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A grindhouse is an American term for a theater that mainly shows exploitation films. According to historian David Church, this theater type was named after the "grind policy," a film-programming strategy dating back to the early 1920s that continuously showed films at cut-rate ticket prices that typically rose over the course of each day. This exhibition practice was markedly different from the era's more common practice of fewer shows per day and graduated pricing for different seating sections in large urban theaters.
The association with a lower class of audience member led grindhouse theaters to gradually become seen as disreputable places that showed disreputable films—regardless of the variety (including subsequent-run Hollywood films) that they showed.
Due to these theaters' proximity to controversially sexualized forms of entertainment like burlesque, the term "grindhouse" has often been erroneously associated with burlesque theaters in urban entertainment areas like 42nd Street in New York City, where 'bump n' grind' dancing and striptease were featured.
In the film Lady of Burlesque (1943) one of the characters refers to the burlesque theatre on 42nd Street, where they perform stripteases and bump and grind dances, as a grindhouse.
The introduction of television greatly eroded the audience for local and single-screen movie theaters, many of which were built during the cinema boom of the 1930s. In combination with urban decay after white flight out of older city areas in the mid to late 1960s, changing economics forced these theaters to either close or offer something that TV could not. In the 1970s, many of these theaters became venues for exploitation films, either adult pornography and sleaze, or slasher horror and dubbed martial arts films from Hong Kong.
Grindhouse films characteristically contain large amounts of sex, violence, or bizarre subject matter. One genre of film featured were "roughies" or sexploitation, a mix of sex, violence and sadism. Quality varied, but low budget production values and poor print quality were common. Critical opinions varied regarding typical grindhouse fare, but many films acquired cult following and critical praise. Double, triple, and "all night" bills on a single admission charge often encouraged patrons to spend long periods of time in the theaters. The milieu was largely and faithfully captured at the time by the magazine Sleazoid Express.
By the 1980s, home video and cable movie channels threatened to render the grindhouse obsolete. By the end of the decade, these theaters had vanished from Los Angeles's Broadway and Hollywood Boulevard, New York City's Times Square and San Francisco's Market Street. By the mid-1990s, these particular theaters had all but disappeared from the US. Very few exist today.
The Robert Rodriguez film Planet Terror and the Quentin Tarantino film Death Proof, which were released together as Grindhouse, were created as an homage to the genre. Similar films such as Machete (also by Rodriguez), Chillerama and Drive Angry have appeared since. The video games Red Dead Revolver, House of the Dead: Overkill, Wet, Shank, RAGE and Shadows of the Damned serve as homages to the grindhouse movies. The author Jacques Boyreau released the book Portable Grindhouse: The Lost Art of the VHS Box in 2009 about the history of the genre. The field is also the focus of the 2010 documentary American Grindhouse.
- David Church, "From Exhibition to Genre: The Case of Grind-House Films," Cinema Journal, vol. 50, no. 4 (2011): https://www.academia.edu/6632128/From_Exhibition_to_Genre_The_Case_of_Grind-House_Films. Also see David Church, Grindhouse Nostalgia: Memory, Home Video, and Exploitation Film Fandom (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015).
- "Grindhouse". Retrieved 10 September 2014.
- "Cult Couture: THE GRIND-HOUSE". Fangoria.
- Heather Buckley. "Attend the Portable Grindhouse: The Lost Art of the VHS Box Launch Party in Seattle". DreadCentral.
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- Grindhouse Cinema Database
- The Grindhouse Schoolhouse: Exploring Classic Adult Cinema
- A review of Grindhouse: The Forbidden World of "Adults Only" Cinema, by Eddie Muller and Daniel Faris.
- David Church, "From Exhibition to Genre: The Case of Grind-House Films," Cinema Journal, vol. 50, no. 4 (2011): 1-25.
- Excerpt from David Church, Grindhouse Nostalgia: Memory, Home Video, and Exploitation Film Fandom (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015).