Pretty much, I’ve only really been excited about seeing one or two of the 50 or so major films that come out each year, probably for about the last decade. I think there’s something chemical about the whole process. When I was a kid, practically everything I saw on the screen I loved, not to mention the hundreds of movies I caught on HBO at home. Most of my DVD collection, in fact, is comprised of flicks that I saw first in the 80’s, and most of them are of questionable quality, but I love ’em anyway. When I turned fifteen though, and with the release of Batman Returns, things started to change. For the first time I was disappointed by a film that I should have loved outright. Since then, every year, it seems like there are fewer and fewer movies that I get excited for.
Well, the two flicks I really want to see this year are Hot Fuzz and Grindhouse, and this past weekend, my fiancée, a couple friends and I took in the crazy double feature that is Grindhouse.
I tried my best to ignore practically all the news, plot spoilers and reviews before I saw it because I wanted to go in and experience it for what it was. If you haven’t seen the flick and want to stay in the dark, don’t read on because I’m going to hit on some spoilers.
Going into the film I pretty much only knew about the running time, the most basic elements of the two film’s plots, and the gimmicks behind the experiment (like the fact that there were going to be a handful of fake exploitation/horror trailers that would be sandwiched between the films, that grain, dust and scratches were added digitally, as well as well-placed missing reels of footage.) Pretty much whenever I needed to convince someone to go, or if someone asked what I was so excited about, or why I was going to see the flick all I kept repeating was, "There’s a chick with a machine gun leg and that’s all you need to know." Hell, I don’t think I’ve seen a machinegun leg since that crazy sequence in Sam Raimi’s Darkman where one of Durant’s henchmen pulls the leg off another one and reveals it to be a hidden machinegun with which he mows down a bunch of guys while his friend just hops on one leg and laughs.
The whole experience is kicked off with the trailer for a flick called Machete starring Danny Trejo and Jeff Fahey, and directed by Rodriguez. I’d say that it’s fake, but apparently because Rodriguez had already shot a bunch of footage (like 40 minutes or so) and because it played so well to audiences, he’s decided to go ahead and finish the feature and release it direct to DVD around the time that Grindhouse also comes out on DVD. The trailer features Trejo (who is a Rodriguez veteran and typically plays characters named after bladed weapons in his films) as Machete, a Mexican day laborer/federale who is hired by a well-dressed politician (Fahey) to assassinate another official, and then in turn is double-crossed. Machete then bands together with a priest, played by Cheech Marin, and a few others to extract revenge on those that pissed him off.
This is a pretty funny way to start off the double feature, and after watching an entire DVD of exploitation trailers called 42nd Street Forever I have to say that the Machete trailer feels pretty dead on, though some of the special effects scenes are way too over the top for what Rodriguez was trying to recreate. It is, though, a perfect lead in to Planet Terror, the first flick in the Grindhouse double feature, also written, directed, and shot by Robert Rodriguez.
Planet Terror is book-ended by two very different versions of its starlet, Cherry Darling (played by Rose McGowan), and the trip that leads the audience between the two is pretty damn crazy. Most people seem to like this flick a lot more than Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, and if I had to guess why, it’s probably because there isn’t a second wasted on plot or character development, both of which are eschewed in the name of insanity and action. Well, that’s not quite true; there is a twenty second scene between Dr. Dakota Block (played by Mary Shelton) and her father Texas Ranger Earl McGraw (played once again by Michael Parks) where you get a little character development, but twenty seconds out of 85 minutes isn’t much to suffer through.
Nothing in this film makes much sense or is explained, and I’m not sure how much of this is intentional because of the style of film it’s trying to be, or if it’s because the script was rushed as Robert Rodriguez is prone to doing. At the end of the day, though, it really doesn’t matter because this mindlessness is really the film’s main strength. On some level this is what exploitation cinema is all about in that it tends to play off of people’s instinctual desires, sex, violence, and the type of depravity that we can’t help but stare while we watch it. Sure, at the end of the day you can try to explain away why you’d watch a flick like Last House on the Left by saying stuff like, "It’s important to examine extreme violence, especially in the wake of televised wars like Vietnam, to see how far our society is willing to subdue our morality…", but really deep down people watch it to see rape, murder and ultimately revenge play out on film. We’re all voyeurs at heart, and who can blame us. The human creature is built to question and wonder, and eventually we all turn to areas of life that we tend to have no experience in.
Planet Terror manages to pack in a ton of exploitative elements, even going so far as to provide some mockingly funny social commentary during a scene where Dr. Dakota leaves her son (who she’s spent the better part of the film trying to protect from the evil influence of his father Dr. William Block (Josh Brolin)) alone in her car with a gun, which she instructs him to use just like he does in his video games. Of course, two seconds after the boy is left alone he shoots himself in the head. It’s scenes like this that entire exploitation films were built on in the 30’s-60’s, films like Kroger Babb’s Mom and Dad which was anchored by a scene that shows the actual birth of a baby, and exploits the depiction of a vagina on film.
In fact, much like Kill Bill, which was a duck press of Tarantino’s interests and influences (including Spaghetti Westerns, Samurai Flicks, Kung Fu flicks, and revenge movies), Planet Terror is a similar duck press for exploitation and horror. There are so many scenes in succession that in other films would be that solitary key element, that one scene to make the movie memorable. For instance, the hobbling scene from Misery is mirrored when Dakota breaks her wrist (arm?), or the scene in Dawn of the Dead where a zombie is scalped by helicopter blades which is mirrored and made homage to in the end sequence where a strip club owner pilots a helicopter, decapitating tons of zombies in his wake (which also might be a very distasteful, yet exploitative reference to the accident on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie where Vic Morrow and two children were killed in much the same manner.) There’s even a lost opportunity here as well. There is a character named Abby (played by Naveen Andrews) who has a fetish for cutting off and collecting his enemy’s testicles. This goes unexplained, and could very well have been switched to the Bruce Willis character, who played Hartigan in Sin City, a character that ends up ripping the penis and testicles off of the Yellow Bastard character in one scene. I think it was a missed opportunity.
Anyway, no matter how fun all these balls to the walls moments are, there really is nothing working to focus them together, unlike what Kill Bill managed to do. It really is just a series of fun scenes slapped together into a very loose story, which makes for a very uneven experience. Though in the grand scheme of things, with the double feature and all the trailers, the film plays fine, but taken out of the gimmick it might end up being a very hard film to watch. The other thing that kind of bugged me was the excessive use of CGI. I know Rodriguez was attempting to make an exploitation-esque horror/action film that for once actually lives up to the crazy movie posters these films often have, but in light of the homage he’s trying to construct, it feels out of place because the films he’s referencing never looked this good.
I will say that I love Rodriguez’s casting in the film. He managed to use a ton of actors that either don’t get enough work, or haven’t really been given the chance to shine yet. Josh Brolin does a wonderful job of channeling his father’s intensity from the Amnityville Horror into his Dr. Block character; while Michael Biehn and Jeff Fahey really steal all the scenes they’re in, especially when they’re paired up on screen (the scene with the BBQ recipe is actually very touching.) Freddy Rodriguez is pretty badass, getting a chance to really cut loose as El Wray, the mysterious hero who never misses. Least I forget, Rose McGowan also kicks some zombie ass as Cherry Darling, and the machinegun leg is just as awesome in the movie as it looks on the posters, up to an including a silly limp. I also dig how the end of the film mirrors the end of From Dusk ‘Til Dawn, though in a much more uplifting way.
Between Planet Terror and Death Proof we are treated to three more fake trailers, Rob Zombie’s Werewolf Women of the SS, Edgar Wright’s Don’t, and Eli Roth’s Thanksgiving. Werewolf Women really fell flat for me, even with such a crazy and homage filled concept. The trailer is a play on the title of the 1974 Dyanne Thorne film Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS (in which Thorne is the commandente of a Nazi concentration/work camp who submits her prisoners to hideous medical and sexual experiments), except Zombie takes it a step further and actually has werewolf women. I should love this trailer, what with Sherrie Moon Zombie in almost non-existent Nazi garb with a horse whip, Udo Kier as the Nazi commander, and even a silly Nicolas Cage in a funny turn as Fu Manchu, but the trailer just didn’t work for me. I think what ruins it the most is when all the lead actors are named both on screen and by the narrator, and because most of them are recognizable actors (or at least Zombie regulars) it makes this 70’s era type of film feel way to modern. It doesn’t help that Nic Cage is in it since he helped ruin the pointless remake of the Wicker Man.
Edgar Wright’s trailer for Don’t was much better in terms of feeling like an exploitation trailer, though coming off of Zombie’s it takes a bit to build up its steam. Wright does an awesome job of mimicking the repetitive narration and warnings that are common to these exploitation film trailers, like the "It’s only a movie…" mantra from Last House on the Left. There’s also some genuinely disturbing imagery, what with the (what I can only imagine is) poop coverd Nick Frost, and the weird lady with the stigmata that is dripping white liquid instead of blood.
The last fake trailer, and the one that I thought I would hate when I heard that it was directed by Eli Roth, is called Thanksgiving. It’s about a psychopath dressed as a pilgrim who torments a town, in particular a girl named Judy (played by Jordan Ladd) who has an endless succession of jock boyfriends beheaded while she kisses (or fillates) them. I was actually really impressed by the trailer, and am now convinced that Eli Roth is best served making three minute films instead of the drawn out tasteless and boring fare he’s been producing. I even loved the turkey fucker at the end.
The one thing about the trailers, though, is that it did feel a little weird knowing that they were all fake. I think it would have been neat if they would have stuck a few real Grindhouse trailers in as well, much the same way they inserted the real "feature presentation" and "coming attractions" animations (at least I think they’re real.)
All of this leads up to my favorite part of this entire experience (and it really was an experience, and at no part did it just feel like one big anthology movie) Death Proof. Quentin’s fifth film (Kill Bill Vol.’s 1 & 2 really are one film in my book) manages to both fit into the whole Grindhouse gimmick as well live up to the rest of his body of work to date. The film starts off like a slasher flick with a group of girls getting together in Austin Texas for a "chicks only" weekend. It has the exact same build up as the first four Friday the 13th films, with the same conventions (e.g. the subtle side plot of two lovers hoping to get together, the trip through a small town in a packed car, the first night of drunken and drug induced semi debauchery, and even the loser guys trying to get into some girls pants who are obviously out of their league.) They only things that are missing are the weathered old man shouting warnings and excessive use of the "killer point of view" camera set up. The flick is really strange in that it has four acts, the first act, which is the slasher movie build-up (which is really a red herring setting up the insane conclusion to the film), and then three more quick acts where the film switches gears and becomes a chick revenge flick.
The first thing that struck me about Death Proof is that for all of its key Tarantino aspects (like long, pointless, yet endlessly interesting witty dialogue scenes, the extreme close-ups on women’s bare feet, and the perfect use of naturally occurring music) the film is lacking in one of his most obvious and over arching conventions, jumping backwards and forwards in the chronology of the film. Though there are some leaps in time (and location, as I believe the film might jump from Austin Texas to Tennessee in the middle) the film pretty much plays out in straight chronological order. It makes me wonder why he chose to change his style for this film. On the one hand, it could be to keep the film in line with the films of the Grindhouse era that might not be as stylistically filmed as more modern films, or on the other it could just be Tarantino saying what the fuck and breaking his own conventions. Either way it makes for an interesting leap in his storytelling, especially after Kill Bill, witch played with the chronology jumping so much that it almost became pointless to the storytelling, almost confusing in parts.
If nothing else, and once again, Tarantino manages give an invigorating boost to one of his lead actor’s career by casting Kurt Russell in the role of Stuntman Mike. After Tombstone, Russell began to slide into one boring role after another, getting further and further away from the parts that really defined him as an actor in the 80’s (like Snake Plissken and Jack Burton in two Carpenter greats, Escape from New York and Big Trouble in Little China.) In Death Proof, Russell gets to play both the older badass psychopath and the pathetic whining coward, and with both he shines. Tarantino also shines the light on Zoë Bell who was the stuntwoman who doubled for Uma Thurman in Kill Bill (and Lucy Lawless in Xena: Warrior Princess) and stars as herself in Death Proof. Bell’s career leading up to her getting cast in Kill Bill is featured in the documentary Double Dare, which illustrates why Tarantino probably chose to have her play herself.
In keeping true to the style of his 70’s road film influences, which he makes no pains to hide, going so far as to list them numerous times in the film (Vanishing Point, Two-Lane Blacktop, and Dirty Mary Crazy Larry), Tarantino shot all of the action at speed with real cars (instead of using trailer hook-ups and stuff.) Like in Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, he even had the actors at the wheel whenever he could. This makes all the difference as far as the intensity of the car chase and car bump scenes goes, as you can feel every swerve, engine roar, and crack in the pit of your stomach. You might as well be on the hood of the car with Zoë Bell.
The only leap that Death Proof makes for me is when the three girls (Rosario Dawson, Zoë Bell, and Tracie Thoms) finally "escape" from Stuntman Mike and they decide to track him down and kill him. I mean it’s not like these characters are killers, they’re two stuntwomen and a make-up artist. In most flicks of this nature there is an incident that prompts this last resort sort of action, either a family member or friend gets killed or raped, or something horrible happens. In the case of Death Proof, we do get the slaughter of the initial four women, but this is baggage that only the audience and Stuntman Mike carry, so when the trio snaps, it’s not quite as convincing for me. In fact, I guess what throws this off for me is the final freeze frame of the film where Rosario Dawson brings her heel down on Mike’s head, crushing it. Up until that moment it’s just three girls beating the holy hell out of a guy who scared the shit out of them and possibly tried to kill them. In fact, before Thoms shoots Kurt Russell in the arm, it’s almost as if he wants to make friends with these girls who share his love of stunt work. Ultimately it works fine for me, but it’s still a jump in logic.
There were a lot of little touches in the vein of the Grindhouse gimmick in Death Proof that were fun, and I can’t wait for an annotated version of the film to help pick them all out. One that I caught at the very beginning of the film was that Death Proof isn’t the "original" title to the film. For a split second there was a different title screen, and the only word I could make out was "thunder". The Death Proof title card was then inserted, much like other releases of exploitation fare I’ve seen recently like Inglorious Bastards, which the copy I managed to get my hands on was re-titled G.I. Bro, and it was replaced in the exact same fashion. Another thing was that there are scenes from the Grindhouse trailer, in particular the scene with Vanessa Ferlito crawling on the floor towards Stuntman Mike to give him his much earned lap dance that aren’t in the actual film (they’re part of a missing reel that makes a great joke in the middle of the film.) You see this all the time with normal movies, deleted scenes used in trailers that are just infuriating if you’re expecting it when you see the film, but here it’s all part of the gimmick and joke. I’m sure it’ll be on the DVD as a deleted scene.
All in all, the overall experience was great, and there’s just a ton of great moments that make the 3 hour and 11 minute running time seem to pass rather quickly. I’m also glad that a lot of the digital gimmicks ended up not bothering me. I was sure that there would be too many scratches, pops, cigarette burns, sound problems, etc., but there was just enough to make it interesting, and I noticed that they even stopped half way through Death Proof. I guess they "found" a nice preserved reel or something. This actually bring up another point about one of these gimmicks, the missing reel that both film suffer from. Now in both flicks, the missing footage actually adds to the experience and both are executed in such a way that it gets a laugh. I think it’s interesting though that this isn’t typical of the Grindhouse experience, as usually what’s missing from flicks is only seconds of film, not entire reels. Tarantino thought this would be a good idea for the film based on his experience with one of his own older prints that was missing a reel and it added a certain mystery to the film that was obviously unintended but a nice addition.
I’m surprised that it only took in around $11 million over the weekend, though it was released on Easter, and I’m sure people were more likely to go see a movie as a family and Grindhouse just doesn’t fit that bill. Unfortunately, the Weinstein’s have made some really weird decisions based on their fear of marketing films like Grindhouse. I mean, they forced Tarantino to split Kill Bill into two volumes instead of releasing it as one long film, and they wanted to do the same with GH though Tarantino and Rodriguez managed to argue their point well enough to get it released as one film. It probably helped that Kill Bill and Sin City did so well, but now that GH debuted so low, the Weinstein’s are considering pulling it from theaters and re-releasing Planet Terror and Death Proof as two separate films with the missing reels added back in. They are already doing this in all non-English speaking countries anyway, which I think is a total rip-off. I’m glad I got a chance to see it on the big screen in the way it was intended to be seen though. Based on the international posters (an in keeping with the original plan) the fake trailers, Werewolf Women of the SS, Don’t, and Thanksgiving are being dumped in favor of new trailers directed by Rodriguez (to be seen in front of Death Proof along with the trailer for Machete) and Tarantino (to be seen in front of Planet Terror.)
There was actually one thing that I heard going into this movie that was kind of bumming me out. I read that Rodriguez had cheated on his wife with his starlet McGowan, and it came out in the middle of shooting which prompted them to get a divorce and halt production on the film for a while. Since the movie’s release though, Rodriguez and his wife Elizabeth Avellan (who is also his film producing partner) have issued a press release saying that the rumors aren’t accurate and that they decided to file for divorce before the film even began. As much as it sounds like the press release was issued to patch up any problems, I kind of hope it’s true because Rodriguez seems like such a down to earth kind of guy, someone who wouldn’t fall into the Hollywood trap of wrecking long standing relationships to go on a doomed fling. Either way it’s none of my business.
I hope that Rodriguez and Tarantino spend a decent amount of time on the eventual DVD release. I’ve read that Rodriguez has joked about there being two versions of the film, one that matches the dirty theatrical print, and newly "found, restored, and re-mastered" editions of the flicks. I’d also have to imagine that if there were a Rodriguez 10-Minute Cooking School on the DVD, it would have to be for BBQ pork sausage, or at least just the BBQ sauce recipe. I’d also like to see some of the fan made trailers like Hobo with a Shotgun make it on the DVD, not to mention possibly a compilation of real exploitation trailers to give a nice frame of reference. I’m also holding out hope that the full version of Machete will be included as well, but I think that’s a long shot, but it would be the ultimate special feature.