When I used to say that I was really into grindhouse films, nobody knew what I was talking about. Now they’ll think I mean the Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino double feature. It’s like when Green Day made punk mainstream – you always had sort of assumed that punk would never get near the Top 40 because it was so often very shitty, but very shitty in a way that you loved.
Quentin Tarantino understands the beauty of that shittiness, and his half of the movie, Death Proof is, in many ways, an amazing approximation of the old exploitation films, but with an unmistakable QT vibe. Rodriguez, on the other hand, directs his half – Planet Terror – as a fever dream of someone who has only been told about exploitation movies. Here’s the thing about exploitation films: people only talk about the really good, really fucked up and really sexy parts of them, but those parts often make up less than a third of most exploitation movies’ running time. Of course this means that Planet Terror, with its endless gore and cartoony action, will be more popular with moviegoers than Tarantino’s talky, weirdly structured Death Proof.
Which is a big part of the first problem I have with Grindhouse as a whole: Rodriguez’ fake Machete trailer and then Planet Terror kick things off with a bang, and audiences are going to find themselves wondering what happened to all the action and lunacy in the second half of the double feature. Death Proof is second because that’s the ‘lead’ feature in a double bill, and Tarantino is the better known and more respected director, but the placement of that movie at the end is going to lead a lot of people to walk out of Grindhouse grumbling about how boring Tarantino’s movie is.
They’re technically wrong, of course (although I do have more issues with Death Proof than Planet Terror, but I at least partially chalk that up to expecting more from Tarantino), but they’re pretty subjectively right – to an audience unfamiliar with the tonal shifts of a truly great double feature, the air is going to feel like it’s rapidly escaping from the theater as QT begins the first of his movie’s many talky sequences.
Planet Terror’s a big, messy zombie movie – not only are the film’s undead the sort who eat your flesh, they’re also covered in giant blisters, spraying pus around at every opportunity. Rodriguez has assembled a large – and very fun – cast, the sort of cast that not only features 80s B movie folks but modern actors who probably would have been right at home in a Golan/Globus actioner. Freddy Rodriguez is the male lead, a mysterious tow-truck driver named El Wray; along with his ex-girlfriend Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan as a go-go dancer in a role so hot it broke up Robert Rodriguez’ marriage), he’s just trying to survive. Along the way they pick up some local cops, like Michael Biehn and Tom Savini, the great Jeff Fahey as a barbecue cook, Marley Shelton as a doctor with an unusual handicap, and Lost’s Naveen Andrews as a shadowy biochemist/black marketeer/testicle collector who may be partially to blame for all the zombification. Besides the undead, this group has to deal with an evil military unit, which gives Rodriguez plenty of excuses to blow things up and introduce lots of heavy weaponry – you’ve certainly seen the clip where a helicopter blade is used to mow down a mass of zombies.
One of the things I like most about real grindhouse cinema is how scrappy these movies were; filmmakers didn’t have a lot of money to spend, and there’s something endearing about the cheapness of their production values. Rodriguez has always been a cheap director, but there’s nothing endearing about it. He’s like the kid at the science fair who made a working particle accelerator out of papier mache and the guts of an Atari 2600 – it’s impressive but ugly, and you’re really at the science fair to see the kid who made a volcano using baking soda and vinegar and who glued his army men to the sides of the mountain to be consumed by kitchen sink lava. Planet Terror is the pinnacle of this for Rodriguez – he uses his homebrew CGI to do impressive stunts and wreak lots of destruction that feels out of place in the milieu in which he’s playing. Rodriguez wasn’t schooled on exploitation like Tarantino was, and he’s really using the language of action films of the 80s here – the kinds of films that took over after the exploitation circuit was slowly killed off and as home video began to dominate the market. Chuck Norris could have very easily been in the Freddy Rodriguez role, albeit with the addition of some more martial arts to the film’s many, many fight scenes. Which actually would have been very welcome.
I did have fun with Planet Terror though; more fun than I have had in most Rodriguez films. By writing a movie that’s pretty close to a parody he’s actually ended up with what might be the best script of his career – it’s snappy and funny when it needs to be, and silent the rest of the time. His cast never lets him down, especially reliable hams like Fahey and Nicky Katt. Josh Brolin shows up as a doctor with some rage issues and steals much of the show with his goatee and glasses. Bruce Willis is particularly delicious in an uncredited role as the leader of the evil military unit, and there are more familiar faces in that unit as well. And Planet Terror really does have an incredible gore quotient: there are three or four exploding heads, gallons of pus, body parts being ripped apart and one graphic scene where someone’s balls melt off.
Planet Terror is packed solid – I am not sure which film is longer, but my initial reaction is that Planet Terror feels a lot longer than Death Proof. By the end of the film you’re exhausted; Rodriguez is pummeling you throughout, and it often feels like the Running Scared or Crank version of a zombie movie. In terms of pacing, anyway, not aesthetic. Rodriguez tries for a legitimate feeling of exploitation, digitally inserting plenty of fake film scratches and dirt and cutting frames all over the place. The problem is that it’s all done too well, and the frame cutting often is in service to the rhythm of the editing. I know I’m coming from a purist’s place, but missing frames in a movie tend to be jarring, and I think that this seedy slickness encapsulates my main beef with not just Rodriguez’ work here but in general.
In between Planet Terror and Death Proof there are three fake trailers, and a fourth, for Machete, plays before Planet Terror. The Machete trailer is by Robert Rodriguez and stars Danny Trejo, and it’s in a very similar vein as Planet Terror. Machete is funny, and a rousing way to start off the whole Grindhouse experience, but what’s more is that it showed me that maybe fake trailers are where Rodriguez’ real talents lie – they’re like the music video of the film world, and the Machete trailer allows the director to dispense with stuff he’s not good at, like character and dialogue, and just present a bunch of gags in rapid succession.
Sadly the weakest aspect of Grindhouse is Rob Zombie’s fake trailer for Werewolf Women of the SS. The concept alone was enough to sell me, and there are some moments in the trailer that just sing (repeated shots of a Nazi werewolf shooting a machine gun off camera are terrific), but there’s not much meat in the thing, and more than any of the other elements this trailer feels way too modern in editing. Thankfully Edgar Wright’s trailer, Don’t, is a thing of beauty; he and Eli Roth, who directed the slasher trailer Thanksgiving, really get the tone and voices of the respective genres they’re taking on. Wright’s is the foreign import trailer, which uses lots of heavy (and hilariously slow) narration to mask the fact that no one on screen is American. Don’t is the kind of trailer that would have gotten me very excited as a kid, and I just know that if there was a Don’t full-length movie it would disappoint me terribly, and that’s exactly right. Roth’s Thanksgiving (which is sadly available on the web. Wait a couple of days and see it right) is the best of the bunch, a glorious homage to holiday-themed serial killer movies. Roth gets every aspect of the trailer right, from the too-long scenes to the weirdly mumbling and sort of positive narrator (this is the most specific and odd kind of trailer narrator – you really have to know your trailers from this era to nail this sound). Roth has also managed to fill his trailer with all sorts of nastiness and perversions; there’s been a lot of talk about Machete becoming a real movie, but I want Thanksgiving.
Where Rodriguez was sort of aping concepts and making an Xbox-style stab at the aesthetics of grindhouse films, Quentin Tarantino just went out and made one – with almost all which that implies. Death Proof ends up being two almost completely distinct movies; the first movie is a killer movie where the killer uses his car to take out the nubile young girls, while the second movie is a female revenge film where the nubile young girls give the killer what’s coming to him. I guess I’m more of a structural formalist than I had ever imagined because this set up bothers me – what Tarantino has essentially done is make a two act movie, except that the acts have almost nothing to do with each other (the killer is even driving a different car in the second act).
The first act is my favorite: it follows a couple of girls out for a night on the town in Austin, Texas. One of the watering holes where they end up happens to be where a strange character named Stuntman Mike hangs out. Stuntman Mike, as his name suggests, works as a movie stunt man, and his car is a movie stunt car – it’s been rigged so that no matter how badly he crashes, the driver will remain safe from mortal injury. Tarantino builds subtle dread throughout act one, having Stuntman Mike creepily interact with the girls he’s going to kill. And not only is Tarantino at his best here, giving his characters real conversations that, as always, are laced with pop culture minutiae, the actresses in this segment can carry the weight. What’s great is that the talky Tarantino style fits perfectly with low budget exploitation movies – most of these films contain arduous stretches of dialogue and filler because there was no room in the budget for much action. Anyone who has spent a lot of time sitting through real grindhouse movies will be familiar with slogging through interminable scenes that are poorly written and terribly acted; thankfully Tarantino isn’t aping his influences too much here and while by no means the best stuff he’s ever written, a lot of the dialogue and bar hopping business in the first act is pretty great.
Once he gets to the second act, everything loses steam. Act one builds to an incredible car crash, and we’ve become intrigued by Stuntman Mike and his bizarre modus operandi. But instead of building on that, we’re back at square one, this time with four new girls and in a different state (in a lot of ways the second act of Death Proof feels like Death Proof II, where the sequel is a slight retread of the original). This time the girls aren’t just random hotties – two of them are professional stuntwomen. They go out to test drive a classic car (forgive me for not knowing the model, I’m not a gearhead, but it’s the white car from Vanishing Point) when they find homicidal Stuntman Mike on the backroads and turn the tables on him. Gone in act two is the creepy build up and interaction between Stuntman Mike and his victims; this time it’s quite literally wham, bam, thank you ma’am, as Stuntman Mike comes from nowhere to wreak havoc. What follows is a masterful car chase that shows that you don’t need to spend hundreds of millions and wreck thousands of cars to have a chase that will keep you on the edge of your seat – good old fashioned filmmaking chops will do just as well.
Kurt Russell is what connects these two halves, and his Stuntman Mike is yet another great character for the Russell oeuvre. I like a psycho who talks to his victims and engages in a mental cat and mouse, and Russell does that well, nicely straddling the line between ‘creepy dangerous guy’ and ‘creepy old guy hitting on girls at the bar.’ The first set of girls is anchored by two performances: Sydney Poitier as sexy radio DJ Jungle Julie and weird nosed (I’m thinking bad plastic surgery) Vanessa Ferlito as her out of town friend Butterfly. These girls – and the rest of their friends – have an easygoing chemistry that I liked and was drawn into.
Nothing drew me into the second set of girls – not even Rosario Dawson’s nipples poking through her shirt at different times. Where the dialogue of the first act feels natural and real, the dialogue here – especially in a diner scene with a distracting long shot – is flat and without pizzazz. And what’s worse is that these actresses all seem incapable of delivering any of Tarantino’s dialogue naturalistically. Dawson’s acting is just right for a broad Kevin Smith movie, while Jordan Ladd is sort of just there. Most infuriating is Tracie Thom, from Rent and Wonderfalls, as the sort of sassy black lady who should be relegated to comedies making fun of black caricatures. In act one Poitier is given some of Tarantino’s occasionally cringe-inducing ‘race talk,’ but she just delivers it like a person. Thom shucks and jives through most of her dialogue, and I found myself wondering how these other people in her clique could stand to be around her when she’s making like Florence from The Jeffersons multiplied by everyone who has appeared on Maury Povich to find out the identity of their baby daddy.
But the real trouble at the heart of the second act of Death Proof is Zoe Bell. Undeniably lovely and exuding honest charm, Bell is an actual stuntperson and not an actress… and it shows. She reminded me of Gerri Jewel from Facts of Life – not that she is disabled but that she’s been cast for who she is in real life as opposed to what she can do as an actress. Having Bell at the center of the second half of Death Proof is terrific from one point of view, which is that you can be sure that’s her doing some insane stunts on the hood of a car. And it creates a nice feeling about the whole second act – what a lovely mash note QT has made for this stunt woman. But the performance just isn’t there.
The two halves of Death Proof are very different in other ways. Tarantino does the missing frames and bad splicing gags in the first half only, and that’s also where the missing reel is (both films are missing a reel). The first half feels much more like Tarantino is succeeding at creating a modern grindhouse film, but then in the second half he throws all that away in one very long shot – a dialogue scene in a diner where the camera dances around the girls at the table in a sustained shot for quite some time. It’s like the opening of Reservoir Dogs all over again, and it’s just wildly out of place here (it’s not helped by the fact that the dialogue and the acting in this scene, which is just an extension of another long talking scene in a car, fell totally flat for me). And the scene just feels so Tarantino. Maybe if I was a Tarantino partisan this would be a good thing for me – God knows someone saying a certain scene in a Scorsese movie is so Scoresese would excite me – but I’m just an admirer of his. Tarantino seems to have grown tired of his formal experiment by this point, and he doesn’t just shrug it off but throws it off completely. He gets back into the spirit of things in the final car chase that takes up the last half of the second act, and it’s very appreciated.
A couple of years ago people wondered if Tarantino could direct real action. Kill Bill proved that he could, and Death Proof hammers it home. He’s a natural at the action, and his second act car chase is one of the best I have seen in years (and I have seen Bad Boys II). Death Proof is easily the better made of the two films in Grindhouse, but I wish that Tarantino had done something else with the beginning of his second act (I cannot complain about how he ends his film, though, as it’s one of the great endings of modern time) to ensure that the movie was more than a minor Tarantino. There’s a longer version of Death Proof that will play for European audiences, and I wonder if this cut will address some of the problems I have with the film or multiply them.
Grindhouse is an experience that should very much be had in a big, packed theater. It’s a movie that demands a level of audience feedback and energy to really work. I found real brilliance in parts of Grindhouse, but as a whole it’s more interesting than truly great. The basic premise and concept is incredibly promising, though, and I do hope that the rumors end up being true and that Grindhouse becomes a series where directors can play around in genres and have some fun.