slashed and hacked and mutilated from every angle, and when a spear got shoved through his noggin, finally doing him in, there was a moment of stillness in the theater, an absolute quiet, at which point the silence was broken by a man in the front who shouted, ”Good night, Irene!” That was grindhouse joy.

Watching the horror films and revenge flicks, the car-chase thrillers and chop-socky pulp, one got used to the idea that you were rooting, in essence, for whoever could inflict the most damage. Even the ”heroes” were expected to behave like villains. That’s the brilliant joke of Machete, the edited-by-hacksaw fake trailer that opens Grindhouse, in which Danny Trejo, looking like a barrio tree trunk with pockmarks, assembles a scary arsenal of weapons to go on some vague quest of payback that looks just as evil (if not more so) than the forces he’s fighting. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, a good guy who looked and acted like a bad guy…that seemed a genuinely disruptive, even dangerous way to be. It was the stuff of uncut pop nihilism — anti-social rage masquerading as screw-the-system righteousness.

Today, though, the notion of cheering for the guy who inflicts the most damage doesn’t belong in the grindhouse. It’s right there at the megaplex. For that’s what Hollywood moviemaking, or a fair amount of it anyway, is now all about. Going on the attack. Getting even. Feeding the beast. And doing it all real nasty, with just the right cool rampaging lack of mercy. It’s a grindhouse world.

Take, for instance, the most significant hit of 2007, that butt-kicking-in-antiquity combat-porn extravaganza 300. The way that this movie works, the Spartans, to put it mildly, are a bit basic, and the movie knows that they are. But then, there aren’t meant to be any ”shadings” to how we view Gerard Butler’s King Leonidas: He’s as pumped and mythologized a demigod as the Olympian figures in a Leni Riefenstahl epic. Nothing is there to get in the way of the battle action, which is staged for a maximum vicarious bloodsport tingle. The key image in 300, repeated over and over again, is that Matrix-y motion in which a sword gets plunged into a soldier’s torso and then, at the moment of impact, the action suddenly…slows…way…down, so that the audience can luxuriate in the kill. I’ve seen lots of films influenced by videogames, but this is the first that duplicates, with down-and-dirty reverence, the quintessential videogame experience: death by joystick. Everyone in the audience feels as if they’re holding those swords. The difference between 300 and, say, Gladiator is that the unholy desire to slash your enemies to ribbons is but one color in Russell Crowe’s great performance. Whereas it’s the only color in 300. That’s what makes it a brutally effective movie (I enjoyed every kicky, vengeful frame). And very grindhouse.

So when did Hollywood get this overt about being this B-movie bloodthirsty? When did glorified exploitation become the new mainstream? In a sense, the phenomenon has been building for years, as audiences, especially younger ones, have been steadily coarsened by a diet of horror movies that have grown only more sadistically sick. The first Saw film, in 2004, is generally credited with igniting the new wave of torture-for-kicks, but all it really did was to kick up by several notches an already established school of lip-smacking, pain-freak viciousness. Freddy Krueger sequels, Texas Chainsaw ripoffs, zombie thrillers — all paved the way for Hostel.

Of course, the mainstreaming of grindhouse culture has deeper roots than that. The trend reaches back to the pulp pictures of the ’40s and ’50s, and it really picked up steam with Roger Corman, the original outlaw indie producer. His horror films and, in particular, biker films had that early low-rent grunge-rebel appeal, but they also spoke (unlike, say, Russ Meyer’s movies) to the culture at large. Jack Nicholson started out in Corman productions and was propelled right to the center of Hollywood’s embrace of the new youth culture; even the Easy Riders, Raging Bulls generation, in other words, had its grindhouse pedigree. Dirty Harry and Death Wish were, in spirit, grindhouse movies, but they were also ingeniously well-crafted movies, so in a way they didn’t qualify.

The real Hollywood absorption of the grindhouse tone began in earnest during the Reagan era. I can pinpoint my awareness of it to one film: Cobra, a numbingly violent underworld potboiler, released in 1986, in which Sylvester Stallone played a rogue cop in the style of a burnt-out vigilante. This was just a year after Rambo, itself a kind of blood-squib grindhouse war movie (both films were directed by George P. Cosmatos), but watching Cobra, which featured Stallone in black clothes and aviator sunglasses — a dirtier Dirty Harry — holding a matchstick in his mouth as he blasted an Uzi at anything that moved, I thought (and wrote at the time): This is exactly what you’d expect to see on a triple bill on 42nd Street. It was Machete, only with a real star.

Cobra was trash, and so were most of the films that played on those triple bills, but the difference is that going to a grindhouse was an experience off the mass-media radar. That’s what gave it its vaguely disreputable rock & roll kick. That the movies lacked humanity was, somehow, part of their larger, desperate charm, their punk humanity. Which is what allowed one to see glimmers of vitality in some pretty shoddy entertainment. Recently, I watched Vanishing Point, the 1971 existential car-chase thriller that gets talked up in Grindhouse as if it were the Citizen Kane of road-rage movies. I was shocked to see how merely okay it is. As Kowalski, who drives his white 1970 Dodge Challenger on a two-lane-blacktop odyssey to nowhere, Barry Newman is the mildest of rebels, and for sheer retina-singing violence and speed, the action doesn’t come within miles of, say, anything in Mad Max. Yet it’s the aimlessness of it all, the way that Kowalski burns rubber for no reason except to defy anyone who tells him not to, that gives Vanishing Point its bleakly affectless, what-the-hell charge. It’s a movie about a lonely guy, meant to be watched by other lonely guys, in the privacy of a theater that’s out of all range of respectability.

We’ve now reached the point where it’s our mainstream films, or enough of them anyway, that trash respectability for an easy dark catharsis. The difference is that they have big budgets, and we watch them in clean, well-lighted places. They’re corporate entertainments. The grimy sleaze has gone away, which is why, if you’re old enough, you may feel a twinge of nostalgia for it. Or maybe the sleaze really does live on, in the spectacle of a blockbuster movie culture that tries to break the bank by aiming at the audience’s collective nether regions. More often than not, it hits the mark. Good night, Irene.


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