Monday, October 6, 2008

Planet Terror

Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino are hardcore film buffs that grew up to become very successful filmmakers and friends who have collaborated on several projects over the years. Recently, they decided to indulge their love of Grindhouse movies from the 1970s (low budget exploitation films that pushed the boundaries of good taste) by each making their own motion picture and then releasing them together on a double bill just like the original films back in the day. The Weinstein brothers, god bless ‘em, went for the idea but made the critical mistake of releasing them on Easter weekend (cheeky counter-programming that backfired) and failed to emphasize that people were going to see two films for the price of one. As a result, attendance was poor and those who did go, some left after the first film. The Weinsteins freaked and when it came to distributing the double bill outside of North America, they split them up. Thus ended an interesting experiment and the first financial flops for both Rodriguez and Tarantino (although, both of these films should easily make their money back on DVD).

Rodriguez’s film, Planet Terror (2007), introduces Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan), a beautiful go-go dancer who dreams of becoming a stand-up comedian even though nobody finds her particularly funny. Meanwhile, at a nearby military base, a deal between Lt. Muldoon (Bruce Willis), a no-nonsense officer, and Abby (Naveen Andrews), a shady scientist, goes bad and some nasty, toxic fumes are released into the atmosphere. Back in the town, Dr. William Block (Josh Brolin) and his wife Dr. Dakota (Marley Shelton) deal with a patient (Nicky Katt) suffering from a nasty looking bite wound. Pretty soon, more and more people show up with similar kinds of wounds. Cherry crosses paths with her ex-boyfriend, a tow truck driver by the name of El Wray (Freddy Rodriguez). They get involved in a car accident and she loses her leg to some diseased and infected zombies with gross, puss-filled wounds. Before you know it, infected townsfolk turned zombies start over-running the town, forcing Cherry, El Wray, Dakota and others to team-up and start kicking ass.

Two of the most significant cinematic influences on Rodriguez’s films are genre filmmakers George Romero and John Carpenter. After all, The Faculty (1998) was Rodriguez’s nod to Carpenter’s remake of The Thing (1982) while From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) had the same kind of siege mentality as Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1979) and Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and featured long-time Romero collaborator Tom Savini. Much of Planet Terror’s soundtrack features an atmospheric Carpenter-esque electronic score with a dash the Goblins’ menacing soundtrack work from Dawn of the Dead.

With Planet Terror, Rodriguez gets to make his own zombie movie with a Carpenter-esque badass protagonist. Rose McGowan and Freddy Rodriguez make for an ideal, no-nonsense couple right out of a Carpenter film. El Wray harkens back to tough guy protagonists like Snake Plissken from Escape from New York (1981) or Nada from They Live (1988) complete with his own recurring credo, “I never miss” that is reminiscent of Jack Burton’s “It’s all in the reflexes,” from Big Trouble in Little China (1986). Like them, Wray has a mysterious past, is a man of few words, and lives for the next 60 seconds, while Cherry starts off as a homage to the beautiful and jaded go-go dancers in Russ Meyer’s Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill! (1965) during Planet Terror’s opening credits as McGowan bumps and grinds her way through an appropriately sleazy tune. Over the course of the film, Cherry is transformed into a machine gun-toting babe . . . it just so happens that the gun is strapped to her stump. McGowan is definitely not the most skilled thespian but her limitations are perfect for this tribute to schlock. And like Carpenter, Rodriguez knows exactly how to make his heroes look cool, like in the scene where Wray stabs and slashes his way through a hospital of infected zombies.

Rodriguez pays homage to 1980 and 1990s genre character actors with the casting of Michael Biehn as the town sheriff (The Terminator, Aliens), Jeff Fahey as a grizzled chef (Body Parts), and make-up effects legend Tom Savini as an incompetent deputy who meets his demise in a sequence reminiscent of one of his most spectacular gore gags from Day of the Dead (1985). These guys have suffered through quite a few lean years filled with forgettable direct-to-video fare and it’s great to see them getting juicy, prominent roles to remind everyone how great they were and can still be given the right material. Fahey, especially, is excellent as J.T., owner of the local diner and who keeps his delicious BBQ sauce a secret from everyone. He starts off as a source of comedy, the grizzled chef stereotype (“Now that’s rump roast,” he says as hew watches the curvaceous Fergie drive away) but towards the end of the film he gets a rather poignant scene as he’s reunited with his brother. Fahey really sells the scene with his sad eyes and he has great chemistry with Biehn – someone should really pair these guys together in a buddy action flick. Biehn, who had such a great run in the ‘80s as James Cameron’s go-to guy, gets to do what he does best by playing a gruff, intense man of action. His antagonistic relationship with Rodriguez’s El Wray is established early on and plays well over the course of the film until they finally develop a grudging respect for each other.

In comparison to the energetic Planet Terror, Tarantino’s Death Proof feels bloated and stagnant. The three girls we meet at the beginning of the film are all wrong. Girls that age don’t talk like that. They don’t name-check Vanishing Point (1971) and they don’t listen to the kind of music that they do in the film – songs by the likes of Joe Tex and The Coasters?! Maybe one of the girls but not all of them. The dialogue they spout sounds like girls trying to impress a director like Tarantino. I expected to be disappointed by this film but it was even worse than I had feared. If the mandate set forth by Rodriguez and QT was to pay homage to the Grindhouse films of the 1960s and 1970s, than the former succeeded where the later failed. QT created a talkie instead of a Grindhouse film. What is the prevailing motif in Death Proof, boring dialogue? The only Grindhouse-esque touch is QT’s foot fetish with lots of lingering close-up shots of young women’s feet. That’s not really my thing, but hey, whatever floats your boat, I suppose. Is Death Proof actually Steel Magnolias (1989) for the Fergie set? It is hard to make Kurt Russell look bad in a film but he hasn’t looked this bad since Captain Ron (1992).

To further the homage to the Grindhouse aesthetic, Rodriguez digitally altered the transfer so that it resembles a crappy, worn-out print that you would see back in the day, complete with bad splices, lines through the image, fading colors, and even a missing reel. It’s ironic that he is using cutting edge technology to make an old school, low-tech film. Rodriguez is clearly having a blast with the genre as he gleefully throws in all sorts of over-the-top gore, sex, random large explosions, and wildly inventive action sequences as you would come to expect from one of his films. He is also not afraid to kill of animals, women, and the ultimate Hollywood taboo – children. Would Planet Terror ever have appealed to a mainstream audience? Probably not. It was destined to develop a cult following which home video will no doubt help develop. All I know is, if I was a teenager, Planet Terror probably would have been my favorite film of all time. Rodriguez is more successful at emulating/paying homage to the Grindhouse genre than QT and Death Proof, especially with his faux trailer for Machete (which I hope he makes good on his promise to make into a feature-length film), even if he’s really celebrating ‘80s genre films.

9 comments:

  1. The biggest mistake they made was in thinking that the crowd would get this concept.

    They should have toured with it for about 6 months and then released it in more art house type theaters.

    I actually enjoyed Death Proof more than Planet Terror. I guess because I felt Death Proof tried to emulate a Grindhouse movie, instead of spoofing it. And really, it didn't even do that very well since Tarantino couldn't get out of his own way. It's way too talky but Kurt Russell is excellent in this and being a an Austin fan, I loved all the locations.

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  2. Yeah, you're right about people getting the concept of the Grindhouse double bill. And I think the 6 month touring thing is an interesting idea. Maybe build some word of mouth but instead they went for the big, boffo opening weekend in a zillion theaters and look how well that paid off?

    I love Kurt Russell (see my BIG TROUBLE post) but I felt he was pretty much wasted in this film. It's a shame because that was a really good chance for his career to get a rejuvenating shot. Altho, he never seems to have trouble finding work.

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  3. I liked Death Proof, but it was very different in tone from Planet Terror. It was more like a Russ Meyer film tailored to QT's fetishes. I haven't watched either movie again since the theater, but I'd probably watch Planet Terror first. It is great fun... Death Proof is just sort of an enjoyable exercise for fans of bad girl movies and Vanishing Point.

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  4. jd,

    Your feelings on DEATH PROOF mirror mine. The dialogue between both sets of women was more contrived than anything I've seen from Tarantino previously. After all the VANISHING POINT, DIRTY MARY, CRAZY LARRY, and TWO LANE BLACKTOP references, I thought 'where on Earth do these women actually exist?!' Followed by, 'Only in the Tarantino universe, of course.' The film was way too talky--I'm afraid the man is now too enamored of his own words so much so that they bring the proceedings to a grinding halt rather than propelling the story as was the case in his early work. This movie failed because it didn't convince as the genuine article, which is what I thought was the point.

    PLANET TERROR, on the other hand, was a blast. For the most part, I felt that it could have easily played on a vintage early 80s double bill with a New World logo on the front. Since I wasn't old enough to enjoy the grindhouse era in the theatrical setting, I thought of it also as an homage to early home video. I mean the Canadian tax shelter films of the late 70s and early 80s and other 'video nasties' of that era. In other words, most of the collective catalogues of Vestron, Media, New World, and Wizard.

    Special mention must be given to the score, which is a love letter to the music stylings of one John Carpenter right down to several borrowed cues from ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK.

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  5. tommy salami:

    "...It was more like a Russ Meyer film tailored to QT's fetishes."

    That's a very good description of DEATH PROOF. It's just a shame that QT didn't adhere to Meyer's knack for brevity. The problem I have with QT most of the time is that he in infatuated with his own dialogue. Altho, the car chase at the end was pretty cool.


    Ned Merrill:

    "After all the VANISHING POINT, DIRTY MARY, CRAZY LARRY, and TWO LANE BLACKTOP references, I thought 'where on Earth do these women actually exist?!' Followed by, 'Only in the Tarantino universe, of course.' The film was way too talky--I'm afraid the man is now too enamored of his own words so much so that they bring the proceedings to a grinding halt rather than propelling the story as was the case in his early work. This movie failed because it didn't convince as the genuine article, which is what I thought was the point."

    My point exactly! If the mandate was to pay homage/emulate grindhouse films then QT failed miserably. I'd have to go searching for it but I think that QT admitted as much in an interview -- that he basically made his own kind of film as opposed to a grindhouse film.

    "PLANET TERROR, on the other hand, was a blast. For the most part, I felt that it could have easily played on a vintage early 80s double bill with a New World logo on the front."

    Heh! Nice reference! Yeah, it definitely had that feel... or maybe a Cannon logo... remember them? I think that's what I love about a lot of Rodriguez's films -- the sheer love for cinema that he has. He's never lost that fan-ish enthusiasm and basically seems to want to make films that he'd like to see as genre fan.

    "Special mention must be given to the score, which is a love letter to the music stylings of one John Carpenter right down to several borrowed cues from ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK."

    Definitely. In fact, he played cues from EFNY while filming certain scenes and had hoped to get Carpenter to score PLANET TERROR but I believe he was busy making a segment for MASTERS OF HORROR at the time.

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  6. When I saw this premiere, I was trying to get a chance to talk to Russell because you know, who doesn't pass up the chance to shake Snake Plissken's hand. While I was waiting, I see this person approach me on my right and I look over and it's QT. He thanks me for coming out to see the films and I say it was great fun.

    It was a pretty bizarre experience. I'm usually the guy that waits to say something and then says something really stupid or off-putting. What I should have said is "Hey Tarantino, can you get me a chance to meet Snake Plissken."

    It's not so much the double bill that I think consumers didn't get, it's just that the audience can't really understand how to have fun during a movie. You can laugh inappropriately or cheer when someone blows up. We've lost that midnight movie sensibility and it's sad.

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  7. Evil Clown:

    "...t's not so much the double bill that I think consumers didn't get, it's just that the audience can't really understand how to have fun during a movie. You can laugh inappropriately or cheer when someone blows up. We've lost that midnight movie sensibility and it's sad."

    It sure is. And I think that home video helped kill of that sensibility. Why go to some movie theater late at night when you can watch ROCKY HORROR in the safety and comfort of your own home? And now, some of Rodriguez's DVD have an audio commentary track of an audience watching one of his films so now you really don't have to go out anymore. Just crank up the surround sound and it's like you're there! Sheesh...

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  8. I loved both Planet Terror and Death Proof. Both had their ups and downs. It's a shame that the public didn't get the concept. The masses rarely do understand something unless it's slapped across their face. I did like Russell in Death Proof, even though I thought his character's turn as being a whiner seemed out of character. As for the girls, they were throwing off movie titles that I love. I wish I could meet girls like that around here.

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  9. Heh! Yeah, and that's what urked me about DEATH PROOF. The girls in the film were basically mouthpieces for QT, which, I guess, is nothing new for him.

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