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In the 1960s and ’70s, Hollywood studios and movie palaces struggled to redefine themselves in the age of television. Moviegoing was at an all-time low in Canada and the United States, and the old movie theaters were becoming rundown and second-run. Gone were the days of vaudeville, friendly interaction in the lobby and a full experience at the movies.
Around this time, Jack Valenti (president of the Motion Picture Association of America) announced the creation of the ratings system that still affects filmmaking today. However, the MPAA did not copyright the X rating (persons under 17 not admitted), so it could be self-imposed, as was the case with the many “triple-X” films of the period. While major studios concentrated on more mainstream fare, porno and other exploitation fare was churned out by independent filmmakers and shown by independent exhibitors. These films often ended up in North America’s sleaziest, most unmaintained, underground theaters now know as the…grindhouses!
Today, when patrons enter a movie theater, they have several decisions to make: what to see, what to eat and where to socialize before the film, whether it be the arcade or the highly evolved washrooms where you no longer have to touch the taps to wash your hands. Essentially, an idiosyncratic element of the moviegoing experience has disappearing with the advent of multiplexes. The atmosphere that was once a big part of what cinema had to offer has given way to new trends in neutral environments where comfort and uniformity matter most. The grindhouses were attractions in and of themselves; these venues even had people sleeping and living in them!
Times Square in New York City was America’s most notorious sleaze district, designed to get you off by any means necessary. One of the main sections, dubbed “The Deuce,” was made up of wall-to-wall grindhouses, which showcased the most extreme films in cinematic history. Spectators at a Deuce theater could watch horror films while taking hallucinogens or snacking on candy, and especially adventurous viewers could go up to one of the balconies and engage in sexual activity while the movie was playing. Wes Craven’s THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT was one of the Deuce’s most popular films, playing on and off for a decade.
Manhattan, of course, was not the only city graced with grindhouses. Toronto, Canada was home to three theaters that spent a few years functioning in that capacity, showing exploitation features on a regular basis. These were The Elgin, The Bloor Cinema and The Metro.
The Elgin Theatre opened in 1913, and was initially a vaudeville house. In the late ’20s, it underwent a transformation to show motion pictures. The Elgin enjoyed a good run until the 1970s, when it started to screen exploitation and softcore pornography. Between 1981-89, it closed down completely, and has since reopened to become one of Canada’s most beautiful historic theaters.
The Bloor opened in 1905, and fell under a dark spell in 1973, when it became an adult-movie house known as The Eden. The Eden’s grindhouse days lasted until 1979, when it became the Bloor Cinema, screening art, classic, cult and second-run films.
The Metro Theatre holds a special place in the hearts of many Torontonians. It still serves as an adult-flick grindhouse, making it quite possibly the last of its kind in Canada. When you first enter, the lobby is well-lit, with glass cases displaying vintage XXX video boxes and sex toys. Once you step into the auditorium, there is a faint smell of mothballs and mildew, and the seats are velour, so sitting down is a decision you’ll have to make for yourself. The Metro provides a rare opportunity for exploitation fans to get a sense of what a 1970s grindhouse might have looked and felt like.
The notion of watching sleazy/genre movies on the big screen is an impulse that won’t be disappearing anytime soon. In fact, more and more theaters are opening across North America that allow audiences a chance to experience moviegoing the way it used to be, before the overwhelming multiplexes. The grindhouse legacy is growing, as films that once played those theaters are constantly being remade, from Craven’s LAST HOUSE and THE HILLS HAVE EYES to, most recently, Meir Zarchi’s I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE. And of course, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino teamed in 2007 to make GRINDHOUSE, a double feature complete with previews that championed and paid homage the films shown in those old theaters. One of those fake trailers even became a feature itself: Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis’ MACHETE.
All that is associated with those vintage theaters remains extremely popular with filmmakers, exhibitors and audiences.
Paul Corupe, genre journalist/editor and founder of the popular Canadian website Canuxploitation.com, speculates as to why they continue to be so popular: “The grindhouses represented a real subversive alternative to mainstream Hollywood, aggressively exploring taboos like extreme violence, gore, kinky sex, racism, prostitution, and drug use—and often, what was going on inside the theaters was just as shocking! Patrons sought out these sleazy films precisely because they were so unashamedly sensationalistic, and a trip to the grindhouse always guaranteed viewers a provocative experience—even if the films themselves may have been amateurishly made.”
My favorite new Toronto venue, The Toronto Underground Cinema, screens exploitation, horror and cult classics every week, Thursday through Sunday. Charlie Lawton, Nigel Agnew and Alex Woodside reinvented the place in early 2010 because they felt there was a void in the city’s cinema scene, and that local cinephiles needed a place to watch their favorite films in a theatrical setting. Lawton states that the audiences who come out to their screenings are very diverse; when the Underground showed ILSA, SHE WOLF OF THE SS, one patron told Lawton he hadn’t seen the film since it played at a 1970s drive-in. There are also many younger film fans who are nostalgic for a period in film history that took place before they were born; many have heard about the grindhouses of the ’70s and want to experience something similar for themselves. It’s a luxury to be able to watch these films on the big screen, with an audience, and lose yourself in the entrancing experience of the theater, Lawton notes. The biggest crowds at the Toronto Underground so far have been BATMAN (the 1966 feature, for which actor Adam West was present), and EASY RIDER.
It’s quite clear that the grindhouse did not disappear with the era that created it. Film theorist Huge Munsterberg wrote extensively on audience interaction with the cinema; motion pictures make use of devices such as the close-up to determine what the audience sees. In THE PHOTOPLAY: A PSYCHOLOGICAL STUDY, he notes that camera manipulation has the potential to control audience attention. However, in a grindhouse, the spectator’s gaze could be drawn away from the screen due to behavior of other audience members, or the excitement and experience of the theater itself. Today, venues such as the Toronto Underground Cinema, films like MACHETE and the I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE remake, exhibits like Grindbox and cult/horror festivals present moviegoers with a genuine opportunity to experience that old feeling in some capacity—without LSD-tripping patrons and balcony sex. Viva la grindhouse!
Special thanks to Charlie Lawton and Paul Corupe. Hugo Munsterberg, big ups to you, too.
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