by JAMES BRIGHAM
VIOLENCE, BREASTS AND IRONY
There’s a scene in the first half of Grindhouse where Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan), a former go-go dancer and recent leg amputee, takes solace in the arms of her ex-lover Wray, an earnest tow truck driver with a mystery enshrouded past. They do this on a waterbed in a Texan barbecue joint currently under siege by bio-chemical weapon created zombies. At the height of their lovemaking, disaster supposedly strikes the theater’s projection room. Mere seconds before the promised money shot of Rose McGowan’s ample charms, the film’s reel burns a brilliant white and then dissolves into a spider web of ooze. A handful of shocked grunts are heard amongst the assembled audience and then a wave of laughter bursts out resoundingly at the developments onscreen. Apparently, a missing reel has resulted in the story bursting ahead significantly, leaving the sex scene behind to be mired chin-deep in a frenzied, bloody assault by the undead horde.
The humorous intent of this sequence is apparent, but its appeal to you will greatly depend on your willingness to ride along the rails of pretense into a pseudo-schlock double feature where thrills are cheap, gore is rampant, and sex sizzles the screen – literally. The fun of this flick is found in its constant, self-aware pandering. Take the aforementioned character of Cherry. In Robert Rodriguez’s half, the John Carpenter influenced Planet Terror, her initial onscreen appearance is so wonderfully brazen in its T&A approach that the film itself immediately starts to blaze erratically in a series of vibrant flare-ups. This strip club aurora borealis is Rodriguez’s sly affirmation of Rose McGowan’s hotness and it’s a brilliant introduction to the film’s method of winning over the viewers.
Throughout its three hours plus runtime, Grindhouse is attempting to stimulate the audience on two levels. One layer is meant to appeal to your primal self, the aspect of your personality looking to just turn the brain off and watch the cavalcade of craziness while hissing at the bad guys and cheering the heroes. The other layer is hitting at the minds of the movie-savvy, the folks who will chuckle at the outside film reference and nod knowingly at the postmodern subversion of the B-movie plot. Although both features use a combination of each, the former strategy is emphasized in Rodriguez’s segment while the latter is stressed in Quentin Tarantino’s, the slightly superior Death Proof: a seamless combination of car chase action and slasher horror. Sprinkled here and there amongst the headliners are a series of old-school theater titles, restaurant ads, rating declarations, and trailers for other “coming attractions.” You get everything from statuesque Nazi torturers to holiday themed murderers. Confusing euro-horror? Check. Mexsploitation action piece? Check. Fu-Manchu? Oh you best believe that item’s going to be checked.
I suspect I’ll be in the minority when I declare Tarantino’s half to be the better film, but the development is not entirely unsuspected on my part. Tarantino’s all about the slow burn; if he was a chef, he’d have every pan simmering over a low flame and the roast still marinating in juices when you arrived for dinner. Sure, you’re hungry enough to eat a burger right then and there, but the reward for waiting is too delicious to pass up. In classic Tarantino fashion, he steadily builds up his cast of characters through a number of well-written rounds of quirky dialogue and excellent pop song insertions. Ostensibly, his girls are playing a litter of sexy victims – a string of prey for the film’s quirky killer, Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell, who knocks it out of the park) to pick his way through in typical psychopath movie fashion. But they’re given so much depth that it makes for greater emotional investment when that dark automobile finally does come rolling around (and into, and through, and over, and…). Rodriguez excels at instant delivery of cheesy fun while Tarantino’s always about the story and Death Proof, like the best stories, is a long tale with lots of quotable nooks and crannies leading to a blowout finale.
Is Grindhouse perfect? The answer is no, but it comes pretty damn close to being my ideal movie experience. I actually did want to see the footage (existent or non) from the supposed missing reels and felt mildly cheated in spite of my laughter at the gag. One or two extra trailers in the vein of other beloved cult genres would have been the bee’s knees too (no love for the women in prison genre, guys?). Still, I can’t deny that my grin was wide as cars flipped, monsters growled, and attractive ladies shimmied. The groans of disgust were audible, as were the guffaws, and the applause of the crowd. Do yourself a favor and see this film with a bunch of pals in the theater before it departs for DVD. Grindhouse is custom built for crowd interaction and big screen projection, which in this age of diminishing Box office returns is really something Hollywood needs to be embracing a hell of a lot more.
3 1/2 stars