Remember the scene in Taxi Driver in which Travis Bickle first sees the teenage prostitute Iris Steensma tottering on her ten inch platform shoes in front of a cinema called Variety Photoplays? Or the montages of him driving along the neon lit forty-second street where the marquees of the Lyric or the New Amsterdam cinemas blaze with titles like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Return of the Dragon? Those long gone American grindhouses have been brilliantly documented by film historian and sleaze expert Jack Stevenson in the priceless–and now quite pricey–spinoff book of the classic, defunct British genre film magazine Shock Express. He describes in detail what the theatres were like, how they smelled and what was being shown there.
Apparently, there is one such cinema open in the US now, run by Quentin Tarantino. Obviously the New Beverly is a grindhouse-lite or an arthouse, as it is missing all the requisite elements of the real experience. No need to check the condition of a seat before sitting down there, nor will you get mugged or fingered in the depths of the toilets.
Sleaze is not dead, though. In Japan, there are still theatres screening 35mm prints of nunsploitation, horror, girl gang violence and yakuza sagas from the 70s. For their often aberrant adult movie scene, look no further than these very pages as the Yurei has a mondo-style report of what went on and still goes on behind the orderly and well scrubbed façades of their modern and well behaving cities.
The sinbins of Europe, then? Once upon a time there was a thriving b-movie film culture across the continent with horror, sex and general exploitation films flickering across the screens from early afternoon till midnight. Britain had it’s Essoldo chain for softcore sex and reruns of Hammer films. In cities across France, les cinémas de quartier showed the same, in more complete form. The grand dame of them all Le Brady on Boulevard de Strasbourg, started specializing in horror during the sixties and lasted as such until 2011. It’s now an arthouse.
In Italy, open air cinemas would program kung fu, giallos and slashers for the enjoyment of whole families, a different film each evening. A lot of the outdoor ones were right next to blocks of flats offering a direct view to the screen, so even grandparents sitting on the balcony could count on something their television sets wouldn’t show intact like Death Smiles on a Murderer (1973). That was then and this is now. One would think grindhouses and b-movies combining heavy sex and violence are all in the past, nothing like that in Europe anymore. Yet, in this day and age a handful of specialist cinemas screening genre-related 35mm from back in the day films survive, in Switzerland and Italy.
The spirit of Joe D’Amato aka Aristide Massaccesi probably still haunts the Ambasciatori theatre of Rome, the last of it’s kind in operation in the Eternal City. This is where low and no budget oddities like La Calda Bestia de Spilberg aka Helga, She-wolf of Spilberg opened during the seventies and where starlets of adult films used to perform live later on. The first time I went they were showing the irresistibly named Porno Zombi, which turned out to be a French sci-fi horror sexploitation hybrid by Claude Pierson called La Fille à la Fourrure (The Girl in Furs), also known as Starship Eros. There were no starships in sight but a couple of people did get turned into zombies by aliens from space. Apparently the mission of the extraterrestrials was to re-animate the dead of this earth so that the deceased could continue to slowly enter the frame sideways and do stripteases to excite the living enough to join them in orgies. The film was obviously inspired by Charles Matton’s luxurious sexy alien spectacular Spermula from 1976 and even though the participants were nowhere in the league of that film’s Dayle Haddon and Udo Kier, it did convey a sense of otherworldly fascination, plus it starred Alain Saury who was at that time making the transition from a respected actor into a sleazebag appearing first in softcore and then in hardcore.
The Ambasciatori has it’s own website, according to which it’s got an archive of over three thousand 35mm prints in perfect screening condition so Porno Zombi could one night get re-animated there. Being relatively clean and safe, the cinema has acquired a cult status even, with hipsters attending soirees dedicated to Ilona Staller epics from the eighties, such as Cicciolina Number One.
Before home video, there were over 20 grindhouses in Rome. The number dropped gradually but even during the early 2000s, several ground on. The grandest was the Moderno at Piazza Repubblica, now transformed into a regular multiplex. Not a trace of anything out of the ordinary remains inside but back in the day, entering this place was stepping into a nightmare or one of Fellini’s wet dreams.
Sometime during the late 90s I was l went to the Moderno, where the film playing was Selen Superanal, starring a semipopular starlet of the title (real name Luce Caponegro, now a mother and an upstanding member of the community). She was up there on the screen, trying to insert yet another male appendage up her already double-penetrated rear end. A few
bored looking hookers stood near the screen, smoking cigarettes and chatting with each other.
Downstairs someone had hammered a hole into the tiled wall of the spacious mens room, big enough to climb thru. Every now and then someone came out of it or entered, vanishing into the pitch blackness. The space beneath was obviously used as a makeshift darkroom for nervous standing around and hoping for sex. Perhaps it was more than that too, a passage to enter the cellars of the next building where there must have been places to break into and things to steal and sell. The hole can’t have been made that day as there was no debris on the floor, yet nobody had bothered to seal it shut. I considered venturing inside but decided not to risk it. “The decomposed body of a man discovered in a cellar in Rome with his head severed, believed to belong to a missing Finnish tourist”.
There was always an element of danger at places like the Moderno and these days, with the virus making business slow for Albanian boy whores in need of their ice fix, it’s probably more intense than before. The Orfeo in Palermo has recently reopened–it was closed for several years–so there’ll probably be murders happening inside any day now in addition to the expected muggings, despite the place being situated on the main shopping street no less. The Orfeo is known to throw on the occasional violent exploitation movie as a second feature; fun in theory but not in practice at a place like that as who knows if gore scenes could trigger homicidal impulses in the already unhinged and overexcited junkies. The last time I went I risked my life taking photos inside, sensing that the place would sooner or later be boarded up and that now was high time to try and document the ambiance of the institution. Should you feel compelled to do the same at the Orfeo or at some other sleazepit you should pretend to text, and then quickly point the phone at the customers. Don’t let any of the whores of whatever sex see what you’re doing. They carry Stanley knives and are known to use them too.
The Spezia in Torino was less threatening and more entertaining. They seemed to screen whatever was available, any early 80s horror film would do or anything else that came with an eye-catching title and a poster. The layout of the operation was like that of any other cinema built during the late fifties, with no doors between the foyer and the sala, just a curtain. The cinema had also three large double doors to one side of the auditorium, originally used to enable people to exit quickly and in orderly fashion once the film was over.
The final time I went some ten years ago it was a hot day and as there was no aircon the doors were kept half open. The space they gave into had probably originally been a back yard or an alley but now it was a playground for small children, and there were lots of them there, merrily shouting and running around. Occasionally, a small head would peek in thru a door at the screen where nuns were writhing and getting whipped and noisily killed by the lesbian mothersuperiors of Joe D’Amato’s La Monaca nel Peccato / The Convent of Sinners. From time to time the doors were kicked shut by a nanny or some other concerned adult but within 30 seconds someone inside would open them again. I decided to try and wiggle my way in without paying next time I was in town but when I was, the Spezia was already history.
The Swiss theatres seem safe, like the Roland at Langstrasse 11 in Zurich. This cinema has two spaces, one for straight movies and one for bisex stuff. Smoking is forbidden but there’s a strong smell of weed inside, mixing with the ubiquitous odors of body fluids and ammonia. I saw a couple of old geezers jerking off but audience was mostly lone figures laying slumped in their seats in varying states of catatonia. It’s obvious nobody there will stick a knife under your jaw and demand money. No enraged prostitutes who’ll bend backwards in front of your seat, spread it and scream aren’t you gonna fuck my pussy, Isn’t ANYONE going to fuck my pussy (in German)?! There were professionals in full trashy hooker regalia leaning against the walls who did approach you but very politely, they took no for an answer. So, the absence of anything dangerous or outrageous made the experience somewhat boring. Plus as it’s in Switzerland it’s not cheap to get in either. You might want pay though just to marvel at the garish bordello-style interior, apparently unchanged since the sixties.
In Finland, there are porno dungeons with so-called cinema rooms but as for actual theatres with real seats and projection booths, the last independent one of ill repute closed about ten years ago. The Domino in the coastal town of Turku was run by people completely indifferent to copyright laws or any other laws, and it is incomprehensible that the authorities didn’t close it before it gave up spirit on it’s own. Actually they did try, but like a hardened criminal, the Domino was back in business the next evening.
What made the theatre special was the programming and the formats used. During one day, one could choose between a neo-realist masterpiece by Rossellini, a popular slasher like Halloween and a couple of locally made underground films with unsimulated sex, such as Pungent Sweat and Trans. The 35mm projector was still working but almost everything was screened with the help of a laptop. They simply showed illegally downloaded features or stuck a dvd in and pressed play. At first, people were scandalized but as many kept returning as the whole thing must have won them over with an illicit thrill not easily found anymore.
In Helsinki, the last real one we had was the King’s Cinema right in the heart of town. I attempted to take two Frightfest organizers there once, for academic purposes as one of them was also a journalist. In the lobby we asked the guy behind the counter what was going on in there and the reply was “Oh, some film plus there’s an artiste available – for fifty you get a blowjob but for ten you can stick your fingers up her fanny while you beat your dick.” We weren’t in really the mood so we left.
All is not lost for us here though. The most cherished slimepit in our history the Alfaromeo has risen from the grave as the WHS, an arthouse with a love for genre titles. Recently they have spoiled us twice jabbed with a season of s/m themed classics like Yasuzo Masumura’s Blind Beast and Jess Franco’s Venus in Furs, in glorious 35mm.