I was born a decade or so too late to have been the target audience for grindhouse movies, the kind of sleazy exploitation genre films to have played in second-rate cinemas back in the 1970s and early 80s. By the time I was old enough to explore New York City on my own, most of those less-than-venerable institutions had closed their doors. However, I caught quite a number of their successors via direct-to-video and cable TV releases. And in the last decade, there’s been a surge in nostalgic interest in those old cheese-fests, at least partly brought on by the works of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez.
Already being something of a B-movie aficionado, I’ve seen a handful of those “classic” grindhouse flicks on DVD. Most of them fall into the so-bad-they’re-good territory. They’re campy and violent and quite often sexist. But at the same time, it’s interesting to see what those filmmakers working on a shoestring budget could accomplish with imagination & ingenuity in those long-ago days before anyone with access to a laptop could easily whip up some CGI effects.
So naturally my interest was piqued when the eight issue Grindhouse: Doors Open At Midnight series was announced by Dark Horse Comics. Written by Alex De Campi, the series is comprised of a quartet of two-part tales, each an homage to the exploitation films of days past. In the first four issues, we have a pair of over-the-top romps into sex, violence, sci-fi and horror entitled “Bee Vixens From Mars” and “Prison Ship Antares.”
“Bee Vixens From Mars” sees the women of a small Southern town taken over by an alien insect queen, transforming them into horny, bloodthirsty femme fatales linked to a hive mind. With nearly everyone in the town either mutated or brutally slaughtered, it falls to Deputy Garcia and the owners of the local convenience store, Wayne & Sergei, to battle the alien infestation.
I really think that Alex De Campi’s background as a woman who has lived & worked on three continents allows her to write from a different perspective. In interviews, she has commented that one of the more interesting qualities of grindhouse fare was that often the protagonists were women and/or minorities. Yeah, a lot of those movies were “sexploitation” or “blaxploitation” or whatever you want to call them, meaning the main characters were probably on the stereotypical or one-dimensional side. But it nevertheless did provide some sort of avenue for depicting heroes who weren’t white males. In contrast, as De Campi points out, the majority of big studio action & genre pictures nowadays usually feature handsome, macho, WASPy men as the main characters.
In contrast, in “Bee Vixens From Mars,” we have Deputy Garcia, an older Hispanic woman with white hair and an eye patch, as the ass-kicking savoir of humanity. Backing her up are Wayne & Sergei, a gay couple originally from Eastern Europe. You have a small group of individuals who can be considered outsiders to the traditional, mainstream population as the heroes.
The art on “Bee Vixens From Mars” is by Chris Peterson. I’m not familiar with him, but he does great work on this book. Peterson really draws the hell out of the erotically charged, ultra-violent story. His layouts & storytelling are extremely strong.
“Prison Ship Antares” is basically a women-in-prison story in outer space. A group of hardened female convicts are sent away from Earth to settle Alpha Centauri, accompanied by their warden Kalinka and her contingent of cloned guards. Yeah, I know, it doesn’t really sound plausible, trying to colonize another planet with only women. But that’s the situation De Campi sets up in order to tell her second zany tale. I’ve seen far more nonsensical scenarios in actual B-movies, so whatever.
In any case, Kalinka turns out to be insane, a sadistic religious nut who believes she is the reincarnation of a samurai warrior. She decides to “burn away the sinful parts” of her prisoners, gruesomely killing them with acid and fire. The convicts, led by a gal by the name of Spanish Fly, realize that they had better seize control of the Antares, and quick, before they all end up dead or mutilated.
With a set-up like this, you might be concerned that the book would devolve into “lipstick lesbian” pornography. But, aside from a couple of cheekily playful sequences, for the most part De Campi writes the inmates as realistic, well-rounded individuals, giving them a certain amount of personality & background. There’s only so much development she can fit into a 48 page story, but on the whole these women come across as real people, rather than merely objects of titillation. They’re sexy, but intelligent and tough.
Simon Fraser is the artist on “Prison Ship Antares,” and I could not have thought of a better choice to illustrate this tale. Fraser is the co-creator, with writer Robbie Morrison, of the Nikolai Dante feature in 2000 AD. Dante was, in his early tales, sort of a ne’er-do-well rogue, a hedonistic adventurer who got involved in all sorts of wacky sexcapades. The first couple of Dante stories I ever read were “The Movable Feast” and “The Cadre Infernal,” which were set in, respectively, a gigantic brothel on wheels and a BDSM club. So, yeah, Fraser knows how to draw smut… and I mean that in the nicest way possible. No, but seriously, Simon is a fantastic artist. He really imbues his characters with a great deal of personality & individuality through facial expressions and diverse body types.
Truthfully, there is actually a lot more violence than sex in “Prison Ship Antares.” Some of it is horrific. Other parts are just plain hysterical, such as when the prisoners riot against the clone guards while singing the “Toreador Song” from Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Frasier does a superb job with that sequence.
There is another distinct quality to both of these tales. Since each of them are stand-alone stories, sometimes it really seems up in the air whether or not various characters will live or die. Without a status quo to adhere to, you half-expect De Campi to bump off one or more of her lead characters. It really does keep the reader a lot more on edge.
The covers for the first four issues of Grindhouse: Doors Open At Midnight are by Francesco Francavilla and Dan Panosian. Both of them have designed a couple of nice, striking pieces, sort of faux movie posters which also have a rather retro, pulp feel.
If you are a fan of genre films and B-movies, you’ll probably enjoy Grindhouse: Doors Open At Midnight. It’s a fun, strange homage to exploitation films, with something of a tongue-in-cheek feminist slant given to the old genre formulas. I’m looking forward to seeing what De Campi and her collaborators have in store for the next four issues. It should be crazy.