Step inside the Grindhouse


FilmScene’s weekly series, Late Shift at the Grindhouse, invites Iowa City to witness the absurd and gruesome glory of grindhouse cinema.

By Tessa Solomon

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With a deft flick of his wrist, the white-bearded warrior releases a silver chain. At its end is a crimson hat with a bladed rim, which a husky-voiced narrator promises is “the most gruesome weapon ever conceived.” The hat latches onto the warrior’s terrified foe. The chain retracts, and the victim is decapitated in a sudden torrent of cherry-red blood.

This is Master of the Flying Guillotine, a classic grindhouse flick, one among many that can be caught every Wednesday night at FilmScene’s series Late Shift at the Grindhouse. Founded more than two years ago by Andy Brodie and Ross Meyer, Late Shift was created to provide a venue for Iowa City’s cinephiles to take a plunge into a vast pool of vintage and modern grindhouse.

A grindhouse was originally a venue to watch exploitation cinema, a genre that escapes easy classification. Plots are singularly outrageous; satanic motorcyclists stalk a witness to their human sacrifice in Race with a Devil; a martial-arts rivalry erupts between dojos in Five Fingers of Death. Tones also often differ; some disturbing in their violence, others laughable in their camp. 

The only certainty is a sure departure from FilmScene’s regular program of cutting-edge and classic art-house movies.

“At FilmScene, we try to cater to our diverse community, and although we bring the best of new independent films that reach our mainstream audience, I love it that we can also play films with movie titles like Cat in the Brain, or Dude-Bro Party Massacre,” said Director of Operations Emily Salmonson.

Sifting through immense vaults of the years’ more obscure titles for such movies requires a special set of skills, possessed only by someone uniquely suited to fill the position. The job at FilmScene is carried out by Meyer, who also acts as FilmScene’s head projectionist and facilities manager.

“[Meyer’s] passion for and encyclopedic knowledge of the grindhouse genre and film in general really come out in how consistently he curates such a stellar lineup of films, a lineup that rivals any programming you’d find of a similar, psychotronic nature,” fellow curator Joe Derderian said.

Derderian assists Meyer in planning each week’s screening, an abnormal night at FilmScene, complete with prizes and carnival atmosphere. The duo’s showmanship — and the discounted PBR — promises a crowd.

“It’s not mystery science theater, it’s not smart asses talking back at the screen. I don’t want it to be that kind of thing,” Meyer said. “I want everyone to have a good time, but really, it’s about enjoying the films in a communal environment.”

That community includes new faces and devoted fans.

“Some nights we’ll get a theater full of folks who’ve never even been to FilmScene, let alone Grindhouse, and other nights will mainly draw our rabid, core group of 30 or more regulars,” Derderian said. “It really comes out in the overall vibe, too. Let’s face it; if you’re coming to Grindhouse to see Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead, you already have some idea what you’re getting into.”

If untested in grindhouse, or in possession of a weak stomach, the allure may seem unfathomable.

“A lot of times I think the excitement over these films is how amazing it is that these filmmakers got away with making something so crazy,” Meyer said. “It almost transcends — and becomes — this meta-relationship with the filmmakers.”

Those filmmakers allow audiences the indulgence and rarity of watching the lurid and the grotesque. Whether that manifests in horror at the sight of John Carpenter’s The Thing, dragging its writhing mass of teeth and limbs forward, or in vicious glee about leather-clad dominatrixes robbing banks.

“There are so many levels of enjoyment to film of all kinds,” Derderian said. “And there’s always plenty of room at the FilmScene table.”

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