"I'm Gonna Eat Your Brains and Gain Your Knowledge": Grindhouse at 10
A double feature homage to 70s exploitation cinema from two of the most prolific and adored directors of the era? What could go wrong?
Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino's 2007 project Grindhouse seeked to recreate the essence of seeing some cheap, lurid entertainment in a forbidden zone, the kind that no longer exists, but in a way that could be brought to a mass mainstream audience. It combined two features, Planet Terror and Death Proof with four fake trailers (in addition to some old-school bumpers and advertisements), all dressed in a trashy aesthetic via the incorporation of digitally-induced scratches, dust, grain visual and aural warping, and in both of the features, a moment where an entire chunk goes missing due to a 'missing reel'. For those who miss the era of having these sort of theatres around, it seemed like a slam-dunk of a concept, and one that would make for an intriguing new chapter in each of the directors' filmographies.
Planet Terror makes for the better starting point of the two films; a horror film about a rag-tag group of civilians attempting to survive a zombie invasion, that plays like a cross between George A. Romero and John Carpenter. Go-go dancer Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan) manages to lose her job and her leg in the same night, and must make due with the situation against increasingly overwhelming odds. The film is jam-packed with awesome moments of gore and some decidedly over-the-top dialogue, adding a layer of fun to the proceedings and granting a high amount of self-awareness. Nevertheless, it's the entry that has lost a lot of its lustre over time. In deconstructing the tropes of the subgenre and trying to instill an intentional sense of comic energy, Rodriguez's approach loses a lot of the fun that could have been garnered had it not tried so hard to keep winking at the audience. (to quote the Poochie episode of The Simpsons, "it's funny but not 'ha ha' funny").
By comparison, Death Proof feels like a more accomplished tribute to the era, taking the form of a hangout film coupled with a high octane vehicular manslaughter thrill-ride. A group of women out for a fun evening are stalked by a psychotic, yet charismatic figure named Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), with a menacing scar on his face and a penchant for using his car to kill women. The second half of the film sees Mike stalk another group of women, though they manage to turn the tables on him in what results in being some of the most insane and memorable automobile-based stunt work in recent cinema history.
At the time, many considered it to be Tarantino's worst film to date, despite being completely dedicated to its point of inspiration. It's easy to see why some would be turned off; an overwhelming majority of it is driven by conversation, as it finally revs up to being the film it was marketed as at the end. But, in the ensuing years, it has remained engaging based on Tarantino's abilities as a wordsmith; sure there's a lot of talking but it's some A-grade dialogue, coupled with just as well-done delivery from Russell and its actresses (Sydney Poitier, Vanessa Ferlito, Jordan Ladd, Zoe Bell, Tracie Thoms, Rosario Dawson, Mary Elizabeth Winstead).
In between each of the features are a sampling of various trailers from friends of Rodriguez and Tarantino; that had been intended as teasers for a future second instalment of Grindhouse were the original to become a big hit. Rob Zombie's Werewolf Women of the S.S. is a tongue-in-cheek homage to Ilsa: She-Wolf of the S.S. but more on the nose (and with a random Nicolas Cage as Fu Manchu cameo thrown in), Edgar Wright's Don't parodies the British chiller and the marketing tactics employed in the 1970s around such films, and Eli Roth's Thanksgiving seems like it wants to be the next great seasonal slasher after Halloween. Prior to Planet Terror we also got Machete (also directed by Rodriguez) - the only trailer of the bunch to actually make the leap to the full feature treatment not once, but twice, with Machete (2010) and Machete Kills (2013).
Looking at the composition of each, it's interesting to note that Rodriguez's entry is heavily towards the side of digitally-enhanced filmmaking (shot on Panasonic's Genesis HD camera, utilizing a 2K digital intermediate from its basis, and of course, incorporating tons of extensive special effects created in post production), whereas Tarantino's film is all done from a practical standpoint (and shot on 35mm film via the Arriflex 435). This difference of analog vs digital is interesting when the films are placed in conjunction with each other (especially when it is revealed midway through Death Proof that both films are set in the same universe), though even besides the point of intent, their operation as simulations of the grindhouse experience; remodelling the codes and conventions of a bygone era for a millennial generation - many of which had never or will never see a true B-movie on celluloid, results in exploiting the very nature of the grindhouse film itself.
From the time it was first announced to before it's opening weekend, Grindhouse was one of the most hyped releases of 2007 - receiving constant coverage from various entertainment blogs and maintaining steady interest within the film world. I remember being very excited to be seeing not one, but two R-rated films from these directors on a big screen for the first time, and imagined it would make for an incredible theatrical experience with a packed crowd. Much to my dismay, it was a shock to walk into the opening night showing of Grindhouse at the AMC Winston Churchill theatre in Mississauga after the trailers had already started, and only see about 30 people seated - especially given that the auditorium in question had capacity for ten times that number. It was one of the first times I realized that Internet hype doesn't translate to actual attendance, as seen by the fact that the film would pull in a paltry $11.6 million on it's opening weekend for a 4th place finish - just a bit over half the $20 million that box office analysts had predicted.
At a $67 million production budget for the combined films and trailers (before marketing costs), Grindhouse was an outright disaster. Attempting to salvage things and maximize profits, it was decided by the Weinstein Company that the films would be separated and released on their own for international release and on home media. These versions of the film reinserted several minutes of material from both Planet Terror and Death Proof that had previously been cut out to keep the full Grindhouse runtime within the three hour range, though the decision to release them separately and not as one package until 2010 was an obvious ploy by the distributor to recoup their losses at the box office.
It was still surprising that the allure of these directors, Rodriguez fresh off the success of Sin City and Tarantino from the Kill Bill duology, weren't enough for moviegoers. It had even gone into the weekend with an 86% score on Rotten Tomatoes - at the time the best reviewed film of the year. Some would argue that the film's opening on 2,600+ screens didn't give it enough of a push, others would say the 3 hour runtime limited the number of times it could be screened per day - both valid reasons.
Perhaps though, it was the audacity of the project's aims itself, and the perceived willingness of the public to get around the directors' vision. In a 2015 interview with Vulture, Tarantino stated of the project:
Robert Rodriguez and I had gotten used to going our own way, on these weird roads, and having the audience come along. We’d started thinking they’d go wherever we wanted. With Grindhouse, that proved not to be the case. It was still worth doing, but it would have been better if we weren’t caught so unaware by how uninterested people were.
In the end, Grindhouse obtained a cult following through being a tribute to exploitation cinema, over the mainstream dominance it had desired via exploiting the namesake of its creative team. It could be said that in the end, Rodriguez and Tarantino simply aimed too high with their ambitions, seeking to market Grindhouse as a full-on retro event and not just a film (a plan for nationwide midnight screenings was suddenly cut back to just 13 locations only days before release). Looking at the careers of both directors, who have repeatedly borrowed elements of genre films from the 70s and 80s in their work, one wonders how they of all people weren't able to maximize that approach to another level.
While it's fun to think about a world where the film became a hit, spawning a Grindhouse cinematic universe in which a different pair of directors would revisit this weird era of cinema every year, it would seem that time has passed. In a world where the very nature of the theatrical experience itself is struggling to keep itself afloat against competition from VOD and the Internet, the idea of a nostalgia-induced return to gritty, sensational escapism is lost on the modern moviegoer. Thankfully, the full, original cut of Grindhouse is available on DVD/Blu-ray, preserving its status not only in the filmographies of its directors, cast, and crew, but in the greater construct of genre cinema history itself.