Saturday 15 October 2011

Guns! Zombies! Women! Deadly car chases!

I don't usually include huge film posters, but in the case of Grindhouse (2007) I had little choice. It's a film that revels in its overblown garishness, that sets up a plethora of attractions that, despite Robert Rodríguez's best efforts at least, it can't possibly live up to. It seems that's part of the point. Grindhouse can't be evaluated in ordinary terms: it's a film is about the experience of watching itself. It's emphatically neither 'good' nor 'bad' - which is awfully convenient for Quentin Tarantino, at least, but more on that later. Most of all, it cannot be separated into 'two films' - Planet Terror and Death Proof - and sold separately, as the knaves in charge of video releases did.*

In the interest of honesty I must admit to being ill-equipped to judge Grindhouse as a pastiche of 1970s exploitation cinema. Granted, for better or worse I know more of such matters than the man in the street: my knowledge of slasher and countryside-revenge films, in particular, is decent, but there are other subgenres - such as the 'women in prison' and blaxploitation branches - that I've had no exposure to at all. In any case the film is crucially defined by its release in the twenty-first century, and I feel comfortable discussing it as a product of 2007.

As you know, Grindhouse is highly dependent on its structure. It's a double feature with trailers (and an advert for a fictional local eatery) before and between the main attractions. The order is, roughly: the trailer to Machete, followed by Rodríguez's Planet Terror, other trailers, and then Tarantino's Death Proof - a little over three hours all in all. This structure is deliberate and specific, but it immediately sets up a contrast to actual seventies grindhouse presentations, which were often ramshackle affairs. The filmmakers do their best to make the whole thing look improvised: both films have supposedly missing reels, and Planet Terror (but not Death Proof) adopts a deliberately grainy look that emphasises the artificiality of what is presented. It's an integrated experience, reinforced by the fact that a couple of characters from Planet Terror briefly appear in Death Proof.

Let's take the trailers first: Machete (Robert Rodríguez) is about a Mexican cop who is double-crossed and left for dead in Texas by people who soon discover 'they just fucked with the wrong Mexican'. ('If you're going to hire Machete to kill the bad guy, you better make damn sure the bad guy isn't you!') Machete is now deservedly a real film, reviewed here. Don't (Edgar Wright) is a haunted house film, while Thanksgiving (Eli Roth) is an absurdly cheap slasher film (you know, all those Sleepaway Camps and Houses on Sorority Row that could only envy Halloween and Friday the 13th). Hobo with a Shotgun (Jason Eisener) has also been released starrin Rutger Hauer. The best of the trailers, though, is undoubtedly Rob Zombie's Werewolf Women of the SS, 'starring Udo Kier' and another famous actor in a role he really ought to play. (If you're not desperate too see a film called Werewolf Women of the SS - well, what's wrong with you?)

In Planet Terror, an altercation between a bioscientist (Naveen Andrews) and a rogue military unit led by Lt. Muldoon (Bruce Willis) leads to a zombie virus being unleashed on a Texas community. In the chaos, the survivors, led by Sheriff Hague (Michael Biehn, whom I've enjoyed in literally everything I've ever seen him in - The Terminator, Aliens, Tombstone, it's all good), one-legged go-go dancer and aspiring stand-up comedian Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan) and her ex-boyfriend, El Wray (Freddy Rodríguez). (Other memorable characters are played by Jeff Fahey, Josh Brolin, Tom Savini (the man who created the gore and make-up effects on the original Friday the 13th), and Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas, who has her brain eaten.) The missing reel in Planet Terror is cunningly placed to deprive the audience of expected nudity; what's more, when the film starts up again the entire set is inexplicably on fire, and everyone suddenly respects El Wray for reasons that are never explained.

It's a gory film, although, excepting a really rather harrowing scene in which Dakota Block (Marley Shelton) breaks her wrist, much of the violence is wildly cartoonish. That includes the zombies, who are shot to pieces in their hundreds by the heroes. Rodríguez was obviously trying to cram as much awesomeness as he possibly could into Planet Terror: there are zombies, Texans, soldiers, dangerously unethical doctors and, in what has probably become the film's greatest contribution to pop culture, a woman with an M4 assault rifle for a leg. The result is a film that is deliriously, gloriously overstuffed and unbalanced: not, perhaps, 'good' but certainly full of good things. (And unlike Zack Snyder in Sucker Punch, the director is obviously eager to please.)

By contrast, Death Proof is terrible, and bafflingly so. In the first half-hour it sets up a group of expendable meat who appear to be our heroes - until, Psycho-style, they're slaughtered by Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell). Then we're introduced to a whole new set of protagonists, including Zoe Bell (Zoe Bell) and Rosario Dawson Character, who do nothing but drive and talk for an hour while nothing whatsoever happens, before - diabolus ex machina! - Mike reappars and attempts to murder them. It's a strange, unstructured beast, and its endless middle section lacks the rising tension and subtle power struggles that make the extended dialogue of, say, Tarantino's own Inglourious Basterds so thrilling. What's more, it seems an immense waste of Russell, whose brilliant performance as an over-the-hill stuntman and serial killer deserves better than to appear in but a couple of scenes.

There's a theory, of course, that that's the point. Really, Tarantino had nothing to prove by this point. Death Proof may be a deliberate letdown, the infamous second feature that doesn't deliver on its promise. I was reminded of actual terrible exploitation films, which are like this: endless time spent with unlikeable characters, followed by sudden carnage without build-up. (All the more awful Friday the 13th sequels follow this pattern; Death Proof also resembles The Dukes of Hazzard in places.)

Really, Death Proof is exquisitely crafted. The dialogue ('Who the hell is Stuntman Mike?' - 'He's a stuntman') is vintage Tarantino, and the film, being about stuntpeople and featuring Zoe Bell as herself, constantly draws attention to its own creation process. All that strengthens the impression that Tarantino set out to disappoint his audience, and put all his considerable film-making skill in the service of that aim. Well, he succeeded. Hurrah?

But here Tarantino has his cake and eats it, because I can't just complain that Death Proof is 'bad': I must accept that my disappointment at Death Proof is part of the experience of Grindhouse. You come for a 'death-proof' car, an ageing badass and women; instead you get to experience the exquisite sensation of being ripped off, disliking Tarantino just like gorehounds in the seventies might have despised Roger Corman. All in all, Grindhouse isn't 'good' so much as it's unique. I can't imagine another film like it. It can only be experienced.

*Incidentally, this review draws heavily upon Tim Brayton's never-bettered discussion.

In this series: Grindhouse (2007) | Machete (2010) | Hobo with a Shotgun (2011)

No comments:

Post a Comment