If you have any inclination to see Grindhouse, I’d recommend you get out to it quick. It hasn’t done too well at the box office this weekend, meaning it probably won’t last long in the theaters, but it’s a wonderful flick that I think is only really appreciated in a theater. If you’re not sure you’d like it, you probably won’t. But if the idea of Rose McGowan sporting a machine gun in the place of a leg and fighting zombies sounds incredibly awesome instead of incredibly dumb, it’s the movie for you.
For those not in the know, the movie consists of two parts: Planet Terror, a zombie movie by Robert Rodriguez, and Death Proof, Tarantino’s take on the gearhead thriller (not really a slasher movie at all the way many have said). Both are effectively full-length features, and either would have been worth the price of admission, but Tarantino’s is really something special for fans of his.
The entire thing is an homage to the old days of the “grindhouse,” the seedy theaters and drive-ins that showed double bills of low-budget exploitation movies. Think of it as direct-to-video before the invention of home video.
Planet Terror is hard to really pin down. It’s not quite a satire, but it’s not serious, either. It’s probably close to something like Army of Darkness (and don’t think that machine gun leg didn’t remind me of Ash’s chainsaw arm) — a movie whose characters take things seriously even when the filmmakers don’t.
While still delivering a gross-out time with lots of squishy zombies blowing up and/or eating people in creative ways, Rodriguez is constantly poking fun at the conventions of the genre, from the helpless-damsel-turned-heroine to the unlikely protagonist with a shadowy past. But it’s clear that he truly loves the good and the bad of B pictures.
In a lot of respects, it’s an improved version of From Dusk Till Dawn, which tried to capture the spirit of B movies but just got bogged down. Rodriguez has clearly improved as a director and a storyteller, as Planet Terror cruises along at such a breakneck pace that it’s impossible to figure out what’s going on. But then again it doesn’t really matter — stuff is getting blowed up in disgusting ways, and that’s all we want.
It really makes me think that there’s something to the discussion we had recently about guilty pleasures when I mentioned in the podcast that I sort of like Friday the Thirteenth: Part 3-D. Sam said it was a good bad movie, but I felt there was something more. I think Terror hints at a third way to enjoy movies that cuts to the core of why we like guilty pleasures: there are just some movies that really work for us, even though we know they contain little artistic merit and are stupid, but something about them strikes a chord in us at the right time.
Grindhouse is really about capturing that spirit and distilling it. In addition to the two films, there are several trailers for fake movies that are as funny as anything in the movie. Saying much about them is a spoiler, but trust me: if you have to go to the bathroom during the 180 minutes the flick is running, miss a few minutes of Planet Terror and not the trailers during the intermission.
Which brings me to Death Proof, Tarantino’s entry. You know that I’m a huge QT nerd, and I make no apologies for it. But while Rodriguez made a good bad movie (or maybe an entertaining guilty pleasure), QT went out and made a legitimately wonderful film. It’s almost like he didn’t get the memo.
The movie could stand entirely on its own and, I think, would be fairly well-received. It works better as part of the double feature, but it really threw me for a curve after watching Rodriguez’ gore-fest. At least half of the running time of Death Proof is dialogue, written in that wonderful Tarantino style.
(An aside: critics have been lambasting Grindhouse as being self-indulgent, which is true, but a silly criticism. When a French filmmaker makes an intensely personal movie, everybody loves him for it so long as it feels appropriately arty. When two guys who grew up watching splatter flicks make movies that speak to the things they love, suddenly they’re self-indulgent. I want to see movies that speak directly to the personality of the filmmakers, which is I think part of the reason there is something special in these old B movies. Those directors, working on shoestring budgets outside of the studio systems, were able to do whatever they wanted, which is partly why the movies are so awful and so interesting. Think Tim Burton’s Ed Wood.)
When the action in Death Proof does begin, it’s frenetic and amazing. The movie’s structure is also fascinating, and I unfortunately have to talk in circles around it because to know much about it is to ruin it. If you don’t know anything about the story, I would say to avoid reading any reviews because all the ones I’ve seen have spoiled things. I think it suffices to say it starts one way, goes another, and still another. It all makes perfect sense within the film and within the genre, but it’s hard to see coming.
Tarantino lays off the gore except for a few pivotal moments, and during those times we really feel the violence. It’s basically a real movie, barely tongue-in-cheek at all, but it still has lots of laughs that come naturally from the characters. It also features one tour-de-force conversation, a group of four girls eating breakfast in a single shot that seems to last forever. Compare this to the opening of Reservoir Dogs, and I think you’ll see how far QT has progressed as a director.
And above all else, please see these in a theater. The Saturday matinee I was at was full of people hooting, hollering, clapping, and loudly gagging in disgust at the appropriate times. I can’t imagine a better way to see it. There may not be a big audience for this movie, but it seems like those that are seeing it are seeing it with the right spirit.