Grindhouse (2007) / Action-Horror
aka Grind House
MPAA Rated: R for pervasive violence, gore, sexuality, nudity, drug use, and strong language
Running Time: 191 min.
Cast: Rose McGowan, Kurt Russell, Marley Shelton, Freddy Rodriguez, Tracie Thorns, Rosario Dawson, Zoe Bell, Josh Brolin, Sydney Tamiia Poitier, Vanessa Ferlito, Jeff Fahey, Bruce Willis, Michael Biehn, Quentin Tarantino, Marcy Harriell, Jordan Ladd, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Naveen Andrews, Nicky Katt, Stacy Ferguson, Danny Trejo, Eli Roth, Sheri Moon Zombie (cameo), Udo Kier (cameo), Nicolas Cage (cameo), Sybil Danning (cameo)
Director: Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino (with Eli Roth, Edgar Wright, Rob Zombie)
Screenplay: Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino (with Jeff Rendell, Eli Roth)
Review published April 17, 2007
The term "grindhouse" is attributed to a style of films that were regularly churned out in the 1970s that were predicated on delivering exploitative, sensationalist subject matter in order to entertain a defined audience looking for such fare. After the Hollywood production code's demise, such films were commonplace in the seedier theaters in urban areas, with wanton displays of nudity, carnage, gore, perverse sexuality, and vehicular mayhem. Cannibals, rapists, masters of kung fu, bikers, zombies, and women in bondage were staples of these sorts of films, though not limited to them in subject matter.
Many of these theaters would show double, or even triple B-movie features, as the run times for these movies were generally lean (65-90 minutes). Repeat showings were quite common, resulting in degradation of the quality of the film itself, including such things as wear lines, rampant debris, shaky frames, and in the worst cases, missing reels (extremely uncommon). As home video and cable began to dominate, the need to go to these secondary theaters in order to see schlock cinema dissipated, and now the era of the grindhouse is nonexistent in its original form, even if there are films one could easily deem as grindhouse-worthy still being made today.
As an homage to the theaters that would regularly show such exploitative entertainment, writer-directors Quentin Tarantino (Kill Bill Vol. 1, Vol. 2) and Robert Rodriguez (Sin City, Once Upon a Time in Mexico) set about capturing the essence of what it might be like to be at a grindhouse if it existed today, with movies that meet the general criteria for this subgenre of horror and action-based thrills. Complete with previews of coming attractions, two films are shown back to back, Rodriguez's homage to sci-fi zombie films, Planet Terror, and Tarantino's take on the car crash flick, Death Proof. Judging a film that is really two films in one is not easy, so for the purposes of simplicity, I'll judge them as separate entities before giving an overall summation.
After a humorous preview of a Mexican revenge flick, Machete, Rodriguez gets the first bill of the double feature, blending the sensationalist action, cheesy science fiction, rampant sexploitaition, and gory cannibalistic zombie genres in a concoction called Planet Terror. It stars Rose McGowan (Monkeybone, Ready to Rumble) as Cherry Darling, a go-go dancer who, along with her ex-boyfriend, El Wray (Freddy Rodriquez, Bobby) fight for their lives amid flesh-hungry zombies -- former humans afflicted through a recently-released toxic gas -- who are spreading their deadly infection to the rest of the small Texas town.
People looking for bloody gore and kinky fetishism will probably think Planet Terror the better of the two films, as it does feature some memorable gross-out moments, sexy dancing and prancing by Rose McGowan, and a plethora of decapitations and disembowelings for your blood-thirsty pleasure. It's not exactly a faithful recreation of grindhouse features, as the budget, special effects, and star power are definitely not in keeping with the miniscule-budgeted, hastily slapped-together feel of your typical exploitation flick. However, taken as just an example of balls-out bravado, it is visually clever, with enough moments that will have you laughing at the sheer wretchedness of some of the film's more disgusting gags.
While Planet Terror is action-packed, its storyline is relatively uninteresting, only engaging for a lack of realism that's taken to absurd proportions. Still, Rodriguez's propensity for in-your-face viscera is almost second to none, and it does provoke a reaction in most who will see it, even if it's just to make you a bit queasy from such sights as a bagful of testicles, shredded human flesh, and buckets of blood splattered liberally out of a variety of amputated limbs. The eccentric characters also help, with McGowan stunningly lithe as Cherry, and choice acting turns for Brolin (The Dead Girl), Rodriguez and Shelton (Uptown Girls). Quentin Tarantino makes a small appearance as a would-be rapist in one of the film's more memorable dispatchings. If you like such films as Dawn of the Dead, this may be right up your putrid-smelling, blood-soaked alley.
After three more previews of coming attractions, Thanksgiving, Eli Roth's (Hostel, Cabin Fever) mock take on Black Christmas and Halloween, Edgar Wright's (Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead) send-up of the cautionary gory thrillers of the 1970s, Don't, and Rob Zombie's (The Devil's Rejects, House of 1000 Corpses) Nazi-horror spoof, Werewolf Women of the SS, Tarantino follows up with his redneck truck stop and vehicular carnage film, Death Proof. Kurt Russell (Poseidon, Dreamer) stars as Stuntman Mike, a Hollywood stunt double and car crash expert who claims to have a "death proof" car, retrofitted to withstand just about any crash and keep him from getting killed. It turns out that Mike is actually on the homicidal maniac side of drivers, as he uses the death proof car in order to take the lives of passengers or other drivers in head-on collisions, getting out of potential jail time because there are no surviving eye-witnesses (other than himself). These crashes are seen by the authorities as unfortunate accidents, and it helps that his victims are intoxicated at the time of death.
Tarantino's homage to 1970s "car porn" drive-in cinema isn't as pungent in its delivery as Rodriguez's Planet Terror, putting more emphasis on long conversations and characterizations before getting to the nitty-gritty action later in the piece. The emphasis on characters and setting (typical Tarantino -- he loves his characters and their rambling conversations so much he forgets about his story for long stretches) over seedy action does also make it less of a grindhouse production than would be appropriate, but the last 45 minutes or so do make up for it with one of the best, and longest, car chase scenes seen in a film in recent memory.
If there is a problem with Death Proof, at least from my point of view, it's the disjointed nature of it. It feels like two segments with four talkative women slapped end to end with only the Stuntman Mike's appearance to tie them together. It's a bit nonsensical, and story threads are left dangling (including Mary Elizabeth Winstead's (Final Destination 3) character getting completely lost before the end). However, it's difficult to be overly critical here, as Tarantino was obviously not trying to make a great, lasting movie, merely having fun with the conventions of the genre, while paying homage to many of his favorite films of the 1970s -- Vanishing Point, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, and Gone in 60 Seconds (the original Roger Corman production).
As it stands, Grindhouse lives up to its name through sheer excess, as most movie-going audiences today might feel that over three hours of scatterbrained, non-stop mayhem might be a bit too much to have to take in during one sitting. Obviously, this sort of thing will find new life on home video, where the features can be taken in one at a time, so expect the cult status to grow in the next few years. Given the somewhat talky nature of Tarantino's piece, perhaps it might have been best to start the film with Death Proof, as audiences will most likely grow impatient having to downshift to slow to his more deliberate pacing, but once the action starts, such long, banal conversations among the characters are forgotten for the heavy impact of the here and now. Taking into consideration the lack of concern that theater owners had in slapping together a double feature in the grindhouse days, perhaps the lack of caring for the pacing is appropriate after all.
One might call Grindhouse self-indulgent, as it does seem to be more of an example of two prodigious fan boys playing around for their own entertainment than a ready-made crowd-pleaser, but I think if you're in tune with what they're trying to do, you'll have fun along with them. Say what you will about the schlocky nature of it (that's part of the point of the film, after all), there definitely isn't anything else like it being released in theaters these days. Taken alone, these films are engaging but far from each director's best. Taken as a complete concept, though, it's a fascinating premise that, even if not faithfully executed in the grand grindhouse style, delivers an experience that leaves you reeling from giddiness, if you aren't on the verge of collapse from the prolonged overkill.
-- Followed by films inspired by one of the mock trailers, Machete and Machete Kills
©2007 Vince Leo