Directed by: Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Rose McGowan, Freddy Rodriguez, Marley Shelton, Josh Brolin, Bruce Willis, Kurt Russell, Rosario Dawson, Rose McGowan, Zoe Bell
Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror is not high art. It’s not intellectually stimulating, and it’s not deeply profound in any way. Yes, it’s extremely gory-schlock exploitation horror; it’s goofy and violent; and it’s probably the most ridiculously absurd movie you could imagine. Handled by most directors, this type of material would simply add up to entertaining tripe, but in the hands of Rodriguez, a filmmaker who specializes in this territory, and is here at the top of his game, it adds up to the most fun you’ve had in a movie theater in ages.
The movies have always been about escapism, but what a lot of purely “escapist” popcorn films forget is that the movies are also supposed to be fun—and in the land of Rodriguez, that’s priority number one. There’s no air of self-importance, no pretension, no attempts at faux-weightiness under the guise of being “epic.” All that is left is the sheer joy of filmmaking by one of the best in the business. And with Planet Terror, Rodriguez is in rare form.
The film itself is a pure B-movie fever dream, and the fact that the film is in the vein of ‘70s exploitation allows Rodriguez to let loose. Continuity and realism are pushed to the wayside and left for dead. It feels like this is the movie Rodriguez has always wanted to make, but couldn’t because it was just too exaggerated and outlandish to be a “normal” movie. What other filmmaker would dare outfit a former go-go dancer and wannabe stand-up comic with an assault rifle for a prosthetic leg and involve her with a mysterious gunslinger with a past, a biochemist who collects the testicles of those who cross him and two brothers who are feuding over a barbeque recipe—along with an entire cast of equally quirky characters? What other director would question how, exactly, you would go about getting in and starting a car if your hands are paralyzed? And who else could bring it all together and make it work?
The plot itself is simple: It involves the release of a mysterious chemical that turns people into cannibalistic pseudo-zombies, and allows for enough gore to make even the most jaded splatter fan happy. But it’s not the storyline that’s important. The entire “grindhouse” premise allows Planet Terror to be Rodriguez’s sandbox, and the audience is just along for the ride. Everything—from the look of the film itself (the print has been manipulated to look dirty, scratched and worn, a device that’s even used for thematic purposes on a few occasions), to the willfully goofy, over-the-top plotting and characters, to Rodriguez’s sharp, clever dialogue and John Carpenter-esque synth score—makes for a unique film and the most purely creative film to come out so far this year.
The entire movie is cognizant of its inherent absurdity, and revels in it, but it’s also smart enough to never look at the genre it’s emulating with any type of ironic, post-modern, “look how clever we are” cheekiness. It’s a movie made purely for the sake of movies, and is the reason that critical clichés like “a non-stop thrill ride!” were created in the first place. It’s trash filmmaking at its finest, and if you consider yourself a fan of the movies, a must-see. Rated R for strong graphic bloody violence and gore, pervasive language, some sexuality, nudity and drug use.
— reviewed by Justin Souther
It’s apt that Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof is on the bottom half of the double bill that makes up Grindhouse. While it’s far from a total washout, Death Proof is not only inferior to Robert Rodriguez’s masterfully over-the-top Planet Terror (that much fun is almost certainly illegal, immoral or at the very least somehow fattening), but it’s inferior to the fake trailers that divide the two features. There’s more crazy creativity in Rob Zombie’s trailer for Werewolf Women of the SS (Nicolas Cage as the insidious Dr. Fu Manchu working for the Third Reich?), Edgar Wright’s trailer for a film I won’t name since that’s part of the joke and even in Eli Roth’s only marginally successful trailer for Thanksgiving (an unstoppable killer in a pilgrim outfit)—than in Tarantino’s feature. (And this doesn’t even factor in the hysterical Rodriguez trailer for Machete—“You picked the wrong Mexican to f**k with”—that precedes his film.)
Tarantino’s film starts out well with the name Death Proof. The title is made to appear like a sloppy last-minute change from Thunderbolt or something like that, as evidenced by a few hangover frames of its production name before the clumsily spliced-in new name appears. And Tarantino manages to keep the film going for a while. The sense of fun that marks Rodriguez’s film is still there in such things as having a character in the film drinking from a cup emblazoned with the logo for a fast-food restaurant advertised between the features, and the basic premise of Death Proof is terrific.
Rather than go the horror-movie route à la his cinematic brother, Tarantino opts for the female revenge flick. As someone who actually worked at a drive-in theater in the early 1970s running this kind of schlock—including the infamous They Call Her One Eye (1974), which has lately become mystifyingly “classy” upon “reassessment” by admirers of trashy European movies—I’m well aware of the format. It works on the principle of subjecting the female character—or characters—to all manner of horrors (often involving disfigurement), only to have them go on a revenge rampage and get their own back. Tarantino plays with the formula slightly by making the bad guy—Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell)—the focus of the story, though he unfortunately loses track of him for too long after the elaborate setup.
The first part of the film works fairly well, setting up Mike’s first murder spree. What’s surprising about Tarantino’s approach lies in his decision to make Mike weirdly sympathetic—even to painting him as a kind of Tarantino movie geek. There’s a splendid scene where Mike is rabbiting on about his stunt work on a raft of ‘60s and ‘70s TV shows, dropping once-famous names, only to have a sad moment of revelation that not a single one of his youthful listeners has a clue about these shows and these names. It’s probably the only truly poignant moment in the film. Moreover, Tarantino makes nice use of his soundtrack in these scenes (there’s a splendid use of T. Rex’s “Jeepster,” which echoes something of the sense of Mike’s outdated fame). Also, Tarantino ups Rodriguez one in his use of the title card, which is shown to claim that a reel is missing, a gag common to both films. The action builds to a point, a card pops up announcing the missing reel, and the film’s narrative jumps forward 10 to 20 minutes. Rodriguez uses this gambit to get out of depicting improbable plot points. Tarantino makes it something else. In reality, such notices never happened, though reels were often accidentally left out by clumsy projectionists, and very often footage would be cut out to end up in the projectionist’s private collection. Tarantino slyly comments on this by pulling the missing reel gag at a point where Mike is about to get a lap dance.
Tarantino’s segment holds its cool up through Mike’s first bout of vehicular carnage, and even up through the post-murder hospital scene (complete with cross reference characters from Planet Terror) that reveals Mike as only a little banged up (thanks to his “death proof” car) and all the women dead. And then it happens. Tarantino seems to forget the whole point of Grindhouse as he introduces the women who will give Mike his comeuppance. The faux-scratches, the film breaks, the missing reels are all dropped in favor of a Tarantino gabfest.
As a writer-director friend of mine noted, Tarantino “couldn’t resist revisiting his ‘Royale With Cheese’ dialogue arias, which by now are so old-hat.” The thing is Tarantino’s once-prized digressive dialogue isn’t just old-hat, it’s ersatz old-hat. Nothing in the endless, interminably boring dialogue that leads up to the admittedly effective showdown between Mike and his next victims is memorable, interesting or funny. A lot of it, in fact, is simply annoying. Worse, it brings Tarantino back to his pre-Kill Bill status as one of the most visually uninspired of all directors.
A number of critics seem to find Tarantino’s decision—or compulsion—to veer from the apparent purpose of Grindhouse bravely subversive and a mirror of the ability of a grindhouse director to slip in any theme he wanted, so long as he otherwise delivered the goods. Applesauce. There’s no theme here—just Tarantino in love with the sound of his worn-out snappy repartee, and bringing an otherwise terrific ride of a trashy movie to a grinding halt just when it needs it least. Yes, he does pull it out of this slump for a great finale, but really it’s too little too late, and all he’s doing is fixing a problem he made himself. Rated R for strong graphic bloody violence and gore, pervasive language, some sexuality, nudity and drug use.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke