Decadent, Depraved Drive-In Double Feature Case File #159: Grindhouse

Decadent, Depraved Drive-In Double Feature Case File #159: Grindhouse

When I interviewed B.J. Novak a while back I was a little surprised when he said watching Pulp Fiction made him want to be a writer. It was sweet and guileless and not at all hip. The hip response would be a lofty dissertation on how a triple-feature of Preston Sturges or Billy Wilder masterpieces instilled in him a fierce love for the written word. Then I realized that Tarantino made me want to be a writer as well. Pop-culture legend contends that only a few people saw The Sex Pistols play live in their early days or picked up Big Star’s debut when it first came out, but that everyone who did formed a band. But the Sex Pistols and Big Star were cult sensations. Tarantino, in sharp contrast, was a cult filmmaker who conquered the mainstream. He did more than that: He made the mainstream his bitch. 

I suspect that tens of thousands of impressionable teenaged boys and girls watched Tarantino’s first two films and thought, “Holy shit. That’s what I want to do with my life.” Tarantino embodied an exhilarating new paradigm for awkward young people with limited social skills and an encyclopedic knowledge of B-movies and obscure music: the pop-culture geek as rock star. 

Tarantino engendered a cult of personality like few filmmakers before or since. When I went away to college in 1995, posters of Tarantino, Pulp Fiction, or Reservoir Dogs adorned nearly as many walls as trusty old favorites of John Belushi in a “College” sweatshirt or Bob Marley smoking a giant spliff. Though the whole acting thing never quite panned out for old Quentin, he was the undisputed star of every film he made. He loomed so large and cast such a long shadow that recent American film history can be divided into two distinct eras: pre- and post-Tarantino. 

My generation of film enthusiasts can reasonably be dubbed the Tarantino Generation. He defined so much of our aesthetic: the intermingling of high and low culture, the elevation of the pop-culture reference to an art, ’70s nostalgia, profanity as poetry, lusty cultural miscegenation, reverence for blaxploitation, unabashed vulgarity, and a post-modern sensibility that synthesized the music, film, television, and literature of the past into the entertainment of the present and future. 

Tarantino bestrode our pop world like a colossus in the early- to mid-’90s. But if history has taught us anything it’s that what goes up invariably must come down, and that hype is invariably followed by an equivalent backlash. Tarantino’s subsequent directorial efforts did reasonably well—the sublime Jackie Brown, the Kill Bill movies—but when you change pop culture forever with your first two movies, doing “reasonably well” can’t help but register as mildly disappointing. 

Critics complained that Tarantino was stuck in a state of perpetual adolescence. So when it was announced in the mid ’00s that Tarantino would be directing an omnibus tribute to the grindhouse movies of his wasted youth alongside frequent collaborator Robert Rodriguez for his kindly corporate benefactors Harvey and Bob Weinstein, it was seen as further evidence of the filmmaker’s Peter Pan syndrome, if not a full-on regression.

By that point Tarantino’s cultural currency had fallen. The world no longer waited with baited breath for each new film. He was still a major filmmaker with a large, devoted following, but he no longer inspired the kind of lemming-like devotion he commanded during the glory years, when an army of geeks would have happily followed him into the bowels of hell on his command. 

I’m tempted to argue that a Tarantino and Rodriguez co-directed tribute to a bygone cinematic genre would have been better received if it had followed Pulp Fiction, but Tarantino and Rodriguez did co-direct a tribute to a bygone cinematic genre (alongside Allison Anders and Alexandre Rockwell) not long after Pulp Fiction—the multi-director anthology film Four Rooms—and it was fucking terrible and a huge flop. With Grindhouse, Tarantino and Rodriguez were inviting everyone into their big treehouse to watch an awesome double feature just like the ones that blew their minds as movie-mad young people. Twelve years earlier that might have qualified as irresistible. In 2007 the culture as a whole found it an easy offer to refuse. 

From a commercial standpoint, Grindhouse had at least two giant drawbacks. While Tarantino cultists feverishly anticipated a gleeful homage to a lost drive-in culture, mainstream audiences understandably looked askance at paying bloated ticket prices for a big-budget film that intentionally mirrored the look and feel of cheap, bad B-movie fare. Even more disastrously from the Weinstein Company’s standpoint, a film running over three hours would play half as often as 90-minute-long movie. And it could be argued that three-plus hours was an awful long time to devote to movies about strippers with machine-gun legs and psychotic stuntmen with murderous super-cars. 

Grindhouse was designed to be an event, not just a movie. It promised nonstop sordid kicks but it also demanded a lot of audiences, most notably over three hours of their time. I loved it. I saw Grindhouse during its original run at The Davis, a glorious theater on the north side of Chicago with perpetually sticky floors and busted seats where I wasted many a happy hour watching second-run movies like Dr. Giggles alongside overly enthusiastic audiences prone to yelling at the screen. One summer the air conditioning broke and they lowered the ticket price to 75 cents. It was that kind of a place. Later it was turned into an “art” theater. I had hoped that it would still attract the same crowds, only this time they’d yell things like, “Damn Woody Allen! Don’t go chasing that NYU grad student! She’s never going to get your references to Albert Camus and Django Reinhardt!” 

It was not to be, but for a few weeks The Davis was restored back to its scuzzy non-glory when it ran Grindhouse. Before I walked into the theater I encountered the eccentric, drawling, muscular, deeply religious, African-American man the state pays to clean my dad’s apartment. He left the theater mortified. “Nathan, you do not want to see that movie. It is evil,” he warned me as he left. That only increased my anticipation. 

Grindhouse opens with one of three trailers for movies that did not yet exist, this time for Machete, a vehicle for veteran character actor Danny Trejo. During some screenings, a faux-trailer for Hobo With A Shotgun, the winner of a Grindhouse fan contest, accompanied the film. 

We’re then ushered into Planet Terror, Robert Rodriguez’s campy riff on the zombie movie and the least compelling aspect of Grindhouse. I remember digging Planet Terror the first time around, but then my memory also helpfully reduced the film to its glorious climax of sardonic stripper—I’m sorry, go-go-dancer—Rose McGowan shooting a whole bunch of motherfuckers with her machine-gun leg. 

Sure enough, McGowan does waste a whole bunch of motherfuckers with the most badass prosthesis in recent memory, but first Rodriguez makes us wade through a thick morass of subplots. A ridiculously excessive, convoluted abundance of subplots in fact. They include, in no particular order: 

  1. Evil doctor Josh Brolin terrorizing wife Marley Shelton. 
  2. Brolin brooding over Shelton’s lesbian affair with Fergie of The Black Eyed Peas. 
  3. Top military operative Bruce Willis returning from our many delightful, necessary wars with a horrible disease that transforms people into zombie-like creatures. 
  4. Willis’ battle with Naveen Andrews, a brutally pragmatic enemy scientist prone to keeping the testicles of his enemies as souvenirs. 
  5. McGowan reconnecting with ex-boyfriend/soulmate Freddy Rodriguez.
  6. Rodriguez feuding with mercurial lawman Michael Biehn. 
  7. Shelton coming to terms with her tumultuous relationship with disapproving father Michael Parks.

It could be argued that Planet Terror intentionally includes a comically unnecessary number of subplots, especially when Biehn tussles with brother Jeff Fahey over his barbecue recipe. But Planet Terror proceeds at a glacial pace and takes forever setting up its premise before it hits its money shot: McGowan wasting a whole bunch of motherfuckers with her machine-gun leg. But oh sweet blessed Lord is it ever worth it. 

But before we can get to that cinematic awesomeness we have to skip from Rodriguez, Biehn, and Fahey preparing for a showdown with the zombie motherfuckers to the explosive climax over the course of a single frame reading “Reel Missing.” The missing reel allows Rodriguez to jump directly from “shit’s about to get real” to “shit is so real.” 

Planet Terror is the inverse of Rodriguez’s famously low-budget feature-length debut El Mariachi. A filmmaker who had made a movie for next to nothing that looked like it cost much more was deliberately making a movie that cost a fair amount but looked much cheaper. I enjoyed Planet Terror the second time around, but it felt less like a companion piece to Tarantino’s Death Proof than a mere appetizer. 

But before we can get to the main attraction we have three more awesome appetizers: Werewolf Women Of The S.S. from Rob Zombie, Don’t by Edgar Wright, and Thanksgiving Day by Eli Roth.

Then comes Death Proof. Like Psycho, Tarantino’s vehicular thriller is a masterful exercise in misdirection in which the ostensible heroines die en masse halfway through, and the tone and genre changes radically and unexpectedly. A menacing, cocky murderer is revealed to be a sniveling coward and a trio of cute young women out for nothing more than some cheap thrills and the ultimate test ride become female avengers in the proud tradition of Uma Thurman in Kill Bill and Melanie Laurent in Inglourious Basterds. 

Death Proof is the first gearhead thriller to devote 90 percent of its running time to lusty girl talk and scene after scene of sexy young women hanging out, doing shots, smoking bowls, and talking about men, cars, and movies. Sydney Tamiia Poitier stars as “Jungle” Julia, a popular Austin radio personality who bosses best friends Jordan Ladd and Vanessa Ferlito with the stern, unquestioned authority of an accomplished dominatrix. The trio are having a good time hanging out until they run into “Stuntman Mike” (Kurt Russell), a genial psychotic who derives sick sexual thrills from murdering women with his “death proof” stunt car. Tarantino’s screenplay luxuriates in the pleasures of talk and the bantering, teasing rhythms of old friends having a blast doing nothing much in particular. 

Tarantino’s tribute to just about all of his favorite things opens with the revving of an engine and a shot of a woman’s feet propped languidly and bewitchingly atop a dashboard. It’s an apt way to begin a film that qualifies as stellar masturbatory fodder with strong feminist overtones. 

Death Proof fixates on the pleasure and perils of voyeurism, of ogling the nubile female from a safe distance that gradually becomes unsafe. In the film’s key shot, Russell shoots a sneaky look at the camera and flashes a big shit-eating grin that seemingly renders the audience complicit in his crimes. It’s a brash look that says, “Look what I’m about to do,” the self-satisfied smile of a man taking unseemly delight in the mayhem he’s about to unleash. 

Tarantino has described Death Proof as his version of a slasher film, and in that disreputable genre pleasure must be punished disproportionately for the audience and characters alike. In its loose and frisky first half, Death Proof is all about pleasure. Tarantino’s camera lingers leeringly at the asses and legs and feet of his fetching cast as his feisty young women on the prowl devote themselves wholeheartedly to hedonistic pursuits. An air of ripe sexuality pervades the film, most notably in this scene—cut from the theatrical version as another “missing reel” but restored in the longer version available on DVD—where Ferlito gives Stuntman Mike a lapdance after he recites part of Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening” and buys her a drink. (Earlier Poitier promised her listeners that the first one to do so would receive a free lapdance from her obliging friend.) 

But even scenes that don’t involve lapdances have a distinct sexual charge, like this sequence in which Poitier loses herself swaying hypnotically to the sultry grooves of a roadhouse jukebox. 

True to form, Tarantino makes the women and the audience pay for its pleasure: Poitier and her friends are murdered by Russell via vehicular homicide and we’re forced to watch the brutal deaths of the delightful young women with whom we’ve been hanging out. But Death Proof’s gender politics are at once simpler and more complicated than that. Tarantino next offers us empowered, feisty, sexually aggressive women warriors who are also super-fucking hot: They’re at once figures of righteous vengeance and unabashed eye candy. We’re invited to both ogle and share in their strength, wit, and ultimate triumph.

Ving Rhames and Mickey Rourke were both bandied about as potential male leads in Death Proof, but Tarantino found the perfect villain in Russell, whose laconic cowboy charm has never felt creepier or more unnerving. He’s John Carpenter’s two-fisted tough guy gone bad, a figure of smiling menace and understated sexiness. He’s also more than a little ridiculous, an analog throwback in a shiny digital world. There’s a great, all-too-relatable scene where Russell tries to impress McGowan—who appears in both halves of Grindhouse, here as a woman unfortunate enough to seek a ride home in Russell’s death-proof automobile—by reeling off a long list of his credits doubling for everyone from Robert Urich to Lee Majors before realizing—from the blank stares and uncomprehending looks greeting his self-aggrandizing spiel—that his audience has no idea what he’s talking about. Russell’s glory days came and went before these women were even born. 

Fourteen months after Russell kills off Ladd, Ferlito, and Poitier we’re introduced to a new set of heroines: car-obsessed stuntwomen Zoë Bell (playing herself), Tracie Thoms, actress/model Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and Rosario Dawson. 

Kiwi daredevil Bell arrives in the States with one big goal: to strap herself onto the hood of a car exactly like Barry Newman’s iconic automobile from Vanishing Point while it’s speeding down the highway and become an adorable human hood ornament. To do so, she needs to trick the car’s owner into letting her take the car out on a test drive by having Dawson hint, ever-so-subtly, that Winstead might just give him a blow job in appreciation. 

Astonishingly, Bell’s well-thought-out plans go awry when Russell’s death machine shows up and threatens to send the women on a one-way trip to the big drive-in in the sky. This time around, however, the women are prepared. Thoms, Dawson, and Bell become adrenaline-crazed vigilantes and turn the tables on their tormentor. Tarantino’s grim gearhead fairytale ends with a trio of Little Red Riding Hoods beating the holy living shit out of a now cowering, despondent, and weepy Big Bad Wolf. Cue the end credits. 

It’s an incredibly satisfying, subversive ending to a singular cinematic spectacle, but theatrical audiences weren’t willing to spend over three hours in a theater reliving Tarantino and Rodriguez’s Pixy Stix-addled past to experience it. Grindhouse grossed less than half of its reported $53 million budget. The Weinstein Company put a great big exclamation point on the film’s commercial failure by splitting the film into two distinct features for its international and DVD release and excising all the trailers except Machete. The Weinsteins tried to indulge two of their golden boys and give moviegoers an entire evening of retro delights. When their noble experiment failed from a fiscal standpoint, they just tried to recoup their investment. 

Yet you can’t keep a good idea down: Though Grindhouse was a big commercial flop, studios lined up to buy the rights to a feature-length version of Machete. Will Machete succeed where Grindhouse failed? That remains to be seen. We remain, as always, semi-confident about this future endeavor’s potential. 

Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Secret Success