Replicating the style of the '70s B-grade genre and exploitation films that often played as double-features, Grindhouse is an more-than-three-hour tribute to the badass appeal of schlock.
The pair of movies by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino come packaged with retro-style horror and action trailers—including, in Canada, my bud Jason Eisener's Hobo with a Shotgun. Of course, we're mainly getting two big directors with expensive movies pretending they're niche directors with low funding. It's an act, but an enthralling one where the magnitude of the experience surpasses the average quality of the films within.
Planet Terror, Rodriquez's zombie apocalypse action pic, busts through first with Rose McGowan's exotic dance routine punctuated by the effect of worn film reels and the electronic pulse of the film's John Carpenter-like score. From there, Rodriguez's tone of indecency settles for a chaotic familiarity.
A toxic leak from a military base, turning civilians into boil-spurting zombies, provides a context for the director's trademark extreme-slapstick. Frankly, it's nice to see Rodriguez back to this journeyperson action after being visually tied down by Frank Miller's comic panels in Sin City. The all-sided attack of Planet Terror combines parody with childish fantasy about horror movies. It's delivered as a series of grotesque punchlines, catered to an audience with a YouTube-sized attention span.
Fact is, Planet Terror's pile-up of "stuff"—its urban night setting is an amalgam of Land of the Dead, Escape From New York and the Italian horror cheapie Rats—lives in the mind as a jumble. Despite being more eventful than, and the same length as, Tarantino's Death Proof, it feels longer.
Rodriguez delivers a lovingly spasmodic valentine to B-horror. The only way it could be shocking is if it had a meaning. Death Proof doesn't have this problem. Tarantino's slow-build road thriller has a directness that's less '70s throwback than a uniquely personal contribution to a double feature.
Seventies movie-lore still pervades Death Proof, but its current setting gives it social punch. Four girls head out for a night of talking and drinking. We're just spending time with them, but the genius of Death Proof is that it keeps us aware of an impending terror without revealing its motivation. Stopping at a bar, they meet mysterious vagabond Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell). Tarantino elevates bland social rituals in regular people hoping to be something more. He uses the set-up as a meditation on misogyny—examining how hot women are viewed by interested men, Stuntman Mike, Tarantino, his audience, other hot women. It verges on greatness. And then the second half happens.
Chapter two of Death Proof is a mirror of the first, with four different girls. But where Tarantino provided an observational quality to that dialogue, here he's reverted to making everyone sound the same.
Two marathon dialogues are neither interesting or funny, their length defining authorial indulgence. But it's the smirk Death Proof takes on later where it loses all credibility. The thread of female empowerment is a sham—a man's domination fantasy represented by a group of tough girls so morally vacant they play a joke on their friend that likely gets her raped. The events fit: The trouble is their tone. Expecting viewers to delight in the girls' celebratory hedonism plays the audience for a sucker.
Death Proof begins as a near-masterpiece and then Tarantino turns it to camp. It loses its edge and with it, its integrity.
Grindhouse opens April 13. Click here for movie times.