Man, Grindhouse pissed me off. I knew as soon as I heard about it that this was a movie that’d have me shifting uncomfortably in my seat, but I thought it was going to be from the gore and cheap scares. Not out of annoyance.
The “problem” was Quentin Tarantino’s half of the double feature, Death Proof. As predicted, and as mentioned in just about every review, it starts out slow and egregiously talky. (Even the ones that revere Tarantino as if he were a cinematic messiah mention this — I actually read one that said Robert Rodriguez was Salieri to Tarantino’s Mozart.) And after the enormous build-up of the first half, Planet Terror, and the fake trailers during intermission, the second half plays like the annoying boor at a party that ruins everything and just makes everybody cringe. The one where everybody’s talking and laughing and just having a great time, and he manages to say the one thing that just kills the mood dead. (Usually it’s some variant of a dead-pan “That’s funny.”)
Planet Terror delivers on all the bad-assery the trailer promises. It’s over-the-top gore, cheesy characters, ridiculous dialogue, explosions, and full to bursting with all the gimmicks that come with the concept — scratchy film, missing reels, even the variations on the theme song are funny. I’d been a little worried, since movies never live up to the potential shown in their trailers, but Planet Terror is like the Grindhouse trailer turned up full blast and sustained over an hour and a half.
And then comes Death Proof with at least forty solid minutes of a bunch of women talking like Quentin Tarantino talks. It’s not just a sudden cold shower, it’s more aggressively annoying. Maybe a cold shower filled with bees.
But here’s the really annoying part: Death Proof pays off. There’s about 30 minutes of just totally bad-ass movie in there. First car scene with Rose McGowan: pretty cool. Second car scene with the girls: very cool. Third car chase with the girls: annoying (why doesn’t anyone in these movies just pull over?) but cool. Final car chase: absolutely incredible, with Kurt Russell doing stuff I totally didn’t see coming, and one hell of a final shot. This isn’t like the interminable talking in Kill Bill Volume 2, which just fizzled out to the conclusion; this was a real pay-off that just felt right, a moment that Planet Terror never quite reached, a moment where you think “now that is exactly what was possible from these movies.”
There are plenty of people who’ll insist that all the talking was necessary to get the pay off. That it builds sympathy for the characters. That it was necessary, after the frenetic pacing of the first half, to slow everything down and build back up to an explosive conclusion. Or, simply, that it’s truer to the spirit of the grindhouse movies that inspired it. The first point is just wrong — you don’t feel sympathy for the characters, you’re eager to see them get killed. The second, I’m highly skeptical about — I still believe they could’ve cut Death Proof to 45 minutes or less and still get as satisfying a reaction.
The last point, I can’t really say much about. Apart from Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and maybe the movies from “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” I haven’t seen any of the movies that inspired or are referenced by this one. But from what I do recognize, I don’t think either of half of Grindhouse really gets it exactly right.
Planet Terror looks the part on the surface, but its plot is a little too coherent, and its production values are a little too high. I’ve already forgotten where I read it, but somebody on the internets described it as “what the grindhouse movies wanted to be, not what they were.” Death Proof, as the self-important internet film critics will point out, dispensed with the surface-level gimmicks and instead captured what the originals were really like. Lower budgets meant less action and more talky scenes that went nowhere. Editing rambled and meandered to make the most out of the film that was shot. There was only enough money for a couple of expensive action sequences. Using a stunt person as a cast member was a bonus.
But I’d counter that while that makes for a more genuine recreation/reinterpretation, it goes too far down the path of movie nerd wankery and loses sight of the big picture: big, stupid, fun movies. And Planet Terror is simply more fun. I just saw it yesterday and already I’ve forgotten most of it, while there are elements of Death Proof that still stand out in my mind and just seem cooler and more bad-ass the more I think of them. But that feeling of just plain anything-goes fun has to be what attracted these guys to those movies in the first place.
But all of that is just written under obligation; when a movie has two halves, you just have to compare them. While I’m at it: you’re also supposed to pick your favorite of the trailers. The Machete trailer is gold, but my favorite is the awesome one for Don’t.
I wish I could say I were surprised the movie isn’t making as much money as they’d hoped. It’s definitely a day at the movies, and there’s a reason double features fell out of favor in the first place. But although it’s not a surprise, it’s a shame, because annoyances and all, Grindhouse is a blast. It’s a great homage to these movies, and like Kill Bill it’s made me seek out a lot of the originals that inspired it (in particular, I want to see Vanishing Point now). And it’s proof that a movie can be filled with movie nerd wankery and experimentation and not end up with too-clever post-modernism or indie self-indulgence. It can just be fun.