Monday, January 05, 2009


Do you know how excited I was about ‘Grindhouse’? Imagine the adrenalin levels of a kid on Christmas Day, a fat kid in a sweetshop lockdown and no adults around to tell him not to, a pyromaniac in a fireworks factory, a dipsomaniac left in charge of a distillery, a voyeur given carte blanche to roam around the Playboy Mansion, and a member of the NRA at an arms bazaar. Now combine all those adrenalin levels, throw a few tequila slammers into the mix and shoot the whole thing full of heroin.

That’s how excited I was.

Tim at Antagony & Ecstacy reviewed it under the pullquote ‘The Movie I Was Put on This Earth to See’, and I was almost wetting myself.

And. Then. Something. Happened.

‘Grindhouse’ underperformed at the American box office. I started hearing dispiriting rumours: the film was being split in two for its European release; ‘Death Proof’ would come out first; there was no confirmed UK release date for ‘Planet Terror’. There was a big question mark over whether the spoof trailers would be released theatrically.

I. Was. Not. Happy.

I’ll admit it here and now: I was looking forward more to ‘Planet Terror’ than ‘Death Proof’, having been monstrously underwhelmed by ‘Kill Bill Vol. II’ (another Tarantino opus that got released in two parts, with a six month wait after the blistering first instalment with its iconic “House of Blue Leaves” set-piece).

Sure enough, the handful of lobby posters I’d seen for ‘Grindhouse’ quietly disappeared, to be replaced by ‘Death Proof’ posters. Frequent IMDb visits seemed to confirm that there was still no release date for ‘Planet Terror’. In the meantime, I’d tracked down the spoof trailers online and bookmarked them.

A week before ‘Death Proof’ opened, I got hold of ‘Planet Terror’ on Region 1 DVD, featuring the ‘Machete’ trailer (my personal favourite of the four spoofs). Me and Paula decided to have our own, cobbled together ‘Grindhouse’ experience: we watched ‘Planet Terror’ on DVD in the morning (including ‘Machete’), fired up the computer and watched the ‘Don’t’, ‘Thanksgiving’ and ‘Werewolf Women of the SS’ trailers, then went to the cinema and watched ‘Death Proof’ on the big screen in the afternoon.

It doesn’t quite equate to taking your seat in the cinema, watching two 90-minuters (each complete with ‘missing reel’) back to back, interspersed with the spoof trailers – ie. three and a half hours of moviegoing designed as an affectionate, often ironic but ultimately down and dirty throwback to the grubby joys of the exploitation B-movie double bill.

The point of those 70s double-bills was that you saw them in a cinema. Usually a dingy fleapit where the seats were dimpled with cigarette burns, smoke was still hanging in the air courtesy of the audience at the earlier screening, your shoes adhered to the floor thanks to a combination of melted ice cream, popcorn and spilled Ki-ora, and the films were interrupted at least a couple of times during the screening due to technical problems with the projector.

In order to recreate the experience, ‘Planet Terror’ and ‘Death Proof’ – the former more authentically – are scratched and distressed and jump about a lot, simulating hamfisted splicing, and in the case of ‘Planet Terror’ the film seems to bubble up and burn into white nothingness.

Seen on DVD, you think “hmmm, that’s quite a convincing effect”. Seen on a computer, the spoof trailers are quite obviously that: spoofs. You find yourself picking hairs. Both ‘Thanksgiving’ and ‘Werewolf Women of the SS’, as sleazily inspired as they are, are billed as “a film by Eli Roth” and “a film by Rob Zombie” respectively, the latter trumpeting a big star name (Nicolas Cage) – but no zero-budgeted exploitation flick would be thus advertised. Edgar Wright’s ‘Don’t’ hits the mark as acutely as ‘Machete’, though, delivering a minute’s worth of stalk ‘n’ slash highlights while the voiceover drones monotonously “Don’t … don’t … don’t … don’t.”

Still, all of these component parts were meant to be taken together, as a three and a half hour whole … and were meant to be seen at the cinema. Instead, we got expanded cuts of ‘Planet Terror’ and ‘Death Proof’, the former now clocking in 1 hour 45 minutes, and Tarantino’s opus pushing the two hour mark, again pushing the films another step away from their original aesthetic.

The damage done to both films is that you view them as separate entities, which leads to pointless exercises in critical approach whereby you try to reconcile the more authentic ‘look’ of ‘Planet Terror’ with the post-modern ironic playfulness of ‘Death Proof’ instead of thinking “zombie movie – cool; car chase movie – cool”. Or ruminating on the promise of the erotic given the plethora of eye candy (two quartets of heroines in ‘Death Proof’; cleavages a-go-go courtesy of Rose McGowan, Marley Shelton and Stacy Ferguson in ‘Planet Terror') and the non-inclusion of actual nudity (want topless women? the ‘Machete’ trailer’s the only place you’ll find ’em) and coming to the conclusion that an implied salaciousness : disappointment ratio is par for the course in exploitation movies and Rodriguez and Tarantino have played on this most effectively … when you should, of course, be thinking “wow, hot chicks”.

Tim comments, in his brilliantly written review, “the structural vulernability of Grindhouse makes it the same as those things it mimics, even while the very soul of Grindhouse is that, as a mimic, it is not the same thing. Therefore, the film becomes both thesis and antithesis”, and he’s absolutely right. To discuss structure is perhaps the most intelligent way to approach ‘Grindhouse’ critically. Otherwise, as just as valid, you can simply kick back with a big tub of popcorn, turn off your critical faculties and let your mind go “zombies, cool … wow, Rose McGowan’s a fox … machine gun leg … shoot-outs, cool … stuff blowing up … fast cars, cool … wow, Vanessa Ferlito’s a fox … Kurt Russell being a badass, cool … wow, how long’s this car chase gone on for? …” and so on and so forth.

They’ve been constructed deliberately – and a lot more cleverly than a first viewing might lead you to believe – but the component parts of ‘Grindhouse’ are quite simply a hymn to the gleeful pleasures of moviegoing in an age where hot chicks, fast cars, cheesy special effects and 90-minutes of low-budget mayhem were their own raison d’etre.

Comparing and contrasting the films is a redundant exercise. The distributors, by splitting ‘Grindhouse’ in two, have left the likes of your humble blogger here with no choice other than to do just that. I was even tempted to use this post as a prologue to articles on ‘Planet Terror’ and ‘Death Proof’ over the next two evenings.

But I won’t because I’m convinced that if I ever get to see ‘Grindhouse’ in the format Messrs Rodriguez and Tarantino intended me to, then I’ll have seen a masterpiece of post-modern throwback indulgent irony. Yup, I know those last four words seem like a quadrille of contradiction but I reckon the movie that underperformed in America and never made it to the UK has what it takes to synthesise them; and until ‘Grindhouse’ gets released in this country in its original format (preferably in a theatrical run), or until I can get my hands on a Region 1 DVD, it will have to remain the best movie I’ve almost seen.

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