Nowadays I almost exclusively find myself at the movie theater when I'm visiting relatives over the holidays. This has the unfortunate side effect of exposing me to "what Mom & Grandma" want to see. (Curse you Marley and Me!) The only exceptions over the last year have been for midnight movies (American Psycho, whoo!) and Dark Knight.
I doubt I am alone in my slowly atrophying relationship with the multiplex, and this slow death can go a long ways toward explaining the miserable failure that was Grindhouse.
A true oddity for 21st century multiplex fare, Grindhouse is a faux double feature "experience" consisting of two features and a host of fake trailers and advertisements. As a complete package, it's sort of like Disneyland for the genre-film nerd: evoking powerful waves of nostalgia for the stained carpets, flickering lights, and film scractches of old, within the safety of your modern, climate-controlled megascreen. Never mind that I wasn't alive for the "of old" in question.
After some vintage intro graphics, the experience begins with the trailer for Robert Rodriguez's "Machete", a fictional Danny Trejo vehicle about a Mexican hitman/secret agent on a revenge spree. Totally worth the price of admission on its own; we would likely be seeing it straight-to-DVD about now if Grindhouse hadn't tanked. (I don't remember if there were any real trailers beforehand. Anyone?) The way it goes through the entire plot step-by-step, and continually repeats the movie's title (like real Grindhouse trailers) never ceases to crack me up.
Up next is Planet Terror, Rodriguez's feature contribution. A combination zombie flick and fitness regimen for aging genre heavies, the segment plays out as though all my favorite childhood movies (Dawn of the Dead, Aliens, Army of Darkness, anything by John Carpenter) were tossed together in a huge blender permanently stuck on the "totally awesome" setting. It even boasts a spot on faux-Carpenter score. Not that ripping off Escape from New York or the Alien series is a brilliant new tactic in genre films, (the Carnosaurs and Deep Risings of the world ran that into the ground before the millenia was up) but Rodriguez manages to elevate Planet Terror with both his genuine love and expert knowledge of the films he is riffing on. He's imitating out of reverence, rather than a lack of ideas. The end result is a glorious combination of everything we love about B-grade schlock from the '70s and '80s, with all the dull filler surgically removed.
Following Planet Terror is a smattering of fake movie trailers by talented acquaintances of Robert and Quentin. Sadly these aren't available on either of the bastardized DVD releases, but can be seen with Netflix Instant Watch or hunted down online. Rob Zombie provides a horror Nazi-sploitation, "Werewolf Women of the SS", Eli Roth takes a break from sucking to close the circle of holiday themed Slashers with "Thanksgiving", and Edgar Wright creates an amazingly accurate Euro-Horror trailer that is almost Dadaist in its lack of cohesion or explanation. None of these reach the heights of "Machete", but with the exception of Zombie's, which looks essentially like a Rob Zombie film, they could easily be mistaken for the cultural artifacts they are pretending to be -- right down to the film stocks, voice overs, and the ubiquitous milky-white contacts of 70s European horror.
By now, as the innocent theater goer, you've had your fill of zombie heads exploding (assuming you could ever get tired of that) and you've had some yucks at the expense of the cheesy genres which we all so adore, so Quentin Tarantino has his work cut out for him to keep your eyes open for the rest of this 191 minute behemoth. Unfortunately, while Death Proof is a decent stand alone film, it seems hopelessly vanilla compared with what came before. Gone are the exploding heads and testicle jars, replaced by attractive women and endless "Tarantino dialog."
I don't want to get onto a whole "QT sucks" tangent, but everything that worked so spectacularly for Pulp Fiction (non-traditional structure, clever dialog) falls right on its ass in Death Proof, especially considering that the viewer should have already been exposed to nearly two hours of eye searing genre goodness at this point. The result is the exact thing that Rodriguez spent so much time removing from the flicks that Grindhouse is based on: boredom.
Despite all that, Death Proof is far from a total loss. The car chase is pretty rocking, and characters in the first half (before the movie decides to reboot itself) are likable enough. The problem is that by the time we get to the action, all the people we cared about are dead and we have to deal with the annoying characters getting revenge on Kurt Russel. (Brilliant casting, by the way.)
After attempting to watch Grindhouse at home, via the magic of Netflix, which is quickly becoming my favorite corporation ever, (Take that Monsanto!) I finally watched the two films separate from each. The result was bitter disappointment followed a moment of pure inspiration: the best way to watch Grindhouse (other than at the theater like nature intended) is to start with "Machete", then the first half of Deathproof, then the entirety of Planet Terror and the rest of the trailers, then you finish DP. This should hopefully keep your attention from bottoming out, especially if you have a limited tolerance for "Tarantino dialog." It won't bring back the magic of the true theater experience, but it will help. (Drugs, alchohol, and rambunctious folks to foist the movies on will also help.)
When Grindhouse was still in theaters, I ended up being directly responsible for a significant chunk of its ticket sales. I saw it twice and dragged at least three people with me both times. It was depressing that something I had gotten myself so worked up about had failed so miserably, but I can't say I wasn't surprised. From its epic run time, to its limited mainstream appeal, everything about Grindhouse screams "box office failure". Genre nerds can move a lot of DVDs off of shelves, but we can't keep Marley and Me from topping the charts. (Curses again!)
The final irony of its poor performance at the multiplex, is that Grindhouse is probably the last movie that can only be truly appreciated in a theater or (even better) drive-in setting. With all the scratches, pops, color-timing errors, and other textural artifacts of true-blue mechanical/chemical cinema, Grindhouse feels like a massive tombstone for both celluloid and the general moviegoing experience. Additional irony points are added for the fact that Rodriguez shot on HD video, then CG'd in all the grit and technical artifacts.
Note: Nobody better whine if I use the term 'irony' improperly. I don't care when my English Teacher wife complains about it, and I sure as hell don't care if you do. I'll refer to an especially wet fart as irony if I please, and there is nothing you can do to stop me.
So go track down the component pieces of Grindhouse, watch the whole thing on Netflix, or be like me and wait until the whole shebang comes out as a convenient excuse for you to by a Blu-ray player... er, box set. It won't be the same, but you can help recreate part of the mood by redecorating your house in cheesy, overdone Art Deco, (flickering, seashell-shaped up-lights are a must) then going nuts with a baseball bat, a big gulp, and a carton of cigarettes.
And don't forget to check out more Grindhouse write ups at the Final Girl Film Club.