42nd street forever conference and panel
Dr David Church
'42nd Street Forever? The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of Grindhouse Theaters'
In the popular imagination, New York City's 42nd Street at Times Square has become ground zero for remembering the bygone theatrical exhibition of so-called 'grindhouse cinema.' But where did grindhouses come from, and how did they gain their continuing reputation as sleazy spaces for sleazy films and audiences? Focusing on the history of 42nd Street, this talk traces the century-long evolution of the term 'grind house' from an exhibition policy to a genre label to a latter-day marketing concept. With the disappearance of actual grind houses from the physical landscape, these lost theaters have gained renewed relevance as ghostly spaces for fans to imaginatively inhabit. Moreover, the recent boom in grindhouse nostalgia has emerged as a reaction against both the increased accessibility of exploitation cinema on home video and the ongoing decline of physical media altogether.
Elena Gorfinkel (University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, US)
Skin Flick Cinephilia: Sexploitation Cinema's Scenes of Looking
This talk surveys the 1960s US sexploitation cinema, exploring its location between low budget filmmaking and art cinema, pausing to analyze some of its aesthetic and reflexive fixations. It will offer a cinephile account of the aesthetic value of the sexploitation image as an archive of bodily gestures, textures, faces and places (including the scene of the grindhouse and film theater itself).
Dr Steve Jones (Northumbria University, UK)
Grindigital: The Ghost of Grindhouse Present
What does “grindhouse” mean now that virtually all of the original American grindhouse cinemas have closed? Most of us now watch “grindhouse movies” from the comfort of our own homes on DVD and Blu-Ray rather than viewing grainy old prints in sleazy cinemas, but that change in context alters our experience of watching such films. That shift in context is particularly problematic for a younger generation who never had chance to experience a grindhouse first-hand, and who still use the term “grindhouse” to describe a genre, a location (the grindhouse cinema), or a set of aesthetics (scratched celluloid, “missing reels”, etc). Those aesthetics are flaws that are usually removed from digitally re-mastered DVD/Blu-Ray releases of the films. Preserving the films essentially means “de-grindhousing” them: the damage sustained from being shown in grindhouses is removed, leaving a pristine, digital replica of the film. Contemporary “grindhouse-style” films do the opposite, using filters and effects to replicate celluloid damage even though such films are shot digitally. Neither provides an authentic experience of “grindhouse” film. The more we try to preserve the grindhouse, the further away we seem to move from the real thing.
Dr Jamie Sexton (Northumbria University, UK)
The Allure of Otherness: Distributing, Marketing and Consuming Global Cult Cinema
While books on cult cinema are largely dominated by American films, there are nonetheless a number of films from outside English-speaking regions and Western contexts which also gain cult status. Such movies have tended to gain their reputations via fan networks as opposed to more formal, critical channels. Since the emergence of DVD and Blu-ray there have emerged a number of companies who have started to cater to Western cult fans through marketing various forms of cult and exploitation cinema. Such companies include Arrow (specifically the Arrow Video imprint), Blue Underground, and of particular importance – due to their exclusive focus on world cult cinema – Mondo Macabro. In addition to a number of companies distributing global cult cinema in the U.S. and U.K., there are also a number of websites, blogs and web fora that provide information and commentary on global cult cinema.
Academic research on the transnational reception of non-Western films has, however, been restricted by a predominant focus on the idea of exoticisation and otherness. Many scholars have accused Western cult fans of forming attachments to such films in a rather superficial manner: that cultists tend to celebrate films which appear ‘weird’, but such weirdness stems from a lack of understanding of the cultural context(s) from which the films emerge and is often underpinned by imperialist assumptions. In this talk I will redress this overemphasis on exoticism and stress how home video distributors actually provide newer fans with a wealth of contextual information about the films that they release, which can act as a gateway for fans to discover more about such films and their production and exhibition histories.
Prof. Ernest Mathijs (University of British Columbia, CA)
A Room for The Room: the Viral Chain Distribution of Bad and Exploitation Cinema.
There are mythical stories about how now-celebrated horror films such as The Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre found audiences only gradually, after their filmmakers and producers took to the road and shopped their films around, almost like the door-to-door vacuum-salesmen of lore. Similarly, Daughters of Darkness Belgium’s infamous lesbian vampire film, relied on point-by-point distribution to become an international success. In each of these cases, the availability of grindhouse theatres in cities such as New York, Pittsburgh, or Chicago, helped these films reach stunned viewers (or jaded viewers, depending on their stamina, or the time of day).
Today, grindhouses are gone, and the fare they once screened is now streamed, downloadable, or made available via online retailers. Yet, significant traces of that step-by-step distribution remain, albeit in a changed form. I will use the unlikely duo of The Room (from 2003), arguably one of the worst films ever, and offensive to the extent it assaults all sensitivities, and Dude Bro Party Massacre III (from 2015), a tongue-in-cheek exploitation splatter film, to argue that today’s viral chain of theatre-to-theatre distribution has moved to ‘faux grindhouses’: multi-functional venues for the performing arts, that combine live performance activities with screens.
As such, a picture emerges that shows these films’ reception as a performance event, similar to stage and café atmosphere acts such as stand-up comedy or mock award ceremonies. There is also a heavy reliance on digital interactive stage technology to conjure up ambiance, enabling a fan-directed freak-show. It is through these channels that viral chain distribution lives on. I will speculate that the live and stage performance routines force these events into a dense ‘nowness’, in which participants are ‘suspended’ in the moment of the performance – a moment whose meaning is wasted as soon as it occurs. Oh, and look out for the combination of a chainsaw and a crazy rabbit!
Dr Johnny Walker (Northumbria University, UK)
Snuff love: real death and horror film culture from the grindhouse to your house
This talk charts the legacy of grind-house classics such as Snuff (1976) and Faces of Death (1972) on underground horror video cultures from the 1980s to the present day. It will demonstrate how a swelling interest in gory paracinema in the late ‘80s coincided with the emergence of an array of contemporary, direct-to-video “death films”: all of which collated sequences of genuine human tragedy and atrocity for the purposes of entertainment. The talk will consider some of these films in detail, and gauge their influence on contemporary amateur horror production.
Drawing on a variety of case studies—including the little-acknowledged Traces of Death (Various, 1993–2000) series and its producer, Dead Alive Productions, as well as from examples of contemporary “faux snuff” from the twenty-first century—the talk will show how horror fans of the video age have gone to great lengths to obtain explicit and gory exports of uncensored horror and death films, and how small production companies (such as Dead Alive and Brain Damage) have sought to align themselves with these interests, and produce an array of “extreme” films obtainable through specialist websites.