Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’ celebration of cheap and nasty filmmaking, Grindhouse, comes home in a paradoxically beautiful package, reports Dan Slevin.
Back in 2007 I was one of a dedicated crew working on the 48 Hour Furious Filmmaking Competition. When teams gathered at the beginning of the weekend, they would be issued with one of 12 possible genres that their film would have to conform to and that year, for the first time, one of the options was Grindhouse.
This led to some puzzlement among the competitors (especially the younger ones). What did ‘grindhouse’ even mean?
Grindhouse was the all-encompassing label for the B and C movies that filled exploitation houses and drive-ins across America during the 1970s. Gore, violence, nudity, immorality and boundary-pushing were the order of the day.
Meanwhile, Tarantino and his Texan sympatico Rodriguez were working on an updated celebration of the movies they had loved in their misspent youth. It was going to be a double-feature with one film directed by each and a selection of fake trailers for other ‘grindhouse’ movies made by their friends – Eli Roth and Edgar Wright included.
The organisers of the 48 Hours competition were giddy with anticipation for this big-budget version of the films they had grown up on and thought it would make a great tie-in. After all, those grindhouse producers were “guerilla”, resource-constrained, and innovative as 48 Hour filmmakers were. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, some of the entries we received that year were pretty borderline – and in a few cases well over the borderline. This was the year where the competition came to the attention of the Classification Office for the first time.
Traumatised children and angry parents were not what the competition wanted so the rules were tweaked for subsequent years.
I spin this yarn to remind you of the times in which Grindhouse came out. Tarantino and Rodriguez were still enfant terribles but now had the backing of big Hollywood money. Imagine the disappointment of genre film fans when the Australasian distributor, Roadshow, after equivocating about a release strategy for a while, opted not to release the full double-feature programme and instead we got Tarantino’s Death Proof as a standalone feature.
To this day – or at least until yesterday – I hadn’t seen the whole thing.
Now, with the release of a collectible four-disc Blu-ray box, the whole of Grindhouse can be experienced in all its demented, bloody, dismembered glory.
Why didn’t we get the whole thing at the time? Firstly, it is over three hours long – as a double-feature would probably have been back in the day, missing reels and all. Despite the increasing average length of feature films these days, modern cinemas still hate sessions that long. Unless, they can squeeze in an interval for more popcorn.
Also, the original US release was a dismal financial failure. No one outside of America wanted to take on that risk and Tarantino was the most bankable name, so Death Proof got the nod.
Taken as one three-hour package, then, how does Grindhouse hold up?
Firstly, I need to acknowledge that these films are not for everyone. They are a visceral recreation of some the worst impulses that humans and plague-ridden zombies can come up with. There is cursing, swearing and bad language throughout. Dismembered limbs, exploding heads, mindless violence and mindful ‘revenge’ violence. And then there’s what the classification office calls ‘adult themes’.
Putting all that aside, these films are a lot of fun. Planet Terror (Rodriguez’s contribution to the double feature) is about a small Texan town that is overcome by disease ravaged citizens, pustuled creatures, exposed to an alien toxin determined to infest everyone they come into contact with. A few dedicated survivors – immune to the virus – attempt to fight their way to sanctuary.
Rose McGowan as go-go dancer Cherry Darling loses a leg in an early skirmish but ends up with a machine gun transplant! Josh Brolin is an infectious diseases doctor at the local hospital but turns out to be a nasty piece of work himself. And Bruce Willis plays an army lieutenant called Muldoon – that name will never not be funny to me – who is determined to weaponise the virus for the government.
Planet Terror is very silly, action-packed, has great practical effects.
Tarantino’s Death Proof has all of the strengths and weaknesses of any film from that director. If you are a fan, you’ll love it but if his extended verbiage gets on your nerves elsewhere, then it will do so here. And, it’s still strikingly common how anti-misogynist films by male directors will still be shot through with the male gaze. It’s as if they can’t help themselves.
But, the structure is very clever as the film goes through several genre shifts: from serial killer stalker movie to thrilling car chase movie and then to a full-on female-revenge finale. He can be very clever when he wants to be.
Kurt Russell plays “Stuntman” Mike, a serial bully (and killer) of women. In the first half he stalks an unwitting group of young Austin women, determined to do as much damage to them with his tricked-out stunt-friendly 1971 Chevy Nova as possible. In the second half the tables are turned as a new group of young women – including two stunt artists in their own right – turn out to be “a horse of a different colour” (to steal a line from Kiwi performer Zoë Bell who this film is clearly besotted with.)
Despite all the attempts to break these films down so they look like they’ve travelled from drive-in to drive-in over a few years – scratches, missing reals, jump cuts, Death Proof was clearly originally titled Thunderbolt – this presentation looks and sounds great.
Death Proof, in particular, showcases Tarantino’s music taste and deserves to be played loud.
For those readers who have been paying attention to the #MeToo movement in showbusiness over the last few years the single most horrific moment comes early on with the appearance of a grimy title card reading “Brought to you by your friends at the Weinstein Company.”
Grindhouse is available on physical media as a Blu-ray from ViaVision/Madman Entertainment. The package contains the Grindhouse double-feature, the extended theatrical releases of both pictures and a disc of extras. The extended versions of Planet Terror and Death Proof are available to stream on Prime Video or as digital rentals, but you don’t get the full grindhouse double-feature experience that way.