In the early-to-late 1960s when I was going to college in San Francisco, my roommate and I would often go to matinees at one or another of the big, old movie houses on Market Street. For a dollar you could watch a double feature, usually a popular movie in its second or third run, coupled with a low-budget or B-grade movie, with trailers in between and, if you kept your ticket stub, a drawing for various prizes, too. The movies were invariably action thrillers, horror, or sci-fi.
I had no idea at the time what people called these kind of movie theaters, but nowadays we call them "grindhouses" because they ground out cheap exploitation films week after week. Before home video, they were meccas for Roger Corman fans, and for a buck how could you beat them? They also appeared to be a low-cost haven for the less fortunate who needed a roof over their heads for the day, as there were always a half dozen or so shabby-looking people asleep in their seats when we arrived and when we left.
Anyway, that's the idea that filmmakers Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez wanted to recreate in their 2007 double-feature release, "Grindhouse." It's an affectionate homage to those cheapie films of yore and the theaters that showed them, as well as a parody of such films and theaters. To be more specific, Rodriguiz's half of the double bill, "Planet Terror," is a strraightforward satire, and Tarantino's half, "Death Proof," is more of a tribute. The two filmmakers wrote their own scripts for "Grindhouse," directed them, photographed them, edited them, even appear in them. If they fail, they fail alone. Mostly, though, they're on target.
Opening the show is an amusing bit that sets the tone for what's to follow. It's a supposedly fake trailer for a revenge flick called "Machete," starring the wonderful character actor Danny Trejo, whose face alone is worth framing. (I say "supposedly" because in real life Rodriguiz claims he's actually going to make the picture, maybe or maybe not a part of the joke.) Then it's on to Rodriguiz's zombie parody, "Planet Terror," which is so funny that parts of it had me literally in tears. It stars Freddy Rodriguez as a enigmatic young man who battles zombies, aided and abetted by Rose McGowan as his girlfriend, Jeff Fahey as the owner of a barbeque joint, Michael Parks and Michael Biehn as sheriffs, Josh Brolin as a doctor, Quentin Tarantino as a psycho guard, and a host of other names who also appear in the companion piece. Rodriguez does up "Planet Terror" with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek, so much so that the more outrageous the story gets, the more earnestly Rodriguez presents it.
Understand, though, that not everyone will find "Planet Terror" as entertaining as I did. It is definitely not for the squeamish, and I have no doubt that a lot of viewers will find it dumb enough or gross enough for them to get up and leave early. It not only caps on the typical stereotypes and clichés of the horror genre, it contains an excess of gratuitous violence, gratuitous sex, gratuitous blood, gratuitous gore, gratuitous nudity, gratuitous profanity, gratuitous automobile explosions, gratuitous building explosions, gratuitous head explosions, gratuitous decapitations, gratuitous flying body parts, gratuitous female chest and bottom close-ups, gratuitous disgusting makeup, and gratuitous Bruce Willis sightings.
In between the Rodriguiz and Tarantino films are three more humorous trailers for genre pictures: a slasher flick called "Thanksgiving," directed by "Hostel" filmmaker Eli Roth; a haunted-house flick called "Don't (Scream)," directed by "Shaun of the Dead" filmmaker Edgar Wright; and a monster flick called "Werewolf Women of the S.S," directed by "The Devil's Rejects" filmmaker and musician Rob Zombie. Look here for a gratuitous Nicolas Cage sighting. I think I could have watched more of these silly previews, as they are among the funniest parts of the show.
Understand, too, that the filmmakers digitally "aged" these first segments, Rodriguez's and the trailers, to look like older films that have gone through a projector too many times. They are filled with scratches, lines, dust, dirt, fades, even bogus missing reels. Oddly, though, they did not age the final segment at all, Tarantino's "Death Proof," but left it pretty much a pristine print. I'm not sure why they did this, except perhaps to indicate that this last film was the feature attraction, the more prestigious of the two exploitation films on the bill.
Be that as it may, Tarantino's movie is the more serious of the two, a combination serial-killer and fast-car flick that blends the stalker genre with the automobile chases of the original "Gone in 60 Seconds," "Vanishing Point," and "Two-Lane Blacktop." Here, we find Kurt Russell as a mysterious fellow who calls himself "Stuntman Mike" and drives a rather menacing motorcar.
After the nonstop action of Rodriguez's film, Tarantino's movie seems like an anticlimax. Its first half moves at a snail's pace, the plot taking an interminably long time getting started (incidentally, using an old Hitchcock "Psycho" gimmick along the way). When the action finally does begin, it is well worth the wait, but, still, Tarantino might have considered some judicious trimming in the early stages to help viewers who expected something a little more exciting from the beginning.
In fact, the only unfortunate part of the whole "Grindhouse" affair is that the filmmakers tried so hard to make their movie resemble as much as possible a real double feature, they made it way, way too long. By the time Tarantino's half rolls around, you feel like you have to get up and stretch or use the rest room, but to do so would mean you'd miss something. Then, by the time the movie's three hours or so are finally up, your butt is so sore, you're almost grateful it's over.
"Grindhouse" is not your dear Aunt Martha's movie, but it's a heck of a ride.