Though my birth year firmly plants me as a child of the 70's, I was a young child, so getting out to the local theaters for a double dose of movie fun was few and far between. For that reason my early "grind" movie experience came courtesy of the home video craze in the early 80's. I remember the day my father came home with both the Video Cassette Recorder (which was the size and approximate weight of my grandfather's old tool chest) and the first two movies we ever rented: PETE'S DRAGON and DELIVERANCE.
We were that kind of family.
When I got old enough to rent on my own with my friends, it was travelling by any means necessary down to the local drug store or gas station (the Blockbuster and Hollywood Video of our day) to grab movies for midnight consumption. Back then it felt like a whole new world opened up - the drug stores and gas stations and small independent video stores that lined the streets of Middletown, NY carried a variety of films that was frikkin' unbelievable.
It's a testament to how my mother raised me that I'm a respectable family man after hours of sitting up in the middle of the night with my friends watching I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE, BAD TASTE, ZOMBI, DEEP RED, and others. That living room floor at 1:00 AM was my sticky, popcorn encrusted theater - complete with horny guys leering at the screen (though none of my friends to my knowledge ever, you know, did anything on my living room floor. Right, guys? Guys? I feel sick...).
Which finally beings me to the film I'm supposed to be talking about, GRINDHOUSE. Since the film (or films, if you will) is roughly broken out into 4 distinct sections, so will the review.
And that's a good thing.
The theater I went to was only showing the films 3 times a day. And since 11 AM was too early and 9 PM was too late, I opted for the 5 PM showing. Which of course is the one showing that is close captioned for the hearing impaired. Despite the fact there were only about 20 of us in the theater, and we loudly proclaimed that we could all in fact hear quite well, the film was shown with fat, enormous subtitles. Which actually made it quite funny when it got the description of the Machete trailer, starring Robert Rodriguez regular Danny Trejo. "Funky Pop Music Plays." "Loud Saxophone Wailing." A little distracting, but you soon begin not to notice it, and watching Danny Trejo and Jeff Fahey was awesome. Where has Jeff Fahey been? The trailer pops and scratches, but doesn't begin to prepare you for what's in store next.
"PLANET TERROR" FEATURE
The first image you see is Rose McGowan, looking better that she ever has, go-go dancing while the screens pops and hisses with the great soundtrack (composed by Rodriguez). Meanwhile some one's screwing someone else over canisters of a deadly army gas nicknamed "Planet Terror" that infects those who inhale it, turning them into crazed lunatics that ooze and fester and swell and...well, you get the idea.
Who can stop this horror from taking over the world? The Army? of course not - they're the bad guys! Nope, it falls to our trusty band of rednecks including the aforementioned stripper, the town sheriff, the local bar owner, a pair of twin babysitters, and Wrey, the ominous tow-truck driving man with a past. And this being the type of movie it is, they save the world with equal doses of blood, gore, sex, and other assorted perversions.
I was surprised by how great Planet Terror turned out. It's 100% over the top in terms of acting, plot, and cheesy effects (which are still miles above what a grindhouse picture would really have, but no complaints here), and it manages to not only work, but work like a mother------. The key scenes played in the all the commercials with McGowan getting a machine gun attached to her amputated leg are still great, as is her performance. In fact, everyone's pulling out all the stops, with extra special "Hell Yeah's" going out to Josh "I was in GOONIES" Brolin and Michael "NAVY SEALS almost killed my career" Biehn. Quentin Tarantino shows up to provide a key moment of menace and utter gross-out, and Naveen Andrews of LOST and Bruce "da Man" Willis play wacky to the nth degree in their small but juicy roles.
But the real star of Planet Terror belongs to the screen itself. At first glance you might think the pops, scratches, and tinting issues were added more or less at random; a closer look shows that each Snap! Crackle! and Pop! is ingeniously inserted to enhance the mood and tone of what's going in the film. Rodriguez, instead of trying to authentically "grind" up his movie utilizes some of the key components of what makes a film a "grind" film and forces them to propel his story along. Watch the really violent action scenes - the quality of the film jumps and degrades in sync to what's going on. The quieter scenes don't have as much going on, but what does go on is subtle and effective. Take the scene where Tarantino begins menacing the two heroines in an elevator. As he talks, the film slowly turns red, and fades back as they closer to their destination. It's a small piece, but does wonders to the film. The ending is epic and funny, and wraps up what would have been a great single feature all on it's own.
In between the two features were the three "surprise" trailers cut specifically for the film. Rob Zombie came first with his Werewolf Women of the SS. Decent, but in my mind looked far too slick to really be in the same vein as the features and other trailers. It was a hoot seeing B movie greats like Sybil Danning and Udo Kier, and the brief moment of Nicholas Cage was better than his last couple of films. But this was the weakest of the three trailers. THE DEVIL'S REJECTS has a much better "feel" for the genre.
Next up was SHAUN OF THE DEAD's Edgar Wright, serving up a great little bit in the Hammer tradition called Don't. As in, "If you're thinking of going down into the basement...DON'T!" It actually starts off great, but the moment that took my head out of the moment was, after exclaiming "If you're thinking of opening that door...DON'T!" the heroine, upon opening said door finds a mutant and uncredited Nick Frost dancing and clapping with a doll in his mouth. Hysterical, but from there on I was too focused on trying to catch any more Wright regulars to concentrate on the trailer. One to definitely catch again.
The biggest surprise was that my favorite entry was Eli "HOSTEL" Roth's Thanksgiving, which while being obviously very tongue-in-cheek, perfectly captured to my mind the old trailers I used to see as a kid. Bonus points for including Michael Biehn as a sheriff (again) and some great cringe-worthy gags. You can catch the trailer for this here on You Tube.
"DEATH PROOF" FEATURE
How do you top something as outrageous, as crazy great as Planet Terror? If you're Quentin Tarantino, you don't even try. Instead, you provide something completely different, something that simmers and then burns, forcing you to stay in your seat until the ultimate climax you know is coming and when it gets there...
He throws a HUGE middle finger at you and laughs all the way home.
Death Proof has one of the single-most frustrating endings I've ever watched in a film, and it's fantastic. You're furious for about 5 minutes, and then as you're leaving the theater you're laughing to yourself because you can't believe he had the balls to end it that way. It's a cop out, albeit one that was very consciously thought out and planned, and for that Quentin provides in my mind the most memorable moment of GRINDHOUSE.
Don't get me wrong - the rest of the movie is pretty great too. For those that haven't heard by now, Kurt Russell reasserts his bad-ass credentials by playing Stuntman Mike, someone who may or may not have ever been a stuntman, but certainly has a souped-up stunt car that he uses to kill pretty women that he takes pictures of and keeps pinned to the visor in his car.
The film is tightly structured in four acts, featuring two sets of victims. Those who die, die very hard, in one of the most disturbing moments in GRINDHOUSE. We're then introduced to a new bevy of luscious ladies, including Rosario Dawson who manages to get more beautiful in every film, and Zoe Bell, who was Uma Thurman's stunt double in the KILL BILL films and here stars as herself.
Oh, there's also a girl dressed as a cheerleader played by Jordan Ladd. I don't remember if they ever explain why she's dressed as a cheerleader. It's just that kind of movie.
The movie VANISHING POINT plays a large part in what happens to them, and Tarantino, getting behind the camera for the first time, films a great car chase that manages to pay homage to and sit beside such great chases in THE FRENCH CONNECTION and BULLITT. The hisses and scratches aren't as much a part of the picture as they were in Planet Terror (although he uses the "missing reel" gag to hilarious and frustrating effect), Tarantino instead opting for a washed out look reminiscent of a 3rd or 4th generation VHS copy.
And then there's that ending. I can see a lot of people crying "unfair" when it comes, but again, give it a moment or two and you'll get the joke as well. Remember these films were never really known for their endings...
3 1/2 HOURS LATER...
I emerge from my GRINDHOUSE experience, a little older, a little wiser, and ready to do it all over again. I kept thinking back to those days as a kid when my friends and I would rent these ridiculous looking movies (VAMPYROS LESBOS, anyone?) and stay up all night, watching one after the other. I saw a lot of crap, very few gems, but every one left it's imprint on me, just as it apparently did on Rodriguez and Tarantino.
Can't wait for the next installment!