My wife and I found that we had some free time in the afternoon, and we both had been intrigued by trailers and reviews for Grindhouse, so we went to see it. Now I freely admit I am not steeped in the grindhouse tradition of movies, but I have enjoyed the Rodriguez and Tarantino films I have seen, so I thought I might appreciate what the two Grindhouse films are attempting to do.
Unfortunately, the movies seem to be caught between a parody and an homage, doing neither effort full justice and so ultimately falling short. I'm reminded of an issue of a comic series that is intended to be an homage. Part of the audience thinks it is a brilliant representation and perhaps updating of the subject of the homage, but another part of the audience is completely lost and left trying to evaluate the issue on its own merits, which are usually somewhat lacking since its purpose depends on something else. So, the weakness in Grindhouse may be more of a weakness on my own part. I don't know the tradition and so the movie's brilliant pastiche is going right past me.
The first part of the double feature is Richard Rodriguez's Planet Terror, a zombie film with aspirations for more. The primary plot is about a secret government weapon that turns people into zombie-like creatures and which has been released into the atmosphere near a small Texas town. The details are not important to the movie, but funny in the telling: Bruce Willis led a crack team of soldiers in Afghanistan, so crack in fact that they found and killed Osama bin Laden before the US government was ready for him to. Along the way, they were exposed to the experimental DC2 gas, which turns them into horrendously deformed caricatures of people, with oozing sores and superhuman strength…and a taste for human meat. The cure for the disease the gas causes is actually a steady supply of the gas itself-so long as its victims take it in minute amounts regularly (as in through a breathing mask they must wear all the time), they remain human. But when they become fully exposed or, ironically, no longer exposed, they become freaks. The bureaucracy of the government is satisfied with this outcome; it allows them to keep the soldiers and their knowledge of bin Laden's death under control, so they don't search for an antidote. Willis arrives at the decommissioned military base looking to buy more of the gas for his soldiers, but that plan falls apart. Thus Plan B--release all the gas, infecting the world and forcing the government to search for an antidote.
But the movie has many subplots, not having anything to do with the bizarre governmental conspiracy, but they all end up being resolved by the events of the gas being released. Will Dakota Black get away from her suspiciously evil husband and escape with her girlfriend? What is the history between go-go dancer Cherry and tow truck driver Wray? Why won't the sheriff trust Wray with a gun? Who is El Wray? What is the secret to JT's barbecue recipe? Why does the sheriff dislike his brother JT so much? And who are the insane babysitter sisters? All of these threads give the movie the façade of depth to intersperse with the gory but eventually tedious scenes of zombies eating or zombies dying. Of course, the eventual final battle has to occur, and it is filled with all the action that guns, helicopters, zombies and go-go girls can get you.
The problem is that, by and large, Rodriguez plays it straight. If Planet Terror was an attempt to be a parody, it's not campy enough. The actors could've been allowed to ham it up, but instead they deliver their lines as well as could be expected from a C or D film script. And even the moments that are intended to be comedic fall flat with the bizarrely straight deliveries. And if the film is meant to be an homage, it just isn't good enough and doesn't require the goofy things like streaks in the film, missing reels and poor images where the film has been spliced by amateurs. Planet Terror tries to be both and thus fails at both. It's a somewhat pleasing diversion, but nothing eventually memorable.
Tarantino's contribution to the double feature is Deathproof, the tale of a fading Hollywood stuntman obsessed with killing young women with his tricked out stunt car (a Nova or Chevelle with a skull painted on the hood and an angry duck for a hood ornament). There really is very little about this movie that is intended to be funny or parodic; it is clearly an homage to the car movies of the early 70s, a new story with references to the earlier tradition. It also plays a tiny gag with a missing reel, but ultimately that the movie is that much shorter is a blessing.
The problem with this movie is that we are introduced to the women victims before Kurt Russell's Stuntman Mike gets to them. Usually this is a good thing; the scenes allow us to develop a rapport with the characters so that their violation is that much more personal and thus appalling. But for this movie, that rapport is supposed to be derived from watching the girls interact with each other over the course of a day. Granted, Tarantino is the master of realistic dialogue, but in this case, the dialogue goes on far too long. Literally nothing happens as the camera angle rotates around three or four woman sharing a conversation that describes their relationships past. They recall events that have meaning to them but mean very little to the viewer, other than to highlight how shallow and inane they all really are. Perhaps that's ultimately the point--these women deserve to die in horrific automobile accidents for wasting their lives and potential--but I'm afraid that's ascribing too much craft to the movie. So after nearly half the movie is spent watching these four girls talk and get drunk, we get to see them attacked by Stuntman Mike and the death-Nova and the resulting destruction of their vehicle and their horrible deaths. Not even the seat belt one of the girls is wearing can save her.
Fade to black and do it again. Four more girls and another extremely tedious long time spent watching them talk about nothing. That two of these women are stunt-women is revealed fairly early in the conversation, so we know Stuntman Mike is not going to have it quite so easy. Finally, after much talking and not getting to the point, Stuntman Mike attempts to do his thing and is met with women who know how to drive as well or better than he. The long car chase that follows (and with small touch of humor, part of it is through a herd of resting cows) is the most interesting part of the movie, but even so it doesn't add anything new to the library of myriad car chases through film history.
We're left with the trailers of upcoming features that appear between the films. Perhaps because they are smaller condensed homages, they succeed much better than the longer movies. Rob Zombie's trailer for Werewolf Women of the SS is particularly delightful, not only for the premise of the last days of the World War II finding Nazis trying to make werewolf warriors, but also for the unexpected appearance of Nicholas Cage in what may be his best role ever. This is one I would halfway be interested in seeing made. The other two, Don't and Thanksgiving, also hit the right beats and then go away before the beats get pounded flat.
Clearly, these movies are not going to be the thing for all viewers. I appreciated the sign on the door to the theater when we walked in: "More than three hours of gore, violence, and sex. Not for everyone." To be honest, there's not a lot of sex...some topless women in the trailers and some implied sexuality, but no real outright sex. Lots of gore and a good bit of violence, when they aren't just talking about nothing. If you're a real cinephile or have a fondness for the movies Grindhouse is based on, then you would probably enjoy these. If you're not, you might be able to dredge up enough moments from these films to entertain you, but then again you might not.