The word “grindhouse” used to refer to the old, run-down theaters that showed double bills of B-movies. Back before there was a home video market, these were the only places you could see the redheaded stepchildren of cinema: movies filled with plenty of over-the-top violence, sex, and/or gore, not necessarily in that order, because producers knew they could make a buck with it. They could only afford to create a handful of prints, so the films traveled across the country, each playing at many theatres, most of which didn’t have high quality equipment or projectionists, resulting in quite a bit of wear and tear in the process. However, it wasn’t just the celluloid that suffered degradation as the film’s characters usually did as well.
Over the years, the word “grindhouse” has morphed into a shorthand meaning all exploitation films. Genres that fall under its umbrella are wide-ranging. They cover the blaxploitation films of Rudy Ray Moore; the sexploitation films of Russ Meyer; and the films of Meiko Kaji, a crossover star, whose body of work includes the Stray Cat Rock series (juvenile girl gangs), and the Female Prisoner Scorpion series (women in prison). Grindhouse horror films are so prolific they have a number of sub-genres. Slashers, zombies, and cannibals are just a few of the recurring characters you’ll meet in the shadows.
Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino, and friends do an excellent job of recreating the grindhouse experience; however, the two main features accomplish it with different methods. Rodriguez’ Planet Terror is a terrific zombie movie. It fondly pays tribute in parody with bad dialogue and unbelievable plot points. The action moves at a fast pace, allowing no time to think about what makes sense. The gruesomeness of the effects is creepy without being nauseating. Rodriguez uses a lot of digital effects to create the look of a damaged print, but at times it was too much and became obvious they weren’t real. He should have gone the route of Woody Allen’s Zelig and actually damaged a negative of the movie. Planet Terror was an intense pleasure and sure to be a fixture on the cult movie circuit.
Tarantino goes one better, authenticating the experience by actually creating a terrible movie. Death Proof combines grindhouse staples of serial killers, fast cars, and women seeking revenge into an excruciating ordeal of tedium as the viewer once again must suffer through Tarantino’s indulgences: his fetishes for women’s feet, the words “fuck” and “nigga,” and hearing his own writing being spoken. Of course, he has a cameo, because what is a Tarantino film without an appearance from the human Jar Jar Binks?
Tarantino’s well of creativity as a screenwriter has run bone dry here. The majority of the characters are hot chicks. The first is a group of gals from Austin, Texas, whose character development doesn’t go past their liking to get wasted at a bar. We are apparently supposed to care about Jungle Julia because the guy she likes stands her up. The second is a foursome working on a movie, which must have required a great deal of research. They do give Tarantino a way to mention the film Vanishing Point repeatedly. The villain is Stuntman Mike, brought to life by a great performance by Kurt Russell. He’s the most intriguing character, but we don’t get enough of him.
Conversations from both groups of women are meaningless drivel with no end in sight, edging the plot along slower than Tim Conway’s “Old Man” character. They are mostly vapid, uninteresting, and too often are used solely to show off Tarantino’s knowledge of entertainment trivia. Rather than a cool exchanges of dialogue, we suffer through verbal water treading. Maybe Tarantino wanted to create a film where the exasperated audience yells at the screen, but it lessens the stakes of the conflict because you begin to root for the characters to die just so they will shut the fuck up.
He did have a great 20-30 minutes. The stunt work, the fight scene, and the crash sequence from the first half of the movie were well crafted, but he ruined the film with his tired bag of tricks. While watching Planet Terror, the idea of being torn apart is terrifying. While watching Death Proof, it would be a welcome reprieve rather than suffering through its excruciating banality. The moment the thought of walking out pops into your head, trust that instinct.
Lastly, I have to mention the trailers. They were all great. Rodriguez’ Machete is a Mexplotation film, which he developed into a feature. Edgar Wright’s Don’t is a British haunted house film. Eli Roth’s Thanksgiving is a slasher film with a quick final shot that is still burned into my memory. Rob Zombie’s Werewolf Women of the SS says it all in the title. All four capture the essence of their genres and are very funny.