Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Final Girl Film Club - Grindhouse

I've written about Grindhouse before, and I have kind of a dumb thing about revisiting movies (which I should really stop, because anything worth writing about is worth writing about more than once). But these two films are this month's selection for the Final Girl Film Club, so I'm revisiting them.

This was a great idea that the studio didn't know how to sell, which resulted in not many people going to see it in the theaters. Part of the problem was that the suits decided it'd be a swell idea to release this festival of exploitation on Easter weekend, a time when a heck of a lot of people who go to movies want to see something they can take their family to. And while I might wholeheartedly support the idea of taking the kids to a grindhouse experience for educational purposes, if nothing else, my notion of parenting is not what you'd call a mainstream one. And I have to say that the not-knowing-how-to-market-it philosophy was carried through right to the DVD release. Though I understand the desire to make as much money as possible after the botched theatrical run (hence the decision to release the films separately), it ticks me off as someone who went to the theatrical version - several times, I might add - and enjoyed the heck out of it. And I think it's ridiculous that, even if you own the DVDs of both movies, you can't recreate that experience at home unless you have both Netflix and a device that will allow you to play one of their "Watch Instantly" selections on something bigger than your computer screen.

Because Grindhouse is an experience, above all else. When I wrote about it before, I likened it to a condensed version of Butt-Numb-A-Thon, and that's just what it feels like to me. And a great chunk of why that's true is the extra stuff, most of which you can only find on YouTube or the aforementioned instant version on Netflix. Not just the trailers, which are awesome, but even the little things like title cards, like this one:

A little ad for a local (and probably fictional) food joint in Austin and "restricted audience" PSAs with cats all add to the "night at the movies" feel. The only thing missing is that you probably can't buy beer at the theater where this was playing, and that probably isn't jizz on the seat next to you.

And since I brought up the trailers, I have to talk about them. First, Rob Zombie's "Werewolf Women of the SS."


Finally, the truth about Hitler's diabolical plans to create a race of superwomen can be told! Probably the weakest of the three, which isn't saying anything at all, and definitely the least scratchy-looking. Boobs aplenty, obligatory appearances from Zombie regulars Bill Moseley and Zombie's wife, and the most hilarious shot of a werewolf shooting off a machine gun you'll ever see. All that, plus an exceedingly random (and genius) cameo by Nicholas Cage as Fu Manchu (pictured above).

Then there's "Don't" by Edgar Wright.

If you ... are thinking ... of checking out ... the basement ... DON'T. Best title gag ever, and I'm immeasurably sad that this isn't a real film. The spoof here, apparently, is British horror films of the 1970s, and part of it is that you never hear the characters speak, which was a ploy by studios back then who were afraid that if audiences heard British accents they were less likely to see the film. This is my favorite of all the trailers.

"Thanksgiving" by Eli Roth.

There are loads of films that center around a holiday theme, but strangely none about Thanksgiving, which is what inspired Eli Roth to shoot this trailer. If this were a real film, it would be a classic, 1980s (or maybe late-70s) style slasher film. Nah, it's more 80s, given all the nudity and sexytime. Hilarious sendup of not only the genre but the trailers that went with those films - the deep narrator voice cracks me up. And the last shot - where, if I'm not mistaken, Roth himself is in the pilgrim costume - is possibly the most depraved thing I've ever seen.

Those are part of the "intermission," but before the first part of the double-feature begins, we get Robert Rodriguez's contribution, "Machete."

This is closer to what I'd consider an actual "grindhouse" movie. But of course, I don't know much about it, never having been to one of those theaters. It's just that the other three seem like standard horror fare, while "Machete" is exactly the kind of gritty, exploitative movie I'd expect to see in an environment like that. And, while the others feel like older movies, this one looks like a new movie, with an old-school voice-over recording, whose print has been through the ringer. But Danny Trejo is awesomesauce, extra spicy, and is a large part of why it's so great.

Okay, on to the features. I'll say right now that if you don't have massive love for so-bad-they're-good movies, you will not enjoy these films. Especially Planet Terror. It's not so much a "grindhouse" movie as it is a spoof of those movies. I don't think those kinds of movies would have had the budget, first of all, to do what Rodriguez does here. It's got lots of names, which a grindhouse movie wouldn't (maybe one or two, but not this many, and probably not someone like Bruce Willis). The special effects and gore are a little too good and kind of over-the-top, and the story just seems to have much more scope than I'd expect from a B-movie. That's not to say it's not good or enjoyable, though, because it certainly is.

We start off with Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan), who is not having a good night. She leaves her job as a go-go dancer, only to be nearly run over by what looks like a military convoy. She cuts her leg on some broken glass, and that ain't all her leg is going to go through this night. We follow the convoy to a military base, where Abby (Naveen Andrews, of Lost fame) is very angry that someone has let his "specimens" loose. Just as he's killing the man responsible and, in a random act of evilness, collecting his balls, Bruce Willis shows up. I'm afraid I don't remember his character's name and can't be arsed to look it up. He's a military special ops or something, and he demands of Abby, "Where's the s**t?" There's a confrontation, because whatever Abby is supposedly giving Bruce, he's held back a lot more, and for some reason, he fires off his gun, releasing whatever it is - apparently a zombie-making virus - into the air.

Meanwhile, at J.T.'s BBQ - the "best in Texas," or so J.T. tells us again and again - Cherry runs into her ex-boyfriend, Wray (Freddy Rodriguez - no relation to the director). She asks him to take her home, but things go pear-shaped when he swerves to miss something in the road and turns his wrecking truck upside down. Something comes out of the woods and grabs Cherry, and by the time Wray gets to them, they (zombies) have torn off her leg and run off with it - maybe to play baseball, but more likely to eat it.

And while all that is going on, Dr. and Dr. Block wake up for a late shift at the hospital. Mrs. Block (Marley Shelton) is making plans to run away from her supposedly crazy husband, Mr. Block (Josh Brolin) seems to know something's going on, and their son Tony is just playing with his toys ("I'm gonna eat your brains and gain your knowledge!"). Things are hopping at the hospital when the Blocks arrive, with people complaining of strange bites. One DOA is the woman Mrs. Block was planning to run away with, and the Sherriff arrives just in time to take Wray, who has just arrived with Cherry, into custody for illegal possession of a gun.

As it becomes more and more clear that all these people have landed themselves slap in the middle of a zombie flick, survivors start congregating at J.T.'s. Cherry and Wray have one of those arguments that always seems to lead to a sex scene, and just when things are getting down and dirty, the reel breaks, and we're told that the film is missing a reel. And this is probably the greatest stroke of genius in the film.

Missing reels are not really a staple of the grindhouse experience. The idea came from a screening Tarantino was holding at his house, where the film he was showing was missing a reel, and he said they should put that in both of their features. That way you'd skip the predictable revelations of how the bad guy is really the good guy, and the good guy is really the bad guy, and that guy and girl who hated each other are now in love and all that crap, and you're just thrust into the third act. Tarantino didn't use his missing reel edit in that way - we miss a lap dance, which is in the DVD version, but no real story - but it's really a brilliant decision for Planet Terror. We go from a love scene to - WHAMO! - the BBQ joint is ablaze, several other characters have arrived, zombies have surrounded the place, and Wray is miraculously no longer in trouble with the Sherriff and is suddenly the hero of the piece.

I'd go through the ending and how Cherry gets a machine gun for a leg, but I'll let you enjoy that for yourself if you choose to see this movie. As I said, this movie is more a grindhouse spoof than an actual grindhouse movie. There are all kinds of gags, from the acting to some of the camera moves ... everything in the movie, pretty much, is a gag and a chuckle. Perhaps this movie is a little too self-aware for its own good, and that may be the reason Tarantino's half of the double-feature, Death Proof, is my favorite.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
And I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
Did you hear me, Butterfly?
Miles to go before you sleep.

Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito) is visiting her friends Shana and Julia in Austin. The movie never says where Arlene is from, but judging from the accent, I'd say somewhere in the vicinity of New York. Shana (Jordan Ladd) is a fairly stereotypical southern party girl, and Jungle Julia (Sydney Poitier, daughter of Sidney Poitier) is a popular local DJ with billboards all over town. The girls have a plan for the day - margaritas and Mexican food at Guero's, meeting some guys at the Texas Chili Parlor, and later that evening heading to Shana's daddy's cabin at Lake LBJ (no boys allowed). What is not in their plan is being followed by a strange muscle car with a strange driver.

We meet these girls, spend the day with them, and get to know them a little. Julia is dating a filmmaker who apparently isn't into her enough to come to Austin and see her that often. Arlene has been having some heavy make-out sessions with a local guy, Nate. And Shana really hates it when people call her "Shauna." While at Guero's (which is a real place in Austin that I highly recommend), one of Julia's friends lets it slip that Julia said something about Arlene on the air that day. Namely, she told listeners that if they bought her friend "Butterfly" a drink and recited a few lines from a certain Robert Frost poem then Arlene would give said drink-buyer and poem-reciter a lap dance. This amuses the other girls greatly, but not Arlene, who we can tell is being cast in the typical "final girl" role.

Later, at the Texas Chili Parlor (another real joint in Austin that I highly recommend), the girls are having drinks with a couple of guys who we discover are dead set on getting the girls drunk enough to forget the "no boys" rule for the lake house trip. At the bar sits Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), driver of the strange muscle car, and Pam (Rose McGowan), a girl who seems to have had something bad happen to her recently, though we never know what. Pam needs a ride home, and Mike is happy to oblige her, if she's willing to wait until he's ready to leave. She and Mike talk a bit, and Pam seems to know (and loathe) Julia from school days. Once the party moves out to the patio of the Texas Chili Parlor and the doobies are sparked, Mike introduces himself to the girls and attempts to cash in on the lap dance from Arlene. She is reluctant, but he sort of charms her into it.

After the lap dance, Pam seems much friendlier to Mike, but when they get to his car, she's a bit wary that he doesn't actually have a seat for her to sit in. She asks if the car is safe, and he explains that it's actually "death proof." See, stunt drivers have ways of reinforcing cars so that they can have big, spectacular wrecks for the camera without hurting themselves (too badly). As Mike is pulling out of the parking lot with Pam, she suddenly realizes that he's not just being nice and actually wants to hurt her - especially when he informs her that the "death proof" moniker really only applies to the part of the car where *he's* sitting. He disposes of Pam rather quickly before going after Arlene and friends, and what follows is a pretty amazing car wreck, shown to us from several vantage points, so that we can see exactly what happened to all of the girls.

Next comes a hospital scene - the same hospital from Planet Terror. A policeman named McGraw (Michael Parks, who appeared as the same character in Planet Terror) confers with Dr. Block (the Mrs., also from PT) about the wreck, and he draws the conclusion we need to properly appreciate the second half of the film. Mike murdered the girls with his car. His making it "death proof" ensures that he'll be around to stalk more girls in the future. And he deliberately avoids alcohol, and preys on party girls who have been drinking, so that it looks like an accident and he doesn't get the blame for the wreck.

We see him again, months later, after his injuries have healed and he's moved on to another group of girls. We get a similar set-up as his previous victims, just kind of hanging out with them and getting to know them. A lot of people have criticized this aspect of the movie - a lot of talking that's unnecessary and boring - but I couldn't feel more differently. The diner scene in the second half is probably my favorite scene in the movie. This second group of girls, though, turns out to be much more than Mike bargained for when he decided to go after them. And with that, I'll stop the synopsis, because the rest of the movie is something you just have to see. One of the greatest car chases I've ever seen, and a heck of a twist on what the movie starts out as.

Death Proof is more of a standard "grindhouse" movie, but it's also an interesting take on the "slasher" genre. Instead of a butcher knife, the killer uses a car. It has that same feeling of being a cautionary tale that many slashers have, where these girls who like to party get punished for their bad behavior. We meet Arlene, who is the prototypical "final girl" - the most sexually innocent of the group, the only one who's scared of the killer, etc. - and she gets killed right along with the others. And then we get the second half which is an utter reversal of what came before.

And along with all that, we actually get to know the killer, which is something that doesn't often happen with movies like this. We see Mike trying to impress people who have never seen or heard of any of the movies or shows he's done stunts for. He's a little past his prime and not that great with the ladies, if he ever was, and you can see the disappointment in his face when people are underwhelmed by him. You almost feel sorry for him. In fact, you might almost forget that he's the bad guy - unless you're watching the DVD version, which has an extra scene that telegraphs his craziness to the viewer like a neon light positioned over his head.

I love both of these movies to bits, and I re-watch them pretty frequently. Death Proof is definitely my fave of the two, but Planet Terror is quite fun as well, especially with the DVD audience reaction track playing along with it. :P