Back to the Grind House
On the occasion of QT 6, an ode to the demented poetry of triple bills in iniquitous theatres
Beginning at about the age of 12, I frequently traveled to New York City with my friend Len Maltin to see movies. Growing up in a nearby suburb, we took a bus to the Port Authority terminal on 42nd Street, and then walked down that street to catch the subway. The street was lined on both sides with movie theatres, grind houses showing double or triple bills. The audiences for these movies were strange: Some were seeking air conditioning in the summer or heat in the winter, some a place to sleep. Hustlers turned tricks and drug dealers did. Those enamored of vicious, explicit sex, violence, or unspeakable perversion actually came for the movies.
42nd Street was chock-full of hookers, live sex shows, pornographic bookstores, crazed preachers, and con artists. Some action was on the street itself, but most of it went on inside. Even though we were in the city to see movies, we almost never went to these theatres. They smelled of urine. You'd get hit on by hustlers. Neither of us was into those kinds of movies, anyway, though years later I would become hooked on them. Almost every major urban area had a similar destination.
There was a demented poetry to grind house, almost as though a deliberate avant-garde art project. First, there were the individual titles as well as the bills. I Dismember Mama, The Blood Splattered Bride, and The Corpse Grinders; I Drink Your Blood, I Eat Your Skin, and I Spit on Your Grave; Tower of Screaming Virgins, The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves Are Here!, and Ilsa She Wolf of the S.S.; Bloodthirsty Butchers, Torture Dungeon, and The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!?. Mainstream releases on their fifth or sixth run also would be on the bills.
Not only were there different films with the same titles and the same film with many titles, but also the occasional European art film retitled with an exploitation moniker. Imagine watching a Bergman film branded as an exotic European sex film. Meanwhile, two different prints of the same film could be significantly different. A bondage-freak projectionist might have clipped a scene from one print, a drive-in projectionist could have chopped a whole scene from another when most of it got burned up in the projector, or a drunk might have re-edited the film preparing it for projection.
Sadly, grind houses are mostly gone now. In Austin, the State was one for many years (where I saw Ghetto Freaks and a triple bill that included two masterpieces: Black Mama, White Mama and Terminal Island).
The true lunatic cinematic energy and brilliance of grind houses is celebrated and replicated at the too-infrequent Quentin Tarantino Film Festivals at the Alamo Drafthouse Downtown. Inspired double and triple bills, as well as all-nighters, most true to the original grind house fare (exploitation, European horror, Italian genres, etc.), with the occasional profoundly inspired brain burner.
The currently ongoing QT 6 is specifically devoted to grind houses, with Friday night specifically offering a typical lineup. Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez are about to collaborate on a grind house movie, with each contributing a roughly hourlong genre effort. QT Fest offers the kind of sweetly eccentric programming that grind houses did at their most unintentionally inspired. Once, in Boston, I had gone to see a double bill with my friend, the filmmaker Rufus Butler Seder. The first film was Bite the Bullet, a Hollywood film directed by Richard Brooks with Gene Hackmen and Candice Bergen (Seder had it bad for Bergen) in its umpteenth run.
After this first film was over, I went to the bathroom, where I was held up by three teenagers who got a quarter off me. It was all I had. Returning to my seat, I exclaimed that I had just been robbed.
"Oh, sorry," Seder responded. "But the next movie is really great!"
At first, I was taken aback, but the film was Lightning Swords of Death, the first of the Baby Cart and the River Styx films I had ever seen. Seder was right: The film was truly amazing and birthed a lifelong obsession with that series. The rhythms of grind house programming had once again provided a reasonable context for the dark events of our absurdly twisted reality.