It's time to pause and appreciate the style commonly referred to as a grindhouse or exploitation film. This is an informal label applied to any low budget film. The low cost of production is seen as an blatant attempt to gain financial success by exploiting a current trend or a niche genre. These films tend to celebrate lurid subject matter such as sex, violence, or romance. Although most movies follow this formula, the reliance upon the exploitation is generally larger in grindhouse style flicks. Amid all of the grindhouse films made over the years, a few deserve a nod. This is especially true for grindhouse biker films. These films were often a mix of sexploitation, sensational violence, and the celebration of bizarre rebellion, popular from the 1950s through the 1970s.
There's something about 1969's Easy Rider that so perfectly imparts the feeling of wanderlust. Made in the year of love, this film isn't quite a hippie fest but it is a huge tribute to the power of freedom. At the very least, it imparts an anti-establishment attitude to the beat of a rocking soundtrack, which is good enough. Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, men of substance and substance abuse, wrote the film together while Hopper directed it. The men's fast lives were reflected in the film's vibe, which was packed with a defiant attitude. Each scene seemed to ask the audience: what's freedom if you aren't doing anything with it?
The simple story follows two bikers, Wyatt and Billy, who encounter some strange situations and unusual characters on their way to a Mardi Gras celebration. The plot is inconsequential in the face of the movie's larger message. This constant reinforcement of the "freedom rules" message would have become quite tiring if it wasn't for the bikers perfectly timed encounters with some hitchhikers and a drunken lawyer. These odd scenarios lead them to jail, the whorehouse, and dealing with the death of a friend. Unlike typical grindhouse productions, this film boasts killer acting. Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper performed their story to perfection. Later on, it's Jack Nicholson that steals the limelight. One of the now-iconic actor's first roles, his scenes prove he always had an over-the-top personality. Is the movie flawed? Of course, it wouldn't be grindhouse if it wasn't. By the end, though, the flaws are transcended by the film's undeniable appeal.
Born Losers is one of the most entertaining biker films of the 1960s. The story is charged with intensity, eerily seductive women, and subtle political commentary. Notable as the first screen appearance of Billy Jack, who would go on to be a classic figure in the more successful The Legend of Billy Jack and various other eponymous flicks. The Billy Jack sequels resonated for their strong political statements, but The Born Losers feels like a more authentic story for its more subtle take on politics.
The plot follows a group of unhinged riders who terrorize a small California town. These shenanigans lead them to zero in on a young college co-ed who they end up sexually assaulting. This leaves them with a predicament: make sure that girl keeps her mouth shut. Maybe this isn't as substantial or complex a theme as the heavy references to Vietnam in the sequels, but it does speak to the power of numbers and the dangers of isolation. The film conveys this message through its thoughtful cinematography. From lone shots of sandy shores to clipped dialogue, the film manages to impart a sense of solitude. This makes the film artistic, where director Tom Laughlin's follow-ups were more preachy.
A great (yet under appreciated) work from the eccentric and eclectic Russ Meyer. Released in 1965, the gritty film has slipped into obscurity. Many have complained that the story just didn't age well, unlike Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! which was released the same year and has a strong cult following. This theory is interesting because the two films are very similar except that one is male oriented and the other is centered around strong females. It's even more interesting because although the two share similar plot points, Meyer made Motorpsycho! gritty but made Faster Pussycat cheesy.
With the hard-to-stomach portrayal of sexual violence and rape, this is undoubtedly one of the most uncomfortable grindhouse films to watch. The visceral reactions the film's imagery and story demand, however, make it one of the strongest noir films of the era. While the story is heavy, Meyer takes care with the sensitive subject and makes sure that his exploited elements never overpower the momentum of the plot. Where Faster Pussycat! offered women with larger than life attitudes and breasts, Meyers looked to give the viewer a more compelling experience by offering strong but not overwhelming characters. From the genuine fear conveyed by Holle K. Winters when she is being harassed to the strong presence of Haji, the femme fatale, there is a wide spectrum of characterization.
She-Devils on Wheels
These biker babes pack a punch that'll drop your jaw. It's hard to pick what's more lovable: the girls locking lips or licking blood off of each other (not necessarily in that order). It's a world run by fierce femmes that won't think twice about beating, screwing, and decapitating any man that attempts to stand between them.
The plot is very simple, but it's actually this absence of a strong story that makes She-Devils so great. The cast had some strong actresses that were able to take a pointless plot and create humor in the gaps. It's also intriguing that despite being a female-centered film there is no nudity, making it less controversial than the description makes it sound. The women could actually ride motorcycles and do so quite impressively in many scenes. A gang called the Man-Eaters, led by a Queen and with a large appetite for sex and violence, is enough to make this film a favorite. The highs and lows are a bipolar roller-coaster with enough intriguing elements to place this grindhouse flick in the "so bad it's good" category.
The Wild One
The Wild One is the original biker film. Starring the iconic Marlon Brando, this 1953 movie paved the road for all biker grindhouse films that followed. A simple story about two rival motorcycle gangs that terrorize a small town following the arrest of Chino, the leader of the other gang and Brando's enemy. After Chino's arrest for out-of-hand antics, the gangs run wild during the night, doing with the town as they please, from attacking the telephone operator to freeing Chino from prison to accosting just about every female in the town. This mischief results in the citizens of the small Californian town going after Brando's character, Johnny. Although not the instigator of all these heinous acts, Johnny is still held accountable as the last standing leader of the motorcycle gangs.
In comparison to some of the other high-stakes adventures of grindhouse biker films, the plot of Wild One seems pretty tame. The sentiments of freedom, violence, and confronting the raw truths of life all were planted in Wild Ones. Like many of the others, the plot was just a complement to the message of rebellion. This is captured perfectly by a scene where Brando is asked by one of his gang members gals: "Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?" His reply was classic: "Whaddya got?" These two words created a moment that would define the grindhouse genre for generations to come.
Perfect for lovers of all things trashy, sleazy, and sadistic. The low budget is noticeable but the film redeems itself with its completely out-there story. The pacing is very slow at points and the cinematography feels very amateur. Directed by grindhouse great Al Adamson, the film brings Robert Dix, Russ Tamblyn, and horror actress Regina Carrol along for the ride. Although many fans of the director would tell you that he was more talented at action than horror, Adamson stayed very true to the biker movie form. Similar to biker stories of the same era, Adamson strives to show the hopelessness of an entire generation that had been jaded by the war in Vietnam. This one isn't about the message so much as the senseless killing and the super psychedelic scenes. With a gang of acid freaks, sex fiends, and ruthless killers, there's bound to be some gold.