2007Director: Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Rosario Dawson, Rose McGowan, Kurt Russell
D- / A-
hen it comes to Grindhouse, a B-movie double bill featuring two horror films from two writer-directors, there’s some good news and some bad news. The good news is that the second half, Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, may be the most fun you’ll have at the movies this year. The bad news is that you have to sit through Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror to see it.
Unlike the anthology films New York Stories or Four Rooms, Grindhouse aims to deliver an actual double feature—two full-length movies, packaged together for the price of one and padded out with an intermission featuring cartoons, cheesy retro adverts, and a few “fake trailers” for nonexistent horror films by like-minded filmmakers Eli Roth, Rob Zombie, and Edgar Wright. The idea is to recapture the thrill of watching sleazy horror movies in a second-run theater, complete with staged projector jiggles, print breaks, and missing reels. But seeing this kind of thing faked as a multi-million dollar Weinstein Brothers production feels a bit like appropriation—Rodriguez and Tarantino are claiming the economic (and yes, artistic) limitations of seventies-era exploitation films as an aesthetic. Their ambition is to find the art in having no ambition at all.
Rodriguez comes closet to achieving this dubious goal with Planet Terror, a self-indulgent mess of a zombie flick. This CGI-enhanced gore epic is designed to look like it was made on a shoestring budget, with deliberately flubbed lines, digitally-added print damage, and outright cheapness: a military base, returned to several times over the course of the film, is represented only by a beat-up highway sign reading “Military Base, 2 Miles.” That gag had me laughing out loud—even better is a moment, late in the movie, when the projector breaks and then starts up again, fifteen minutes later in the story.
But aside from the dopey comedy of its inside jokes, Planet Terror never manages an impact deeper than a groaning reaction to its gross-out gore effects: pustules burst like berries and genital wounds swell in close-up, but the half-dozen main characters remain as faceless as balloons, and the story they populate is an undigested solution of early John Carpenter. Planet Terror intends to pay homage to those witty genre pictures, but Rodriguez has neither Carpenter’s sense of craft nor interest in people, and his eye is surprisingly dull. The result is an eighty-minute film that feels endless. Who would’ve thought something called Planet Terror could be boring?
I hereby confess that my bladder wasn’t ironclad enough to make it through Grindhouse’s three-plus hours without a bathroom break. Luckily I returned in time for the very funny intermission, with its three fake trailers accompanied by an ad for a Tex-Mex eatery, complete with close-ups of guacamole cheese-chips that, in the wake of Planet Terror’s abundant viscera, served only to nauseate. As for the aforementioned trailers, one overdoes it, one doesn’t get it, and one is genius. Then a Bo Diddley beat starts pounding, we fade in on two female feet crossed up on a car dashboard, and immediately we’re in Tarantinoland.
For better or for worse, Quentin Tarantino remains the most famous director of his generation. His motor-mouthed-movie-geek shtick grew old circa 1996, and his last film, the overlong pastiche Kill Bill, had more than a few critics wondering aloud whether he’d squandered the promise of Pulp Fiction and the extraordinary Jackie Brown—two of the finest films of their decade. So I approached his contribution to Grindhouse with trepidation. I was surprised, then, to find myself loving every weird, wonderful minute of the brilliant Death Proof.
I’m afraid of ruining the movie’s many surprises; suffice it to say, Death Proof is a chick flick, a horror film, and a car-chase epic rolled into one and garnished with shots of Wild Turkey. The time constraints of a double-feature have forced Tarantino to focus, the result being a blend of Pulp Fiction’s screwball patter and the set-piece choreography that eluded him in Kill Bill. Tarantino is quick to get his Godardian flourishes out of the way, tossing in a couple of continuity gags before quickly moving on to the story at hand, a tale of serial killings, revenge, and text messaging that has the nerve to take its ninety minutes slowly, concentrating not on shock, but on suspense. Tarantino knows that to frighten us, he has to get us to care, and that fear itself isn’t much of an end. So instead he keeps things ambiguous, toying with audience expectations while quietly turning his horror film into a comedy conversation piece. Death Proof’s final third showcases some of the finest stunt work I’ve seen in years, but its overall mood is not one of sensation, but of playfulness. If a B-movie ever worked this well, I haven’t seen it.
The truth is, Tarantino isn’t interested in making a B-movie. He’s interested in using the discarded ideas found in B-movies as a pathway to fresh cinematic forms. Death Proof plays with genre, but the film’s heart is not its slasher-film structure, but the way it uses that structure as a framework within which to present an ensemble of quirky characters behaving—well, real. Tarantino is a terrific writer, with an eye for anecdotal humor, a generous love of people, and a feel for Hawksian speed. He’s excellent with actors, and Death Proof offers great movie moments to everyone in its cast—Kurt Russell and newcomer Zoe Bell in particular. No, this isn’t a great film—it’s hip, swinging pop art, the kind of smart entertainment Hollywood used to crank out every year, and an important step forward in a career that was threatening to devolve into self-parody. It’s a movie to re-watch, and maybe even grow to love, two things that can’t be said for its unfortunate partner-in-Grind: Rodriguez laughs at the cheap thrills found in cheesy movies; Tarantino takes those cheap thrills and turns them into something fresh, funny, and very entertaining. Here’s hoping that next time, he goes it alone.
Grindhouse is currently in wide release.
By: Patrick McKay
Published on: 2007-04-10