The Reeler


April 6, 2007


Double trouble tribute to lost genre lovingly made -- and yet lazy in its reinvention

During his rise in the '90s, Quentin Tarantino began periodically swaggering down to Austin, Texas with prints of B-flicks from his personal collection on hand, each time sharing his drooling passion for psychotronica and other exploitation films during a 10-day film festival. The curated experience, marked by Tarantino's giddy intros and giddier laughter from the back of the Alamo Drafthouse theater, was probably the perfect introduction to the cheap, envelope-pushing perversity that used to screen at sketchy, all-night "grindhouse cinemas" in the '60s and '70s.

It is disappointingly clear that Grindhouse -- co-directed by Tarantino and Sin City's Robert Rodriguez as a trashy throwback to this subculture of midnight deviancy -- had no such curator to keep indulgence in check. Lovingly made and yet lazy in its reinvention, it’s as if the duo thought straight homage was edgy enough to withstand the dulling down that happens when so-called cult cinema is spoon-fed to audiences as a market-tested wide release. Grindhouse is compelling enough to play for over three hours without sagging, but it's not the mind-blowing ride it presents itself to be. Frankly, its affected mean-spiritedness is inexcusably tame, especially when compared to the lurid rarities programmed at each QT Fest.

Straight from the drive-in, Grindhouse's boldest quality is the bona fide value of a double feature, including fake trailers by Rob Zombie, Eli Roth and Simon Wright (which might be the three best moments in the whole she-bang). Rodriguez helms the first feature, an espionage-filled zombie spaz-out entitled Planet Terror, starring Rose McGowan as a go-go dancer who wants more out of life in small-town Texas. On the night she leaves the pole behind, a biological weapon is unleashed upon a nearby military base, pitting amputee McGowan (with a machine gun for her lost leg), her bad-ass ex (Freddy Rodriguez), the sheriff who despises him (Michael Biehn), his grizzled BBQ-shack proprietor of a brother (Jeff Fahey), an adulterous anesthetist (Marley Shelton) and an eccentric supporting cast against a puss-squirting legion of infected soldiers and locals.

Rodriguez could be the heir apparent to George Lucas, insomuch as he's an ambitious but limited writer-director whose savvy lies in pushing the technology of filmmaking. In his hands, the gonzo over-plotting of Planet Terror actually benefits from his rut of uninspired camerawork and lousy dialogue (he'd probably tell you awkward zingers like "There's a difference between being frank and being dick" are intentional, but they're no more dissonant than anything else he has penned).

With its winking attention to old-school aesthetics, Planet Terror is an ode to the ghetto-theater gore of yore: There are cheesy zooms, intentional focus problems, hilariously fake and jellied blood, a synth score indebted to early John Carpenter, and even the print is digitally stylized to look dirty and scratched up. But for all the kitchen-sink chaos, the imagery never burns into the brain the way that of the sickening sundries it apes could. McGowan's fully automatic gam is perhaps the only gag comparable to the iconicity of a zombie-versus-shark battle in Lucio Fulci's Zombi 2, or a woman's breast ripped off by the undead in Jorge Grau's Let Sleeping Corpses Lie. Who knows, maybe seeing Tom Savini torn apart Dawn of the Dead-style is enough to keep the fanboy message boards afire. But unlike Scream -- which parodies slashers while still adhering to their rules -- Planet Terror's adherences don't utilize hindsight to transcend mere genre exercise. It's forced fun.

Tarantino's Death Proof has stayed with me longer, owing more to Kurt Russell's sly performance as the eye-scarred Stuntman Mike -- a misogynistic motor-psycho who likes to kill nubile girls with his reinforced stunt car -- than any of the director’s idiosyncrasies or his admirable debut as cinematographer. This one's part teen slasher, part redneck car-chase frenzy, and bifurcated almost exactly so as a formalist experiment: it's not quite as superficially exacting as Planet Terror (Tarantino's references are mainly spoken, not the tongue-in-cheeky visual gags that make Rodriguez grin), nor is it the cleverly blended mix tape of nostalgic genres that made his Kill Bill epic a far more original double feature than Grindhouse. Here, he attempts instead to make a neo-grindhouse film that belongs in the same (gulp!) canon, as if all those ugly, cynical cheapies just needed 21st century ingenuity and a real budget to achieve their potential as works of art. That's called setting the bar high, which is impressive for a goal that was doomed to fail, and emphasizes Tarantino's belief that he's a cinema god whose shit don't stink.

For point of reference, Death Proof's opening shot lingers down Colorado Street in Austin, just to show off the aforementioned Alamo theatre. A car load of leggy lovelies (Sydney Tamiia Poitier, Jordan Ladd and Vanessa Ferlito) chat endlessly in long takes about their dating habits and where to score pot, all while name-dropping real Austin hangouts like Guero's and Antone's. Tarantino keeps the tone mellow, but there's no subtlety in where the clunky pacing is heading: once Russell begins to simultaneously charm and scare the girls as a background fixture of the Texas Chili Parlor, you can sense the tension will go from 0 to 60 mph in a blink. The payoff of slaughter is graphic and shown in multiple angles for squeamish effect, but then Tarantino resets the timer and does it again with four new babes, including Rosario Dawson and real-life stuntwoman Zoe Bell (Uma's double in Kill Bill) as herself.

Déjà vroom: the second lengthy conversation is long -- too long -- and though it's refreshing to hear actresses swearing and busting each other's chops instead of cooing like girlfriends in a yogurt commercial, the dialogue still feels owned by Tarantino. Then it's time for a car chase between two Dodges, one a white Challenger like that used in Vanishing Point, the other a black Charger driven by the roguish murderer. Turning the "final girl" rule of slashers on its ear by making Russell a whining dog on the lam as the second set of girls begin to stalk him, Tarantino's arrogance gets in the way again; excitingly devoid of helicopter shots and relying on ballsy '70s-style realism (Bell is really on the hood of that car, and Russell is often really behind the wheel), the chase smugly poses as the ultimate of its kind, and just like Grindhouse itself, was perhaps a bigger blast to make than it is for us to consume.

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Comments (2)

Tame? You call Eli Roth's trailer and the absurdities in both Planet Terror and Death Proof tame?!

"uninspired camerawork and lousy dialogue" that's meant to be the case... You call it lazy when that is exactly the grindhouse nature they were hoping to achieve. It’s not meant to be ground breaking technically, but rather as cheesy as it can get.

Although you can have your own opinion rightfully, you missed the ball here. I'm glad you liked it, but you're attacking it unnecessarily and putting negative emphasis on everything that made it good.

Tame, yes. I've seen exploitation and mondo films that make you want to tear your skin off because a shower wouldn't be cleansing enough... films that make you worry you'll be arrested just for watching them. THAT'S grindhouse. There is nothing dangerous nor subversive about this double feature, served up in a multiplex under an R-rating. What's so daring about that?

It's also a common misconception that this is a genre about cheesiness or being "so bad they're good." We're not talking about B-movies alone, but exploitation films. True depravity. Fucked up shit you never thought you'd see with your own eyes. This ain't your grandpa's Ed Wood.

You're as entitled to your opinions as I am mine, but I'm not attacking anything but fairly and critically. I expected to have more fun with this ride, but the goods weren't delivered. Is that my fault?

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