Given that Grindhouse probably won't be in theatres much longer (it leaves Columbia next week), I am probably a little late in reviewing it. But then today was the first day I could actually see it. For those of you too young to remember and who are wondering at the origins of the title, a grindhouse was a theatre that exclusively showed exploitation films. They typically showed these films in double or even triple features. The height of grindhouse cinema was probably in the Seventies, when relaxed standards due to the newly implemented ratings system allowed exploitation films to feature even more violence and even more explicit sexual content. The death knell of exploitation films and the grindhouses came with the advent of home video. As the Eighties wore on, grindhouses started disappearing from the United States.
Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino's Grindhouse is a paen to the sort of films the grindhouses once showed. It is essentially set up as a "double feature" of two movies (Planet Terror and Death Proof), complete with faux trailers; cheesy, Seventies style "coming attractions" and "feature presentation" animations; and Seventies style "restricted" tags. To give the illusion that this is a double feature that has been around the block a bit too many times, Grindhouse also features fuzzy sound in parts, scratchy film, and even missing reels. Death Proof even had an "original title," Thunder Bolt, which flashes on the screen only seconds before being replaced by the new title, Deathproof. Indeed, to further capture the illusion of Seventies exploitation films, even the Dimension Films logo is done up in period fashion.
Of the double feature that is Grindhouse, the best is Planet Terror. Here Robert Rodriguez tackles the time honoured exploitation genre of the zombie film. The movie is set in a small Texas town where an experimental gas is released which infects nearly everyone who inhales it and turns them into zombies. To say it captures the feel of grindhouse cinema is putting it mildly. Once Grindhouse takes off, it hardly ever lets up on the throttle. Not only does Planet Terror feature plenty of action, but it also features violence and gore of the sort for which Seventies exploitation films were known. The hero of the piece, El Ray (played by Freddy Rodriguez--it's good to see a short hero for once...) even gets to engage in a some kung fu action. There is even nudity and a (albeit brief) sex scene.
To complete the illusion of a Seventies style exploitation movie, Rodriguez has provided his film with an homage to the scores of John Carpenter films (which Carpenter composed himself). Indeed, the score reminds me largely of the one from Halloween, down to many of its cues. This is a perfect compliment to the action and graphic violence of Grindhouse. It feels like a Seventies movie. I rather expect that those who object to graphic violence and gore will probably dislike Planet Terror (if you thought 300 was too much, then you probably won't like Planet Terror, but those who enjoy a simple, fun popcorn movie will like the film a good deal.
As to the second half of the double bill, Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof, it is definitely the lesser of the two movies. Death Proof centres on Kurt Russell as Stuntman Mike, a former stuntman who travels around in his black 1971 Dodge Charger, which he has customised to be utterly "death proof." Stuntman Mike could probably be defined quite rightly as a serial killer, only in his case his weapon of choice is his car. Once Death Proof kicks into action, the thrills are pretty much nonstop. As might be expected, it features some of the best car chases I've seen in years (although admittedly they are largely cribbed from earlier "car" movies--Vanishing Point to name one). And Kurt Russell makes a good villain as Stuntman Mike, suitably smarmy but at the same time a bit left of centre and chilling.
The problem is that it takes Death Proof some time to get started, and then once it slows down again it takes it some time to get started again. One of Tarantino's flaws is that his movies can at times be a bit talky, and this is certainly the case with Death Proof. And while I usually enjoy Tarantino's dialogue, peppered with pop culture references, I found it out of place here. With a few exceptions (some of the films of John Carpenter and George Romero, to name two), most grindhouse movies did not feature pop culture references. It also has a great soundtrack ("Jeepster" is one of my favourite T. Rex songs, while I love "Hold Tight" by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich). Sadly, this also detracts from the grindhouse feel of the film. Very few Seventies exploitation films had great soundtracks (I can only think of one--1981's Fear No Evil with a soundtrack featuring The Sex Pistols and The Ramones). All of this having been said, Death Proof is still worth the price of admission due to its fantastic (and often unbelievable) car chases and Kurt Russell playing Stuntman Mike. It's not a perfect film, but it can be fun.
Of course, no theatre experience is complete without movie trailers, and the faux trailers in Grindhouse are hilarious. All of them are done in the overwrought style of Seventies exploitation trailers, and they succeed (maybe too well) in capturing the feel of those trailers. My favourites are Eli Roth's Thanksgiving (a delicious send up of those old, holiday themed slasher films of the late Seventies and early Eighties) and Rob Zombie's Werewolf Women of the S.S. (a homage to the whole "Nazi women" subgenre of exploitation movies).
Ultimately, I suppose that there will be those who simply will not get Grindhouse. Those too young to have seen these sorts of films in grindhouses or drive in theatres, or to have even caught them on late night TV, probably won't get the joke. But for those who do remember those old grindhouse movies, and especially for those who actually enjoyed a few of them, Grindhouse is one ride worth taking.