The mission of GRINDHOUSE is to recreate the magic of a night out at the sort of cheesy exploitation films that proliferated 40 years ago or so. Hence, there is a double bill, coming attractions, even an ad for a local eatery. It’s one of those ideas that sounds irresistible. In execution, it makes for about two hours of cheesy exploitation fun. Alas, the running time is over three hours.
Our two films are PLANET TERROR, Robert Rodriguez’s take on a Z-grade horror flick, and DEATH PROOF, Quentin Tarantino’s Z-grade paean to women in peril. Both gentlemen have a palpable affection for the kitsch factor at work here, the energy of working on the edge with a low budget, and for the rush of seeing something so bad that it’s good, but only one of them can pull off the homage.
PLANET TERROR features Rose McGowan as Cherry, the go-go dancer with the bodacious booty who weeps on stage, but kicks butt when offstage. A chance encounter with her old flame, Wray (strutting Freddy Rodriguez) is only one of the surprises she has in store for her. The deliberately over-plotted story has nefarious government experiments gone horribly wrong, military types, including Tarantino, doing battle with an unscrupulous scientist (Naveen Andrews with hair flowing and bandana in place), a doctor with an unusual oral fetish (Josh Brolin) and his straying wife (Marley Shelton), who fulfills her doctorly duties by packing a garter-belt full of syringes.
The acting is broad, the action is both non-stop and non-sequitor, and the effects are rudimentary in everything except their excess, yet are oddly endearing with their inept creativity. Pulsating pustules explode with the verve of Mt. Vesuvius and with similar, though less fiery, flows of bright red goo. Heads explode, of course, in an obviously mock-up fashion, but with delightful details such as the intact teeth of a lower jaw left proud and incongruous in the wind. The exception is Cherry’s prosthetic that Wray fashions for her after an unfortunate run-in with the resident zombies. It makes for the iconic image of the double-feature: Cherry in a squat-thrust whipping around in a circle taking out a squadron with her machine-gun leg blazing.
Rodriguez gets it.
Tarantino, not so much.
DEATH PROOF doesn’t much riff on as reproduce the genre he’s working with. His skittish script has the balance between boob shots and pseudo expose the sex lives of liberated women, but instead of sharp dialogue, there are endless conversations about who is doing what with whom that have the ring of male anxiety about it. And not in a good way. It’s one slow slog through Tarantino’s fetishes for female feet and bodily functions. Eventually, he gets to the snappy and profane dialogue for which he has such a flair when he chooses. Why he has chosen to wait until the last quarter of his opus to do so is one of those questions that flits through a reviewer’s mind without hope of actually getting an answer. The interminable set up, that is, is rife with dialogue that is flatter than the Texas prairie and even less colorful even spiked as it is with the usual Tarantino stock of profanity and sex talk.
The three ladies who begin the film (Sydney Tamiia Poitier, Jordan Ladd, Vanessa Ferlito) are cruising around Austin looking for fun, controlled substances, and loud music on a sultry Texan night. Into the bar where they have roosted for the evening drifts Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell). He’s a teetotaler who attacks his nacho grande platter with the same gusto as those zombies in the earlier film attacked brains and entrails. He and Russell are also going to save the film. Exuding genuine menace even while going for the melodrama, Russell is like a shock to the system as he revs up the action by giving an innocent bystander (Rose McGowan in prissy blonde mode) the ride of her life, as it were, as a prelude to the evening’s main event. That would be stalking the gal pals in his specially tricked-out car, the one with the skull painted on its black hood and the suggestive duck hood ornament, through the dark southern night on back roads made for mayhem.
Just when things get good, the action shifts. We’re Tennessee and four gal pals (Rosario Dawson, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Zoe Bell, and Tracie Thoms) on location from a film shoot, have endless conversations about who is doing what with whom while driving around. It’s not until Bell, a real-life stuntwoman who worked on the KILL BILL films, realizes her dream of driving a muscle car that things get interesting again. First with the machinations of talking the rube with the car in question into letting them take it out alone, and second, when Stuntman Mike with a different car, but the same hood ornament, shows up to make this a day the ladies will never forget. Bell does some unbelievable stunt work clinging to the hood of the car, and Thoms does some unbelievable payback attitude during and afterwards. We are deep into classic Tarantino territory here and if he hadn’t made us wait so long to get there, it would have been truly cracker jack dandy.
Further alas, he didn’t. He’s also burdened by some coming attractions that blow most of his film out of the water. Each one is beautifully loopy and righteously self-important with directors Rodriguez, Eli Roth, Edgar Wright, and Rob Zombie pulling out all the stops. Then again, when dealing with a Nazi experiment to create a race of werewolves, there is really no other way to go.
GRINDHOUSE, being true to the source material includes scratches, flutters, and missing reels, that last invariably occurring just when the romantic action on screen is pushing vintage envelopes. It’s a mixed bag of great schlock and the merely tedious, but when it’s good ,it’s righteous