Grindhouse (2007)

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Grindhouse
Dir. Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino
Premiered March 26, 2007

When Grindhouse was released in theaters, it was a brief phenomenon, and everyone thought I needed to see it, including my parents and elderly neighbors. I was too broke and lonely to be bothered to go to the movies on more than a very occasional basis, but they were right. Not only was Grindhouse made for 17-year-old boys who want to make movies; but it would be years before anyone could see the film in its theatrical form. Each feature was originally release d on DVD separately; a surprising disappointment given the involvement of a filmmaker as famously committed to the movie-watching experience as Quentin Tarantino.

Now that I have the complete cut, I’m glad I waited, because to watch either part of this double-feature alone, outside its gloriously schlocky conceit, is to miss the point.

Planet Terror
Dir. Robert Rodriguez

The most outwardly campy of the two films, Planet Terror begins at a disused Army base in Texas, terrorist guinea pigs led by Bruce Willis kidnap scientist Naveen Andrews and unleash the biological weapon DC2, exposing a nearby town to every virus known to man, and turning  the townsfolk into quasi-sentient zombies. Eventually, the few survivors, led principally by El Wray  and Cherry Darling (Freddy Rodriguez and Rose McGowan), find each other with the help of a missing reel and try to figure a way out. The resulting film is simultaneously funny and thrilling; a gory, T&A-ridden farce for the ages.

Death Proof
Dir. Quentin Tarantino

In Austin, Texas, a mysterious bar patron named Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) stalks four girlfriends on their night out, eventually killing them on the road with his reinforced crash-proof stunt car. Some time later, he finds new prey in a band of road-tripping women who’ve taken a 1970 Dodge Challenger (identical to the one in Vanishing Point) for a joyride. Little does Mike know that the women are Hollywood stunt professionals themselves, and soon the hunter becomes the hunted.

Of the two features, Planet Terror was the more heavily advertised at the time of release, and it’s easy to see why, as it makes the most ample use of the b-movie conceit. At the same time, it’s just as easy to see why Death Proof is the more fondly remembered. Taking more inspiration from Russ Meyer than George Romero, Death Proof is way more subdued in both its technical aspects and its content. That’s not to say it’s a less interesting or fun film, just a different kind of fun.

Before and between the films are several fake trailers, including contributions from Rob Zombie, Eli Roth, and Edgar Wright, as well as real film intros from old movie theaters. On their own, the films are okay; but as a whole, it’s a work of genius and anyone who wants to make movies should see it.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
Despite the throwback look and feel of the project, both films (especially Death Proof) also draw attention to the contemporary setting. None of the cars in the background are older than the mid-1990s, while people frequently check their flip-phones. The clothes are also a dead giveaway. It’s strange to see a film simultaneously evoke two different eras, but goddamn, it works.

Additional Notes

  • The “Feature Presentation” intro used twice in the film is still used at the Laemmle Playhouse, my local arthouse theater growing up in Pasadena.
  • Odd as it may sound, Naveen Andrews got the short end of the stick having his breakout role be the stoic, angsty Sayid Jarrah on Lost. If more people saw him ham it up as a mad scientist in Planet Terror, he’d probably have a more interesting career.

  • Neither film is short on cheesecake, but Death Proof’s Vanessa Ferlito is fine as fresh huckleberries.

  • In Rosanna Arquette’s 2002 documentary Searching for Debra Winger, Roger Ebert remarks that as Hollywood films have become more targeted towards adolescent boys, screenwriters have increasingly interpreted the call for “strong female characters” as a call for “violent female characters.” Leave it to Tarantino to do both. As I write this, I realize I like Death Proof a lot more than Planet Terror, but I maintain you can’t have one without the other.

How Did It Do?
Just as you might expect, Grindhouse was better received by critics (83% on RT) than either Planet Terror (74) or Death Proof (65) when released separately for home video. However, despite its high profile, Grindhouse never came close to recouping its $67 million budget, grossing just $25.4 million. Even today, with ubiquitous social media, it’s questionable whether it could have turned a profit on word-of-mouth.

Rodriguez and Tarantino made Grindhouse as a tribute to the unique experience of seeing a movie in the theater, but its failure at the box office may have influenced them to release the individual films to home video separately and with the “missing” footage restored. This turned out to be a mistake, as fans clamored for the entire experience to be re-released, which it finally was in 2013. By that point, Grindhouse was popular enough, at least with filmmakers, to warrant a handful of spinoffs based on the fake trailers in the middle of the production. But in my opinion, this defeats the purpose of the fake trailers, just as actually making Buckaroo Banzai vs. the World Crime League would have, and none of them could live up to this bad boy.

Next Time: Blades of Glory

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