Directors: Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino
Special Guest Directors: Rob Zombie, Edgar Wright, and Eli Roth
Of all the different styles of filmmaking out there, one of the most broad yet oft-neglected is the exploitation film. Popularized in the '60s and '70s, exploitation movies were low-rent affairs that, due to their inability to produce a big-budget blockbuster or even afford a cast or crew with anything resembling talent, served as something of a counterculture movement by attempting to give viewers something they more than likely wouldn't get out of mainstream movies. Whether it be through graphic violence, lots of sexuality, or something shocking to grab your attention, these B-movies covering nearly every possible genre you could think of would often travel from theater to theater, the prints getting worn out, beaten up, and abused while being screened as double or triple features at drive-ins or sleazy urban theaters known as "grindhouses." Though while exploitation movies and the grindhouse experience have been turned into ancient history due to a variety of factors (e.g. theaters shutting down, the rise of the home video market, etc.), many cinephiles still show plenty of affection towards the movies of that era. Perhaps the most notable of these fans are cult directors Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, who teamed up to create Grindhouse, a loving homage to the double features that have gained their adoration. With each directing their own over-the-top B-movie and bridging them with fake movie trailers directed by Rob Zombie, Edgar Wright, and Eli Roth, Rodriguez and Tarantino's modern-day double feature makes for one of the most entertaining theatrical experiences in years.
First up is Rodriguez's segment, entitled "Planet Terror." When a deal between a mad scientist and a shady military platoon goes bad, a noxious green gas ends up being released into a nearby town. And needless to say, that causes a pretty big problem. This gas ends up transforming most of the town's citizens into deformed, bloodthirsty zombies. A ragtag group of survivors, led by one-legged go-go dancer Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan) and mysterious criminal El Wray (Freddy Rodriguez), are forced to band together and fight for survival against the infected horde.
The second half of the movie is Tarantino's contribution, "Death Proof." It focuses on Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), a misogynistic stuntman who is the proud owner of a "death proof" muscle car. While that might sound cool, the car is actually a tool with which he stalks and kills young women. Stuntman Mike has chosen his next victims, but they're no ordinary prey. Little does he know how vicious they'll be when they decide to stand up for themselves.
Though it was released to much fanfare, Grindhouse was a tremendous failure at the box office, pulling in less than half of its budget. The fact that the movie flopped is a little disheartening, but I can't say that it's really all that surprising. Exploitation movies and double features are completely foreign concepts to the general public nowadays, and if nobody "gets it," they're not going to see it. Only nerds like me really bought into the whole aura, and since a movie specifically for people such as myself to enjoy doesn't guarantee any sort of financial success, that's probably why it bombed like it did. It's a shame, though, because Grindhouse is some of the most fun I've had in a movie theater in quite a long time. The whole thing looks like the film prints got into a fight with a batch of steel wool, certain actors show up in more than one segment (to the point that it almost becomes grounds for creating a drinking game), and entire scenes are missing in some instances. Grindhouse utilizes its gimmick to the fullest extent, and makes for one fun (if not a little long) time at the movies.
It's really hard to break Grindhouse down into specific things to talk about, because it's so much more than the sum of its parts. But oh, what parts they are. I guess I'll have to begin with "Planet Terror," since that's what starts the movie in the first place. "Planet Terror" is the far superior half of Grindhouse, constantly up in your face with a frenetic, high-octane intensity that doesn't let up. It works largely as a satire of exploitation movies, operating with its tongue planted firmly in cheek as it riffs on as many clichés as it can. Robert Rodriguez is obviously having fun in creating the ultimate B-movie; there are far too many over-the-top scenes and moments to mention, and he pushes Grindhouse's gimmick as far as he can. As such, "Planet Terror" looks scratched and grainy, as if the print had been shown by an untold amount of projectionists who were willing to take a few liberties with it while it was in their possession. This is especially noticeable during the movie's lone sex scene, which leads to a gag that is absolutely hilarious every time I see it.
"Planet Terror" also features fantastic makeup effects handled by KNB Effects (the makeup is almost too good, actually), as well as some great music composed by Rodriguez. The movie's music hearkens back to the awesome music featured in John Carpenter's early movies, which adds to the movie's effectiveness. And we can't forget the cast, who look like they're having just as much fun as their director. Rose McGowan is the biggest standout amongst them, with Freddy Rodriguez, Marley Shelton, Josh Brolin, and Michael Biehn chipping in fun performances as well.
However, I didn't believe the second half of Grindhouse held up as well. Quentin Tarantino's "Death Proof" is, as I said before, the lesser half of Grindhouse. But I'd even go as far to say that it's the weakest movie that Tarantino has directed thus far. The really odd thing about it is that if Grindhouse is a double feature, then "Death Proof" is a double feature within a double feature. "Death Proof" is practically two different movies with two different casts, with only the Stuntman Mike character to link them. Both the first and second halves of "Death Proof" feature a group of girls who are terrorized by Stuntman Mike, though with vastly different results. However, while the tales of the two groups of girls end differently, there are many similarities between them as well. The endings of both of them are great, but there's way, way, way too much talking. I know Tarantino likes to have boatloads of dialogue in his movies, but come on now. This is bordering on excessive. I wouldn't be complaining if the dialogue actually contributed to the plot or something like that, but outside of establishing Stuntman Mike as one of the creepiest guys ever, none of it really goes anywhere. If the scenes featuring Stuntman Mike weren't so darn great, I'd give up on "Death Proof" altogether.
Before Grindhouse was released, I kept hearing about how "Death Proof" was supposed to be a slasher movie in which the killer used his car instead of a knife. Unfortunately, I don't know if I'd call that completely accurate. Sure, I'll concede that a typical slasher movie features plenty of scenes with useless talking, but they at least spice things up by featuring some killing every five or ten minutes. But with "Death Proof," you have to wait... and wait... and wait... before anything really menacing begins to happen. I thought Tarantino was supposed to be making an exploitation movie, not a half-assed version of the movies he usually makes. It doesn't even seem like he was bothering to try. He uses the "missing reel" gag, but it isn't as funny as it was in "Planet Terror," and even the appearances of making the movie worn out the scratches, the blemishes, the jarring jump cuts is dropped halfway through. Why do it halfway? It should have been either all or nothing.
Now I guess I shouldn't rag on "Death Proof" so much. There are actually some elements that I liked. Though Tarantino's script is weak in regards to just about everything that doesn't involve Stuntman Mike, he makes up for it with some good direction, a fantastic soundtrack (as usual), an awesome car chase that runs nearly twenty minutes, and a cast that does a pretty decent job. Well, some of the cast does well. Vanessa Fertillo is the only member of the initial group of girls that I didn't want to smack upside the head, while Rose McGowan also turns up in the first half and hands in a very amiable performance. Amongst the men that's how up, Tarantino himself is quite funny, but Eli Roth should never act again. In the second group of girls, three of them aren't too bad at all. Rosario Dawson is the most talented of them, and her performance is as good as you'd expect from her. Mary Elizabeth Winstead isn't around for long and is practically a non-factor, but she's likeable when she's on-screen. Zoë Bell, meanwhile, delivers the most surprising performance. Known more as a stuntwoman than as an actress, Bell is charming in her role, and I wouldn't be surprised if she shows up in more of Tarantino's movies in the future. I already called out Eli Roth's bad performance, but his crappiness is far eclipsed by Tracie Thoms. She turns in one of the most annoyingly dreadful performances that I've ever had the misfortune of watching in a movie theater. Her dialogue is mostly comprised of profanities and a particular racial slur (the one that rhymes with "digger"), which would be bad enough if Thoms's acting wasn't so utterly repellant. If I never see her in another movie, I'll be set for life. But of the "Death Proof" cast (and of the Grindhouse cast as a whole, really), the absolute best performance comes from Kurt Russell. Go watch "Death Proof" and try telling me that he isn't awesome. Though he starts off being just creepy, he transforms into an utter madman that completely makes the movie. Russell is this flick's greatest asset, and I hope his performance here gets him cast as more villains down the line.
And I'd be remiss if I talked about Grindhouse and failed to mention the four mock trailers. Rodriguez's "Machete" (a "Mexploitation" action movie featuring Danny Trejo and Cheech Marin) opens Grindhouse, while Rob Zombie's "Werewolf Women of the S.S." (the title says it all), Edgar Wright's "Don't" (a pastiche of British horror in general), and Eli Roth's "Thanksgiving" (a stereotypical holiday-oriented slasher movie) play during the intermission. All of them are fantastic, with "Thanksgiving" particularly standing out for me. How sad is it that an 85-second preview for a non-existent movie is better than all of Roth's feature-length movie's combined? I also have to give Zombie props for the bit of inspired lunacy that is Nicolas Cage's cameo in "Werewolf Women of the S.S.." I swear, I'd go see "Werewolf Women of the S.S." a million times if it were turned into a real movie, just for Nicolas Cage as Fu Manchu.
Now I understand that I expressed displeasure with "Death Proof," but as a whole, Grindhouse is fantastic. With the damaged, world-weary look, incredulous plots, a high amount of violence, and a three-hour running time, Grindhouse is most definitely an experience that is not for everybody. For those of you who would be into this sort of thing, this would definitely be something up your alley. I've given "Planet Terror" and "Death Proof" ratings of their own in the individual reviews I did for them (which you can read here and here), but when viewing them as originally intended, I'll gladly give Grindhouse four stars and a proud seal of approval.
Final Rating: ****