By Beau Smith

Some of you may have noticed that this week’s BUSTED KNUCKLES column is different. Well, it is.

This week I’m at Area 51 where I’ve been called upon to bare-knuckles-fight-to-the-death with the chosen champion of the alien race that crashed in Roswell, New Mexico back in 1947. It seems this is part of an annual deal that our government made to keep these alien morons from taking over this planet. So every year I have to go out there and fight one of these saucer jockeys until only one of us is left standing. I’ve been doing it since 1973, my dad did it before me and my grandfather did it before him. I’m sure when the time comes, my son, Nick will take up the traditional Smith task of saving the country.

Needless to say we Smith’s always win because you don’t see E.T.’s face on the dollar bill and your kid’s aren’t what they call hybrids? yet.

While I’m off making Will Smith‘s Independence Day look like a sorority girl slap fight, my amigo and sometimes co-writer, Chuck Dixon (Connor Hawke, Nightmare On Elm Street, Iron Ghost, Batman) is gonna step in and give you his manly review on the new movie Grindhouse by Tarantino and Rodriguez. Chuck always does the best movie and book reviews of anybody I know. I hope you enjoy his thoughts on Grindhouse. Make sure that you not only check it out here, but go to his official website and join in on his message board where everybody is talking about it.

Now enjoy yourself while I got jerk a knot in some alien ass.

Your amigo,

Beau Smith

Grinding Down The House

By Chuck Dixon

I used to frequent an actual grindhouse.
It was called The Terminal. What better name, right?
The reason for the name was that the theater was located underneath the subway and trolley terminal where the suburbs met the West Philly city line at 69th Street. In fact, the theater was located directly under the turnaround for the Red Arrow trolley. Long before the introduction of Sensaround, customers at the Terminal were subjected to the theater shaking periodically as ten-ton trolleys thundered overhead.

It was a thousand seat theater. Single tier. The place showed triple features continuously. Kung fu. Italian westerns. Black exploitation. Clint. Bronson. Horror.

By continuously I mean that the movies showed back to back with trailers and short subjects running in-between. There was always an image on the screen and the lights never came up. Never. It was the darkest theater I have ever been in. I could not describe the interior of the theater to you because I never once saw it. This was often for the best because I suspect that, most times, I was the only white boy in the place. There were occasional fights that I would hear but could not see. They would go until the cops arrived. Upper Darby cops. They make Philly cops seem like park guards.
The place smelled of disinfectant with the lingering under-odor of urine. Hey, you DIDN’T want to use the men’s room.

I never once saw anyone buy drinks or candy at the tiny concessions counter. The popcorn in the dusty glass case might have been there since the last time the theater ran a Steve Reeves movie. There was a lax policy toward outside food and you could hear and smell food being unwrapped as the movies began. Hoagies and cheesesteaks. Frequently the crack of a can opening followed by the sharp smell of beer.

The audience was vocal. They expressed their opinions about the film freely. I saw Burn, an art house flick starring Marlon Brando, that was met with catcalls during most of its running time. The audience only grew quiet during a brief nude scene. Members of the audience would respond to characters on the screen either for the purpose of humor or because they were so wrapped up in the story that they could not help but call out warnings or advice.

“He’s right behind you, fool!”
“You better get your white ass outta there!”

It was a total movie-going experience. The audience was a community that shared one desire; we were all ready to watch movies until our asses were numb. We all came to be shocked, scared, outraged or made to laugh. We were seeking edification or enlightenment. We just wanted to fall into a world where the good guys kicked everyone’s ass and the bad guys were really, REALLY bad guys. And we wanted six hours plus of it and wouldn’t be happy with one minute less.

The grindhouses rose up as the drive-ins began to disappear. Drive-in flicks were about youth. Teenagers who wanted to get away from their parents frequented them. But TV bit into that audience after a while and the baby boomers were growing out of going to the local drive-in. The continuous-showing theaters rose from falling movie attendance as theaters began to close or struggle for an audience in neighborhoods and downtowns that were crumbling in the 70s. Showing low-budget programmers in endless rotation was a way to keep the doors open. But the audience was different than for the drive-ins. They tended to be more urban, more ethnic, not so young and demanding more challenging (often degenerate) entertainment.
What happened to grindhouses? Like every other wild and uncontrolled aspect of popular culture before it, it was legitimized.

When a piss-poor exploitation programmer won a Best Picture Oscar the grindhouses succumbed to an unstoppable force. The crap they were churning out became Art.

Easy Rider is nothing but a stepchild of the biker flick. Same cast and locations. But it appealed to white kids in the suburbs and especially appealed to the big studios who were desperately looking for a way to get young people back into the theaters. Within a matter of years the difference between the grindhouse and your local strip mall theater was indistinguishable. Guys like Scorcese, Coppola and DePalma were making “A” pictures with big budgets. They were still making the same movies they were making before but were now feted and lauded for what were once considered throwaway second and third features. Movies like The Exorcist would follow. A decade later grindhouse babies like Abel Ferrara, John Carpenter and Sean Cunningham would show up to bring the horror and revenge genres out of the closet and into the mainstream.

Today most movies released that are above a PG rating would be very much at home at the Terminal. Look at the current crop of hip-hop gangster, torture-horror, martial arts, hot car/ hot babes and straight shoot-em-up movies.
The only difference between what is essentially an exploitation movie made today and their inspirations from the past is conservation of risk. Even a low-budget movie costs in excess of ten million to make and even more to market. Lots of money folks want to see that feature get a big opening and go on to sell lots of DVDs. So they begin to tinker with the movies and force them into a template that they see as a guarantee of success but in reality removes any potential for surprise and any possibility of exceeding their audience’s expectations.

In a world where no one is picking up the mantle of John Ford, Preston Sturges or Howard Hawks, we are slopping over with latter-day Edgar J Ulmers, William Castles and Herschel Gordon Lewises. Dumbed-down, neutered versions of them, in any case.

Some of these guys elevate the staples of B programmers to heights of greatness. The Coen Brothers come to mind. FARGO would have been fit into a triple bill at the Terminal. A guy gets fed into a woodchipper!
But then we get Joel Schumacher who makes one gussied-up grind house flick after another without contributing anything new or surprising to the mix. What are the Batman flicks but really awful Mexican wrestling movies with monster budgets? Falling Down? 8MM? All trash and no flash.

Serendipity that the director’s cut of Payback was released now. The difference between the two versions is a clear illustration of what’s happened to this sort of movie over the last thirty or so years.

Back In The Day, the producers of grindhouse programmers kept the budgets low, the shooting schedule tight and the running time short. Their only concern was that the movie have at least one “holy crap!” moment that they could use as a tent pole for the ad campaign and to fuel word-of-mouth.
Many of these flicks made you wait an interminable time for that moment and hoped to keep you amused with random acts of cruelty, foul language and frequent nudity.

Now we come to Grindhouse. Two guys who have made almost nothing BUT grindhouse nonsense (and I mean that in its most loving and endearing sense) their entire careers now do an unabashed love letter to those dismal, smelly, dank theaters and faded, chopped-up, tired prints.

With mixed success.

We open with a trailer for Machete that is an obvious Robert Rodriguez deal. I saw tons of these “guy pushed too far” flicks and the trailer is a pretty good representation even though it gets too jokey and the sluglines are tired. Real grindhouse flicks had AWESOME copy.

“Action explodes all over the place when the Big Three join forces to save their race.”

“They whipped him, they shot him, they left him for dead?but the Stranger wouldn’t leave until he’d taken every ounce of gold, every woman and every life in town!”

“Love means never having to say you’re ugly.”

“What Chato’s Land doesn’t kill, Chato will.”

“When you steal $300,000 from the mob it’s not robbery. It’s suicide.”

In fact. All of the trailers are very lame with the exception of Werewolf Women of the SS Even that’s spoiled by the silly cameo at the end. But, damn, I wanna SEE that movie! And that should have been the point of the faux-trailers. Each one should have made us want to see the movie it featured. The remaining trailers (two one-joke horror spoofs) were played for laughs. I’m curious as to why Tarantino didn’t contribute one of these. How could he resist? Maybe the DVD release will have more.

Anyhow, Planet Terror is a disjointed, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink, horror-action flick that jinks and swerves all over the place for no reason. It plays out as a by-the-numbers mess with little wit and nothing on its mind but to show us that Rodriguez has seen a crapperload of really bad movies. He messes with the print a bit too much for my taste but does nail the too-garish color schemes. He got the hazy frame enlargements and burns and scratches and errant hairs but I have to wonder how he missed the color drops at the reel changes. Tarentino doesn’t.

The movie is PURE pastiche and keeps us mezmorized and finally numbed by violence and mutilation and cruelty. Plotlines that would have been left to wither or vanish in a true grindhouse film are played out through to the final act just as they would be in any mediocre, computer-plotted, cookie-cutter fluff coming out today. You never resolve everything in a grindhouse flick.
Rodriguez curiously cuts away from The Obligatory Sex Scene that was a staple in these flicks. This made me wonder more than anything else in both movies. Are these guys some kind of twisted postmodern feminists in that they are willing to show a woman mutilated, amputated, beaten and abused but not able to show her in a consensual act of love so we can all watch?

I’m just curious here. Not complaining. The OSS was always the most unanticipated scene in any grind house flick for me. I want my blood and thunder and dismemberment without feeling like I was watching porno, thank you very much. And I can see why they eschewed the rape scene common to those movies. But why turn away from the slow grind coupling backed by wah-wah pedals and guitar funk? Odd.

And the dialogue is far too self-aware for a movie like this and often veers into broad satire. A few times the characters make observations or voice remarks of the kind that would have been shouted from the audience in a true grind house environment.

The cast is fun but I found Bruce Willis‘ appearance took me out of the movie each time he showed up. He wasn’t in it enough for me to get comfortable with him. I like Willis a lot but there wasn’t much for him to do here. He’s only menacing when he plays the good guy. I always have a hard time buying him as an evil or amoral character. Not hard to imagine what Michael Madsen or Tom Sizemore would have accomplished with a role like this.

The movie just goes until it stops going, followed by a pointless epilogue that does what any really good SF epilogue should never do: answers too many questions.

I’ve already spoken of the trailers. A letdown from what I had expected.
Then along comes Death Proof.

Now QT GETS exploitation. He lives and breathes it and understands its every nuance and shading.

He shoots on what looks like a shoestring budget on just a minimum of locations and only one actual constructed set. This looks like a movie shot in eighteen days with Roger Corman bitching at the director six times a day for every dime spent over the estimates. Tarantino has scenes that are cobbled together in way that looks like coverage shots weren’t filmed because of time constraints.

He also carefully constructs a movie that seems rambling and excessively talky with nowhere to go. We’re still asking “when does the story start?” long after it’s already started. It takes us that long to catch up and then, it turns out, we had THAT wrong.

QT knows why movies were made the way they were back in the B days. Talk sequences cost less money than action. You had to balance the shooting schedule heavier toward gab than grue. Pure economics. That’s why grind house flicks had time killing scenes that often served no purpose that were filled with what seemed like pithy or witty or weirdly cool exchanges (but only if you were too young or too high to know they were pure crap). Rodriguez’ action-heavy flick would never have gotten budgeted.
Here Tarantino gives us girl-talk in heaping doses. It’s often funny or at least bitchy and much of the entertainment comes from the fact that no women on this planet talk this way. These are women who only exist in Tarantino’s movies and in his mind. Tough and vulgar and WAY too conversant and opinionated in alternative pop culture. They are comfortable with themselves and are “buddies” with their girlfriends. They’re men. Their your best, most geekoid school pal, transformed into his hotter, older sister. Yeah. Weird.

Back to the story.

Kurt Russell shows up and quickly OWNS the movie. He has just enough charm and good ol’ boy bravado to make this work. He plants himself in the middle of the movie and won’t let go. He plays a guy you can’t make up your mind about. There’s “something” about him.

Again, the big sex scene is cut from the film as Butterfly’s lap dance has been removed so some apocryphal projectionist can sell prints made from the frames. (that’s why those scenes would often be missing, don’t you know.)
When the central gag of the flick is revealed it comes as a total shock. THIS is what we were set up for? I didn’t know I was being set up. What the hell happens next? In a real B flick from the 60s or early 70s there were a thousand bad story paths this one would have gone down. QT takes NONE of them. He turns this from psycho-stalker into my absolute favorite grind house subgenre: the “you don’t know who you’re messing with” flick.
Poor Kurt tangles with three bitches from hell who think his idea of fun is how the party BEGINS.

This cross-genre meatloaf begins with one of the most harrowing stunt sequences I’ve ever seen and builds to a cross-country car chase thankfully free of CGI or stock clichés. Not one fruit stand is driven through. No school buses filled with children are threatened. It’s pure muscle vs. muscle and some very clever chase gags that seem random but are actually expertly blocked out.

Russell’s performance when he gets his comeuppance is a joy. He turns from scary, scary dude into a big pussy. The scenes of him whining and bawling at his poor widdle flesh wound are simply howl-inducing. His craven attempts to beg the girls to back off made ME want to kick his ass.

I have to think that this character turn is why Mickey Rourke turned down the role. That’s okay. Kurt is perfection here.

Oh, and his ass does get kicked.

AND the movie ends with an unresolved plotline as sweet little Mary Elizabeth Winstead is left to the mercies of some horny redneck.

Not that this was a competition, but Death Proof wins hands down.
From what I see of this flick’s box office, it’s performing poorly. That three hour running time doesn’t help matters. Also the fact that most of the audience that this movie’s aimed at can’t be expected to get it. It’s over their heads even as it tries to appeal to their gut. I have to wonder how many walk out during the first segment. After all, it is just a very bad zombie movie if you’re not in on the joke.
That’s a shame because I wanted this movie to be a success so we could see others take a whack at future double bill “sequels”. Who wouldn’t want to see guys like Chuck Russell, John Dahl or Antoine Fuqua dip into this kind of flick?

Taller than Beau,

Chuck Dixon

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About The Author

Beau Smith

Beau Smith is a writer for Comics Bulletin