Now that the opening weekend take of Grindhouse hasn't even measured up to half the $30 million Miramax dropped on simply marketing the retro-tastic neo-trash double header, it seems like Tarantino has, officially, his first bomb. His co-director, Robert Rodriguez, is likely more calloused to the feelings watching one of your flicks sink at the box office must give rise to. Being one of America's most notable and least consistent directors prepares one for the slings and arrows of outrageous financial fortune. But for Tarantino, failure on this scale must be a somewhat new sensation. Not to mention it must all be somewhat confusing to the spastically boyish director. His previous two flicks – the Kill Bill films – mined much of the same disreputable genre territory to produce a commercial and critical hit. Success for Grindhouse should have been a matter of course. But here he is, opening weekend and nothing but a big, ol' double feature flop to show for it.
And, I'm sad to say, he and Rodriguez somewhat deserve it.
Unless you've been living in a particularly remote cave in some unusually desolate part of the world, you know by now that Grindhouse is a 3 hour 10 minute flick that consists of two short films – Rodriguez's Terror Planet and Tarantino's Death Proof - surrounded by retro rating warnings, a quartet of trailers from movies that don't exist, and interrupted occasionally by fake film damage and two "reel missing" title cards.
Of the two, Rodriguez's outing is the weaker, which is unfortunate as it means you're sitting through nearly an hour and a half of mediocre film before really getting to something interesting.
Terror Planet suffers from "The Byrne Problem." Forgive me the digression, but it will tie in, I promise. Anthony Burgess's (the British novelist perhaps best known in America as the man who wrote A Clockwork Orange) last book before his death 1993 was a long mock epic poem called Byrne. The premise behind the book was that Byrne was the absurd and narcissistic last grand gesture of Michael Byrne, a truly horrible poet that reaches the dubious "heights" of his artistic achievement during the Nazi's rise to power in the 1930s. It is at once a devastating send up of pretentiousness and a meditation on talent and inspiration. Here's the catch: to get this though, you have to read a really horrible novel-length epic poem. Certainly, it is intentionally bad. The clumsy rhymes, the lag wit metaphors, and the drunkenly staggering rhythm were all part of Burgess's joke. But does it matter. At the end of the day, joke or not, if you want to read Byrne, you've got to read a fistful of really shitty verse. So, "The Byrne Problem" can be summed up thusly: intentionally creating bad art does not solve the problem that you made bad art.
Though it is intended as a loving send up, Terror Planet is 90 minutes of bad film. To be fair, Rodriguez seems to have taken the project to create an old grindhouse-style flick earnestly and, despite the recent flurry of rose-tinted revisionism that now depicts that era of the crap exploitation flick, creates just the sort of cheap-o, illogical, gore splattered, mindless film that was a staple of the genre. Terror Planet involves a group of rogue US soldiers who, after getting exposed to a zombifying biological weapon for killing Bin Laden off schedule (seriously), unleash the agent on a unsuspecting Texas town. Ultimately it is up to the local police, a truck driving super gunslinger, and an ex-stripper turned one-legged killing machine to save the day. Silliness piles upon silliness in a Sci-Fi Channel original-grade plot. None of this is redeemed by Rodriguez's trademark kinetic visual style, which he reins in so that he can better recreate the clumsy filmmaking of a real grindhouse horror cheapie. The editing looks like it was handled by a blind man working with a meat cleaver and some duct tape. Set-ups are static and un-inventive. There are bizarre and unnecessary close-ups, some on the ample anatomy of the flick's female characters, but mostly on irrelevant and un-aesthetic details.
I have no doubt all of this was intentionally. Robert Rodriguez was, I'm certainly, trying very hard to recreate the look and feel of a cut-rate. The problem is, he pulled it off brilliantly, which is to say, he made a bad movie. Terror Planet is the sort of film you might run across on cable on some lazy afternoon and watch solely because nothing else is on. That was, in fact, the fulfillment of Rodriguez's ambitions for the film, which, in a way, makes it even sadder.
Tarantino, the more consistent and thoughtful of the two filmmakers, avoids the "The Byrne Problem" by cleverly betraying the project's premise. Death Proof shares the same relationship with exploitation cinema that the rest of Taratino's films have had: he uses his love and knowledge of the genre to steal and refine its best moments. Tarantino didn't really make a grindhouse-style film (it is telling that the fake dust spots and film damage that was digitally added throughout Terror Planet is almost entirely absent in Death Proof), he made a Tarantino film that was influenced by those genre filmmakers who, despite working in a critically reviled context, managed to create unique, energetic, and enduring films. Where Rodriguez recreated the experience of seeing a bad film in a crappy theater, Tarantino fuses Russ Meyer revenge chick flicks with the sure cinema instincts of Monte Hellman and creates a solid flick that is influenced by exploitation cinema while transcending its origins.
Death Proof involves the psychopathic Stuntman Mike. Mike gets his kicks through vehicular homicide. He takes his stunt worthy car and gets himself in accidents that are always fatal to the women he stalks. However, as luck would have it, Mike picks on a trio of women that includes a couple of female stunt drivers and, instead of easy pickings, we get one of the longest, most intense car chase scenes to grace the screen in a long time.
Death Proof is the least of Tarantino's films. It is well-built, smart fun that suffers from the fact that Tarantino is not a horror filmmaker. His instincts are to let characters yap on and ramble. We get too much talking and not enough tension. After one particularly horrific scene, we spent most of the movie killing time until the big chase. When that comes, it will pull you in. But, until then, you feel every minute of the flick as Tarantino's characters do what everybody in the Tarantino universe does: they discuss old cult flicks (nobody in the world Tarantino lives in ever reads).
I do have something to praise without qualification. The four faux trailers are, each and every one, brilliant. Rodriguez turns in a trailer for Machete, a violent revenge flick, that packs more fun into its four or five minute running time than we find in all of Terror Planet. Shaun of the Dead's Edgar Wright turns in Don't, a wonderful send up of British haunted house flicks from the groovy era. Rob Zombie gives us the absolutely gonzo Werewolf Women of the S.S., featuring a cameo of Nicholas Cage as Fu Manchu (I kid you not). And, I'm shocked to say, Eli Roth's slasher-flick trailer for Thanksgiving is so spot on and funny that it might be the best moment in the film. We've had our differences in the past Eli; but good job.
There are some great moments in Grindhouse, but they are too few and far between to justify the 3 hour running time or the $10 movie ticket. This puppy was made for DVD. Using my mathematically precise Ships the British Royal Navy Has Named After the Port City of Bristol, I'm going to give Grindhouse a middling "wooden screw frigate launched in 1861 and broken up in 1883."