Cult Classics: Grindhouse

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The lurid exploitation films of the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s gave cheap thrills to filmgoing audiences looking to make out in the back seats of the theater or their cars, see a few gross kill-shots and grungy effects, or else enjoy the well-tread tropes and hackneyed cinematography that these films promised. Their enjoyment by cinephiles to this day speak to their resiliency as a sort of subgenre–films that focused on the more violent, overtly sexual, and morbid elements of the story, whose worlds were seemingly built for dark and twisted realities to unfold in.

From this came so-called “grindhouse” films, double features that toured the country to various drive-ins and small theaters whose prints had the added visual dynamic of scratched and worn sections, missing segments and reels, and sloppy splicing. Films with lurid titles like like Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS, They Call Her One Eye, and The Pom Pom Girls would run to both interested and disinsterested audiences alike but surprisingly left an impression on some youngsters that would become influential filmmakers at some point in the future.

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A few of these impressionable youngsters include Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, who would go on to be two of the more successful and original filmmakers of their generation. Having gained a great amount of influence and success in Hollywood, the two pitched their sure-fire idea that would hook a new generation into the scratched-up, rough and tumble films they admired in their childhood and directly influenced their own work. From the success of their endeavor, perhaps they could even launch a movement that would encourage other filmmakers to create stylistic homages to the exploitation genre. And from this idea sprung Grindhouse.

This was a double-feature with the first film directed by Rodriguez and the second by Tarantino, with fake trailers for other grindhouse films running before and between the films. However, instead of inspiring a legion of fans and filmmakers to follow their lead and plunge into the large back catalog of low-budget sex and violence-filled movies that brought about its creation, Grindhouse was to become one of the biggest bombs of 2007. Budgeted at $53 million, with plenty more on top for its heavy promotion, it raked in a minuscule $25 million, effectively killing the future grindhouse dreams of both filmmakers and burying the idea of a grindhouse resurrection.

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Ironically, the problem may have been its running time and modern theaters: clocking in at a whopping 3 hours 18 minutes, this cut the number of times the movie could run in theaters a day by less than half than normal, and to ask an audience to sit in a movie house for over three hours in one sitting is a lot to ask, especially when what they’re watching is little more than a clever homage to old low-budget horror films.

Appropriately enough, when it first came out I bought a bootleg of it at my local flea market and found it brilliant. I would hold viewing parties for friends who also wouldn’t make the trek to a movie theater to watch it but could easily sit on a couch and drink beer and press pause for breaks when need be. And on DVD and streaming services and in the comfort of one’s own home, Grindhouse becomes a much easier film experience, as well.

And it’s a film that should be enjoyed by cinephiles and fans of retro horror films alike: its stylistic pastiche is dead-on, the films–while of a much higher quality and with better writing than your average grindhouse film–are appropriately lurid and violent, and the fake trailers are dead-on hilarious. This Frankenstein of a movie is a cult classic made up of the reanimated bits of older cult classics.

Grindhouse – A Cult Classic

Grindhouse is a true road show picture, comprised of a double feature with a slew of trailers in-between. With pops on the soundtrack, scratches on the frames, and missing reels, both films–Planet Terror and Death Proof–are spot-on pastiches of grindhouse-era films.

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Planet Terror is Robert Rodriguez’s entry and the more popular of the two. Reminiscent of a low-budget 80’s horror film, Planet Terror involves the release of a secret government chemical weapon that mutates people into cannibalistic monsters whose skin bubble and begin to deteriorate. Our protagonists include a go-go dancer named Cherry Darling who’s having one hell of a bad day–especially when her leg becomes infected from an attack by one of these zombie-like creatures and is amputated; El Ray, a tow truck driver and ex-lover of Cherry’s who has run afoul of the local law enforcement and is a dead shot with a gun for unknown reasons; and a nurse that had been planning an escape from her psychotic doctor husband before the outbreak dashed her plans.

Over-the-top violent and spot-on with its homages to low-budget horror films from the era, Planet Terror also belies its professionalism from its expert writing and too-smooth cinematography and editing, but it’s a great amount of fun to watch nonetheless. With blood packet explosions with each gunfire, disgusting practical effects, lots of titillating sexiness, and self-knowing nods to the genre and art of film in general, Planet Terror is a cinephile’s dream. This is one of the reasons why Rodriguez and Tarantino thought they had a sure-fire hit on their hands. This is exactly the kind of film they figured fans of old exploitation films and a younger audience alike would turn up to the theaters in droves to enjoy–and if it was released separately, perhaps it would have been a big hit.

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But since they were committed to the double feature concept, after watching an entire film the duo expected audiences to keep their keisters firmly planted to watch an entire other film to run concurrent. And to make this a little more difficult a proposal, Quentin Tarantino’s entry not only has a completely different tone but arguably doesn’t adhere to the genre pastiche and period piece limitations these films were supposed to represent.

Death Proof is not a bad film by any means–at least, not for what it is. Quentin Tarantino is a gifted filmmaker, after all, and he certainly knows what he wants to convey. But after the spot-on Planet Terror, Death Proof doesn’t quite live up to its predecessor in the double feature. But it makes sense that it followed Planet Terror: in a classic double feature, most people that were sticking around for the late picture would be too busy making out or stoned by this point to really focus on the feature.

And this isn’t to say Death Proof is bad, either: it’s quite a good bit of fun in its own right. Centering around a gaggle of very attractive women–the first group some glamorous gals out for a night on the town and the second a bunch of rough-and-ready action girls, Death Proof features Stuntman Mike as the villain, a murderous stunt driver who has outfitted his car with a roll cage to make it “death proof” and gets his thrills by causing horrific car accidents for which to take out his frustrations on women.

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It starts slow but then picks up quickly, particularly when the second group of women–which feature two stunt women who are looking for thrills by performing a dangerous stunt with a Dodge Challenger. With Zoe Bell–Uma Thurman’s stunt woman–playing herself and performing incredibly dangerous unsimulated stunt work while holding on for dear life on the hood of a car, parts of Death Proof are absolutely thrilling and are when the film feels closest to a true grindhouse film.

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While it may be a lot to ask an audience to sit and watch two whole films concurrently, Grindhouse does deliver on its cumulative effect as a blast of low-budget (though high-budget), grimy (though polished), exploitative (but carefully calculated) cinema. It’s a postmodern turn on the grindhouse aesthetic and it’s a shame that it didn’t spark the revolution in cinema that it aspired to.

Instead, we are left with one of the strongest aspects of Grindhouse: the fake trailers. Each one of them is not only a mini-masterpiece but teases films that the audience would probably genuinely enjoy if they were ever made. With titles like Hobo With A Shotgun and Machete (which were actually made into feature films), Don’t, Thanksgiving, and Werewolf Women of the SS (which didn’t), each one was perhaps even more directly perfect as parodies of the trailers they were based on than the full-length films themselves. They also add to the attraction of the entire Grindhouse double-trailer concept, simulating the experience of being at a run-down theater watching these sleazy films.

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Overall, Grindhouse is a cult classic that was designed to be one but somehow by the fate of its box office failure and being unable to ignite the general public’s interest actually became one in real life. But perhaps it was destined for it to be this way: these two insane films based on obscure cultural reference points like old exploitation films from decades before would never be appreciated by a wide audience, no matter how much Rodriguez and Tarantino wished it to be. And like the appeal for all cult films, perhaps Grindhouse is best safely observed, respected, and curated by the smaller audience that gets it than the masses that would consume it and throw it away. After all, without this audience, the original grindhouse films would have disappeared from history forever.

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Categories: culture, film

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