Sean T. Collins has written about comics and popular culture professionally since 2001 and on this very blog since 2003. He has written for Maxim, The Comics Journal, Stuff, Wizard, A&F Quarterly, Comic Book Resources, Giant, ToyFare, The Onion, The Comics Reporter and more. His comics have been published by Top Shelf, Partyka, and Family Style. He blogs here and at Robot 6.
I posted about this film thrice Monday on the Tori Amos message board I frequent.
Saw it last night.
Horror movies should be scary.
Slightly less short version:
The one scary moment was that first car crash. And the finale was, unsettling, I guess? But mostly the whole thing was either just funny or just gross.
I don't want a rollercoaster ride from my horror movies. I want a car wreck. And with the exception (fittingly enough) of the car wreck, I got a rollercoaster ride. With 30 minutes of chit-chat in the middle.
The trailers were great though, and so was Kurt Russell. And Rose McGowan, hubba hubba.
Chronological order version:
Rodriguez's movie was fun, but it was just a bunch of different junk slapped together. Why did Sayid cut off and collect people's balls? Why did Marley Shelton have a gun that shoots syringes? How did Rose McGowan shoot her machine-gun leg? Why did the kid kill himself? Why did Quentin Tarantino's character not mind his dick falling off? Etc etc etc. "Because that's AWESOME!!!!11!!!!11!!!" is an unacceptable answer. John Fucking Carpenter SHITS on "Because that's AWESOME."
More fun trailers. In the space of 15 seconds, Nic Cage almost redeems himself.
Death Proof's whole opening segment was really interesting--it really conjured the feeling of that setting, with the hot rainy night and whatnot, and these characters and that environment, yadda yadda. Kurt Russell is great. The car crash was brilliant. And then boom, it's the "I really loved Uma's stunt double so here's 30 minutes of her talking to Rosario Dawson" show. Goes nowhere, boring. QT forgets the whole "grindhouse" project and doesn't age or degrade the final couple of reels. Long-ass semi-entertaining car chase, a gunshot that kicks Kurt's performance into Brilliant territory, a completely un-buyable decision by three fun girls to track down and murder the guy, more car chase, a great ending. THE END.
Also, speaking of "if you don't do it you're chickenshit," Jungle Julia, BOTH films use the "missing reel" gag to skip sex? WTF? Some grindhouse this is! Man up, QT and RR.
Despite some initial, From Dusk Till Dawn-derived misgivings, Grindhouse was a film I really wanted to like. I'm an enthusiasm enthusiast--I like the things that I like, and from He-Man to David Bowie to Fort Thunder to (of course) Quentin Tarantino, I like art that's about the things the artists like. The project of Grindhouse, this notion of meticulously recreating a period cinema experience right down to the film stock and the trailers, is extremely appealing to me.
Unsurprisingly, the parts of Grindhouse that speak most directly to that project are among the parts I enjoyed the most. I really, really loved those trailers, for example. And yes, even the Rob Zombie one, despite it feeling the least authentically "grindhouse--as opposed to grindhouse as filtered through the mind of Rob Zombie, a man who creates album art featuring demons flipping the bird and yelling "GET DOWN, MUTHAFUCKA!" and suchlike. Sure, he overplayed his hand by proclaiming "Hey look, it's Udo Kier and Tom Towles and Bill Moseley and Sybil Danning!" instead of just letting us discover and enjoy ourselves, but hearing the words "and Nicolas Cage as Fu Manchu" more than made up for that (and, if you catch me in a particularly generous mood, for everything he's recorded since breaking up White Zombie). Indeed, of the four trailers my least favorite was seemingly everyone else's darling, Don't, since it felt the least genuinely, enthusiastically vile and the most like a parody of genuine, enthusiastic vileness; the least like a film its creator might actually go ahead and make, in other words.
I also loved the use of degraded, aged film stock--the pops and scratches and splices and so on. I'm not even sure I can articulate why, because I'm not a fetishist for authenticity in the slightest; I don't give a damn about vinyl, and while I love seeing movies in theatres it's for the theatre experience, not because the movie came from a film canister. I do kind of dig parametric filmmaking, and maybe that's what I'm latching on to here: The film stock stuff is the pervading signal of the parameters Rodriguez and Tarantino have set for themselves. Every time half a sentence disappears into the ether or the color suddenly goes red, it's a little loveletter to limitation.
And so (as astute readers will have already gleaned) the parts where the pair deviate from the project are among my least favorite aspects of Grindhouse. On an intellectual level I can grasp all the reasons why Tarantino abandoned the aged film stock schtick for the second half of Death Proof--to differentiate it from the more-of-a-downer first half, to indicate that now we're watching a real movie, simply to showcase the bitchin' cars--and I still don't care: Finish what you started! I found the transition to clarity far more distracting than any missing reel would have been.
And then there's the missing reel thing itself. Both RR and QT made a big deal of how much fun they had, narratively speaking, thanks to the freedom the missing reels gave them--how they could cut to the chase (so to speak), cut boring exposition, throw the audience in a new situation with new relationships and a new status quo and let them figure it out, and so on. Little did I expect that they'd both use it to avoid showing sex! I'm certainly not the first person to point out how decidedly un-raunchy these two movies were; sure, there's a lot of Maxim-y T&A (literally, since the film's starlets appeared in that very magazine), but to be blunt, there are more tits in about six combined seconds of the trailers from Machete, Werewolf Women of the SS, and Thanksgiving than in both of Our Feature Presentations. Quentin couldn't even bring himself to put the bump-and-grind in "grindhouse" and film a lapdance, for pete's sake. (Isn't it odd that this lover of outré cinema has a grand total of one (nudity-free, if I'm not mistaken) consensual sex scene in his entire ouevre?)
Perhaps these lapses of grindhousian purity could be forgiven if the movies were, well, better. But as I said, Planet Terror is just a bunch of cool, unconnected ideas and images slapped together. I know that's kind of par for the course for both of these guys, and I know normally it doesn't bother me, but in this case the Grindhouse project precluded the "fuck irony" stance that normally gives (say) Tarantino's exercises in "I like this and this and this and this and this so let's put them together and BAM we've got ourselves a picture" the no-bullshit emotional hook that pulls the audience through. When they work, which most definitely isn't always and in some cases even often, the self-conscious genre-revivification exercises of Tarantino and Rodriguez and Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson and Bryan Singer and Zack Snyder and the entire geek-director pantheon depend, like that gag about the escaped insane-asylum inmates from Alan Moore's The Killing Joke, on a gut-level belief that you can walk from rooftop to rooftop on the beam of a flashlight. But Planet Terror is a film about that belief, not a film that embodies that belief, if you follow me. Hence, splat.
Which is not to say that it's a complete failure. It is a fun movie, as you might expect any movie in which Jeff Fahey and Michael Biehn play brothers and Sayid from Lost has a special testicle-removal weapon to be. In his review of the film, Jon Hastings is right to point out that the better performances here capture that "I just work here" anti-brio unique to a certain strata of '70s and '80s B-movie; ditto the film's lackadaisacal follow-through with key plot points and careening sine-wave narrative structure (though I think the obvious point of reference for both is John Carpenter and not, as Jon suggests, George Romero). And I'm always a little surprised to find myself appreciating really crazily over-the-top splatter like a Fango-subscribing gorehound, but hey, if the shoe fits. (In all seriousness, I think gore has a transgressive value as spectacle--a holdover from my film school days, during which one could routinely hear Sam Pekinpah compared to Busby Berkeley.) I even liked the way the ending set up a potentially much more epic mythos, sort of like how Mad Max begat The Road Warrior. Only not really, because "just kidding" hangs over the whole affair and is impossible to shake off.
Death Proof has its strengths, too, and they pretty much all fall in the first half of the film. Like I said on the Tori board, the opening section does a crackerjack job of evoking its Austin setting, or at least Tarantino and Rodriguez's idealized vision of same. It felt like I place I'd love to hang out in, get drunk in, get stoned in, get laid in, which when you think about it is a pretty neat way of making you dread the intrusion of a slasher. How dare he interrupt these ladies from being sultry (very) and clever (rather) and enjoying T. Rex and Shiner Bock! Like Psycho--which was obviously a point of reference though I'm sure similar tricks were played by some obscure giallo or women-in-prison picture with which I'm unfamiliar--Tarantino creates attractive, sympathetic, complex female characters whose deaths are genuinely shocking. No, seriously--I for one didn't expect all four to be killed, and certainly not all at once. After they died, I missed them.
And how they died! The one moment of truly great horror in the entire 3-hour-plus magilla, the car crash does an awful lot in its brief time span. Coming as it does on the heels of earlier intentionally unintentional "repeats" of brief segments of film (ostensibly owing to the whole beat-up spliced-together reels thing), it disorients the viewer by tricking them into thinking it's another glitch, only to show it again, and again. It makes nasty little points, like severing from Jungle Julia one of the legs we'd been enjoying for the past half an hour. It proves that a car can be a good and frightening slasher weapon, something I wasn't sold on until just about the point where a battered Rose McGowan started telling Stuntman Mike that ha ha, she got the joke. It elevates Stuntman Mike, heretofore just a goofy guy in an Icy Hot jacket who assumes that everyone's familiar with old cowboy shows (kind of like a better-looking version of Walter Sobchak), to a somewhat awe-inspiringly implacable monster. And most importantly for me, it plays off the very real fear of car accidents, showing the impact of an impact in driver's-ed detail. (Gave me plenty to think about during my 62-mile drive to work the next day, that's for damn sure.)
And then, and then, jibber-jabber for 40 minutes. Why? I know QT loves Zoe Bell, and I know he loves dialogue, but he's used both of them a LOT more effectively before. I can only remember a couple of bits from the seemingly endless chatter--the thing about how what happens to people with knives is "they get shot," and the cheerleader girl saying her on-set romance likes to watch her pee. Perhaps that's because the conversations are so divorced from their setting: While the randy, stoned, booze-soaked dialogue of the women from the first half of the scene fit perfectly with their randy, stoned, booze-soaked environs (a lived-in feel echoed by the film stock), Zoe and Rosario and friends exist in a brightly lit, clearly shot non-environment. Even the farm of the redneck we're supposed to see as capable of giving the cheerleader the Deliverance treatment looked like something out of a prescription allergy medication commercial. I don't get it.
I do get the denouement: The maniac-movie script gets flipped so that instead of bringing senseless, out-of-nowhere slaughter to innocent victims, Stuntman Mike's would-be victims bring senseless, out-of-nowhere slaughter to not-so-innocent him. And I like that; it's clever and cool. (Hell, I appreciate most of Death Proof--Tarantino's formal tomfoolery makes it an interesting failure when it fails.) But here's the thing: Have we seen anything at all from these three women--two of whom are professional thrillseekers, to be sure, but c'mon--that makes their choice to track down their attacker and kill him believable in any way? There's a big, BIG difference between enjoying stuntwork and enjoying retributive murder; and between carrying a pistol for self-defense and deciding to execute a guy. I know that the presence of the Michael Parks sheriff character indicates that Death Proof takes place in the "heightened reality" world of From Dusk Till Dawn and Kill Bill and Planet Terror, but if you're going to spend so long studying the personalities of these characters through dialogue, their subsequent behavior has to follow from what you've already established. I dunno, maybe their unrealistic transformation into gleeful killers is some sort of commentary on the ridiculousness of Stuntman Mike's slasher archetype? But that would appear to be undercut by the closing-credits montage of photos of women who are presumably Stuntman Mike's previous victims. Again, I appreciate the role reversal, and I quite frankly loved the climactic beatdown and Russell's unforgettable breakdown and the closing-credits montage and music (though I wish the car chase that led up to it had been a lot more interesting)--I just wish it worked, and it doesn't.
If I'm avoiding what appeared to be my fundamental objection to the two movies--they're not scary--that's for two reasons: 1) You can't really elaborate on that; 2) Maybe I'm being unfair and they're not supposed to be scary--maybe they're supposed to be mostly an action movie and mostly a whacked-out car flick respectively. But Tarantino himself called them "a horror film" and "a terror film," so I guess I'm being fair after all. I wasn't really horrified or terrified.
Overall, I feel like Grindhouse is a movie I could definitely mellow out about over time. Both films have their strengths, and they were both kind of fun despite their weaknesses, and I loved the idea behind them and the trailers were awesome and so on. I could certainly see us renting this for one of our Manly Movie Mamajamas and getting good and fucked up and enjoying the hell out of it. But Tarantino and Rodriguez said that unlike the grindhouse flicks of old, their movies would be every bit as good as their trailers and posters. Well, I left the theatre let down--so maybe they were true to the grindhouse experience after all.