On this week’s Shouts From the Back Row podcast, we discussed the art of the movie trailer, so it’s only appropriate that I pay tribute to my favourite variation of the format: the grindhouse trailer! When the Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez collaboration, Grindhouse, was released into theaters in 2007, they included some fake trailers for grindhouse exploitation films with such titles as Machete, Hobo With a Shotgun, Don’t!, Werewolf Women of the S.S. and Thanksgiving. These trailers proved so popular that Machete and Hobo have since become their own feature-length films! While Grindhouse was not a box office success on its original release, it clearly opened up a niche market for those who are very nostalgic for an era when moviegoing was a lot more fun. The term “grindhouse” originated from old burlesque theaters on 42nd Street in New York City that used to feature “bump-and-grind” dancing and striptease shows back when that sort of thing was still considered highly risque. Eventually, those same 42nd Street theaters would become a popular place to screen sleazy exploitation films, giving birth to the era of grindhouse cinema in the 1960s and 70s. Anyway, after the release of Grindhouse, I became very interested in the art of the grindhouse trailer. I spend much time on the terrific “Trailers From Hell” website and have collected all the volumes in the 42nd Street Forever series, an excellent series of DVDs from Synapse Entertainment that showcase some of the greatest grindhouse trailers of all time. I think the reason that grindhouse trailers have enjoyed a surge of popularity in recent years is because most B-movies and exploitation films get released straight-to-DVD these days, so you don’t get the opportunity to enjoy trailers like these in a theater any more. Of course, the reason grindhouse trailers are so much fun to watch is because they are often demented works of art and can do an ingenious job at the selling their films. In many cases, the trailer for a grindhouse film is so much better than the film itself. I have randomly selected twenty great grindhouse trailers for viewing here. Some are for bona fide classics and others are for absolutely dreadful works of cinema, yet the people who assembled these would always find a way to make these films look interesting. I can think of no more appropriate transition to these trailers than this…
We start with a prime example of a great trailer for a film that is the absolute drizzling shits! Axe is an incredibly boring and depressing exploitation film with long stretches where nothing happens and barely enough material to fit a feature-length film. Even though the film is only 65 minutes long, it feels like an eternity, and the only way it even manages to pad itself out to that length is by running its end credits VERY slowly! Nevertheless, the trailer does a very good job at making Axe look decent by highlighting the film’s few interesting parts and closing off with a brilliant piece of poetry: “Pretty Lisa took an axe… gave her captor 40 whacks! When she saw what she she had done… she gave his partner 41!”.
Basket Case (1982):
By the time Basket Case was released in 1982, the grindhouse era was coming to an end, but this film represented it so well by setting the story in the sleazy world of 42nd Street and even had one gruesome scene take place within an actual grindhouse cinema. Basket Case is a tremendously fun exploitation film with a terrific hook: just what exactly does the main character have inside that basket he’s carrying? The trailer milks the mystery for all its worth by showing multiple clips of the characters asking: “What’s in the basket?”. It does a terrific job at tantalizing the audience without giving too much away, but with the amount of screaming they show, you sense that what’s contained in that basket probably isn’t very pleasant. When the trailer closes off with the main character laughing and saying “My brother”, how could you not be intrigued to see this film?
Blood Feast (1963):
Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Blood Feast is considered to be the very first “splatter film” and helped give birth to the grindhouse era. It was pretty groundbreaking at the time, but when you watch it today, the film is actually… well, pretty damn boring! Nevertheless, I give it due respect for the being the first of its kind and its original trailer is a work of brilliance. It begins with a narrator talking directly to the camera and warning everyone that what you are about to see is so horrifying that sensitive people and children are advised to leave the theater for the next 90 seconds. This technique would be copied by MANY grindhouse trailers for the next several years and Michael Moore would even use this footage to open his documentary, Capitalism: A Love Story! The Blood Feast trailer then treats to you to some incredibly gory images that may look incredibly cheesy today, but must have shocked the hell out people back in 1963.
Boss Nigger (1975):
Yes, they actually released a film in theaters with that title! And to top it off, it only got released with a PG rating! Well, contrary to what you may think, Boss Nigger is most definitely NOT a racist movie. You can best describe this as an empowering blaxploitation western starring Fred Williamson (who also wrote the film) as a black man who becomes sheriff of a frontier town and attempts to rid the place of crime and racism. The movie is a fairly satirical look at the ignorance of racism and it’s a lot of fun, but no matter what its intentions, it would NEVER make it onto theater screens with this title today! Anyway, this trailer does a very solid job at selling the film, especially with its use of the Boss Nigger title song! The song is actually very catchy, but just be careful about singing it to yourself in public…
Cannibal Holocaust (1980):
I’ve already written extensively about Cannibal Holocaust on The Back Row, so no backstory about this film is necessary. The film’s trailer is very good as, of course, it tries to sell the illusion that the “found” documentary footage presented in the movie is real (“The men you will see eaten alive are the same men who filmed these incredible sequences”). The trailer does a terrific job at presenting a montage of images to Riz Ortolani’s very memorable score and is careful not to give too much away. If I had originally seen this preview in theaters back in 1980, I would have been SO intrigued to see this film!
This a prime example of a forgettable horror film finding immortality through its very memorable trailer. Most British horror films from the 1960s have very straightforward trailers, but the preview for Corruption is done with such headlong energy and intensity and makes Peter Cushing look like the most vicious evil bastard you can imagine. The film itself is no great shakes, but I’m sure the trailer fooled a lot of people into seeing it, especially with its ingenious tagline: “No woman will dare go home alone after seeing Corruption!”. In fact, near the end, it even adds: “Therefore, no woman will be admitted alone to see this super-shocker!”. Man, if there’s actually a woman out there who would feel compelled to see a film like Corruption on her own, I only have two questions: why the hell is she still single and why am I not dating her?!
Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977):
I’m cheating a little bit here since Exorcist II: The Heretic is a major studio film and doesn’t really qualify as a grindhouse release, but it perfectly demonstrates the ingenuity of the people who made trailers back then. Exorcist II is generally regarded as one of the worst sequels of all time and considering what an incoherent mess the film is, it must have been a daunting task to assemble a trailer for it. However, they came up with the brilliant solution of taking the movie’s one redeeming quality (Ennio Morricone’s trippy musical score) and playing it over a montage of random images from the film, which actually manages to make Exorcist II look pretty awesome. This kick-ass trailer may not provide much of an idea of what Exorcist II is actually about, but then I’m not sure the people who made the film even know what it’s about either.
Foxy Brown (1974):
I had to include at least one blaxploitation film on this list and while Pam Grier’s Coffy is definitely my favourite blaxploitation effort of the period, Foxy Brown probably has the best trailer. It is a work of pure poetry, delivering such great taglines as: “When Foxy Brown comes to town… all the brothers gather round… cause she can really shake ’em down”. In fact, there are enough great taglines in here for ten grindhouse trailers, containing such gems like: “Foxy’s got guts… no ifs, ands or buts!”. Not to mention that this is narrating by the late, great Adolph Caesar, who did a lot of voice-over work for grindhouse trailers from this period. In addition to having one of history’s all-time great names, Mr. Caesar had such an incredibly kick-ass voice…so I can guess I can forgive him for appearing in Fist of Fear, Touch of Death.
The House on the Edge of the Park (1980):
The House on the Edge of the Park is an incredibly sleazy Italian exploitation effort from Cannibal Holocaust director Ruggero Deodato, starring B-movie icon David Hess (who has one of the funniest death scenes of all time in this film). Anyway, you can’t beat a grindhouse trailer that presents random images of violence and nudity to the tune of bad Euro-disco music from the film, but it made this list for one hilarious reason. Either something got lost really badly in the Italian-to-English translation or the people responsible for assembling this trailer were drunk off their asses! Once you see the main title pop up on screen, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about…
I Dismember Mama/The Blood Spattered Bride (1974):
One of the pleasures of Tarantino and Rodriguez’s Grindhouse was that they offered you an opportunity to see two B-movies for the price of one, something which was common in the grindhouse era, but just doesn’t happen any more. This particular trailer is for a double feature of I Dismember Mama and The Blood Spattered Bride and while the films themselves aren’t anything special, the trailer is a work of absolute genius! The key to selling this double bill is to show very little footage from the films themselves. You can see a random series of brief clips every now and then, but you don’t even know which film they’re from. Instead, we mostly witness the reactions of audience members who’ve sat through the films, one of whom is wearing a strait jacket because he has literally gone insane from the experience! And to top it off, they even plug the promotion of “up chuck cups”, which will be handed out to the audience in case these films make you throw up! What do we learn about the films in question? Absolutely nothing! Would I still feel compelled to go see this double bill? Hell, yes!
I Spit on Your Grave (1980):
What exactly does the title I Spit on Your Grave have to do with the movie? Absolutely nothing! But it just shows what a huge difference a memorable title makes in turning an exploitation film into a cult hit since I doubt this would have achieved such notoreity under its original title, Day of the Woman. In spite of its infamous reputation, I Spit on Your Grave is a slowly paced film with a lot of long stretches where nothing happens, but the makers of this trailer do a very clever job at highlighting the film’s most memorable scenes. They actually walk a very fine line here because technically, they’re giving away the whole film within a span of three minutes… yet they manage to cut away JUST before the major payoffs and money shots are shown, so that the audience would still have a reason to go see this. The trailer also contains one of the best, yet hilariously inaccurate taglines of all time: “This woman will soon cut, chop, break and burn five men beyond recognition… and there isn’t a jury in this country that will convict her!”. Um… unless there’s a deleted scene I don’t know about, this only happens to FOUR men in the film!
The Italian Stallion (1970):
Back in the days when adult films actually played in theaters, their trailers were often an absolute hoot to watch. I’ve done a “Before They Were Stars” feature on this before, but a full explanation is in order. Back when he was a struggling young actor in 1970, Sylvester Stallone appeared in a softcore porn film called The Party at Kitty and Stud’s. Many years later, after Stallone hit it big with Rocky, the film would be given a theatrical re-release to cash in on his success. And just so you wouldn’t forget that it starred the man who played Rocky Balboa, it would be re-titled The Italian Stallion and a knockoff of the iconic Rocky theme would even be played over the trailer! This trailer is funny on so many levels, from female adult director Gail Palmer telling us there are only two scenes which are suitable to be shown in a “G-rated preview” (what, did this trailer play before Benji or something?!) to the fact that it uses a quote from a Sylvestor Stallone interview where he said: “I was starving when I did it”.
The Last House on the Left (1972):
Wes Craven’s iconic directorial debut is the poster child for brilliant grindhouse advertising. This film originally had such working titles as Sex Crime of the Century and Krug & Company: Equal Opportunity Destroyers, but after failing to garner much interest with them, someone suggested changing the name to something a lot more catchy: The Last House on the Left. The film was then be given one of the greatest taglines of all time: “To avoid fainting, keep repeating: It’s only a movie… it’s only a movie…”. After this memorable advertising campaign, a cheap little exploitation film that nobody expected to go anywhere suddenly became a monster hit and one of the most influential, groundbreaking horror films of all time. I’m including the original teaser and the trailer here since they’re both pretty awesome.
Master of the Flying Guillotine (1976):
I couldn’t do a list about grindhouse trailers because including at least one old-school, chop-socky martial arts film and none of them present a more kick-ass trailer than Master of the Flying Guillotine. I’m ashamed to say that this is one of the only films on this list that I haven’t actually got around to seeing yet, but on the basis of this trailer, how could I NOT want to see it? It features a guy using a flying guillotine on a chain to rip people’s heads off, for Christ’s sake! In addition, it’s presented in “Super-Cine Vision” and promises to deliver “nerve-shattering special effects”!
The Pink Angels (1971):
Biker films were extremely popular in the late sixties and early seventies and I can say that, almost without exception, they were usually pretty awful. The most unusual biker flick from that era was undoubtedly The Pink Angels, which told the comedic story of a gay biker bang! Sadly, the film is actually quite boring and borderline unwatchable at times. However, this trailer does a very good job at showcasing the few highlights in the film (including its best line of dialogue: “I’ll kill those bananas!”) and makes it look a lot more interesting than it really is, so it’s easy to see why an audience would be compelled to check out The Pink Angels, at least for curiosity reasons. They say you can’t polish a turd, but the people who make these grindhouse trailers definitely try their best.
Here’s yet an example of a grindhouse trailer making a film look more interesting than it really is. Rituals (sometimes released under its alternate title, The Creeper) is a Canadian Deliverance knock-off about a group of doctors undergoing a terrifying experience during a trip into the wilderness. The film isn’t bad, but it really isn’t anything special at all, yet the trailer does a tremendous job of building intrigue by playing a children’s rendition of “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic” over the action. The song has absolutely NOTHING to do with the film, but just seems to work so well within the context of this trailer, which keeps the story shrouded in mystery and promises a “big surprise” that, unfortunately, the film fails to deliver.
Shivers (a.k.a. They Came From Within) (1975):
In spite of him achieving mainstream respectability, my favourite film in David Cronenberg’s filmography still remains his low-budget horror debut, Shivers (referred to in this trailer by its alternate title, They Came From Within). The film is a tremendously fun piece of sleaze that’s been referred to as a “venereal disease remake of Night of the Living Dead” and this trailer is a marvelously edited and narrated piece of work that does a great job at selling the picture. It concludes with one of the greatest taglines of all time: “If this picture doesn’t make you scream and squirm, you better see a psychiatrist… quick!”.
Suspiria is undoubtedly the most famous film from renowned Italian horror director Dario Argento and its original trailer definitely does it justice. It does a fine job at establishing the film’s tone and atmosphere with its opening shot of the skeleton in the wig and while the trailer doesn’t really you tell anything at all about what Suspiria is about, it doesn’t even need to! It concludes with one of the all-time great taglines: “The only thing more terrifying than the list 12 minutes of Suspiria are the first 92!”. Hilariously, this has lead to some debate amongst Suspiria fans about whether a longer, uncut 104-minute version of the film exists. However, it has been confirmed that the longest cut of Suspiria in existence is 98 minutes long and that it never actually did run 104 minutes. If the previews for this and I Spit on Your Grave are any indication, the one quality that grindhouse trailer-makers seem to lack are mathematical skills…
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974):
Well, this is the granddaddy of all grindhouse pictures, so it would be a crime not to include this on the list. However, I do have to concede that this trailer does give an awful lot away and reveals the deaths of most of the film’s characters, so if you’ve never seen The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (and if you haven’t, why are you even reading this list?!), it might be advisable not to watch this preview until after you’ve seen the film. That said, the whole trailer is marvelously edited together and perfectly conveys the intense, nightmarish atmosphere of the film, which, even 37 years later, has still never really been duplicated. The final tagline is a classic too: “After you stop screaming, you’ll start talking about it!”.
Well, I think this trailer merits a spot on this list simply because it advertises that this film is “from the man who brought you War and Peace and Doctor Zhivago“. Yes, it’s true that the producer of Torso, Carlo Ponti, did also produce those other two films, but I really don’t think we’re appealing to the same target audience here! Anyway, Torso is a fun entry in the popular Italian giallo sub-genre of the sixties and seventies that delivers all the gore, nudity, gratuitous lesbianism and stylish death scenes that fans of those films are looking for and the trailer perfectly showcases that. And how can you not love a preview for a film that promises to “saturate the screen with terror”?!