FINAL GIRL explores the slasher flicks of the '70s and '80s...and all the other horror movies I feel like talking about, too. This is life on the EDGE, so beware yon spoilers!

Jan 12, 2009

Film Club: Grindhouse

Grindhouse, the brainchild of writers/directors Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, didn't exactly perform up to expectations at the box office. In fact, it was a bit of a flop- sort of like that scene in Pee Wee's Big Adventure where Pee Wee goes over to Francis's house in search of his bike and Francis is "having his bath" in, essentially, a pool. The two man-children tussle, and at one point Francis does a big belly flop and slides along the floor; it's not only disturbing (he squeaks), but it looks painful. Yeah, Grindhouse was kinda like that. Or not. Look, all I know is that I saw my tape (yeah, tape) of Pee Wee's Big Adventure on the shelf when I fetched Planet Terror last night, so I've got Pee Wee on the brain. I really love that movie, but I usually forget about it until I start thinking about it (I know, that's, like, the way the brain works)- then I think "Aw, man, I love the Alamo scene...oooh, Morgan Fairchild...Mr Buxton's jumpsuit!" and the fever builds until I have to watch it. So, excuse me for using a clunky Pee Wee simile, but, you know, they can't all be gold.


First up on the Grindhouse double bill is Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror, an ooey-gooey zombie flick that's 105 minutes of pure, unadulterated fun.

As can be expected, the Army's tinkering with biological and chemical weapons results in green gas filling the skies over the Texas countryside, which in turn transforms the populace into hideously deformed, pus-oozing, flesh-eating monsters. A band of plucky survivors, featuring world-renowned badass Wray (Freddy Rodriguez), one-legged go-go dancer Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan), BBQ maverick J.T. (Jeff Fahey), and lesbo-style doctor adulteress Dakota (Marley Shelton), fights its way through the body parts and goop as they try to last the night.

As I said, there's no denying the fun of this movie. The colors are luscious, the action is over-the-top, and the gore flies freely- it's as if rather than trying to recreate a true Grindhouse -style movie (which would have about 1/1000 of Planet Terror's budget), Rodriguez created a pastiche of everything he loves about those films. With its perfect synth score and liberal use of lights and smoke, this flick is akin to an American reinterpretation of an Italian interpretation of a John Carpenter movie. It's truly an outrageous sight to behold, and if you're not wearing a big, goofy grin when Cherry Darling flies through the air in front of an explosion and launches rockets out of her rocket launcher leg, then I have to wonder what kind of movie would give you a big goofy grin.

My biggest complaint with Planet Terror is Rose McGowan, who...well, I'm not sure exactly if her performance is so stilted purposefully (this is, after all a Z-grade movie on a big budget), or if the countless Restylane injections have not only frozen up her face but also her acting abilities. With that machine gun leg, Cherry Darling has the potential to become a real action/horror movie icon; with McGowan's flat performance, however, she's just a girl with a machine gun leg. Which, I'll admit, is still pretty fucking awesome. I just wish she'd been a little less self-conscious and a bit more fun, like the rest of the cast.

If I never see "The Crazy Babysitter Twins" or Quentin Tarantino in a movie again, though, it won't be too soon. Or it will be too soon, or however the saying goes when I mean that they were all fairly irritating.

Scenes to watch out for: "You'll blow your own head off!" and The Death of Fergie, which oddly enough got me thinking about Lamberto Bava's Demons...definite 80s Italian vibe.


On to the much-maligned Tarantino-helmed half of the proceedings, Death Proof. A bunch of obnoxious girls spouting obvious Tarantino dialogue* head off for a weekend at a lake house, stopping several times along the way to drink margaritas, pound shots of Wild Turkey, talk about sexy times, and smoke up. Enter the nacho-loving Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), a man who likes to use his "death proof" stunt car to terrorize and/or kill obnoxious girls.

A big complaint about this film is that all that dialogue and yammering gets in the way of the action, and sure, it does. Tarantino isn't simply paying homage to the Grindhouse movie here, he's making one. Check out Unhinged, or hell, even Halloween: horror movies of yore were largely dialogue and yammering. Girls talk...and talk...and talk, and then 40 or 50 minutes in, something happens. Keeping this in mind, I was totally on board with the first half of Death Proof. Tarantino lays out all the hallmarks of the slasher film (weekend getaway, etc), epitomized in the scenes where Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito) keeps noticing this creepy black car that seems to keep noticing her. That shit is straight outta Halloween y'all.

In related news, Vanessa Ferlito is pretty fucking terrific in this movie.

When everyone decides it's finally time to head out to the lake house for reals, things get cooking. Pam (McGowan again, just as horribly one-note as she was in Planet Terror) makes the mistake of getting into Stuntman Mike's car and suddenly he transforms from sorta-weird has-been to totally-weird homicidal has-been and it all goes to hell.

Exhilarating hell. Once Stuntman Mike gets his death proof on, the car crash is phenomenal and decidedly not CGI. At this point, Death Proof absolutely lives up to its tagline: "A white-hot juggernaut at 200 miles per hour!"

Sadly, though, all that promise comes to a grinding halt in the second half of the film when the action shifts from Texas to Tennessee. As all of our protagonists died in Mike's assault, we're introduced to a new group of girls, even more obnoxious than the first. As they're all involved in the film industry, they sit around once again spouting obvious Tarantino dialogue about their lives and their jobs and sexy times and how rad Zoe Bell is.

In the parking lot of a convenience store, they catch Stuntman Mike's eye. The girls take a Dodge Challenger for a test spin, which not only allows for Zoe Bell to act like Zoe Bell, but also for Tarantino to list off some muscle-car films we should all seek out immediately. Stuntman Mike catches up to them and engages the girls in some vehicular terrorizin', then the girls turn the tables. Mike wimps out, the girls beat the shit out of him, the end. Literally.

The car chase is fantastic and again, CGI-less. It's filmmaking of a type you don't really see on screen anymore- there are no frenetic edits. Tarantino goes for lengthy shots that up the tension, and again, it's exhilarating. It's too bad, however, that this fantastic sequence is mired in so much bullshit.

It's obvious that Quentin became enamoured with Zoe Bell on the set of Kill Bill, so he decided to build a movie around her and her abilities. That's fine, I suppose, she's great and all, but someone already built a movie around her: the 2004 documentary Double Dare. When Death Proof should have been riding the momentum gained from that magnificent wreck that concluded the first half, it became mired in too-long stories about Zoe Bell's exploits, and that's a real missed opportunity.

Death Proof would have worked better, I think, as a type of rape-revenge film. It is, of a sort, but there's no "rape"- for the ass-kicking/potential murder of Stuntman Mike to pack the wallop it needed to, the stakes needed to be much higher than a game of chicken where no one got hurt. If Tarantino had spent less time at the shrine of Our Lady Zoe of the Bell and more time, say, offing one of the second half's protagonists, the end would have been far more cathartic than it turned out to be. Why not have Mike, I don't know, run over Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) or something? She was completely inessential to the story anyway, and it would have provided a believable impetus for revenge.

All of that said, damn, Tarantino really knows how to shoot a movie. The first half, wherein he kept up the Grindhouse conceits (scratched "film stock", etc), was spot fucking on. I'm not sure why he chose to present the second half in pristine DV, but it was a disappointment regardless.

All of that said, the Grindhouse conceits in both Death Proof and Planet Terror are a bit maddening, for all their "authenticity". They're made to look like films from the '70s, but both also feature modern conveniences like cell phones. It simply doesn't jive or make sense: if these are meant to be "lost films" of a bygone era (I wish this was the intent, but I doubt it), then get rid of the cell phones. If they're modern films in the style of the bygone era (more like it), then why is the "stock" so beat up? It's akin to a CD player made to look like a record player: essentially pointless. Get a GD record player and spin vinyl, or play your CDs on an appropriate device.

Still, I admire the obvious love and nostalgia going on here, and if nothing else, the work of Rodriguez and Tarantino has brought about a revival of Grindhouse flicks- for better or for worse. Anything that brings Pieces to the masses, after all, is fine by me. Unfortunately, I think the ultimate failure (relatively speaking, natch) of the project indicates that the days where audiences would gladly sit on questionably-stained seats for two features and trailers galore are pretty much over. The geeks will still sit for hours on end, sure, but attention spans and "movie culture" have changed, no matter how much some of us may wish otherwise.

Really, though, where were the tits?

*Let it be noted that I don't necessarily mind Tarantino dialogue, unless it simply becomes a list of what QT likes. I mind that all of his characters, male or female, sound alike. The onus is on the actors to make them individuals, and only some of them succeed.

Film Club Coolies, y'all!
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It's Dark in the Dark
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Exiled from Contentment
Movie Moxie
Acheter et entretenir sa tronconneuse: Planet Terror / Death Proof


Adam said...

Here's my review for ya! Be sure to check out the 'Grindhouse with Bunnies' link up at the top...

Theron said...

Yeah, I loved both flicks. Planet Terror is pretty much a minor masterpiece. It's a great example of the movies it's payinh homage to.

I thought Death Proof was great too. I really dug the juxtaposing of the "losing girls" and "winning girls" segments.

Plus, the trailers were a hoot!

Verdant Earl said...

Pretty much spot on with my thoughts on this double feature, except that you appeared to like Planet Terror a bit more than I did. One minor problem I have with RR is that he sometimes goes too far with his creatures. The "zombies" in this film were just too oozy, too gross, too drippy. Except for the ones he didn't want to be too oozy. Like Josh Brolin at the end. Same with his awful looking vampires in FDTD.

And I'm with you on never seeing QT ever act on screen again. The guy is awful! Have you seen his schtick in Sukiyaki Western Django? Almost ruined an entirely enjoyable film for me.

thebonebreaker said...

Excellent write-up Stacie!

QT is always irritating whenever he decides to appear in front of the camera [I can't even say the word 'act'] though he is a genius behind the camera, and Death Proof proves that point, yet again!

Even though it did not do well in the theatres [I was there!] I hope that Tarantino & Rodriguez team-up yet again, to give it another go. . .

Rick Bman said...

"They're made to look like films from the '70s, but both also feature modern conveniences like cell phones. It simply doesn't jive or make sense: if these are meant to be "lost films" of a bygone era (I wish this was the intent, but I doubt it), then get rid of the cell phones. If they're modern films in the style of the bygone era (more like it), then why is the "stock" so beat up?"

Usually the beat up look of real grindhouse films isn't because they are 30 years old. It is because the film makers could only afford to make very few prints and they played at theaters over and over again so they could get that scratched up and worn in a matter of months. If you got one of the first showing you would get a pristine picture but if you were one of the theaters that showed it a couple months later then the print would be pretty beat up. So, what they were going for is if Grindhouse theaters and cinema still existed today this is the kind of things we would see. That is if they were going to be shot on film. If someone was going to shoot a movie on the cheap these days they would probably shoot on digital video.

That being said I pretty much agree with everything else you say though. Planet Terror was an extremely fun film and Death Proof could have been really good had that cut out a lot of the dialog.

Anonymous said...

I like that you used the word "onus".

EFC said...

I thought the extended version of DP made Stuntman Mike enough of a creep to have his comeuppance "pack a wallop"; him taking pics of the girls, perving out on Rosario's feet while she's sleeping. It worked for me.

Here's the link to my review:

Adam Ross said...

Great choice for the film club. I reviewed Grindhouse after seeing it in the theater. It's worth noting that Netflix has the full theatrical version of Grindhouse (fake trailers and all) available to watch instantly.

I'm in the minority for really liking "Death Proof," but I agree that a more brutal movie would have fit the Grindhouse theme more. I think I'm able to ignore the movie's shortcomings because of Kurt Russell, he's just perfect in his role (for some reason, I love watching him mow through those nachos with a virgin margarita, he just looks like such a weirdo/asshole while doing it).

J. Skel LaTour said...

"Where were the tits?"

Stuck in the trailers. MACHETE and Zombie's SS trailer had them all, no?

Anonymous said...

"or if the countless Restylane injections have not only frozen up her face but also her acting abilities."

True, she did in many ways resemble one of the mannequins from The Trevi Collection. I used to think she was pretty hot too, even when she was fucking Marilyn Manson. But now, she's just weird. Maybe if Rodriguez wasn't so pussy-whipped, he might've made her act less "sucky". Chump.

MrB said...

Good to see someone has an understanding of Death Proof. It gets dismissed too often.

Johnny said...

Loved both movies and seeing the whole bloody affair at the theatre was one of my favorite movie experiences i've ever had.

I totally agree with two things in particular that you mentioned ; McGowan kinda dropped the ball on the Cherry Darling character (although I still loved the character) and one of the second wave Death Proof girls should've been killed off.

Anonymous said...

I'm actually glad McGowan's such a nonentity in Planet Terror because otherwise she would've overshadowed the blonde lady with the syringe-garter. She was fantastic. And the scene where she's cradling her dead child and saying something along the lines of "didn't I tell you not to aim the gun at yourself?" was one of the few moments in the entire double-bill that really captured the era they were trying to recreate.

I can't believe Death Proof played second in theaters. That's like having a comedian open for a monologist. Dessert is served last, damn it!

And why is Kurt Russell not the most gigantic megastar in the entire world? Dude could have a bilateral awesomectomy and still be more awesome than any ten name-above-the-title actors combined.

Stacie Ponder said...

Yikes, I neglected to mention that I, too, thought Marley Shelton was fantastic. I liked Josh Brolin and Jeff Fahey, too, but she was the highlight for me.

I wish there'd been more Stuntman Mike in Death Proof. Who doesn't love Kurt Russell? Only jerks don't love Kurt Russell.

Margarita said...

There weren't any tits, just lots and lots of BOOTY!

Shannon the Movie Moxie said...

Wow, I have to say I'm surprized that I enjoyed the films! Planet Terror way more than Grindhouse (I'm just not really into cars), but they both had just a fun spirit to them which is nice to see.

I also have to say I neither noticed, nor missed, nudity. I honestly didn't notice it until you mentioned it at the bottom of the post.

My review is up:

Can't wait to see next month's selection!

Stacie Ponder said...

RE: "the tits" (man, never thought I'd have a chance to type that), I'm not one who needs or necessarily even wants boobs in every horror movie. The absence of bare breasts just struck me as a huge indication how these two films really aren't NEARLY as salacious as their predecessors are. No boobs makes them about as un-Grindhouse as they can be.

Unknown said...

Oh no we are already the 12 and I forgot to email my links to Stacie!

Better late than nothing, I guess...

Michelle said...

I saw this in the theaters when it came out and then rented each of the dvds for the full-length versions to see what I was missing.

Planet Terror - Loved it! Totally campy, gore-filled and not-for-the squeamish. Enjoyed the interaction between Fahey and Biehn as the brothers squabbled over the bbq recipe even as zombies were taking over. Marley Shelton stole the show as the nurse.

Death Proof - Didn't enjoy it much first time around. Too wordy and it seemed like two separate films meshed together. Watching it as a standalone made it better but I still think the two groups of girls would've worked better as two separate movies. Russell was awesome, though, and in the extended version, the lapdance scene between him and Ferlito was hot.

Loved the trailers, with Machete and Thanksgiving Day being my faves.

ryan said...

"Death Proof" is the only QT movie I've ever even been able to sit all the way through, much less enjoyed, and I LOVED "Death Proof." (Of course, until a couple months ago, I also lived in Austin, which is my favorite place, so I enjoyed the homage.) I agree that it feels like 2 different movies, and that it's jarring and doesn't make sense, but that's okay, because both parts totally kick ass independently anyway.

Spymunk said...

GRINDHOUSE stands as one of the most mishandled movie ideas in the entire history of cinema. From quetionable choice in subject-matter to inconsistent tone to an ad campaign that bred massive confusion in the non-geek general public (read: 90 percent of anyone who pays to see movies instead of downloading them illegally - you know who you are, beeyotch) to almost all the people getting up at my screening to leave after PLANET TERROR ended (I stood up and said "It's a double feature - there's another movie!" and the response was "Really?" "Huh?" "I didn't know that" - nice one again, marketing campaign) ... GRINDHOUSE couldn't have had more bad ideas given life due to ego and arrogance. It's a perfect example of what many people are talking about when they refer to the "cultural elite" - only I'm not talking about it politically. I mean the fact that the people making the movie didn't realize how little the audience they were making the movie for really exists any more in the real world. If you spend enough time talking about coffee houses and "film," then you will indeed think people would be interested in GRINDHOUSE. As was said of Richard Nixon, to vary the phrase a little bit "Well, all of MY friends are going to see it ..."

Seriosuly, though, the movies were fun, but all wrong, and they weren't even quite on the level of pure grindhouse. For that, PLANET TERROR should've resembled XTRO more than UNDEAD and DEATH PROOF shouldv'e resembled DIRTY HARRY more than a YouTube stunt promo.

That said, the audience went into pure hysterical bliss during the ad for DON'T and I found myself wishing they had made that instead!


Stacie Ponder said...

I would've dug Don't or Thanksgiving way more than either one of these films. I get the feeling that Eli Roth would have kicked all kinds of ass on this project.

Erin said...

OMG, I adored Marley Shelton in Planet Terror but yeah, Rose McGowan.. I wish she was better.

Anonymous said...

There's been talk of them making some of the trailers into full length movies, so you might get your wish.

Stacie, did you spot Myanna Buring in Don't?

timothy grant said...

Death Proof sucked. It seemed like something QT dribbled off one morning while doing bong hits, eating Captain Crunch and watching Vanishing Point. Sloppy. All the characters sound like babbling idiots and after lots of GOOD exposition on the first set of characters, we have to learn a whole new much less interesting group of characters.

Thanksgiving and Don't are the highlights of the entire exercise. They get it. They really get it.

kermode said...

There's a really good reason that Death Proof looks like two movies mashed together. It is... kind of. If you watch the opening credits VERY carefully, you'll notice that there's a new title card placed over top of the original title (you can see the original title for a split second before Death Proof appears).

On top of everything else that Death Proof references, it also references the practice in the 70s of retitling a previously existing film (sometimes foreign -- Corman was famous for this) and sometimes just a previous flop, filming some new scenes that may or may not make any sense, but add some ultraviolence or tits, and re-releasing the movie.

I think the movie that most perfectly captures this idea (and is probably the one that Tarantino had in mind here) is Snuff (nee Slaughter). A mediocre Charles Manson movie was recut, some lousy faux-cinema verite death footage was added to the end, and it was release with a rumor that suggested it aws an actual snuff film from South America. The jarring film stock changes between cuts, the bizarre shifts in tone, the awkward pacing... it's all there. For the record, Death Proof is far more entertaining than either Slaughter *or* Snuff, which was a lousy movie under either name. So.... there you go.

Frank White said...

I'm fairly certain that the "title card" gag is just an homage to the odd ways in which true Grindhouse films were shuffled around and repackaged by their seedy producers.

That said, I agree that Death Proof is a pretty sad excuse for a film. I can almost appreciate what QT was trying to do with its structure, and the way he props Russel up on the throne of ultimate badassery then promptly emasculates him, but for all his formal and stylistic ingenuity, QT forgot to make the film entertaining for the audience.

Hubris... or to use the parlance of the times: "stones."

Anonymous said...

I really liked Rose McGowan in Planet Terror, but it might just be that I think she's really sexy.

Thanksgiving is the bit of Grindhouse that I keep revisiting. It's sheer perfection, from the gore to the blowjob decapitation to the turkey fucking to the voiceover.

"White meat. Dark meat. All will be carved." Genius!

Anonymous said...

I think they should team up again for LIVING ROOM, an homage to the great made for TV movies of the 70's with Doug McClure, Kim Darby, Ben Murphy, any chick from Dallas, Tige Andrews, Jo Ann Pflug, Robert Reed and that guy from THE DEATH OF RICHIE...what's his name, McLean Stevenson and finally the kid from THAT CERTAIN SUMMER.

But seriously, it seems like the movies in GRINDHOUSE should've been exploitation movies.

Zombie Cupcake said...

I'm sad I didn't get to take part in the film club this time - however! Stacie you totally nail how I feel about the Grindhouse experience, thus rendering my review quite pointless ;)

I'm with you all the way; notably the jarring use of cell phones and the fact that I didn't really want Stuntman Mike to die/needed him to have wronged the girls more than he did to deserve having his face stamped in.

Unknown said...

Ok, let me say something right off. I do NOT like Tarantino movies. I walk out of every one of them thinking "haven't I already seen this movie?" So keep that in mind as I type this.

Planet Terror
I really liked this. I took a chance on it in a single pack and really liked it. Being a big fan of zombies, I figured this would be the one I like. The acting is all good (Stacie is right, Rose is just really stilted in here. I figured she was just suppose to look pretty and do some dancing and that be about it.)
It really did feel like some lost Euro-Romero influenced flick but without the bad acting or Italian dialogue. I enjoyed it for what it was, even the "lost reel" which I chuckled at. All in all, it's a fun Saturday Afternoon movie.

I can only use one word for this:

I'll give Tarantino his one due, he's got enthusiasm. That being said this movie was boring, boring, boring. And I didn't think a movie with Kurt Russel could be boring.
I read Tarantino's comment about it being great to see Kurt Russel be kick ass again? Yeah, yeah it would. Too bad I'm still waiting.

Anonymous said...

Knarf Black XIV said... I'm fairly certain that the "title card" gag is just an homage to the odd ways in which true Grindhouse films were shuffled around and repackaged by their seedy producers.

You’re spot on Knarf… and it’s another example of Quentin trying to pay homage, but not quite getting it right (IMHO).

Usually when distributors changed the names of films, the original title made more sense but the new title had more buda-bing-buda-boom. For example, “The Last House On The Left” was originally titled “Krug & Company”. “Krug & Company” makes more sense, but “The Last House on The Left” is more marketable.

Quentin, on the other hand, gives “Death Proof” a fake original title of “Thunder Bolt” (the title that flashes almost subliminally before “Death Proof” does.) It actually makes less sense than “Death Proof”.

People who aren’t into these kinds of films just aren’t gonna get it, so Quentin can only be doing this for people who are into these kinds of films. Given that that’s his audience he needs to do a better job of capturing the essence of what he’s trying to pay homage to. The original title of “Death Proof” should have made more sense and been less zingy: something like “Car Trouble”, “Bad Driver”, or “Sheilas Talking Crap”.

Planet Terror - very bloody cool.
Death Proof - sucked large balls of desiccated excrement.

jervaise brooke hamster said...

planet terror was superb but quentin tarantino is a pile of garbage and he must be destroyed.