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42nd Street in 1985 Times Square, showing the Lyric, one of several grindhouses at the time

A grindhouse or action house[1] is an American term for a theatre that mainly shows low-budget horror, splatter, and exploitation films for adults. According to historian David Church, this theater type was named after the "grind policy", a film-programming strategy dating back to the early 1920s which continuously showed films at cut-rate ticket prices that typically rose over the course of each day. This exhibition practice was markedly different from the era's more common practice of fewer shows per day and graduated pricing for different seating sections in large urban theatres, which were typically studio-owned.


Due to these theaters' proximity to controversially sexualized forms of entertainment like burlesque, the term "grindhouse" has often been erroneously associated with burlesque theaters in urban entertainment areas such as 42nd Street in New York City,[2][3] where bump and grind dancing and striptease were featured.[4] In the film Lady of Burlesque (1943) one of the characters refers to one such burlesque theatre on 42nd Street as a "grindhouse," but Church points out the primary definition in the Oxford English Dictionary is for a movie theater distinguished by three criteria:[2]

  1. Shows a variety of films, in continuous succession
  2. Low admission fees
  3. Films screened are frequently of poor quality or low (artistic) merit

Church states the first use of the term "grind house" was in a 1923 Variety article,[5] which may have adopted the contemporary slang usage of "grind" to refer to the actions of barkers exhorting potential patrons to enter the venue.[2]

Double, triple, and "all night" bills on a single admission charge often encouraged patrons to spend long periods of time in the theaters.[6] The milieu was largely and faithfully captured at the time by the magazine Sleazoid Express.

Because grindhouse theaters were associated with a lower class audience, grindhouse theaters gradually became perceived as disreputable places that showed disreputable films, regardless of the variety of films – including subsequent-run Hollywood films – that were actually screened.[7] Similar second-run screenings are held at discount theaters and neighborhood theatres; the distinguishing characteristics of the "grindhouse" are its typical urban setting and the programming of first-run films of low merit, not predominantly second-run films which had received wide releases.

Television pressure

The introduction of television greatly eroded the audience for local and single-screen movie theaters, many of which were built during the cinema boom of the 1930s. In combination with urban decay after white flight out of older city areas in the mid to late 1960s, changing economics forced these theaters to either close or offer something that television could not. In the 1970s, many of these theaters became venues for exploitation films,[4] such as adult pornography and sleaze, or slasher horror, and dubbed martial arts films from Hong Kong.[8]


Main article: Exploitation film

Films shot for and screened at grindhouses characteristically contain large amounts of sex, violence, or bizarre subject matter. One featured genre were "roughies" or sexploitation films, a mix of sex, violence and sadism. Quality varied, but low budget production values and poor print quality were common. Critical opinions varied regarding typical grindhouse fare, but many films acquired cult following and critical praise.


By the mid 1980s, home video and cable movie channels threatened to render the grindhouse obsolete. By the end of the decade, these theaters had vanished from Los Angeles's Broadway and Hollywood Boulevard, New York City's Times Square and San Francisco's Market Street. Another example was the Jolar Theater in Nashville, Tennessee, on lower Broadway, which was active until it burned down on April 14, 1978.[9]

By the mid-1990s, these particular theaters had all but disappeared from the United States. Excerpts from Sleazoid Express, an exploitation aficionado newsletter that ran in the 1980s, were compiled into a book of the same title by authors Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford; the book discusses various exploitation subgenres as well as New York City's 42nd Street grindhouses themselves.


See also


  1. ^ Green, Jonathon (October 2, 2013). Dictionary of Jargon (Routledge Revivals). Routledge. ISBN 9781317908173 – via Google Books.
  2. ^ a b c Church, David (Summer 2011). "From Exhibition to Genre: The Case of Grind-House Films". Cinema Journal. 50 (4): 1–25. doi:10.1353/cj.2011.0053. Archived from the original on May 11, 2018. Retrieved March 24, 2017.
  3. ^ Church, David (2015). Grindhouse Nostalgia: Memory, Home Video, and Exploitation Film Fandom. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. Archived from the original on May 11, 2018. Retrieved March 24, 2017.
  4. ^ a b "Grindhouse". Archived from the original on August 5, 2010. Retrieved September 10, 2014.
  5. ^ "Two-a-Day Policy Failure in Canadian Grind Houses". Variety. December 6, 1923. p. 19.
  6. ^ Sanford, Jay Allen (February 17, 2010). "Last of the all-nighters – My life on downtown's Grindhouse Theater Row in the 70s and 80s". San Diego Reader. Archived from the original on March 25, 2017. Retrieved March 24, 2017. I spent my first night in San Diego sleeping in the back row of the Cabrillo Theater.
     In that pre-Gaslamp, pre-multiplex downtown of 1978 or so, half a dozen wonderfully eclectic – if mildly disreputable – late night movie houses operated within a few blocks of each other. Each grindhouses was a colorful oasis, plopped down in the middle of a seedy urban sprawl perfectly suited to the sailors on shore leave and porn aficionados that comprised much of its foot traffic.
     A couple of bucks got you a double or triple bill, screened 'round the clock in cavernous single-screen movie theaters harkening back to Hollywood's golden age, rich in cinematic history and replete with big wide aisles and accommodating balconies. Horton Plaza had the Carbillo [sic] and the Plaza Theater, both operated by Walnut Properties, whose owner Vince Miranda maintained a suite at the Hotel San Diego (which he also owned).
  7. ^ Hendrix, Grady (April 6, 2007). "This Old Grindhouse". Slate. Archived from the original on March 25, 2017. Retrieved March 24, 2017. Because grindhouse theaters were nasty places, full of nasty people, and most of us wouldn't be caught dead in one. The few folks who were there for the actual movies were either poverty tourists or cinephiles who didn't notice anything except the flickering screen, and, in many cases, their cinephilia had burned out their sense of discrimination, because a lot of the movies that showed in grindhouses were bad.
  8. ^ "Cult Couture: THE GRIND-HOUSE". Fangoria. Archived from the original on October 14, 2009.
  9. ^ Empson, Frank. "Nashville Then: The Jolar Cinema fire on Lower Broadway in 1978". The Tennessean. Retrieved May 23, 2022.