When Don Coscarelli’s knowingly schlocky horror-comedy Bubba Ho-Tep opened at various Landmark Theatres a decade ago, critic Matthew Wilder asked, “Have art houses become the drive-ins of the 21st century?” I remembered this question over the weekend, when Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 (1981) screened as a midnight movie at the Music Box for the second week in a row. I’d be stunned if Ms. 45 played anywhere as nice when it was first released in Chicago as an exploitation item—in a sense, the screening wasn’t a revival so much as a reconsideration.
I’ve encountered numerous such revivals in recent years, not only at the Music Box but on college campuses. Last summer alone, I saw both a 60s Japanese “pink film” (Dutch Wife in the Desert) and a 70s pornographic drama from the U.S. (Expose Me, Lovely) at the University of Chicago. The first of these screenings even featured an academic roundtable discussion. How odd to think that exploitation movies, once considered declasse by respectable moviegoers, had become pieces of history to be dissected. Yet that roundtable discussion reminded me that exploitation cinema, which appealed to the audience’s base desires, can provide valuable insights into the mind-set of an earlier era. And as illustrated by Ms. 45 or Top of the Heap (a 70s blaxploitation item recently revived at Black Cinema House), serious filmmakers sometimes manipulated exploitation premises into vehicles for their personal visions.
Is there any theater in Chicago where one might experience exploitation fare as audiences did in the 60s or 70s? The grindhouses and fledgling neighborhood theaters that once showed these movies have long since closed. Low-rent genre movies still exist, but more often than not they’re released directly to video. Watching these films at home doesn’t sound as fun as seeing them in a theater, grungy or otherwise. Yet if these recent rediscoveries are any indication, the movies that get disregarded by the culture at large tend to be littered with nuggets of creativity and observation. I wonder which of the latest Redbox releases will play at the University of Chicago in 2050.