GRINDHOUSE

★★★★

THE DEFINITIVE RELEASE OF RODRIGUEZ AND TARANTINO’S CRAZY EXPERIMENT

BLU-RAY REVIEW
By Daniel Lammin
13th November 2023

Over the last decade, the commodity that is nostalgia has transformed from a dependable industry into a powerful commercial and cultural force. Properties of the past have been resurrected and thrown back on screens, whether they be recognisable IP such as 'Ghostbusters' or 'The Little Mermaid' or more inexplicable definitions of a "property" such as the year 1982. What unifies most of these nostalgia-led projects though is a lack of rigour or daring. There's a sense that, if a property is purely resurrected and regurgitated, that will be enough to satisfy audiences, and (unfortunately) for the most part, this seems to have been true.

That isn't to say that nostalgia for culture of the past is a new trend. As film merchandising has become more of a commercial force within Hollywood since the 80s, studios and artists have often turned their gaze backwards to make a quick buck. Sometimes though, that glance backwards also came with that rigour or daring we nowadays lack. The results have been some of the most fascinating experiments in recent Hollywood history, bizarre, nerdy project led by major filmmakers. One of the most high-profile of these came in 2007, when United States independent cinema darlings Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino resurrected a staple of U.S. cinema in the 70s and 80s that most had forgotten and most didn't even realise had a name.

This wasn't the first time Rodriguez and Tarantino had collaborated on an unusual project - they had each directed segments in the mostly forgotten portmanteau film 'Four Rooms' (1995) and Tarantino had guest-directed one scene in Rodriguez's cultural event 'Sin City' (2005). In many ways though, 'Grindhouse' was a more adventurous prospect - resurrect the kinds of B-grade double features that played in small town cinemas across America in the 70s and 80s, films full of blood and gore, violence and cars, antiheroes and hot chicks. To really sell the experience, the two films would be degraded and cut to ribbons, as if they came from old film prints on the verge of collapse, and stitch them together with a bunch of trailers for likewise B-grade films. It's important to remember two things about the climate in which 'Grindhouse' emerged in 2007. We were in the aftermath of 'The Lord of the Rings' and the final gasps of Sam Raimi's 'Spider-Man' trilogy, the meteoric hit of 'Transformers' and the gentle upward slope of the 'Harry Potter' films. Blockbusters were firmly events, and the idea of embracing B-grade cinema wasn't necessarily in the air. The other thing to remember was that the film also came in the wake of Tarantino's generation-defining two-part masterpiece 'Kill Bill' and the impact of Rodriguez's 'Sin City'. Audiences might not be inclined towards this kind of full-on genre experiment, but they might be if Tarantino and Rodriguez were involved.

'GRINDHOUSE' TRAILER

In their chat with New York Times journalist Lynn Hirschberg in 2006 (included in this Blu-ray set), the two directors talk about how, when conceiving the project, they landed on the idea of the two films being connected as works of horror, and while they are both vastly different films in many ways, this vague connective tissue does help hold 'Grindhouse' together. The first half, Rodriguez's preposterous 'Planet Terror', sees a foul virus born from a botched lab experiment spread through the U.S., turning its victims into zombies. Every B-movie horror cliché Rodriguez can pull out, he does. It's disgusting, bombastic, ridiculous, exploitative, knowingly problematic and rough-as-guts, and when it's at its best is when its tongue is firmly sticking out of the hole in its cheek. It's fair to say that Rodriguez is having a lot more fun playing with the Grindhouse aesthetic than Tarantino is, but while the performances are all pretty great (especially Josh Brolin as a doctor-turned-zombie and Rose McGowan as a go-go who replaces her amputated leg with a machine gun), it does suffer from Rodriguez's tendency towards the excessive. Another principle that unites the halves of 'Grindhouse' is to make these films better versions of the films they are riffing on, but in the case of 'Planet Terror', the increased budget and access to better effects tend to overwhelm the film. That said, there are some great gags in here (especially a very well-executed 'Missing Reel' gag) and in its shorter 'Grindhouse' cut, doesn't entirely overstay its welcome.

Where Rodriguez went with schlocky horror, Tarantino chose to go with a more intense, thrill-driven version of horror with his half of 'Grindhouse', the adrenaline-fuelled car chase extravaganza 'Death Proof'. If 'Planet Terror' imagines what Grindhouse filmmakers might have made if they had a higher budget, 'Death Proof' imagines what they might have made with a world-class screenwriter, and this approach, coupled with Tarantino's remarkable skills as a director, make 'Death Proof' the far superior half of the double feature. The film is essentially structured around two girl friendship groups, enjoying their time hanging out with one another until they come into the orbit of seemingly friendly but ultimately psychotic stunt car driver Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell, 'The Thing'). Much of 'Death Proof' centres around conversations in cars and in bars, a form that Tarantino obviously excels at, and some of the dialogue in the film is amongst the most delicious he has ever written. With the car chase sequences, excited with spectacular energy and unforgiving inertia, 'Death Proof' skilfully combines Tarantino's skill with dialogue with equally impressive skill with action he demonstrated in 'Kill Bill'. While 'Death Proof' might not be amongst the most sophisticated of Tarantino's films, it's arguably amongst his most enjoyable, bolstered by a barnstorming cast of incredible women (including Sydney Tamiia Poitier, Rosario Dawson, Vanessa Ferlito, Tracie Thoms, Jordan Ladd, Zoë Bell, Rose McGowan and Mary Elizabeth Winstead). By virtue of its structure, this allows 'Grindhouse' to begin with a burst of bombastic energy and end on an adrenaline-induced high. Also of note in this experiment were the fake trailers dispersed throughout the double feature, gleefully crafted by Edgar Wright, Rob Zombie, Eli Roth and Rodriguez himself, and since 2007, two of them ('Machete' and 'Thanksgiving') have gone on to be developed as full feature films.

It was an attempt to honour a forgotten part of film history and to offer a distinct, singular experience for audiences, to give them something different from the gloss of the Hollywood blockbuster.

In the lead-up to its release, there was an almost fever-pitch anticipation for 'Grindhouse', so this made it all the more baffling when, upon release, the film proved a financial disappointment. There are a few possible reasons for this - perhaps it was the three-hour runtime, perhaps it was the foolish decision to not release the full version internationally (instead only the extended versions of the two halves separately), or perhaps it was that the two directors had grossly misjudged the public's awareness and interest in Grindhouse as a form. However, the legacy of the film has led to unexpected outcomes. Admiration for the experiment has grown over the years, and 'Death Proof' is certainly counted among Tarantino's most popular films. It also brought a public awareness to the Grindhouse form, and as a result, many of these films that may have been forgotten or lost have since been rediscovered, restored and made publicly available, allowing for a reassessment of many of them. We can see the fruits of this in Australia in particular, where the work of distributors such as Umbrella Entertainment and the popularity of Mark Hartley's documentary 'Not Quite Hollywood' has seen a reassessment of Ozploitation cinema, Australia's answer to Grindhouse.

It would be foolish to suggest that there's some hidden thematic meaning or biting social commentary hidden in 'Grindhouse', but then that wasn't the point of this experiment. It was an attempt to honour a forgotten part of film history and to offer a distinct, singular experience for audiences, to give them something different from the gloss of the Hollywood blockbuster. There is no way a film like 'Grindhouse' could be made and shown in cinemas today, not just because the Hollywood system is so different, but because this form of nostalgia commercialisation would be seen as too risky. The best thing about the weird beast that is 'Grindhouse' is its refusal to play it safe, to push its tropes to its limits and to demand that a standard of quality be maintained. In a time now where nostalgia is an easy way to a quick buck and a lasting legacy is the last thing on anyone's mind, 'Grindhouse' feels all the more radical.

PICTURE & SOUND

It's hard to know how to rate the quality of this 1080p 2.35:1 transfer of 'Grindhouse'. Of course the image is full of countless intentional blemishes, tears, artefacts and grain, but that is obviously the intention of the filmmakers. On the other hand, there is a surprising sharpness to the image, and the colours in particular really pop, making it a really handsome presentation of the film, but perhaps not necessarily what the filmmakers intended. Perhaps high definition just isn't the place for a film like 'Grindhouse', best suited to a film print where we feel the wobble of the image and the shudder as the reel changes, but as far as my expectations where of this transfer, I was pleasantly surprised.

In terms of sound, Via Vision have wisely replicated the original Australian release from Roadshow back in 2011 and included the DTS-HD MA 5.1 track rather than the lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 track from the U.S. and UK releases. And it's all for the better - the mix for 'Grindhouse' is robust and rich, all of the messy details of the film popping beautifully.

SPECIAL FEATURES

With this 4-disc limited edition release, Via Vision have really knocked it out of the ballpark. As well as including the original cut of the film, they've also included the extended cuts of both 'Planet Terror' and 'Death Proof' (both with likewise excellent transfers, 'Planet Terror' now presented in 1.85:1 and with Dolby TrueHD 5.1 tracks) and all the extras from both the 2010 U.S. Blu-ray release of 'Grindhouse' and the individual releases of the two films. I won't go into all the extras as there are so many on offer covering the individual halves, the trailers and the project as a whole, but I will single out the excellent New York Times chat included in full in the extras on Disc Four. It's great to hear both directors talk about the thinking went behind the project and their affection for the Grindhouse form, particularly when we only have a commentary track from Rodriguez on 'Planet Terror'. These are two intelligent and articulate men, and the film is certainly enriched by this kind of critical, thorough discussion.

In terms of packaging for this Limited Edition, Via Vision use the same format they have for past releases such as 'Wolf Creek' and 'Reservoir Dogs', housing the four discs in a handsome hard case with a lenticular plate on the cover replicating the film's iconic poster graphic. Included in the set is a collection of eight photo cards in an envelope. It might not be as playful as the packaging for the 2011 Roadshow release, but it's a hell of a lot more practical.

Via Vision has been making a concerted effort with their recent releases to create definitive editions of these film, and in the case of 'Grindhouse', they have succeeded above and beyond. The inclusion of the DTS-HD MA track on 'Grindhouse' and the extended versions of the two films really seals the deal. From what I can see, this is the best release of this film on offer anywhere, and fans of this wonderfully crazy experiment of a film would be crazy not to get their hands on it.

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