The term "grindhouse" originally referred to a theater that specialized in exploitation films as well as the films that type of theater showcased. The movies, often scratched and worn from repeated viewings, usually ran as double features. Coming in many shapes and sizes, exploitation films ranged from sexual (which my grandfather Irving Klaw helped to pioneer) to ultra-violent to drugs to bikers.
The grindhouse reached its zenith in the 1960s and 70s, finally falling out of favor in the 1980s with the rise of home video. Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino attempt to capture the essence of these films and experience with the movie Grindhouse.
Actually two feature-length horror films, Grindhouse features Rodriguez's zombie movie Planet Terror and Tarantino's chase film Death Proof. The duo also included some "trailers" directed by contemporary directors for non-existent exploitation movies, "lost" a few reels, and scratched some of the film to further enhance the experience.
After the opening "trailer" for the faux-film Machete (directed by Rodriguez), Grindhouse starts with Planet Terror. Between the two features, three "trailers" play: Thanksgiving (directed by Eli "Hostel" Roth), Don't Scream (Edgar "Shaun of the Dead
" Wright), and Werewolf Women of the SS (Rob "House of 1000 Corpses" Zombie). Death Proof concludes Grindhouse.
Hallmarks of a classic grindhouse movie include a fast plot, lots of blood, and gratuitous nudity. Rodriguez managed to include two of the three. Though inane, the plot of Planet Terror moves at a steady pace and the character motivations are clear. As about the plots of most exploitation features, the less said, the better. The blood, gore, and violence attain Dead Alive and Re-Animator levels, though with none of its predecessors' wit and style. Oddly, both features lack nudity (though there is some in the trailers). Completely wasted in an uncredited performance, Bruce Willis plays a psycho military man who releases the chemical that causes the zombie outbreak.
Rodriguez should never direct another double feature with his friend Tarantino. Over the last fifteen years, Quentin Tarantino has directed three memorable, almost classic films (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown), and even his lesser films contain moments of near brilliance.
Though he has had numerous financial successes including the overrated Sin City and the Spy Kids franchise, Rodriguez's first film El Mariachi still represents his artistic highpoint. The opening sequence of Death Proof emphasizes the discrepancy in directorial talent between the two.
Tarantino begins at a much more leisurely pace, introducing four female friends out for a night on the town. After meeting Stuntman Mike, brilliantly portrayed by Kurt Russell, their fun evolves into violent terror. Oddly after introducing the fascinating Mike, Tarantino decides to shift the focus to four other women (including stuntwoman Zoe Bell playing herself) that eventually leads to a thrilling car chase. Russell electrifies the screen, but sadly Stuntman Mike appears on screen too briefly. In Death Proof, Tarantino commits the cardinal sin of grindhouse cinema: it's boring!
Neither film succeeds as a grindhouse film or even as horror film. At three hours and twelve minutes, Grindhouse collapses under its own weight. (Traditionally, exploitation movies ran about 70 minutes. Both of the features played in the excess of 90 minutes.) Neither story warranted that much attention.
It is impossible to make a successful grindhouse film now. Influenced by cultural and economic factors, those features were products of their time. We live in an era that venerates graphic violence yet abhors nudity of any kind. Yet, in a time of instant gratification when a mere mouse click brings as much sex and violence as one desires, the sensational has become commonplace.
The grindhouse died with the advent of home video and easy access to the Internet. Rodriguez and Tarantino fail because there was no way to succeed. Until a new vision of the grindhouse emerges, the exploitation movie shall remain an intriguing relic.