Around a month ago I finally got around to watching Grindhouse (some channel on cable actually showed the whole thing all together) and I feel like I should talk about it.
The idea behind Grindhouse was to recreate the B-movie double feature: Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino each directed a feature-length movie and in between they added some fake coming attractions for other bad-looking movies (filmed by other directors such as Eli Roth and Rob Zombie) along with the kind of announcements and stuff that you might see at the movie theater back in the seventies. To further enhance the atmosphere they were going for, Tarantino and Rodriguez treated the film so that it would look aged and lo-res and busted and in each feature they included a "missing reel" where the story suddenly skips ahead fifteen minutes or so without warning.
When I first heard about Grindhouse, I was pretty psyched: the concept sounded fun (after all, Kill Bill was heavily styled on the exploitation flicks of yesteryear and that kicked ass), Tarantino is one of my favorite directors and Rodriguez was riding high, in my estimation, after Sin City. Thus, I was a little surprised when it totally bombed at the box office. Some of this no doubt had to do with the fact that people today have a hard time sitting still for 4 hours (I watched it on DVR and took at least one long break in the middle of viewing), but I somehow got the impression that it went deeper than that: that most people maybe just didn't like the movies.
Could they really be that bad? I was dubious, especially in regards to Tarantino's half: maybe I liked some more than others (Jackie Brown wasn't my favorite I don't think, but it's been a long time maybe I just need to go back and see it again), but I don't think I've ever seen anything by him that I would give a thumbs down. Thus, I decided to see for myself. My final conclusion: the detractors were maybe half right.
Based on the trailers, I thought that this was the story that was going to be more fun to watch. I mean, come on, Rose McGowan with a machine gun for a leg?! But in reality I was super bored about halfway through this flick and just waiting for it to end already.
The issue here is that Rodriguez did an excellent job of parodying bad horror movies: the plot was convoluted and nonsensical, there were way too many characters to keep track of, the special effects were cheap looking and gross. Also, as is the case with these movies, pretty much all the highlights (the machine gun prosthetic, the cameo by Bruce Willis) were crammed into the trailer (this was a good touch I feel, adding all kinds of gimmicks that sound awesome in the promos but end up making the movie a mess). I'm sure some people loved it, but for me this made the movie tedious to sit through. I bet the cast and crew had a blast making it, but watching it I kind of felt like "if I wanted to watch a bad old horror movie I could rent Critters or something. Why would you purposely set out to make another movie like this?" I found Planet Terror to be neither a fun send off of the monster movie genre, nor a movie that transcended its cheesy inspiration to actually tell an engaging story.
My expectations for Death Proof were kind of all over the place: on one hand there's my love for Tarantino, and on the other hand the movie seemed to be about fast cars and crap like that that doesn't necessarily interest me all that much. What I wasn't expecting, for some reason, were great characters and intelligent dialogue reminiscent of Resevoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction.
The first half of the movie fulfills the obligatory genre quotient (dated feel, crappy film quality, the "missing reel," also the credits make it seem like the title was changed at the last minute from "Thunderbolt" to "Death Proof"), but it also builds suspense and kind of makes you care about the characters. This part takes place in Austin and follows around a group of girls (I didn't really love the main girl "Jungle Julia," but they were all fairly sympathetic) who run into a creepy loner played by Kurt Russell who calls himself "Stuntman Mike." I don't want to give it away, so let's just say that Stuntman Mike is a perv and what gets him off involves girls and fast cars.
The second half of the film is even better than the first, and it focuses on another group of girls who are involved in the production of some movie (one is a make-up girl, another is a stuntwoman). They're stranded somewhere in the rural South with nothing to do for a few days, until the stuntwoman (an awesome character, played by a real life stuntwoman) suggests they check out a vintage muscle car (a white 1969 Dodge Charger as featured in the film Vanishing Point) that's on sale nearby and try to convince the owner to let them take it for a test drive. And, hmm..., I wonder if Stuntman Mike is going to make another appearance in the film?
Half way through the movie, all the B-movie conceits like the aged film have been abandoned (it took me a while to pick up on this as by then I had become absorbed in the story) and I think this is a good symbol of what makes Death Proof superior to Planet Terror: at some point it sets aside the homage/parody business and becomes a good, entertaining movie in its own right.
Final verdict: fuck Planet Terror, Death Proof rocks, can't wait to watch Inglourious Basterds!
Images: posters for Grindhouse, Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror, Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof from the Weinstein company