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April 4-10, 2007

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Guns N' Rose: Rose McGowan, from the 'Grindhouse' poster.

Fight 'n' Fright

'Grindhouse': Everything but the scabies

By Richard von Busack

View the 'Grindhouse' trailers:
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THE ITCH-HOUSES were on their way out by the time I started going. They reeked with a memorable stench of old socks and disinfectant. You had to very carefully on those memorably sticky floors and take care not to let any unprotected part of your body touch anything. (In addition to looking cool, leather jackets really outwitted scabies.)

The scariest grindhouses—like the St. Francis on Market Street in San Francisco—left the houselights on full blast all the time during their fight 'n' fright double bills. The soundscape included the gibbering of damned souls, the hum of blown speakers and the slow, lonely rattle of a Thunderbird bottle down the slope of the theater's concrete floor, followed by a hearty round of applause if it smashed.

Yahoos would yip every time there was a topless scene. And peals of operatic laughter would issue forth from the murk whenever some onscreen bimbo or dimbulb took one right in the pudding. "The most democratic movie audience," as J. Hoberman noted once. "They don't care who gets it as long as somebody does."

Grindhouse, the two-part "double-bill" by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, does its best to recall the raw sensation of '70s. The film is long but engaging, though at times the rebelliousness seems a little studied.

That's particularly the case during a set of extended conversations in Tarantino's segment, Death Proof, which shows his evolution from movie director to loquacious film professor. QT even drops for a while the basic conceit of Grindhouse—that you are watching a scratched, jumpy print, with missing reels and snippets cut out during the sex scenes by some souvenir-hunting masturbator of a projectionist.

The second half of Tarantino's Death Proof concerns what is going to be the last-ever Dodge Challenger car chase, a clearly photographed director's tribute to Vanishing Point (1971). As car crunchers go, it's diverting, but even more likable is the way Tarantino has found a match for the long-vanished L.A. County back roads in pea-soup capital Buellton.

A road-raging, scarred stuntman (Kurt Russell) drives a killmobile that takes out a quintet of Texas hussies. Later, the dead girls are unwittingly avenged by a fox-force of four stunt girls. The ruminative scenes, though, seem to delight Tarantino as much as the roaring engines and squealing tires; we get a hell of a lot of Tracie Thoms trash-talking like Wanda Sykes on an off-moment.

In Death Proof's sequences before the road action, QT replicates Wong Kar Wai's own swoon for wet reflections of neon, forgotten old songs (the blues band Pacific Gas and Electric's "Stagger Lee") and look-but-don't-touch girls, although Kar Wai never went for an actress as salacious as Rosario Dawson, here making a pair of hot pants too, too happy.

Tomato Factory

Planet Terror, Robert Rodriguez's tribute to George Romero's 1973 The Crazies, is less dense. Tutti-frutti armies of zombs ooze raspberry jelly and apricot jam before going the way of all flesh in what looks like an explosion in a tomato-canning factory. The film is held together by the tentative bonding of maimed ex-stripper Rose McGowan and retired federal agent Freddy Rodriguez; Bruce Willis sits at the heart of the mystery as the Army soldier who knows the secret of the outbreak.

Rodriguez's view of the 1970s as a parallel universe includes gleaming lip gloss, a freeze-frame ending and Farrah Fawcett hairdos. The shell-shocked, heavily mascared Dakota (Marley Shelton) is the standout as a bisexual doctor with a rabid husband (Josh Brolin).

Trailer Trash

At the risk of suggesting that Grindhouse should have been another Kentucky Fried Movie, I think that the imaginary trailers that come with the package are the real prizes. As killer-for-hire Machete, Danny Trejo shows us how much better Shooter would have been if he were the star. (After all, Shooter is the multimillion -dollar mainstreaming of trad grindhouse fare).

"Machete" is offered "$150,000—cash!" to kill a senator, with a free double-cross tossed into the bargain. Rodriguez's placement of the ever-so-slightly rough-looking Trejo next to a pair of pink topless babes reminds us that cinema is at its most dynamic when it studies contrasting surfaces.

Rob Zombie's tribute to the Ilsa trilogy was a laff—aren't we due for Ilsa: She-Serpent of the Washington D.C. Pundits, with Ann Coulter in the lead?

But Edgar Wright's devastating Don't Scream! reminds us of a long-forgotten roll of honor: Don't Answer the Phone and Don't Go in the House (both 1980), Don't Open The Window (1979) and Don't Look In the Basement (1973). Wright's upcoming Hot Fuzz has me tongued-tied and flabbergasted, and yet this two- minute pastiche is so surprising it is almost fatal: using fast cutting and bizarre images, Wright harmonizes the vastly different visual styles of producer Sean Cunningham's monstrosities and the crappy blue-fogged film of Amicus Studio horror. I also glimpsed someone wearing the bowl haircut and gold specs of Roddy McDowall in The Legend of Hell House.

Even more asphyxiatingly funny is Eli (Hostel) Roth's Thanksgiving?. Slapstick decapitations ("Yes. That's blood, all right") are outlined by someone doing an ace impression of that particularly choked narrator, known only to the god of Grindhouse. Whoever he was, he used to flog only the most low-budget slasher trailers in a tone that suggested he deplored every revolting minute of his job.

Roth's bleary photography is a perfectly accurate tribute to the surfaces of the lowest-grade cine sicko shot in Staten Island. Despite Tarantino and Rodriguez' honorable attempts to recreate the filth and the fury, it's Roth who gives us the true frisson of shock and schlock familiar to those rat-trap theaters of yore.

Movie Times Grindhouse (R; 191 min.), directed, written and photographed by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, and starring Kurt Russell and Rose McGowan, plays valleywide.

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