Starring Rose McGowan, Freddy Rodríguez, Josh Brolin, Michael Biehn, Tom Savini, Bruce Willis, Kurt Russell, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Danny Trejo, Bill Moseley, Rosario Dawson, Marley Shelton, Jeff Fahey
Directed by Robert Rodriguez (“Planet Terror and fake trailer segment “Machete”), Eli Roth (fake trailer segment “Thanksgiving”) Edgar Wright (fake trailer segment “Don’t”), Rob Zombie (fake trailer segment “Werewolf Women of the S.S.”), Quentin Tarantino (segment “Death Proof”)
Evil hitchhikers … teenage werewolves … Samurai cannibals … ventriloquist dolls … You won’t find a single one of these things in Grindhouse, and that in and of itself is a wonderful thing. After months of insufferable cinematic garbage, the hyped Rodriguez/Tarantino machine has burst forth like a mighty serpent to rain down fiery baptism on all the sinners. So how does it measure up?
For the uninitiated (why are you even reading this site?), Grindhouse harkens back to the era of B-movie theaters famous for cranking out exploitation double-bills in the 1970’s. The prints were battered, the chairs hurt your ass, and the interiors were cleaned maybe twice a year, but you would consistently get your money’s worth in over-the-top sleaze and splatter. Today many of us relive the good ol’ days each month at the Grindhouse Film Festival in Los Angeles (co-helmed by Tarantino himself), and this is the ultimate attempt to bring that experience to the masses.
The first and best half of this 3-hour double bill is Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, a gore-drenched zombie love-fest that gets the ball rolling in a big way. If you’ve seen the trailer, you already know the full story: An engineered virus escapes into a small town (these things tend to happen) and turns unlucky souls into bloated walking corpses. Things go to hell pretty fast, so it’s up to a small band of survivors – comprised mostly of criminals, lawmen, doctors, and strippers – to survive the horde, battle the military, and save the day. In other words, take From Dusk Till Dawn, mix in some old school Peter Jackson, and hit frappé.
This is a film that moves like a nitro-fueled bus of flaming nuns at the Indy 500! Not a single dull moment is to be found as we watch a dream cast of character actors – each with their own deadly talent – stumble from one jaw-dropping set-piece to the next, wasting virtually everything and everyone in their path. From relative newcomers Freddy Rodriguez and Marley Shelton to hardcore genre vets like Michael Biehn and Jeff Fahey, this ensemble is one of the most memorable you’ll ever see in a genre film. Robert Rodriguez shows off his flare for blowing up everything in sight, throws red stuff in all directions, and even invents new (and truly sick) bodily functions for the undead. Set to a perfect John Carpenter-esque score, Planet Terror is a masterpiece of excess and sets the bar high (probably too high) for what follows.
What was the best part about going to these double features? The trailers, of course, and Grindhouse has a whole slate of fake movie previews to complete the experience. Featuring Danny Trejo and Cheech Marin, Rodriguez’s “Machete” tackles the vigilante movie with gusto and immediately makes one salivate for a feature. Rob Zombie tries his hand at Ilsa territory with “Werewolf Women of the SS” with the help of an all-star cast, but it feels too jokey and half-baked compared to the rest. If this were a retro contest, then Eli Roth would win hands down for “Thanksgiving,” a brilliant nod to holiday-themed slashers that looks like it was pulled directly from an old Vestron video tape. But the best of the bunch is Edgar Wright’s brilliant nod to supernatural British horror movies, “Don’t,” which may be the funniest thing he’s ever produced.
Finally, we come to Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, an homage to old school car chase flicks like Vanishing Point and the original Gone in 60 Seconds (both of which are discussed at length in one of many, many dialogue scenes) with a little slasher vibe thrown in for good measure. The centerpiece of the road rage is homicidal Stuntman Mike (played to perfection by Kurt Russell), who stalks two different sets of hotties around in his insidious stunt-rigged car. The old-fashioned ads declare this one “a white-hot juggernaut at 200 miles per hour,” but for most of its running time Death Proof barely breaks the speed limit. Aside from a few inspired moments of brutality, we’re treated to endless scenes of girl-talk as would-be victims B.S. about sex, work, and ultra-obscure grindhouse films (*sigh*) until this literally becomes a movie about people chatting. Following on the heels of Rodriguez and the faux trailers, it’s nothing but a come down from the previous high.
Now it may seem ridiculous to criticize a Tarantino movie for being too talky. His characters are verbal kaleidoscopes who exist to babble. But in Death Proof every bit of dialogue feels overlong and completely self-indulgent to the point where Tarantino seems to be imitating himself rather than grindhouse movies. It’s hard to believe this is coming from the same guy who so perfectly captured the era just a few short years ago when he made Kill Bill. Ever the actor’s director, Tarantino is obviously focused more on performances than actual content, which explains why a stylist like Rodriguez feels more at home in this territory. Death Proof’s cast of vixens are drop-dead gorgeous and act well enough, but as characters, they’re also interchangeable. The stand-out is, of course, Russell, who remains a raging pillar of badassary; but even then he feels underused and strings this aimless script along by a thread.
Only in the last twenty minutes does Tarantino finally grasp what kind of movie he’s making when he delivers a spectacular car chase that would stun George Miller himself. Showcasing the power of practical stunts, the film dispenses with the CGI and over-editing that has all but ruined modern action movies, allowing cute actress/stuntwoman Zoe Bell to perform some of the most amazing spectacles in recent memory. With a bargain-basement style closing shot that’s nothing short of brilliant, the final act of Death Proof ultimately sends Grindhouse out on a high note, but it’s one helluva bumpy ride getting there.
Overall, the whole experience is like going from a back alley of crack-whores to a high-class brothel in Amsterdam: It just feels nice to get more bang for your buck. It may be radically uneven, but Grindhouse still gets the job done, and in an ideal world we’d get one of these double-bills every year.
4 1/2 out of 5
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