The Theory of Chaos

Thursday, December 13, 2007

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Grindhouse (Double Feature)

Originally published 5/12/07
Both features reviewed behind the cut


Double Feature of
Planet Terror and Death Proof, with Inter-Feature material
: Elizabeth Avellan, Robert Rodriguez, Erica Steinberg, Quentin Tarantino
Inter-Feature Material Written/Directed by
: Robert Rodriguez, Rob Zombie, Edgar Wright, Eli Roth
Inter-Feature Material Stars
: Danny Trejo, Cheech Marin, Sybil Danning, Udo Kier, Jordan Ladd, Michael Biehn, Matthew Macfadyen, Sheri Moon Zombie, Bill Moseley, Eli Roth, Tom Towles, and Nicolas Cage as “Fu Manchu”

The porn movie
Deep Throat became a worldwide sensation in 1972, grossing an unverifiable amount of money in the hundreds of millions and igniting a phase of “porn chic”, in which America briefly felt a little less guilty about associating with the purveyors of sex-as-entertainment. Star Linda Lovelace even got to attend the Oscars. But there was a backlash, and mob complications, and FBI investigations, and obscenity arrests. In 1974, the movie Deep Throat II was cut to achieve an “R”-rating and thus avoid any such headaches. This meant there was no hardcore sexual activity in it. It could easily be argued this amounted to a surrender of the movie’s purpose.

Then in 1975,
Jaws (another movie about a big mouth) helped transform the way mainstream motion pictures were marketed and distributed. Hollywood began to retrofit its machinery around a new mission – capturing the disposable income of the teenagers. They knew well enough what teenagers like – violence and sex and cars. And yet they felt a need to retain a veneer of respectability. They had to answer to parents’ groups. They had to protect “the children”. They had to stay away from those “adult” ratings. They had to get the insurance companies to sign off on the stunts. And so they tried to provide a polished, but slightly neutered, version of the violence and sex and cars, and hope to make up the rest with overwhelming marketing.

“Grindhouse” cinema is a slang term that arose to define movies which had no use for such niceties and snuck in the cracks in the distribution system. Combining Asian imports with American and British exploitation movies, movies that fit this label were cheap and, since they couldn’t afford to be anything less, nuts. Their strain to top each other was the equivalent of a mating dance, luring kids with the promise of more breasts, bigger engines, bloodier wounds. In their ruddy way they provided the essence of what Pauline Kael understood when she saw the vintage Japanese poster for a James Bond movie that called him “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”. They were what the kids wanted to see, with no polish, no pretense and a scant amount of taste.

Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino are two filmmakers who’ve thrived by trying to inject a little of that unadorned appreciation for kissing and banging into “respectable” cinema. In their own way they each care passionately about the dirty side of this medium, and embrace it with sufficient force from their creative subconscious to, once in awhile, make crazy art from it. Their collaboration
From Dusk Till Dawn, which Rodriguez directed and Tarantino wrote and co-starred in, was a similarly berserk production that started out as a burglars-on-the-run thriller before transforming, giddily, into vampire horror. It can be retroactively spotted as an early evolution of this, their latest act of bucket-of-guts brotherhood.

is a tribute, and something more as well. It’s a purification ritual, and a test – exploitation with no safety net. In form it’s a loving replica of the Grindhouse experience. Each filmmaker provides a short, super-violent feature film (reviewed individually below), with mostly physical special effects, limited sets, and a deliberately unpolished presentation designed to replicate the kinds of flaws you might have seen in cheap neighborhood movie houses of the time.

There’s scratches on the print, hairs in the projector, awkward splices, and even a missing reel or two – naturally, containing what was apparently oodles of plot information and probably some sex, too. There’s a reason why popcorn got thrown at screens in movies like this.

Before and in-between the features are commercials for local Tex-Mex food and fake movie trailers, directed by fellow fans Rob Zombie (
House of 1,000 Corpses), Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead), and Eli Roth (Hostel). Each is as plausible as it is daft and hilarious – Roth’s in particular, for a stalking serial killer picture called Thanksgiving, achieves both stunning authenticity and moments of the most surreal disgust.

Since these trailers are as entertaining as anything else that happens, and worth staying in your seat, you are committing almost three-and-a-quarter hours to this experience, which is a bit much. Five minutes less from each feature might have gone a long way. But movies like this were made by people who didn’t have the luxury of reflection. They were a full-pedaled scream down a one-way road, with only the most fevered imaginations reaching the end. Part of the devilish ecstasy of
Grindhouse is seeing just where these gifted filmmakers will go with minimal restraint. What you find sloppy, or frustrating, or just plain bonkers will be, to the person sitting next to you, The Coolest Thing They Have Ever Seen In a Movie Theatre. And you’ll find pleasures of your own, between the bits you can’t stomach.


Planet Terror

: Robert Rodriguez
Writer: Robert Rodriguez
Stars: Rose McGowan, Freddy Rodríguez, Marley Shelton, Josh Brolin, Michael Biehn, Jeff Fahey, Bruce Willis, Naveen Andrews, Tom Savini, Nicky Katt, Michael Parks, and The Dirty Babysitter Twins

There are few more ecstatic arenas for the tearing-asunder of fake bodies than the zombie movie, and this is where Robert Rodriguez has chosen to spend Planet Terror, his half of Grindhouse. In this world, bullets don’t pierce limbs, they explode them. Bodies run over by cars burst and gush like mannequins with Kool-Aid piping through them. People are sawed, chewed, violently injected, eviscerated, and stabbed through the eyeball.

Then there’s Deputy Tolo (Tom Savini), who uses an interesting technique where he punches a ghoul with the barrel of his revolver while simultaneously pulling the trigger, the resulting effect looks like people boxing with nitroglycerine on their gloves. If you are the kind of person who sees Tom Savini, Carlos Gallardo, and Michael Biehn, in Sheriff’s uniforms, bursting through a pair of doors, and gets geeked-up about it, you are most definitely the target audience for this picture.

The horror unfolds in a small Texas town near the de rigueur abandoned military base where strange experiments are going on. A cloud of ominous green vapor is accidentally released, along with a few “specimens”, and soon things are getting very busy down at the local hospital.

Our heroes are El Wray (Freddy Rodríguez), a marksman and mechanic with a secret past, and his former love Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan), an exotic dancer whose body is so hot it (literally) burns out the film at a tender moment. They and a few other survivors move from the hospital to a local barbecue restaurant to the military base itself, picking up more survivors along the way.

The how and the why of these zombies feels scarcely considered, infection is spread arbitrarily by the needs of the plot. Some of the zombies are the traditional lurching flesh-eaters. Others make use of simple tools. Some can speak and reason and carry grudges against the living. By the end they’re using heavy ordinance. Bub from George Romero’s Day of the Dead would be proud.

Mixing the goofy with the grotesque, Rodriguez is obeying the Grindhouse spirit, if not necessarily its traditional technical constraints. He uses computer effects to achieve otherwise impossible visuals, like Cherry losing a leg, first having it replaced by a table leg, then by a rifle. When El Wray jams the rifle into her leg stump, her response is almost sexual, and the layers of perversity you must ponder within a moment like that are the reason you turn these filmmakers loose.

Rodrgiuez has shown a consistent fascination with misplaced or malfunctioning body parts, going back to Johnny Depp’s eyeless gunfighter in Once Upon a Time In Mexico and the baby-faced cannibal played by Elijah Wood in Sin City. This time he adds a doctor (Marley Shelton) coping with the numbing effects of a powerful muscle tranquilizer, shlumping to freedom from the hordes like a panicked marionette. By combining zombies with Texas barbecue, he and the legendary splatter wizards of KNB EFX get to abuse just about every combination of innards and outtards available, as well as explore many variations on uses and locations for the oozing pustule.

But by being so dismissive of any boundaries, it does, at times, seem to throw out the undead baby with the poisoned bathwater. There’s a moment where something genuinely wrenching and awful happens involving gun safety, and the movie has so little time to face it you wonder why anyone thought it was a good idea to include it when the tone is already so zig-zag. Stunt-casting Bruce Willis as an enigmatic general seems to violate the fragile sense of B-movie integrity, this is a picture made for the almost famous, like Josh Brolin as a sadistic surgeon, and Jeff Fahey as the cook who swears his secret sauce recipe won’t even be revealed over his dead body. Quentin Tarantino cameos here, as he does in his own half, and his characteristically blatant poor acting is ironically more appropriate than that of his co-stars, like a signpost declaring “You must be at least THIS untalented to appear in this picture.” And I still can’t figure out why that guy collects peoples’ testicles.

What makes Planet Terror the less-satisfying half of Grindhouse to me is that I don’t really sense Robert Rodriguez doing anything he hasn’t previously shown himself free or willing to do. Churning out movies from his one-man studio in Austin faster than one a year, many of them already hammering against the boundaries of the “R”-rating, he’s always thrived on free-range perversity and dismemberment. The intentional presentational flubs and low-tech design simply have a comforting appeal, like his aesthetic has finally come home.


Death Proof
: Quentin Tarantino
Writer: Quentin Tarantino
Stars: Kurt Russell, Zoe Bell, Tracie Thoms, Rosario Dawson, Sydney Poitier, Vanessa Ferlito, Rose McGowan, Jordan Ladd, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Monica Staggs

From the beginning of his career Quentin Tarantino has had very little use for the usual expressions of the 3-Act structure, or for restraint in dialogue for that matter. He has a habit, more agonizing with each passing film, of lulling us into interminable verbal negotiations between characters who we know are merely proxies for his style fetish and cultural obsession of the month. As a portal for lost artifacts of 70’s music, cinema, and television, and an artistic chef whipping up new delights from leftovers, he’s a valuable natural resource. If you long to be turned on to the forgotten talents of bands like Pacific Gas & Electric, or the generously named Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Titch, you’ll enjoy the latest mix tape soundtrack. But he seems too aware of his guru status by now, and too willing to hold us hostage to pages and pages of musical profanity as his characters, oh so gradually, jive-amble their way to the damned point.

As insufferable as it can get, though, as long as the payoffs continue to be as ecstatically mind-blowing as the one in Death Proof, the second half of the Grindhouse double bill, he’s just going to keep getting away with it. He remains the standard bearer for the cinema of cool precisely because he can still make us wait for it, and still make us feel like what we waited for was satisfying. After digging my fingers into the armrests during some seemingly interminable conversations, by the end I was whooping and cheering.

In many ways Death Proof is a tribute to padding. Grindhouse movies had to save every penny for their action sequences, so what came in between was dictated by what could be titillating enough to bridge the gaps without costing much money. The common solution is hot girls getting loose, which explains the havoc that usually erupted at sorority houses and women’s prisons. Death Proof presents two separate sets of girls, each having a good time, but headed for very different fates. In a way it’s a 2-Act picture, or more accurately a picture whose theme, and plot, boils down with delirious wickedness into two very simple sentences: “I’m a bad boy. I need to be punished.

The bad boy is Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), who used to work on car chase TV shows in the 70’s and 80’s and still drives around in a reinforced muscle car complete with racing harness and crash box. Whether he knows or is related to the Reservoir Dogs snitch “Long Beach Mike” will doubtless captivate scholars of the Tarantinoverse.

He loves his car, and he loves pretty girls, and he likes putting them together so he can express his love for each roughly. The first set of pretty girls he encounters are Austin-based pals led by DJ Jungle Julia (Sydney Poitier, daughter of Sidney), who are on one of those long weekend hot-spot crawls where there’s no topic more important than who’s going to help them score pot, whether those guys are worth any more of their time, and what these shots are that have just been placed in front of them. Stuntman Mike is in their bar, volunteering to take home a stranded waif named Pam (Rose McGowan, throwing on a blond wig to perform double Grindhouse duty). As he sips at his drink, he gazes at the rowdy table in the corner like a man trying to play it cool on a very hot date.

From that encounter we skip, with no connective thread save Mike’s presence, to another group of girls, with the same menace lurking behind them. It’s like flipping over a 45 single – same singer, new song. These girls, led by stunt performers Kim (Tracie Thoms) and Zoe (Zoe Bell, Uma Thurman’s Kill Bill stunt double, basically playing herself) are cast and crew from a cheerleader movie filming at a local high school, and they’re using their day off to pursue a fantasy involving a white Dodge Challenger just like the one from 70’s chase picture Vanishing Point.

Here is the point we’re zeroing in on. Eventually this movie is going to be about the most crystalline exploitation elements – two fast cars, a long stretch of highway, hot chicks and a dangerous man; and a camera to capture it all. You can sense Tarantino approaching it with wide-eyed anticipation and awe; like a rite-of-passage, like the first woman in his bed. What he is about to do is to throw the concepts of victim-and-aggressor, of audience sympathy and rooting interest, of violence both terrifying and thrilling, into such a sweaty orgy that we’re going to forget which way is up and surrender ourselves to the horsepower. The final fifteen naked, screaming minutes of Death Proof are not only worth the seventy-five minutes of exhaustive foreplay, they are worth the entire three-plus hours of Grindhouse. They are Kiss Kiss, they are Bang Bang, they are the most honest minutes of movie you’ll see in any theater in 2007.


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