After watching the double feature, Judge Gordon Sullivan went to Grindhouse of Pancakes for a midnight breakfast.
The sleaze-filled saga of an exploitation double feature.
In an ideal, alternate world the Rodriguez/Tarantino double-feature concept-flick Grindhouse would have left box offices bleeding, kick-starting a cinematic revolution where we got a new Seventies-styled double-feature every Halloween instead of a new Saw flick. Instead, one of the most crowd-pleasing films of the twenty-first century failed to find an audience and didn't come close to making back its budget during theatrical exhibition. This is probably why the powers-what-be decided to release the two halves on home video separately, the better to make their cash back by forcing fans to buy two releases. However, that left those of us who loved the theatrical experience out in the cold. Sure, we enjoyed the extra bits of Planet Terror and Death Proof, but what about the bumpers, those amazing trailers, and that epic three-hour marathon run time? Finally, we can rejoice because the authentic Grindhouse experience has come to hi-def home video. Purists will quibble about the lack of hi-def audio, but for everyone else this two disc Blu-ray set offers the film in all its glory along with a set of the usual high-quality extras from Tarantino and Rodriguez.
Facts of the Case
Apparently some people missed the concept, so forgive me for a bit of history. Back in the day (think the 1970s) before every movie was shown in a twenty-four theater multiplex, the "quality" pictures were shown in traditional movie houses, where families and couples could go to enjoy the popular movies of the day. For those with more eclectic tastes, which might included everything from soft-core sleaze to hard-core violence, the place to go was the drive-in or the grindhouse. The locus of grindhouse lore was the infamous collection of theaters along 42nd Street in New York City, where marathon double and triple features of obscure horror/sleaze/exploitation/kung-fu movies played constantly in a seedy setting. Sure, most of what was screened was horrible, but combination of a few great films, the gritty ambiance, and the feeling of being a true outsider combined to give many viewers fond memories of those heady pre-multiplex days. It was a love of the grindhouse experience that led Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino to put their talents together and create Grindhouse, a film which attempts to recreate a night at the movies circa 1974.
The film opens with a trailer for Machete, a mexploitation film starring Danny Trejo (which got made into a film in 2010, and was probably at least partially responsible for the fact that this Blu-ray got released).
Then, after some bumpers, the first film, Planet Terror starts. This flick is all about an outbreak of gas-induced zombiehood in Texas. It features Rose McGowan (Charmed) as exotic dancer Cherry Darling, and generally follows the reactions of various townsfolk to the outbreak.
After that flick screeches to a brilliant halt, we get trailers for Rob Zombie's Werewolf Women of the SS, Edgar Wright's Don't, and Eli Roth's Thanksgiving. Some more bumpers follow, and then the second feature.
Death Proof is a kind of slasher-meets-road-movie hybrid, where "Stuntman" Mike (Kurt Russell, Big Trouble in Little China) hunts down groups of attractive women and smashes them with his "death proof" car. Of course this time he's picked on the wrong bunch of girls because they know how to drive and fight back.
I saw Grindhouse in an odd environment—alone in a theater on a Monday night, without the grindhouse-style crowds of yore (although the theater did sell beer). Despite the strange surroundings I enjoyed every single second of Grindhouse, from each adrenaline-soaked moment of Planet Terror to every single line of Tarantino's dialogue in Death Proof. I left the theater with high hopes for further Grindhouse installments, pairing Werewolf Women of the SS with Machete, or Don't with Thanksgiving. That was not to be, since Grindhouse failed to find an audience in the theaters. Here's a couple of reasons why:
• Poor Marketing Strategy. The Weinstein Company relied on the pairing of Rodriguez and Tarantino to get people in the seats. That might have been enough, but they didn't sell the concept very well. This is why there were so many reports of people leaving after Planet Terror thinking they'd seen the feature they came to see. Rather than giving the film a wide opening, distribution would have probably benefitted more from playing smaller theaters, conventions, and the few remaining drive-ins to make it more of an experience rather than another day at the movies. Fans can now get that experience at home by grabbing a few adult beverages, some like-minded friends, and this Blu-ray. Hopefully you won't walk out of your own living room after Planet Terror.
• The Rodriguez/Tarantino pairing. Planet Terror and Death Proof tend to be polarizing films. I've talked to a lot of people who love one a lot more than the other and unless you're prepared for the oddly timed talk-fest of Death Proof's first half, the latter bit of Grindhouse can be a chore. Alternatively, those who came looking for Tarantino's unique cinematic sensibilities in combining slasher/road/revenge flicks might find the twitchy Eighties action homage of Planet Terror a bit juvenile. This is, I'm sure, intentional. Grindhouse features typically included odd film choices, abrupt shifts in tone, and mismatched features. Fans who understand that Grindhouse is more a film about recreating an experience rather than giving the world another Tarantino or Rodriguez flick will probably enjoy the film more.
Taken on its own terms, Grindhouse is a success from start to finish. Sure, it's not to everyone's taste, but those who fondly remember the cheesy cinema of the Seventies and miss those sleazy old theaters in Manhattan will find something to love in Grindhouse.
This Blu-ray is the disc fans have been waiting for. Not only do we get the full Grindhouse experience with both films and trailers, but the film looks amazing, sounds fine, and comes with a slew of extras new and old. First, the transfer. Planet Terror was shot on hi-def video and then muddied up for theatrical release. That mud is still present, but in addition to the fake damage we get loads of detail not present in the DVD. The fake grain looks amazing, and facial details are especially impressive. Death Proof was film all the way, with digital damage added later. As the damage slowly decreases throughout the film, the rich colors and fine grain become more evident. Simply put, the films look amazing, even taking into account the intentional degradation. Overall, the audio is good too. It's a Dolby Digital 5.1 track, which will annoy purists, but all things considered it gets the job done. Planet Terror has sound design as busy as its editing and pace, with ample use of the surrounds. Death Proof's sound design is as languid as its plot, but Tarantino's typical use of music is nice and punchy.
The extras include almost all of the material found on the previous home video releases. We get the audience reaction track on Planet Terror, as well as Rodriguez's commentary. His 10-minute film school that spends a lot of time on the film's effects. We get two featurettes, one each for the lads and lasses of the film, as well as one focusing on Robert's son, Rebel, and the film's stunts. There's an odd little piece featuring an interview where Rodriguez talks about his guerrilla filmmaking techniques, including casting his doctor in the film for authenticity. These extras, minus the commentary, are mirrored for Death Proof. We get a boatload of featurettes that focus on the ladies, the gents, "Stuntman" Mike, and a few extra bits of footage. We get poster galleries for both films as well. And that's just the old stuff.
The new stuff includes a 10-minute cooking school on Texas BBQ and a look at the makeup for Planet Terror. Death Proof gets a featurette on production design and the film's cars. Then the trailers get their own extras: extended versions of Werewolf Women and Don't, audio commentaries for all three middle trailers, and making-of featurettes for all three. Don't even gets a second audio commentary, a storyboard gallery, and a comparison between the storyboard and the trailer.
If that weren't enough, there's a 60-plus minute interview between the two directors and Lynn Hirschberg, a 25-minute piece on Comic Con 2006, and a bonus spoof trailer for the Canadian market.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Obviously if the ultraviolent, sleazy aesthetic isn't for you, then give Grindhouse a wide berth. For fans, there are a couple of things to complain about with this edition:
• The sound. In a perfect world this film would have had a DTS-HD track (and I for one would have been willing to give up the audience reaction track to get it, if that were possible). This is a pretty valid complaint; even if the film sounds good as it is, more resolution would be better. However, I don't think this is a make-or-break kind of exclusion. Considering how strong the video and extras are, a slight compromise in the audio is forgivable, unless you're a serious purist.
• The extended cuts. For this to be the definitive release of Grindhouse, there needs to be a super-duper edition that includes at least four discs: the two here and the two separate Planet Terror and Death Proof releases. As it is, fans who own the separate releases can't buy an edition that doesn't repeat a bunch of stuff they already have, and fans (like me) who held out waiting for the definitive edition will have to stomach buying the separate releases for the extended cuts alone since the extras are the same.
This Blu-ray of Grindhouse isn't quite perfect, but I'm extremely pleased to finally have a domestic release of the theatrical experience, trailers and all. Fans of the low-budget exploitation films of yore who haven't checked the film out owe it to themselves, and those who bought the separate releases without seeing this theatrical cut should probably pick it up too. It feels a little sad to have to double-dip on a release like this after three years of waiting, but if it keeps getting films like Grindhouse and Machete green-lit, I'm okay with that.
If it only came with sticky floors and strange men in overcoats, Grindhouse would be perfect. As it is, it's not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Vivendi Visual Entertainment
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