Grindhouse (U.S., 2007) * * * *
D: Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino
Increasingly home theater enthusiasts are becoming disenchanted with the multiplex, even the art house, and are waiting patiently for films to arrive on home video so they can create an idealized theatrical experience in their tricked-out private-cinema basements. But Grindhouse, a raucous, off-the-rails collaboration between Austin auteurs Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, is meant to be seen in theaters: particularly a packed, late-night Friday showing like the one I attended last night. The premise is that it's a double feature of crass exploitation films, the kind that would play in an L.A. "grindhouse" theater in the 1970's: the first, "Planet Terror," a post-apocalyptic zombie action film by Rodriguez, the second a serial killer/muscle car flick, "Death Proof," by Tarantino; and it commits to the idea, with a total running time of over three hours, providing a full evening's entertainment--perfect for bored teenagers who want to get away from their parents for the night, or practice extended make-out sessions in the back. At the midway point, when "Planet Terror" had ended and a compilation of movie trailer parodies began to unreel (by directors Rob Zombie, Eli Roth, and Edgar Wright), people in the theater actually began to get up and make runs to the snack bar, sprinting back to grab their seats before "Death Proof" began. This caught my attention because the fake trailers are themselves a major attraction of Grindhouse--hilarious distillations of entire genres with unexpected celebrity cameos and over-the-top moments of slaughter or sex. These trailers are, of course, part of the Grindhouse film and integral to the grindhouse experience; yet even more integral, it seemed to me, was to watch these trailers while people in the audience played their role and went to fetch popcorn and Twizzlers.
But the audience was game for the whole thing. The entire Ultrascreen theater was vibrating at the cheers, applause, or laughter that rose about every two minutes during "Planet Terror." (Contrast this to the last time I was in the Ultrascreen, watching Ghost Rider to a mostly bored or distracted audience, many of them pre-teens chatting loudly on their cell phones or walking up and down the aisles to greet friends.) It often felt like attending the Alamo Drafthouse (to which I've never been), the Austin theater that hosts film festivals and even screenings arranged by Tarantino, showing off personal prints of films like these. I had never seen so many movie geeks in one theater before, which you could judge not by appearance but by how they appreciated Rodriguez's tweaking of every action film cliche. "Planet Terror," which seems heavily influenced by the films of John Carpenter and George A. Romero, follows the outbreak of a virus which is turning most of the world into gooey, almost pre-splattered zombies. Cherry, a go-go dancer (Rose McGowan), teams up with ex-boyfriend Wray (Freddy Rodriguez), as well as a cop (Michael Biehn, of James Cameron's Terminator and Aliens), a doctor (Marley Shelton), and the "Crazy Babysitting Twins" (who are, well, crazy babysitting twins), among others, to battle the outbreak from a besieged hospital to a secret military base commanded by Bruce Willis. Along the way, go-go dancer McGowan loses a leg, which is belatedly replaced by a machine gun. I say belatedly, because the wonderfully icon poster art features the machine gun leg prominently, implying it's more than a late twist--but then, it's no more misleading than the film's title. McGowan notes with genuine distress that her ambition to be a stand-up comic has now been ruined, but with her new, impromptu prosthetic, as well as her dancer's flexibility (which she calls "useless talents"), she can now mow down whole armies of the undead. Superb. Rodriguez's film has a completely different tone than Tarantino's, which is why every critic will call this film "uneven." His is openly parodic, with plenty of laughs both cheap and sublime, but his penchant for stylish, exhilarating action scenes--developed most sharply in Sin City--allows for plenty of exciting moments, even if they intentionally ride the absurd. It should be noted, for example, that much of the CG work would look pretty cheesy if the film weren't grainy and occasionally broken: Rodriguez uses the premise of a battered grindhouse print more fully than Tarantino does, often cleverly allowing the condition of the print to reflect the action it contains, most obviously when Bruce Willis begins to transform into a boiling mutant mass, and the film becomes distorted and warped.
If "Planet Terror" is Grindhouse fun at its most lowbrow, Tarantino's "Death Proof" hopes to redeem the endeavor for the less indulgent critics. It is, without compromise, a Tarantino film, beginning with his long, long, long scenes of dialogue and character development, which caused a couple of walkouts this time around. But Tarantino is experimenting with the serial killer genre, and when you finally see what he's up to (when the film's over, really), your admiration will deepen. This is the serial killer genre completely reinvented, and delivered into another dimension. Apart from a few wink-wink nods to "Planet Terror" (the directors give the deliberate impression that both films come from the same studio, and thus draw from the same talent pool), this is a self-contained Tarantino classic, once again re-establishing a faded 70's idol--in this case, Kurt Russell, who has one scene for which he deserves an Oscar nomination--but also delivering slow-burn tension leading to moments of either visceral shock or cathartic release (think: the adrenaline shot in Pulp Fiction, or just about every setpiece in the Kill Bills). Russell plays Stuntman Mike, a stuntman of the 70's who is apparently out of work in contemporary, CG-driven Hollywood, though he still drives a souped-up stunt car with a protective cage which he says keeps him "death proof." The ostensible psychotic maniac, he certainly doesn't come off that way when he introduces himself to four girls in that Austin saloon; rather, he almost seems capable of talking his way past their defenses. He's charming, but he's still frightening, because you can't quite get a fix on what lurks beneath his smile. There are lots of reversals in "Death Proof," and many cliches upturned, but to reveal them would be to sabotage their impact. Nevertheless, they'll be much discussed for many years to come.
I do wonder how "Death Proof" will play on a second viewing--much of its impact comes from subverted expectations, and if you know where the film is headed, I'd imagine some of that impact is diluted. But then again, Tarantino's films are built as tough as that death-proof muscle car, and I wouldn't underestimate this one's longevity. I would like to point out, to contrast Rodriguez's and Tarantino's approach to "grindhouse," the gratuitous ass-shot in "Planet Terror" and the one in "Death Proof." The former comes when hottie Tammy (Stacy Ferguson, whom IMDB tells me played the voice of "Sally" in "It's Flashbeagle, Charlie Brown") bends over to inspect her broken-down car in a deserted highway glutted with green smoke. It's blatant--and followed by a lingering cleavage shot. I can tell you everyone in the theater got the joke. In "Death Proof," it's when Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito) heads over to the jukebox to spin another song which only Tarantino would think to put in a film. He holds the camera on her ass while it begins to sway to the rhythm of the music. And somehow, he's fulfilled both the obligations of exploitation cinema and Tarantino cinema. It's gratuitous, but it has soul.
Uneven? Both parts are great, and set different goals, so what does it matter? It's a double feature. For the standard ticket price, it's a bargain. Sadly, on DVD it just won't be the same. I would suggest the best substitute: many friends and many beers.