‘house of Hell Yeahs: “Grindhouse” Reviewed

Kurt Russell, Rose McGowan, Marley Shelton in Grindhouse

Grindhouse is an homage to the bad ol’ days when Times Square and 42nd Street were still the heart and soul of all that is seedy, dirty, violent and wrong; where several busted-down old bijoux had gone second or third-run with double or triple-bills featuring exploitation flicks that ran the gamut between chop-socky kung-fu flicks, cheesy European sex comedies, women-in-prison epics and sleazy, violent hard-edged horror flicks. It was a time when one ticket could get you an afternoon in a dirty, smelly, dangerous theater with busted speakers, perverts in trench coats, pushers and prostitutes; some (but not all) there to take in the type of low-budget train wrecks that the video age has helped bury.

If you’re like me and wish you’d have been around for all of that, before Rudy Giuliani came in to spit-polish NYC and sweep the homeless and ugly under the rug to make it a safe haven for Virgin Megastores, MTV studios and Sbarro Pizza joints, then boy oh boy, is Grindhouse for you. Will others enjoy it? Those with delicate sensibilities and no taste for hard-core violence — let’s call them the March-of-the-Penguins set– should steer clear, but those who can stomach the laughs inherent in an eight-year old boy accidentally blowing his brains out during a zombie attack, will fall in love.

Meant to duplicate the experience of soaking up an afternoon at a 42nd Street grindhouse (that’s standard term for the type of theater described above), directors Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez have created a self-contained double bill with novella-like features meant to tap the anything-goes spirit of 60s and 70s exploitation. Does it succeed? Mostly, yes.

The first half of Grindhouse belong’s to Rodriguez’s zombie splatterfest, Planet Terror. In a convoluted series of events indicative of 70s horror movies, a biological weapon has been released somewhere in the armpit of Texas turning locals into boil-covered, flesh-eating zombies. Freddy Rodriguez (Rico from HBO’s Six Feet Under) and his estranged go-go dancing girlfriend, the outrageously paranormally hot Rose McGowan (giving the performance of her career I might add), team up when their paths cross at a roadside chili stand/gas station(!) run by a grizzled but game Jeff Fahey(!!). The action moves from strip clubs to suburbia to starkly dreary hospitals to military bases. Heads explode, pustules pop, QT’s melting mutant genitals hit the floor with a splash and inexplicable pop sensation Fergie (credited as Stacey Fergusen) gets ripped apart by blood-thirsty ghouls. Marley Shelton also makes an impression as a nurse married to a devious doc played with obvious relish by an almost unrecognizable Josh Brolin.

What makes PT such a winner is that the action is almost unstoppable, only letting us stop to catch our breath for scenes of hilariously over-the-top exposition. Like Shaun of the Dead and Slither, it succeeds at bringing both visceral thrills and the funny. While wandering close to full-on parody, it keeps a solid balance between tongue-in-cheek and finger-in-gash. McGowan and Shelton both take roles that might sound flat on paper and inject them with searing melodramatics that function as the heart of the movie’s first half.

Where I’ve always found the action in Rodriguez’s earlier efforts like Once Upon a Time in Mexico and From Dusk til Dawn more static than exciting, here he shows a newly developed sense of pacing that doesn’t undermine the fan-boy passion or over-the-top violence. It’s a perfectly plotted, paced and executed little trash epic that moves moves fast and furious with solid perfs and plenty of “oh shit!” moments that will earn it an enduring cult status. What’s best is that it would fit beautifully between titles like Last House on the Left and Scream Blacula Scream.

Maybe that’s why QT’s fetishy slasher/crash-up/revenge segment, Death Proof, pales in comparison. It might have been wise to kick off our butt-numbing 3 hour double bill with DP, to set a tone that would’ve only partially prepped us for PT‘s onslaught of mayhem. It would have allowed Grindhouse to build to a frantic crescendo that has you leaving the theater feeling that they really knocked this high-concept experiment out of the park.

This is not to say that DP is bad but it’s first half is thick with the same talky pop-referencing crap that QT has always employed. We used to like it, but it’s beginning to feel like schtick; like Tarantino parodying himself. This element of QT’s “style” is having the same effect on me that Kevin Smith’s dialogue does now. Self-referencing meta-theatrics seem sorta’ 90s now and while it worked in the mouths of Reservoir Dogs like Keitel and Buscemi it sounds showy and stilted when spewed by the young female primaries of DP in that signature Tarantino around-and-around-the-table shot. Do we really buy a group of girls waxing nerdy over movies like Vanishing Point and Gone in 60 Seconds? (Yes, Quentin. We KNOW you mean the ORIGINAL Gi60S. *sigh*)

DP is positioned as a slasher movie with a muscle car as the killer’s choice weapon. Kurt Russell is outstanding as Stuntman Mike; a washed-up silver-racing jacketed movie driver who hunts down young lovelies with his reinforced “indestructible” stunt car, sending unknowingly doomed victims through the seat-belt-free passenger-side windshield or staging impromptu head-on collisions at top speed.

The just-off pacing reminded me a little of QT‘s contribution to the terrible multi-directed Four Rooms (a faaaar less successful experiment). The story looks great on paper, but comes across as one-note and half-baked. Things don’t really pick up until DP‘s second half flies off the rails with throw-it-ALL-at-the-wall abandon. Rosario Dawson, as a Hollywood make-up artist road-tripping with her fellow low-rung industry gal pals, fares the best of her femme fatale costars with QT‘s dialogue and gives McGowan a run for her money as Hottest Genre Mama of All Time.

DP‘s best surprise, however, is Zoe Bell, a sweetly tough-looking real-life stunt woman (Uma Thurman’s in the Kill Bill movies as a matter of fact. She bears a striking resemblance to Thurman and is in some ways, surprisingly more charismatic!). Because she’s essentially playing “as Herself” the nicely lensed crash-em-up stunt-heavy finale gives Grindhouse‘s last reel the nitro kick that it sorely needs.

There’s lots to like about DP but the whole grindhouse vibe kind of loses its way somewhere inside. You’ll still have fun, but not nearly as much as you have laughing, howling, screaming and groaning with PT.

Adding to the fun are old movie theater intermission reels and phony movie previews, directed by modern horror bad boys Rob (Devil’s Rejects) Zombie, Eli (Hostel) Roth and my favorite: Edgar Wright, the director of Shaun of the Dead, creates a pitch-perfect horror movie trailer for the mysteriously titled faux-flick, Don’t.

Genre fans will love Grindhouse and most movie-goers that give it a go should be highly entertained too. It certainly rates as my favorite major feature so far this year and maybe the best 3-hour movie ever made. You’ll be wanting a small soda with your popcorn and don’t forget to go before the movie starts!
Planet Terror – ***
Death Proof – ** 1/2
Overall – ***

Confused, curious or inspired by the “grindhouse” concept? I recommend the following:

42 Street Forever – A great collection of rare exploitation trailers from the 70s and 80s. EXACTLY the kind of movies that inspired Grindhouse. Probably the best movie trailer collection of its kind.

Sleazoid Express- A Mind-twisting Tour Through the Grindhouse Cinema of Times Square by Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford
In addition to being a great reference book, it’s a highly entertaining read that walks you through the major movie houses and the signature genres they offered.

I’ve seen a couple of pretty uninspired “best grindhouse movies” lists over the past few weeks. Here’s a list of titles I recommend to help get the uninitiated up to his or her elbows in sleaze.

Ms. 45 (1981)
Emanuelle in America (1977)
Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals
aka Trap Them and Kill Them (1977)
The Crippled Masters (1979)
Lady Snowblood (1973)
Mondo Freudo
The Defilers (1965)
Teenage Gang Debs (1966)
Illsa: The Wicked Warden
Mudhoney (1965)
Invasion of the Bee Girls aka Graveyard Tramps (1973)
Werewolf in a Girls’ Dormitory
aka Lycanthropus (1966)
Suspiria (1977)
White Slaves of Chinatown

~ by Number5ive on April 8, 2007.

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