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Wake up, moviegoing America! Right before your eyes last weekend came an original: a witty, exceedingly well-crafted tribute to the exploitation flicks of the ’70s, a movie that delivered on every single one of its promises and did so in a grand (if guignol) way. And what did you do? Did you crown it No. 1 at the box office? No, you reserved that honor for the infantile Will Ferrell ice-skating comedy, Blades of Glory. Did you crown it No. 2 or 3? No, those slots went to (the family-friendly and reportedly engaging) Meet the Robinsons and the Ice Cube vehicle Are We Done Yet?, a remake of the classic Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. Which leaves slot No. 4.
And that’s where Grindhouse, a blazing, brilliant collaboration from Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, landed. With an $11 million thud. Just a million bucks ahead of the Hillary Swank 10 plagues thriller, The Reaping.
Gore-gore girls: McGowan and Mary Shelton
This is a crime! A travesty! A shame! No wonder directors no longer put effort into their movies. What’s the point? Because when they do, we reward them by traipsing off to the lowest-common denominator junk.
The irony here is that Grindhouse celebrates the absolute lowest of the lowest-common denominator junk. And it does so with an attention to detail and a breathless, eye-popping glee. It’s as wickedly satirical as it is reverential to the source material.
Maybe it was the Easter holiday that kept you away. Maybe it was the three-hour running time. And yes, Grindhouse could have benefited from a half-hour trim. But, really, why quibble over 30 minutes? Because virtually every second of Grindhouse feels alive and alert. It’s a movie with drive. Sometimes literally.
The conceit is to pay tribute to the movies that played in what were once called grindhouses, sleazy movie houses that, in the late ’60s and early ’70s, catered to the exploitation trade — movies made on extra-skimpy budgets featuring negligible and often incoherent plotlines, bad acting, lots and lots of jiggling breasts and soft-core sex, and gratuitous but cheesily-executed violence. Movies by legends like Monte Hellman (Two-Lane Blacktop), Herschell Gordon Lewis (Two Thousand Maniacs), and Richard C. Sarafian (Vanishing Point). Movies that featured monsters and mayhem, women who were empowered to emerge victorious over their homicidal assailants, movies that hardly aspired to art and yet, decades after their release, are regarded as just that.
Rodriguez and Tarantino recognize these films for what they were — an exuberant if silly good time — and seem determined to provide an experience that approximates the feel of being at a grindhouse double feature, complete with ”prevues” of coming attractions, and two full-length features — Rodriguez’s zombie horror flick, Planet Terror, and Tarantino’s car chase spectacle, Death Proof — that play into each director’s specific talents. Though they have larger budgets than your typical grindhouse feature, care has been taken to conceal the fact. The movies are distressed, scratched and boast missing reels (which provides, in the case of Planet Terror a very funny sight gag). It’s not every day a movie carries a credit for ”Film Damage Supervision.”
Of the two, I preferred Planet Terror by a blood-soaked hair, but only because I’ve always been a sucker for gore. Rodriguez (Sin City) takes the splatter way over-the-top with his boil-ridden zombies, the product of a government bio-experiment gone bad. In fact, there’s a point where things get so gross, you can’t believe the ratings board didn’t slap the film with an ”NC-17.” But it’s all in good fun, since the blood looks more like what you’d find if you quick-smashed a raspberry jelly doughnut. Actually, make that a thousand raspberry jelly doughnuts.
By the time the movie’s heroine Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan), a go-go dancer aspiring to become a stand-up comedienne, replaces her munched off leg with a machine gun and starts mowing down the undead masses, Planet Terror has escalated from simple horror film to a masterpiece of full-on frenzy.
Tarantino’s Death Proof is much less complicated than Planet Terror, the plot of which is beyond absurd. Death Proof is merely about a homicidal stunt man, his killer muscle car, and the girls he terrorizes. Tarantino has fashioned the ultimate chick revenge flick, complete with literate, almost poetic dialogue. The climactic car chase is a heart-pumping stunner, but the movie cleaves tightly to its lower-than-low-budget-roots, keeping things streamlined.
The cast play along perfectly, but special note goes to McGowan (for giving a dazzling performance in both films), Kurt Russell as evil Stuntman Mike and the robust Tracie Thoms as his feminine comeuppance in Death Proof, as well as Freddy Rodriguez as a mysterious gunslinger type and Josh Brolin as a malevolent, goateed doctor with an bizarre taste for glass thermometers in Planet Terror.
Grindhouse is peppered with faux coming attractions for horror films like Don’t Scream, Werewolf Women of the SS. and Ari Roth’s hilariously depraved, grisly slasher Thanksgiving, the one film I’d see actually made into a film if there’s ever a Grindhouse 2.
It’s not too late to put Grindhouse in its rightful place at the top of the box office heap. All you have to do is set aside a few hours this weekend. You’ll get a lesson in exploitation cinema history while being entertained in a way you never thought possible.