Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Final Girl Film Club - Grindhouse

Cody is endeavoring to write about all of the Final Girl Film Club entries he missed over the years. The movies will be covered in the original Film Club order in most cases, while some of the articles will be posted to coincide with certain dates.

Cody Hamman goes to the Grindhouse for a Final Girl Film Club article that doubles as a Film Appreciation article.

Even if I wasn't a fan of the finished result, I would still consider the 2007 Robert Rodriguez / Quentin Tarantino collaboration to be one of the coolest cinematic experiments ever conducted. The goal with this project was to try to replicate the experience of sitting through a double feature of low budget genre films at a grindhouse cinema during the exploitation era. The announcement that this film was going to be made was actually the first time I had heard the term "grindhouse". Grindhouse was a city thing. Where I'm from, grindhouse movies are drive-in movies. It's the same thing - a double feature with trailers and ads in between the movies. The genius thing about Grindhouse is that it isn't just two movies back-to-back. There are fake ads and vintage clips between them, along with, best of all, faux trailers shot and cut together specifically for the Grindhouse experience by other directors recruited by Rodriguez and Tarantino.

Things get started with a faux trailer that Rodriguez shot himself, a "Mexploitation" action movie called Machete, starring Danny Trejo as the title character. A shady fellow played by Jeff Fahey hires Machete, who seems to be an average Mexican day laborer, to pull off a political assassination, but then double crosses him... only to find out that Machete has a past that makes him someone not be messed with. The trailer makes the film look like a Cannon classic, and it's packed with amusing lines, bloodshed, breasts, and action that escalates to a ridiculous level. After watching this trailer, I was left badly wanting to see a real Machete feature. And one was actually made a few years later. I just wish I could say the same for the rest of the Grindhouse trailers. I want to see feature versions of all of them!

But before we get to those trailers, there's our first feature presentation. Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror. This film is basically the answer to the question, "What if John Carpenter had made a zombie movie in the mid-'80s?", although that answer is filtered through Rodriguez's madcap sensibilities. By aiming for this '80s feel, Rodriguez was really pushing at the edge of the grindhouse era, but I guess it fits in. And even though these movies are going for an old school feel, they are set in modern day anyway.

One of the charms of Planet Terror is the fact that the picture was digitally manipulated to make it look like you're watching a film print that has been beat to hell and back. It's so scratched up that some viewers feel that Rodriguez went too far with it, but I like it just fine.

The trouble starts at a military base, where a group of soldiers led by Bruce Willis as Lieutenant Muldoon arrives hoping to score a batch of deadly chemical called DC2, created as part of an experiment called Project Terror. Muldoon and his men were dosed with the stuff while on a mission in the Middle East, and if you don't have a steady supply of DC2 on hand after you're first hit with it, you will turn into a pus-spewing, deformed, rotting zombie with a hunger for human flesh. The deal goes wrong, tanks full of DC2 are ruptured, and the gas begins to spread through the nearby town.

Not only does everyone who's hit with DC2 become a zombie, so do the people they bite, so soon the town is overrun with grotesque flesh eaters. The characters we follow as they try to survive this ordeal include mysterious, badass tow truck driver El Wray (Freddy Rodriguez), who clearly has had some kind of military training; El Wray's go-go dancer / aspiring unfunny comedienne ex Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan); Michael Bien as the local sheriff Hague; Jeff Fahey as Hague's brother J.T., who runs a gas station / BBQ joint; Josh Brolin as Dr. William Block, who has to deal with his hospital getting flooded with people turning into zombie while he's also feeling paranoid that his wife, Dr. Dakota Block (Marley Shelton), may be leaving him. And she is.

Also along for the ride are Naveen Andrews as scientist John "Abby" Abbington, who had set up that DC2 deal-gone-wrong and likes to collect the testicles of people who fail him, Rodriguez's son Rebel as the son of the Blocks, Tom Savini and El Mariachi himself Carlos Gallardo as Hague's deputies, and the nieces of Rodriguez's then-wife, twin sisters Electra and Elisa Avellan, as the crazy twins who babysit for the Blocks. There's also a very welcome appearance by Michael Parks as Earl McGraw, the same character he played in From Dusk Till Dawn and Kill Bill.

Planet Terror is a fun movie with some cool, memorable characters that moves at a quick clip and throws a lot of action, gore, and disgusting sights at you. But while the early scenes of the zombie outbreak are well portrayed, Rodriguez does take things off the rails a bit toward the end of the film. Things get too irreverent, too silly for my taste. It really becomes a live action cartoon, where every moment has become a joke and you've got Cherry replacing her severed leg with a machine gun that she is somehow able to fire without pulling a trigger.

The action is also bigger and more plentiful than it really should be for a grindhouse movie. The types of flicks Rodriguez and Tarantino were trying to emulate here wouldn't have had the budget to pull off some of the stuff Rodriguez throws into Planet Terror. For a lot of viewers, Planet Terror is the best part of Grindhouse because it's a fun ride, but I have always felt that Rodriguez missed the mark with it. He should have played by stricter rules than just calling his movie Grindhouse, scratching up the image, and dropping a "missing reel" notification in there.

That "missing reel" moment is great, though. As El Wray and Cherry begin to have sex, the film melts and breaks, as if the scene got too hot for it to handle. Then there's the "missing reel" notification, and then the action jumps several minutes ahead in the story, as it would if you were watching the movie without one of its reels.

For me, Planet Terror is a decent appetizer, but the real meal of Grindhouse is what follows. Starting with the faux trailers directed by Rob Zombie, Edgar Wright, and Eli Roth. As soon as the end credits on Rodriguez's film finishing rolling, the previews of fake coming attractions begins.

Zombie's contribution is Werewolf Women of the SS, set at a World War II death camp where Nazi officers played by Udo Kier and Tom Towles have come up with a plan to create werewolf soldiers with the aid of a mad scientist played by Bill Moseley and "the She-Devils of Belzac" (Sheri Moon Zombie and Sybil Danning). Something goes wrong, the She-Devils take over the camp, a werewolf in a Nazi uniform is seen firing a machine gun, and Nicolas Cage somehow shows up for a quick, over-the-top cameo as Fu Manchu.

Nazisploitation was a major type of exploitation movie, so Zombie showed that he knew his stuff by throwing this idea into mix. There's really that much to the trailer, but if he were ever to turn this Nazisploitation / creature feature mash-up into a feature, I would totally be there. My only issue with this faux trailer is that Zombie wastes time by naming off each of the major actors featured in it, one-by-one. Don't tell me who the stars are, I know who they are, use that time to show me more interesting visuals.

After a quick ad for a Tex-Mex restaurant, the film then continues on to Wright's faux trailer, Don't. This one is such a hodge-podge that I can't even imagine how it could be turned into a feature. It's reminiscent of Hammer and films like The Legend of Hell House, while also having a bit of an Italian horror influence in there as well. There is no dialogue in the trailer, only the voice of a narrator telling the audience not to do certain things. "Don't" is said over and over, bringing to mind the many horror films with "Don't" titles that have been released over the years. When putting so many "Don't"s in there, Wright was also drawing inspiration from the teaser trailer for the 1973 Italian film Torso, where the title was repeated several times.

Whatever's going on in Don't, it involves a fog-enshrouded mansion that several people have journeyed to. There some kind of supernatural force takes hold of them, turning them into homicidal maniacs with eyes that have become completely white. White fluid also starts to leak from hands and eyes, and one man is driven so mad by what he's seeing that he chooses to tear his own eyes out. There's also a diapered man-baby chained up in the basement... There are quite a few recognizable stars packed into the minute and a half of Don't, like Jason Isaacs, Lucy Punch, Nick Frost, Simon Pegg, Emily Booth, and MyAnna Buring.

Then we reach my favorite of the faux trailers, one which I have been desperate to see turned into a feature ever since I first saw it. Eli Roth's scratched-up '80s slasher trailer Thanksgiving. Roth perfectly captured the look and feel of an '80s slasher with this trailer, which presents a story about a blade-wielding madman dressed like a pilgrim terrorizing the town of Plymouth, Massachusetts on the titular holiday. Heads are chopped off, trysting teenagers are killed in the high school (with a cheerleader suffering fate on a trampoline), Jordan Ladd is chased by the killer, and a cop played by Michael Biehn is on the case.

For more than ten years I've been anxiously waiting for Roth to make the Thanksgiving feature, and for more than ten years he has been kicking around the idea. He has even said that he was working on the script. I want to see it, with that '80s feeling retained for the entire running time.

Tarantino had considered making a faux trailer himself, for a Euro sexploitation film called Cowgirls in Sweden, but that didn't happen.

Thanksgiving brings us to the end of the faux trailers, and to the start of the second movie in this double feature, Tarantino's Death Proof. While my troubles are with Planet Terror, for a lot of people Death Proof is the more troublesome half of Grindhouse, as they find it poorly paced and overly talky. The structure is unusual, and the dialogue is certainly long-winded and self-indulgent, but I love this movie.

Tarantino described this film as being like a slasher with a car instead of a knife, but it doesn't really play that way overall. There are really only a few moments that might bring a slasher to mind - including some up front, when friends Shanna (Jordan Ladd) and Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito) pick up their friend, radio DJ "Jungle" Julia (Sydney Poitier) for a girls' night out in Austin, Texas. While the girls drive around, talking guys and the availability of marijuana, Arlene begins to notice they're being followed around by a black 1971 Chevy Nova with a white skull painted on the hood. One scene where Arlene watches the Nova drive, stop right in front of her, then take off again is very reminiscent of something you'd see in a slasher movie stalking sequence.

The girls stop by Guero's Taco Bar long enough to establish the fact that Julia told her show's listeners that Arlene will give a lap dance to anyone who comes up to her and recites a piece of Robert Frost's poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" while calling her "Butterfly". Then it's on to my favorite stretch of this first half of the film, a stretch that takes place in the Texas Chili Parlor bar / restaurant, where Tarantino himself plays bartender Warren.

With great music blaring over the jukebox, the girls hang out at the Texas Chili Parlor, drinking to excess, chatting, and dancing with guys played by Omar Doom, Michael Bacall, and Eli Roth. They're waiting for another friend, Monica Staggs as Lanna Frank, to show up, and Julia is also hoping that her pseudo-boyfriend will stop by. She gets stood up.

You might notice that the Crazy Babysitter Twins are also patrons of this bar, but they don't get to do anything crazy in this film.

That Chevy Nova is parked in the parking lot, and inside a fellow called Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) is enjoying nachos, club soda and lime, and a virgin pina colada. The scar-faced Mike has been a stuntman for a long time; so long that the younger people he talks to have no familiarity with the most notable projects he worked on. A young woman named Pam (Rose McGowan) needs a ride home and Mike offers to be her chauffeur... but not until after he claims that lap dance from Arlene. You can see that lap dance in the extended cut of Death Proof, but in the Grindhouse version that's where Tarantino cheekily chose to put in his "Missing Reel" notification.

I love the atmosphere of everything that occurs in and around the Texas Chili Parlor, I love the music, and I love the dialogue Tarantino wrote for Mike. Combined with the performance of the always great Russell, Mike's lines quickly cause him to stand out as an awesome character. When Mike and the girls leave the Chili Parlor, he's also confirmed to be one sick son of a bitch.

The girls are headed to a lake house, and in your average slasher movie they would make it to that destination, then the slasher would start to pick them off one-by-one. But this isn't your average slasher, and the killer isn't interested in claiming his victims one-by-one. The killer is Stuntman Mike, and his vehicle is "death proof", built to protect the driver in major crashes. After killing Pam by slamming her around in the passenger seat, which is boxed in to hold a camera, Mike drives out to a dark country road to set up a head-on collision with the other girls.

Julia, Lanna, Shanna, and Arlene are all killed in this collision, Tarantino making sure that we get a good look at exactly what injures cause each of their deaths. A severed leg, a broken neck, a girl ejected from the vehicle... and one taking a tire to the face. It's gross, it's spectacular, it's a fantastic moment.

Halfway through the movie, we have lost all of the characters we had started out following. Mike is still alive, though, and checked into the hospital where Dr. Dakota Block (that's Marley Shelton) works. While Dakota's father, Texas ranger Earl McGraw (Michael Parks again), and Dakota's brother / Earl's son ranger Edgar McGraw (James Parks as a character who also appeared in Kill Bill and From Dusk Till Dawn 2: Texas Blood Money) have a strong suspicion that he killed those girls on purpose, they can't prove it. The girls had too much alcohol and drugs in their system to prove they weren't responsible for the crash. But the elder McGraw is determined to make sure Mike won't be causing any more trouble in Austin.

Jump ahead to some time later in Lebanon, Tennessee, and Death Proof's biggest problem: after spending half of the movie with a bunch of female character who did a whole lot of talking, we're now introduced to a new batch of female characters who do a whole lot of talking about very similar subjects. Conversations about guys all over again. These new characters are stunt performer Zoë Bell (playing herself) and three friends who are working on a movie being shot in Tennessee; Tracie Thoms as Kim, Rosario Dawson as Abernathy, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Lee. Even when the subject turns to Zoë's desire to take a 1970 Dodge Challenger for a spin, it's still tiring to have to sit through so much more dialogue at this point in the film. It doesn't help that the second half doesn't have that cool atmosphere that the first half did, and Mike's stalking isn't as obvious. During an extended dialogue sequence in a restaurant, you have to be watching the background to catch a glimpse of Mike. This dialogue doesn't have the pay-off most of the first half's dialogue did, either. There the dialogue set up the drugs that were going to be in the women's systems, the lap dance, the lake house drive, etc. Here... knowing about the affairs on the set of the movie the characters are working on does us absolutely no good. It's just dialogue for the sake of dialogue. It means nothing once we get to the climactic car chase.

Oh, that climactic car chase is a beautiful thing to behold, though. It saves the second half of Death Proof and works with the first half to really make the movie something special.

The women were doing something really stupid called "ship's mast" during their Challenger test drive, where Zoë rides on the hood of the car while holding on to belts that are strapped to the doors. So she is in a very vulnerable position when Mike comes speeding up in a 1969 Dodge Charger and tries to force the Challenger off the road. Once the women get out of this situation, they decide to turn the tables and give Mike a taste of his own medicine - he becomes the one being pursued, in a turn-around that I find to be hilarious. Russell is very funny when he starts showing the hidden side of Stuntman Mike.

Death Proof climaxes with around 20 minutes of vehicular action. Tarantino was aiming to make it one of the best car chases of all time, and it's definitely one of my favorites.

Death Proof has its issues, sure, but overall I find it to be highly entertaining. There is no way I could dislike a movie that has this performance from Russell, these car stunts, and the soundtrack that this movie does. We know that Tarantino is quite fond of writing dialogue, but the excessive amount of it in this film was also done on purpose in an attempt to emulate the low budget exploitation films of the past - movies would pad out their running time, dragging their feet, building up to the action they could afford. So that's why the movie is a whole lot of chit-chat built around the car scenes.

Tarantino also tried to replicate the grindhouse experience with fake film damage, but he didn't go as far with it as Rodriguez did on Planet Terror. There are scratches here and there, but it's not too noticeable. The big thing Tarantino did was putting in some jarring cuts as if the projectionist had to make a splice or something. And even though it's a modern movie with some modern technology, Death Proof does feel very much like a movie that (if you dropped the cell phone) could have been made in the '70s and released alongside car classics like Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, Vanishing Point, Smokey and the Bandit, etc.

Grindhouse was a huge deal for me when it was released, as I was already a longtime fan of both Rodriguez and Tarantino by the time this movie rolled around in 2007. I was all-in on the concept of a double feature with faux trailer from the moment I heard of it, and I had a great time having the Grindhouse experience in the theatre. Unfortunately, the movie didn't do all that well at the box office, and it was clear to me when I was watching it that the concept hadn't been grasped by everyone - some people apparently weren't aware that they had bought a ticket to a double feature, because some left during the Planet Terror end credits, thinking that's all they ahd paid to see.

I saw Grindhouse on the big screen at least twice, once with my mom and once with my friend (and blog contributor) Noah. I can't remember if I went to it by myself as well... When I watched it with Noah, it was in the old dollar theatre, which was an even more appropriate venue to be seeing it in than the new theatre I saw it in on opening day. After my first viewing, I left the theatre inspired, ready to write some of my own exploitation style scripts and wanting to make a double feature with Jay Burleson. I came up with my own faux trailer idea, what I would have shot if I had been a director asked to contribute to the film. That faux trailer is still something I want to get out into the world in some way, and I do still have hopes for making a double feature with Jay. There is what I think is a perfect idea for one.

I obviously wasn't the only viewer who was inspired by Grindhouse. Even though the movie wasn't a hit, filmmakers have been doing their own grindhouse era homages ever since, some even with the fake film damage style of Planet Terror. Rodriguez and Tarantino started a trend with this project, whether the general audience caught on to it or not.

Grindhouse has had a solid place in my life ever since it came out. Even when time has passed without me watching the movies, I've still kept the soundtrack in my car's CD player for years. Whenever I take long road trips and run out of range of any radio stations I want to listen to, I hit play on that soundtrack.

Grindhouse is great. I'm very glad Rodriguez and Tarantino did it, even if the experiment didn't pay off.

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