Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
May 2007

Masterpiece theatre

Now this is what I call a chick flick -- the kind with blood, guts, severed legs and zombies

Grindhouse
The Weinstein Company
Director/Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino ("Death Proof"), Robert Rodriguez ("Planet Terror")
Starring:Rose McGowan, Kurt Russell, Josh Brolin, Zoe Bell, Freddy Rodriguez, Marley Shelton, Rosario Dawson, Sydney Poitier, Tracie Thoms, Michael Parks, Vanessa Ferlito, Jeff Fahey, Michael Biehn, Nicky Katt, Naveen Andrews and Bruce Willis!
Rated R / 3 hours, 11 minutes
(out of four)

Apparently, some people just didn't get it. There was plenty of hype surrounding Grindhouse upon its release. The fanboys were out on the Internet message boards in full swing. (I was one of them.) But it bombed at the box-office. The studio failed so badly to get its message across, that reportedly some people didn't realize the film was a double feature and left after the first half.

Perhaps, since those the film was being targeted at never experienced the 1970s grind-house scene that Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino knew and loved, some of the meaning was lost.

But it's the audience's loss, the box-office bottom line notwithstanding. It's unfortunate that it failed, but it makes sense -- audiences have been disciplined all too well. A three hour-plus double-feature shlock-fest with fake trailers and missing reels? That strays much too far from the norm. Let's go see Disturbia instead!

But Grindhouse is an absolute triumph. It's that rare movie that can actually be called an experience. It's not just about telling a story for a couple of hours -- it's a complete production number in and of itself. That was the vision of Rodriguez and Tarantino -- to pay loving homage to the glorious exploitation movies they grew up on. In the finished product, Rodriguez did the better job replicating the B-movie form, Tarantino made the better movie, and combined with the efforts of Edgar Wright, Rob Zombie and Eli Roth, Grindhouse is both an uproariously entertaining ride and a savagely clever deconstruction of genre filmmaking itself.

Rodriguez opens the twin-bill with Planet Terror, a purely camp zombie thriller that somehow manages to find a way to link flesh-eating zombies and genetic experiments with the U.S. military's hunt for Osama bin Laden.

Needless to say, the experiments go awry and start turning people into zombies, tearing a small Texas town into pieces. Inhabitants include Dakota (Marley Shelton), who's getting set to leave her sadistic doctor husband, Dr. Block (Josh Brolin); two brothers (Jeff Fahey and Michael Biehn) feuding over a barbecue recipe; and, most importantly, the outlaw El Wray (Freddy Rodriguez) and his freshly one-legged girlfriend, Cherry (Rose McGowan).

Robert Rodriguez -- who has had a decidedly hit-or-miss career but has done much of his best work recently -- never compromises his campy vision for Planet Terror. The print is scratchy, the blood is a blatantly fake shade of red, the acting is way too dramatic for the material, the one-liners are too cheesy and obvious for words. (After Cherry's leg has just been severed, she deadpans, "I was going to be a stand-up comedian.")

In an early scene, Bruce Willis pops up in a cameo as a military general trying to secure a virus from a mad scientist/sadist played by Naveen Andrews. As Willis -- with that patented smirk of his -- surveys the landscape leading up to a bloody shootout, the camera lingers on his face...and it just lingers. No one-liner, no action....it's just an unnecessary close-up. And the longer the camera stays there, the funnier it is.

Rodriguez does the same thing in a later scene, as Dr. Block gets ready to stab his wife with a needle after discovering her betrayal. Instead of any kind of payoff, we're treated to extreme close-ups of their eyes and his needle as the scary music hits a crescendo...and that's all. Rodriguez knows the mechanics of the B-movie form so well that he can pull humor out of essentially nothing. Planet Terror is a non-stop homage to zombie exploitation movies that never once strays from its roots. It's pure grind-house, pure camp and, even as it affectionately exposes all that made these types of movies so ridiculous, an unreasonably entertaining show.

Were it not so deliberate, this would be the very definition of a guilty pleasure. It's as bad as it gets...which is a compliment, of course. Grind-house flicks -- which are now seeing a small resurgence in popularity on late-night cable TV -- are often given the "so bad it's good" label. Planet Terror adds another level to that. It's so bad it's good, because it's so good at being so bad.

However, with the second half of the double feature, Death Proof, Tarantino refuses to be hamstrung by convention. Instead, as he's done with pulp crime and kung-fu flicks, he elevates the material and takes a shopworn formula in a new direction. Sure, there may not be as much gore, as much silliness or as much unadulterated fun in Death Proof as there is in Planet Terror, but Tarantino does Rodriguez one better: instead of simply paying homage to his chosen genre (in this case, the slasher film), he turns it on its ear.

Not surprisingly given Tarantino's tendencies as a filmmaker, he takes a slower approach to telling his story -- which might make it a bit of an awkward transition from the fast-paced Planet Terror, but it doesn't take too long to settle in. He establishes his characters and gets to know them through a night of conversation before things actually start happening. Not only do we get a healthy dose of Tarantino's patented dialogue style, but he continues to, quite hilariously, play with form -- like the cheesy romantic music that suddenly starts up whenever Jungle Julia (Sydney Poitier) gets a text message from her potential new boyfriend.

Death Proof plays smoothly as an exercise in style, and Stuntman Mike (played by Kurt Russell with seductiveness and maniacal glee) as the enigmatic, terrifying killer. But then, after a first half that, plot-wise, has played completely to our expectations, Tarantino shatters them in the second half. By this point, we've gotten to know a new set of characters -- the first group of girls has, of course, been eliminated. What ensues is a series of brilliantly executed and savagely funny chase sequences -- directed with virtuosity by Tarantino, who served as his own cinematographer, a rare distinction, for the first time -- that turn in ways we could not possibly expect. Most importantly, Tarantino completely deconstructs the mythological serial-killer archetype, causing the final act of the film to twist in a whole new direction.

The film's drastic dramatic shift opens up entirely new possibilities that make Death Proof infinitely more entertaining, and more creative, than it would have been had things gone as they were "supposed" to. That's why, as entertaining a filmmaker Rodriguez is, Tarantino has always been his superior. Both filmmakers know the conventions of moviemaking inside and out; Rodriguez does a great job replicating what we love about movies. Tarantino does the same thing - and then he defies those norms.

Put together, Grindhouse was a stroke of genius, no matter what the box-office receipts say. In an age when we've become so accustomed to being controlled by Hollywood norms and expectations, it's exciting to see a couple of filmmakers who live simply for the joy of movies -- and with the balls-to-the-wall adrenaline rush of Grindhouse, they have provided cinema with a vital shot in the arm.

AS FOR THE FAKE TRAILERS....

Machete (Robert Rodriguez): B+

Werewolf Women of the S.S. (Rob Zombie): C

Don't (Edgar Wright): A

Thanksgiving (Eli Roth): B+

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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