Grindhouse (Dimension Films/The Weinstein Company, R)

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Hopefully, the experience of actually seeing Grindhouse will undo or at least help to undo the damage caused by the mainstream press regarding what it means to be a grindhouse movie. Just make your best effort to see it at the sleaziest, most criminal-ridden cinema that you can, and bring a weapon to go after the theatre management with in case one of the reels goes missing.

planetterrorFrom the initial announcement of Grindhouse, the Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez double feature throwback to the grindhouses of old, going into production, I was extremely excited.  But lately, the whole thing has been turning into more of a nightmare. The old grindhouses on 42nd Street in New York and the films they showed therein have been a topic of particular interest and study for me for years, and the vast majority of even the savviest moviegoing populace really haven’t known about them up until now (case in point: when I was working on my MA in film studies back in 2003, the first dissertation topic I pitched to my superiors was on how the grindhouse movies were precursors to the films of John Waters and Lloyd Kaufman, whose films were precursors to the gross-out movie boom of the late 90s; this topic was rejected because the head of the film department came out and admitted that she had no idea what a grindhouse movie was).

 

Now grindhouses and grindhouse films are getting tons of mainstream press as Grindhouse is getting a wide release, stars name actors and is made by two very popular and bankable directors. As is not surprising, this mainstream press is getting it all wrong, saying shit about how grindhouses showed movies like Night of the Living Dead to audiences in the rural Midwest. If you want to really learn about grindhouses, ignore this appalling misinformation, and go read Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford’s brilliant, thorough book Sleazoid Express, which details each theatre on 42nd Street and what grindhouse sub-genre films they were known to show (and what the best films of said genre are), or Jimmy McDonough’s biography of one of the more notorious grindhouse directors, Andy Milligan, entitled The Ghastly One: The Sex-Gore Netherworld of Filmmaker Andy Milligan. Or, if you prefer DVDs to books, put any of the three Ilsa movies on your Netflix queue (the first one, Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS, is the best, but all three are good), or Something Weird’s triple feature disc of Olga movies (Olga’s House of Shame, Olga’s Dance Hall Girls, and White Slaves of Chinatown), or any Andy Milligan film you can get your hands on (Something Weird released The Body Beneath and The Ghastly Ones and an obscure company called The Video Kart, Ltd. released a couple of double features, the best of which is The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves Are Here! coupled with The Bloodthirsty Butchers), or any of Synapse’s three recent releases of DVDs devoted to nothing but grindhouse movie trailers, the 42nd Street Forever series. If, a few months from now, I run into some young boys who say they are really into grindhouse movies, and if these boys think that grindhouse movies are movies like Night of the Living Dead, I’m going to lock them up with all of the 13-year-old girls who think Good Charlotte is punk.

Anyway, luckily for me, Tarantino and Rodriguez know what a goddamn grindhouse movie is, and Grindhouse is as much fun as I’ll probably have in a movie theater this year. It’s handy that, going in, Rodriguez’s film, Planet Terror, which stars Rose McGowan as a go-go dancer who loses a leg and gets it replaced with a gun, looks better than the Tarantino film, Death Proof, which stars Kurt Russell as a stuntman who drives a killer car that he likes to terrorize young girls in. Because Tarantino is a much more talented director with a much stronger track record, it’s nice to not feel like you will have to wait through Planet Terror to get to Death Proof. Grindhouse actually begins with a bunch of old logos and a trailer for the (non-existent) film Machete, which was mocked up by Rodriguez. From there it runs straight into Planet Terror, which plays a lot like a Troma movie, all bad makeup and people exploding like water balloons overfilled with Karo syrup and meat when shot. It’s a solid, thoroughly entertaining hour and a half of nonsensically plotted carnage that starts out great and never falls flat on its promise.


Between Planet Terror and Death Proof are three more fake movie trailers, directed by Rob Zombie (The Devil’s Rejects), Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead), and Eli Roth (Hostel). All four total trailers are great (the fourth being Machete), but Roth’s, Thanksgiving, stands out the most (although Zombie’s is a nice nod to the aforementioned Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS). There is no proper, black-screen intermission in Grindhouse’s 191-minute running time, which is sure to make the smokers and folks with weak bladders squirm, as it seems that people are anticipating seeing the fake trailers as much as they are seeing the two actual feature films.

I had some reluctance to like Death Proof at first, as it starts very slow and is a little too Tarantinian (meaning it is too disciplined, too knowing of pop culture, too talky), but its final twenty minutes are absolutely brilliant, and I think it has a slight edge in the which-film-is-better debate, as it contains what has to be the best car chase I’ve ever seen and some of the best and ballsiest stunt work this side of Buster Keaton.There’s some funny interplay between the two films (Rose McGowan appears in each film, playing different characters, and Marley Shelton appears in each film, playing the same character, etc.), and some maybe-not-intentional oddities, too: for example, Planet Terror is made to look like it is being projected from a really beaten up old print, but the sound is distractingly crystal clear, whereas Death Proof’s print looks way too clean and bright, but the sound is muddied up. Funny that Tarantino himself is the cinematographer on Death Proof. He has a real eye for it, but his compositions are probably too nice and accidentally lend the film too much credibility. In other places, McGowan’s Cherry Darling in Planet Terror looks like she’s straight out of a Russ Meyer movie (I’m inclined to believe Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! was an influence on both filmmakers; this is corroborated by the fact that it appears on one of the characters’ t-shirts in Death Proof) and is perfectly functional in her very limited role, which really only requires her to dance and look hot. I was very suspicious of Tarantino’s motivation to give relative unknown Zoë Bell (Uma Thurman’s stunt double for the Kill Bill movies) such a big part (playing herself, no less) when she isn’t particularly charismatic and can’t really act. Did he have a crush on her on set or something? Her casting becomes apparent in the car chase scene, though, and any misgivings you may have will be instantly washed away. Speaking of doubling Uma, Marley Shelton has a great, horrified/fried look in her eyes most of the time, but she seems to be playing Uma playing Beatrix Kiddo, not that that is necessarily a bad thing. And Adam Sandler’s real-life longtime assistant, Jonathan Loughran, steals the scene he’s in in Death Proof as the redneck who provides one half of the two cars that winds up in the following, insane car chase. And, satisfyingly, the original Alamo Drafthouse, an Austin landmark that is about to close (and is the subject of my current Celluloid Atrocities) is immortalized in the opening scenes of Death Proof.

Hopefully, the experience of actually seeing Grindhouse will undo or at least help to undo the damage caused by the mainstream press regarding what it means to be a grindhouse movie. Just make your best effort to see it at the sleaziest, most criminal-ridden cinema that you can, and bring a weapon to go after the theatre management with in case one of the reels goes missing. | Pete Timmermann

 

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