I’ve always been fascinated by grindhouse cinema, probably because it’s a movie-going experience I’ll never get to have. For those unfamiliar with the term, grindhouses were typically run-down theaters (primarily in cities) that would crank out double- and triple-features of low-budget exploitation movies. I remember taking a class trip to New York as a high school senior and driving past a row of grindhouses, each marquee and poster case promising some wondrously disreputable form of big screen entertainment. The video revolution pretty much killed this whole scene, as people didn’t need to venture into seedy parts of town to see the latest schlock-a-thon; they could now do it in their own homes. Two filmmakers – Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino - who have been heavily influenced by this type of cinema attempt to recreate the experience for modern audiences with their masterfully conceived movie, appropriately titled Grindhouse.
After a fake trailer for a revenge thriller called “Machete,” we get the first of two full-length motion pictures. Rodriguez’s Planet Terror is about a lonely go-go dancer named Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan) who is reunited with former lover Wray (Freddie Rodriguez) in the midst of a plague that is turning people into zombies. As they try to find a cure, they encounter a partially-debilitated nurse (Marley Shelton) whose shady doctor husband (Josh Brolin) may have some answers he’s not willing to share. When Cherry has her leg ripped off by the zombies, Wray helps her continue to fight by attaching a machine gun to her stump. She suddenly becomes a crazy, one-legged killing machine. This image is iconic to the film, as it captures both the ingenuity of the action as well as the tongue-in-cheek humor that nicely compliments it.
The second half is Tarantino’s Death Proof, an homage to car chase pictures like Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry and Vanishing Point. Kurt Russell plays a guy named Stuntman Mike, who owns a specially reinforced stunt car that allows him to smash it around without getting hurt. He uses the vehicle for sick purposes, namely stalking and killing young women. He meets his match when he goes after a group of girls (Rosario Dawson, Tracie Thoms, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and Zoe Bell) who are in town to make a movie. Two of them are stuntwomen themselves, and when Mike tries to mow them down, they fight back with a classic auto they’re allegedly test driving. There is an insane extended car chase where one of the characters is clinging to the hood while Stuntman Mike repeatedly plows into the car. If you like car chases, this is a must-see; Tarantino certainly delivers one of the most harrowing you will ever witness.
Sandwiched between the two main features – and adding to the whole grindhouse feel – are authentic-looking trailers for fake movies. These have been directed by Rob Zombie (The Devil’s Rejects), Edgar Wright (Shawn of the Dead) and Eli Roth (Hostel), whose holiday-inspired Thanksgiving is a masterpiece of twisted genius. These trailers, as well as a cheap-o fake restaurant commercial and some animated “feature presentation” intros, add a lot to the experience because they’re funny, but also because they mentally take you away from the comfort of a 2007 state-of-the-art multiplex and plop you into a 70’s era grindhouse.
So does the look of the movie. Grindhouse faithfully recreates the physical appearance of a beat-up print. There are scratches in the film, simulated projection hiccups, and bad splices. Once, in each of the two features, a “missing reel” marker is inserted. Back in the 70’s, exploitation movies only had a few prints made, and parts of them often got damaged or lost as they traveled from city to city. Rodriguez and Tarantino play the idea for laughs, conveniently losing reels that would seem to contain important plot information.
The main features are highly effective throwbacks to the exploitation genre, but the fake trailers and intentionally deteriorated look help take the experience to a higher level. Normally in a review, I talk about how the acting was, how the screenplay was, and what was special about the way the director told the story. In this case, all the standard compliments apply, but they aren’t the real juice. It’s the way Rodriguez, Tarantino, and their guests recreate an experience for you that really makes this one of the most inventive, entertaining, and incessantly cool movies of recent years.
Another contributing factor to the brilliance of Grindhouse is that the two movies that comprise most of its running time are so vastly different, giving you a sense of the wide range of exploitation styles. Rodriguez relies more heavily on the grainy look and projection flaws, especially to punctuate the most intense sequences; Tarantino allows a few soundtrack pops, a missing reel marker, and an occasional film scratch, but mostly chooses to focus on capturing the vibe of the movies that influenced him. Planet Terror has a rapid pace, with something going on every second; Death Proof, meanwhile, follows the somewhat mellower style of those 70’s drive-in pictures that had a talky first hour, followed by 30 minutes of breathtakingly furious action. (The difference being that Tarantino is such a great writer that his “talky” section is beautifully written and every bit as compelling as the action section.) Because the films are diverse, Grindhouse as a whole never becomes stale or feels like a stunt.
Sometimes, the ultimate criterion for a two-part film is: Would the individual segments work on their own? In the case of Grindhouse, I don’t think that’s an entirely fair question. There’s no doubt that Planet Terror and Death Proof would be great fun as stand-alone pictures, but neither of them would necessarily be what you’d consider a 4-star movie. However, they weren’t meant to stand alone; they were designed specifically to compliment one another. When the two features are run back-to-back and joined with the cheesy ads, fake trailers, and simulated exhibition oddities, Grindhouse becomes something even greater than the sum of its already terrific parts. You’re not just getting some good movies, you’re getting a full-on cinematic experience. The kind you really can’t get anymore. For three glorious hours, Grindhouse fools you into thinking you that you can.
( out of four)
Grindhouse is rated R for strong graphic bloody violence and gore, pervasive language, some sexuality, nudity and drug use. The running time is 3 hours and 12 minutes.
To learn more about this film, check out AskMen.com: Grindhouse
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