Even the name has me at a disadvantage. My nationality and my age conspired against me to make the term Grindhouse almost meaningless. Certainly I had heard of the term, it would be bandied around in the occasional message board discussion and review, but it never particularly had context. The assumption I always held was that it was short hand for extreme cinema. Certainly to me talk of Grindhouse would bring to mind the pervasive violence of Japanese samurai films, the exploitation of Italian horror, and the paradigm shifting of films like Shaft. Whilst the term is used to describe those sorts of films it is also used to describe bad films sold entirely on their risqué elements and that is where the confusion comes into play. Is the film I’m reviewing homage to pervasive cinema on the cusps of acceptability or homage to a marketing gimmick?
Perhaps it is a little of both, perhaps it is just an excuse for two directors to get a little puerility of their system. I think the most adequate answer is that each director is attempting to get something different from the experiment. Grindhouse is a modern double feature, one film from Robert Rodriguez and one film from Quentin Tarantino, designed to invoke the feel of watching a film in a 42nd Street theatre. The term Grindhouse would be birthed on that street and for a long time it would be the only place you’d be able to watch films on the periphery of popular culture. The films once shown at these cinemas are now available to the general populace. If you want to see a Kenneth Anger film you put an order into amazon.com and wait three days for delivery. You want to see Cannibal Holocaust you can catch the entirety of the film in bite sized snippets on YouTube.
Now I’m starting to talk in circles but I hope I have at least shed some light on my viewpoint. The key thing is that in 2007 Rodriguez and Tarantino teamed up to make a three hour love letter to a type of cinema so niche that even people familiar with films had trouble categorising it. Distributed by those ever lovable Weinstein scamps the film kind of bombed spectacularly forcing the two movies to be split into separate features. Grindhouse would become Planet Terror and Death Proof the original intention of a double bill lost almost immediately. Grindhouse would have a limited run in the United States but at least it was a run, the film not getting a release anywhere else. In fact after the opening fortnight the only place to see the original cut of the film, and the fake trailers placed in-between the two features, would be by importing the ludicrously expensive Japanese DVD.
For whatever reason, maybe somebody sacrificed a goat, Grindhouse made it to the United Kingdom almost a year after its American debut. We had had the two separate, and extended, films since last November but the whole package had never made it to these shores. It was not a full run, more of a touring show, playing two nights at selected cinemas across the country throughout late March and April. I was lucky enough to see the film at its second showing in this country. I had already seen the extended Planet Terror but was going into the fake trailers and Tarantino’s Death Proof completely fresh. Rather aptly the film played across midnight, starting at 11pm and finishing at around 2 the following morning. The cinema would be half deserted, the few people there already well versed in the films being shown, but the effect would be rapturous none the less.
I first saw Planet Terror in early November on the opening night of the Leeds International Film Festival. The cinema was packed and the two previous films shown had created a palpable sense of excitement. In short my first encounter with Planet Terror was aided by a truly, truly, great audience. Planet Terror is a film designed to play to crowds, a gooey, funny, gory, gross, over the top party film. Robert Rodriguez would take his zombie apocalypse story and turn it into a truly crowd pleasing affair. I will make this clear now; I am not a particular fan of the director Robert Rodriguez has become. I legitimately love Desperado and From Dusk Till Dawn and find The Faculty to be an enjoyable diversion whenever I find it on the television. Of these films only one of them seems to be an actual Rodriguez feature. From Dusk Till Dawn feels like more of a collaboration that anything else and The Faculty seemed to showcase a Rodriguez reined in by the studios.
As such Desperado would be the only true Rodriguez film I would come to appreciate and part of this appreciation was the focus the limited budget gave the film. All of Rodriguez’s films would be ultimately hollow, but Desperado would be the only one to be at least viscerally thrilling.
His further forays into action cinema would be far too messy and unfocused to have the same impact the neat and confined Desperado had. Once Upon A Time In Mexico capped off the El Mariachi trilogy and upped the scope from a battle over a town to a war over a country. This increase in scope would be the films ultimate undoing, the grand canvas allowing Rodriguez access to too many elements and not enough resolutions. His collaboration with Frank Miller on Sin City would once again showcase the faults in his fast and loose shooting style. Whilst the film visually matched Miller’s comic book its action sequences were edited so roughly and portrayed with so little weight that they almost became superfluous. Throughout these films Rodriguez would never develop intellectually either, his focus on technique and spectacle above tone making his films seem increasingly juvenile.
It is telling that Rodriguez’s most accomplished films would be those aimed at children, his Spy Kids trilogy maintaining a consistency that most of his other films couldn’t match. Rodriguez’s talents lay in being a showman, in delivering fun and spectacle and his attempts to move beyond that would, for me, be abject failures. Which is why, after failing to produce a film I’d liked in nearly a decade, my appreciation of Rodriguez’s Planet Terror was so surprising.
The material and the director would be perfectly suited, the master showman equipping himself with a plot that was essentially justification for jokes, set pieces and gross effects. Whereas Tarantino would deliver a pitch perfect assimilation of a Grindhouse film Rodriguez would create an over the top action spectacle and then retrograde the whole thing with digital print damage and missing loops. In doing so he would fail to capture the spirit of Grindhouse but would instead find the formula that had apparently eluded him since 1998.
The first film that crossed my mind when I was watching Planet Terror was Chuck Russell’s criminally underappreciated 1980s remake of The Blob. Whilst Planet Terror’s aesthetic would owe more to Carpenter and Italian horror masters, the core of the film was decidedly 1950s and as such Russell’s previous fusion of eighties gore and fifties plotting seemed an obvious comparison. Certainly Planet Terror would be a funner film than The Blob, becoming a piece of entertainment designed to wink at the audience more than anything else, but I couldn’t get that initial thought out of my head whilst watching the film.
Like The Blob the film revels in its very gory and very practical effects, lovingly framed shots of dissolving limbs, broken bones and degenerating humans littering the film. But whereas The Blob asked us to at least attempt to pity the characters involved, Planet Terror would actively encourage audience complicity in the death and destruction. There is a sense of ridiculousness to the film which makes it hard to view the film as anything other than general spectacle; this is especially true when combined with the constant digital film damage which is an almost constant reminder that what you are watching is completely fake.
The cast do a great job with what they are given, each of them pretty much a cipher in a very elaborate spoof. Rose McGowan, Josh Brolin, Jeff Fahey and Bruce Willis all seem to understand that the film is silly enough and play their roles as straight as possible to even greater effect. In particular a short speech made by Muldoon (Willis) about the execution of Osama Bin Laden is delivered with so much fervour and gravitas that it becomes inexplicably (and intentionally) hilarious. Brolin does such a good job as Doc. Block that his sudden descent into outright villainy is a complete curveball for the audience, his initial moments of screentime setting his character up as a potential hero. McGowan is given the unenviable task of being the emotional core of the film and does an adequate job although she seems far more at ease when she just has to be pithy. It is impossible to really judge acting in a film like this, a good barometer for McGowan is the fact that she gives the ludicrous finale at least a hint of gravitas.
McGowan’s character Cherry Darling loses her leg about a quarter of the way into the film. The finale of the film is built around one key visual joke, Cherry’s stump being fitted with a high powered machine gun. As a quick visual gag it is fantastic, but then it is used as the major resolution to the movie and we are subjected to the same joke for about five minutes. If that was not bad enough it is also a gag ruined in the trailer for the film and most of the films advertising material. Still McGowan manages to get her Linda Hamilton on and actually deliver a thrilling and energetic action performance, transmogrifying from pitiful go-go dancer to saviour of the world in the space of one reel. She achieves all of this despite looking inherently ridiculous and having to work with choreography which eschews the logic and physics of the rest of the film.
The rest of the cast are largely variable, Michael Biehn seems happy to be working, Naveen Andrews plays his part perhaps a little too campy, Tom Savini seems like he is just waiting for his inevitable gory death, Marley Shelton is a little all over the place and Freddy Rodriguez as the film’s second lead is unfortunately a black hole of charisma. Playing the enigmatic El Wray Rodriguez seems more interested in the action set pieces than anything else and doesn’t have the kind of fun you’d imagine a more seasoned actor would have with the character.
Going back to what I wrote earlier one of my main quandaries about the film is exactly how it is representative of Grindhouse. Surprisingly for a Rodriguez film there is far too much gloss on show. The film, despite scratches in the print and cameras in shot now and then, looks pristine and its action sequences are staged in a way that would have been beyond most directors working on Grindhouse films. Even the score can’t help but sound polished, the quaint electronica of the soundtrack giving way to forceful, pounding, well produced rock music as soon as anything interesting happens. As such it is a film that often feels in conflict with itself, adopting the aesthetic of Grindhouse but failing to meaningfully recreate the experience.
So if Planet Terror isn’t really a Grindhouse film what is it? It is largely a comedy, a fun film which takes the action horror genre and reveals it for its innate ridiculousness. It is a film that has a character that carries two daggers specifically designed to remove testicles, a high speed chase on a miniature motorbike, Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas getting her brain ripped out of her cranium, inexplicably exploding vehicles, Tarantino’s cock melting off and a missing reel which banks on the fact that audiences know exactly what is going to happen to the characters. It is this moment that secures Planet Terror as a fantastic parody, a sudden cut from a steamy sex scene to a point about thirty minutes later in the film. What is great about this cut is that we know what is going to happen in the second act, we know everything is going to go to shit and that the outcast loner is going to redeem himself somehow. By excising a chunk of this second act it critiques the genre whilst being a hilarious joke in of itself.
But whilst Planet Terror may be a wry spoof it is also a demonstration of Rodriguez at his most vibrant and skilful. Planet Terror is a putridly beautiful film, Rodriguez’s work on Sin City giving him an eye for design and composition he had never had before. Despite his attempts at degrading the look of the film it is visually striking, a point brought forth by the iconic marketing material. The image of Dakota Block, mascara smeared down her pearly face, was one of the marketing focal points and it is this kind of iconography that the film gets just right. Matching this visual style is writing from Rodriguez that is uncommonly sharp, his understanding of the genre allowing him to play around with audience expectations. Lines like ‘Where’s the shit’ and ‘Go Go, not Cry Cry’ are all puerile and infantile but work in setting up the tone of the film.
Whereas Rodriguez would make a film that looked like an old Grindhouse movie, in terms of film damage, Tarantino would make a film that replicated the feel of an old Grindhouse movie. Whereas Planet Terror has the non-stop thrills of a big budget action movie Death Proof is constructed around two action sequences and a whole lot of talking in-between. The fact that Tarantino makes this talking almost as interesting as the automotive mayhem is a feat in of itself. Then again Tarantino has come from a background of talky films, only his fourth film containing anything you could describe as an action sequence.
Of course that fourth film was the kind of action spectacle that even cast a pall over the Matrix sequels and Rodriguez’s tale of Mariachi inspired Mexican revolution. What Kill Bill would showcase was Tarantino’s ability to absorb cinema, replicate technique and add his own twist. It seemed that by simply watching old Shaw Brothers and Chambara films he learnt how to stage and shoot action sequences which would have been legitimately impressive for any director. Yet Tarantino, despite having a start that was more theatre than film, carried it off effortlessly. The same thing happens in Death Proof, his two moments of vehicular chaos shot with the kind of precision and skill that would suggest he’d been filming chase movies for years.
The central conceit of Death Proof is as such, there is a man known as Stuntman Mike. He is a stuntman who used to specialise in vehicular stunts and now finds himself past his prime. With a specially ‘death proofed’ car he commits vehicular homicide by staging brutal traffic accidents. The film follows his interactions with two very different groups of girls. I will get back to Mike later, but I will warn any reader now that this review is going to be particularly spoiler ridden from this point on. Spoilers aren’t really important in a film like this, there is no real twist and the ending is as you would expect but I felt it fair to give some warning.
Death Proof opens to the car revs of Jack Nitzche’s The Last Race, the shot drifting from an inside view of a car to the inside of an apartment. Even this first shot sets up a lot of things about the film, particularly the tone and self awareness the film will have. Even the fact that the film lingers on the feet of its female stars (a noted Tarantino fascination) sets up that this is a film acutely aware of its audience knowledge base. Grindhouse is pretty much a fetish film, designed for a very particular and very insular group of cinema fans and moments like that show that Death Proof is very aware of who its audience is and what they expect from the film.
The girls of the film are split into two categories; the first group are the victims of the piece, their deaths avenged in a way by the actions of the second group. More screentime is given to the first set of girls who are essentially a group of young party girls. Jungle Julia is Austin’s local DJ, a miniature celebrity on the cusp of apparent greatness, Shana seems to be your archetypal rich girl (to be honest we are not given much information about or reason to care for her) and Arlene is an out of towner visiting friends. We spend a good fifty minutes in the company of these girls and the one thing that becomes abundantly clear is that Tarantino’s trademark dialogue needs exactly the right kind of context and cadence to work correctly.
Tarantino’s dialogue sounds fine when being spouted by Samuel L Jackson, or John Travolta, or Michael Parks, or even Uma Thurman. They can approach the material from the angle it needs to be approached from and give life and reality to what is very unreal writing. The “royale with cheese” exchange in Pulp Fiction works because of the way Jackson and Travolta deliver it; there is a conversational vibe which transforms it from being overly wordy into being perfectly natural. Similarly the “Like A Virgin” conversation which kicks off Reservoir Dogs has an ascribed reality due to the performances involved. The problem with Death Proof is that Tarantino seems unsure of how to write dialogue for these girls and as such he cuts back on his trademark chit chat. The result is that for fifty minutes we are forced to listen to Tarantino’s approximation of girl talk, imbued with some bizarre pop culture references every now and then. There are flourishes of humanity (oddly they are all but excised from the original cut, the actual fun conversations only appearing in the extended edition) but too often the dialogue is just nebulous and forced.
As such the three characters are reduced to simple archetypes. Shana doesn’t like being called Shauna and has a father rich enough to own a lake house, Jungle Julia is on the cusp of fame, is trying to screw somebody rich and famous, is a world class bitch, and takes umbrage at being relied upon to score weed and Arlene is the timid survivor girl of the trio. Despite attempts to liven up the girls with references to Zatoichi films and 70s rock bands they never serve any purpose other than to be disposable victims. Of course that is kind of the point; the first half of the film seems to be establishing the legend of Stuntman Mike.
Stuntman Mike is of course the villain of the piece but in the first half he is also perhaps the more magnetic character in the film. Part of this is the performance from Kurt Russell who seems to be genuinely relishing his presence in the film. He gives Mike a wounded sort of pride and his previous roles kind of make you sympathetic towards him from the off. Russell is ostensibly a good guy; I think I’ve seen him play one slightly villainous role in his entire career, so we approach the character with a degree of baggage. For me in particular Kurt Russell was a childhood hero, a matinee showing of The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes was one of the first films I ever saw at a cinema and my teenage years would be made all the better by films like Escape from New York, The Thing and Big Trouble In Little China. Hell at one point I even had a soft spot for Stargate and Tango and Cash.
As such I was pretty much rapt by Stuntman Mike during my first viewing; particularly in the first half he plays the role of the pervasive, all knowing threat exceptionally well. Mike is an odd character in that he is on one hand quite charismatic and on one hand obviously wounded and quite pitiful. He is insightful but also cut off from people, his discussion of his stunt working failing to have any impact but his analysis of Arlene allowing him to get what he wants. He is a classic misanthrope, but a misanthrope with pretence of charm. What is interesting is the way the film views the character. Just before he kills the first set of girls his character stares at the screen and gives the viewer a cheesy grin. It is a moment, like the wink in Funny Games, which makes the audience complicit in what is about to happen.
By this point the audience are waiting for something, anything, to break the tedium. Taken in isolation the opening of Death Proof is still a lot of fun by its own merits, spotting references and some exuberant performances making the time fly by, but after the adrenaline burst of Planet Terror we’re left jonesing for something exciting to happen. Rather oddly the first victim doesn’t fall into line the way you would expect.
Rose McGowan appears in Death Proof as a completely different character, despite Death Proof and Planet Terror occurring in the same universe and apparently same city, and delivers a performance that is quietly charming. Playing a girl dumped by her boyfriend at the bar where Mike is stalking his victims she has the bad luck to accept a lift home from him. Her fate doesn’t fit into the adrenaline charged spectacle of what follows, her character is actually likeable enough and her fate vicious enough to be a sort of jolt of consciousness. What happens to her is truly horrific and yet the film continues on in its stride setting up its big car crash with great gusto and excitement.
After the mild horror of McGowan’s death Tarantino seems to falter for a moment, giving us a moment of quiet before he really amps things up. If we were meant to feel sympathy at all for Rose then surely the following scene in which four more girls are brutally killed should be just as horrific. But Tarantino doesn’t play that way, he sets the scene up for us to savour, he creates iconography and in one instant creates a focal point for the movie. As the girls drive home, all drunk and stoned and all but one of them without a seat belt, they actually put on the pop rock anthem which will make their death so iconic.
The thudding beat of Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mich and Tich’s Hold Tight is supplied by Jungle Julia and we’re even offered a quick introduction to the song that will underscore their death. As the base loops in, the girls having a right old time rocking out, Mike passes their car in his souped up death proofed vehicle. His handbrake turn synchs with the music perfectly, the head on collision crescendoing with the music itself. We are then shown the crash from four different angles to highlight the individual fates of the four occupants of the car. Shana is propelled through the windscreen, the driver gets knackered by the steering column, Julia has her leg sliced off at the hip and Arlene in a cruel twist is given the worst fate. The shot of her wearing a seatbelt suggests that she is going to survive, she has already been set up as the survivor girl by her interactions with Mike and the focus the film has given her. As such when the wheel of Mike’s car literally caves in her face it comes as something of a shock.
The film makes a quick stop off in Planet Terror (with Earl McGraw and Dakota Block speculating on what happened) before the film jumps forward 18 months to a new set of girls. This is where the film takes its biggest diversions and actually becomes a tad more cerebral than the first half would lead you to believe. For starters the film stops using its box of Grindhouse tricks. Audio is no longer looped, the film is no longer scratched, and the image quality is comparable to Tarantino’s usual oeuvre. Whereas the first group of girls were destined to be victims, the second group seem destined to be antagonists. For starters the second group of girls are allowed to have conversations without the film breaking them off mid sentence. The girls are all part of the film world, Zoë and Kim are stuntwomen (Zoë Bell is essentially playing herself), whilst Abernathy and Lee are a make up girl and actress respectively.
If nothing else the second half of Death Proof is a love letter to Zoë Bell, a stunt woman who had worked with Tarantino on Kill Bill. Despite fudging some of her lines and seeming a little out of her depth acting wise Bell is almost as magnetic as Russell and provides the only real counterpoint to Mike’s rampant charisma. Rosario Dawn is cute and charming as Abernathy, whilst Lee’s only purpose in the film seems to be the victim of a particularly unsettling joke. Tracie Thom got a lot of stick when the film was released and it is easy to see why, her character is probably a little too extreme for the movie being presented.
Her constant stream of swearing and use of the word nigger makes the film almost uncomfortable at times. In fact her characters constant use of racial slurs brought to mind Denzel Washington’s famous stand off with Tarantino on the set of Crimson Tide. Washington would call Tarantino on his use of the word on set and in the script and its excessive use in Death Proof brought that to mind. Despite some sex talk, apparently Tarantino’s default dialogue for girls is about ‘the thing’, and a story about Zoë and Abernathy in the Far East the characters are defined less by what they say and more by what they do.
The majority of Death Proof’s second half is taken up by a car chase between Mike and three of the girls. Originally starting off with Mike as the pursuer, harassing the girls as they attempt a foolish and ridiculously dangerous stunt, the tone of the film completely changes when the girls start to pursue the Stuntman. Both using amped up muscle cars the chase is fast, furious and frantic and once again shows Tarantino as being a master assimilator. Certainly one of the important elements to the chase is the reality of actually having two cars driving around at insane speeds and at point having Zoë Bell actually clutched onto the bonnet of a Dodge going at full pelt.
Of course the most important aspect of the second half is the reaction Mike has to women who he can’t easily overwhelm. His change from hunter to hunted is done perfectly with Mike revealing himself to be a shrieking, gutless, coward. His pleading for mercy and shrill cries of pain completely changes the tone of the film. What Death Proof, in my mind, seeks to do is deconstruct the idea of the pervasive male aggressor. Mike is a stand in for an audience who watch horror films to rejoice in the slaughter, who root for Jason and Freddy and Michael Myers. Of course he is a movie character so his traits are obviously enhanced, but is easy to draw parallels to his social stunted misogyny and the social stunted misogyny of posters on AICNs talkbacks who wished that he had ‘killed those bitches’.
The tragedy of course is that this will be lost on many people, it is a subtle point made in a film that is often not subtle at all. A further tragedy is that Kurt Russell’s excellent portrayal of the character is probably going to get overlooked by a lot of people because of this tonal shift. To take this iconic character and then show him at his most pitiful is an incredibly brave thing to do and Russell carries it off perfectly. Originally Mickey Rourke was meant to take the role of Stuntman Mike and to be honest I don’t see how that could possible have worked. Rourke wouldn’t be able to play Mike as the coward he truly is. The sudden descent into Russ Meyer’s territory is what makes Death Proof so smart and funny. It is a film that embraces the violence inherent in the genre and then asks us to question our enjoyment of the carnage.