9th 03 - 2016 | 4 comments »

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

Director: Jim Sharman

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By Roderick Heath

Incredible as this will sound, this week I watched The Rocky Horror Picture Show from beginning to end for the first time. Oh, sure, I’d seen most of it in bits and pieces before going right back to when I was a kid. Thanks to growing up in a pop-culture world inflected with its legacy, I was long familiar with its characters, plot, and, of course, its soundtrack—who hasn’t heard “The Time Warp” or “Sweet Transvestite” in our day and age? This very familiarity made seeing the whole thing seem a bit superfluous, but finally, I made myself sit down and take it all in.

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Rocky Horror was, of course, struggling English actor Richard O’Brien’s brainchild, composed, he said, to keep himself busy on long winter evenings of unemployment. O’Brien’s off-the-wall musical play mashed up his fetish for classic scifi and B horror movies, the trappings of the faded ethos of showmanship and glitzy-tacky Hollywood pizzazz, and the milieu of post-Swinging London and the age of sexual liberation—all entirely in keeping with a music scene ruled over by Mick Jagger and Ziggy Stardust. Australian theatrical director Jim Sharman, who had gained some respect for his staging of Jesus Christ Superstar, knew O’Brien from his one-night stint playing Herod in the show, and O’Brien snagged his interest with his kooky project.

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Sharman’s showbiz pedigree was unquestionable. His father had been famous in Oz for running a travelling boxing show and carnival, and he grasped the potential in O’Brien’s project. He had already directed a film in Australia, 1972’s Shirley Thompson vs. the Aliens, built around much the same mix of nostalgia, camp, music, and satirical reference. Sharman staged O’Brien’s show in the 64-seat Royal Court Upstairs Theatre with a cast of virtual unknowns, including star Tim Curry, an actor O’Brien knew from around his neighbourhood, and Sharman’s pal from down under, “Little” Nell Campbell. The show was an instant success, and soon became the fixture it essentially still is. Two years later, Sharman brought it to the big screen for 20th Century Fox, importing for the sake of a larger budget two American actors, Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick, to play the nominal leads, as well as one talent who had made an impression in the LA production, Marvin “Meat Loaf” Aday. The film version initially failed to find an audience, and was written off as a misbegotten flop, but this was the golden age of cult films, with midnight screenings of cinematic oddities attracting large audiences of college kids and hipsters. An enterprising distributor saw the potential in marketing the film to the same audience, and soon a whole subculture formed around the movie, with audiences creating a ritualised script of comment and response and live performers mimicking onscreen action.

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It’s easy to see Rocky Horror’s specific appeal, particularly in the milieu of the mid-1970s. Above all, the rock ’n’ roll score accomplished something nothing, not even Hair or Jesus Christ Superstar, had quite pulled off so effervescently and effectively before (or, really, since, perhaps not until the recent Hamilton)—contextualising the stage musical in the pop era in a way that made it fit. O’Brien tapped into an audience steeped in both a love of flimsy fantasy and New Age mores, creating a variation on a niche of gay culture just acceptable enough to lodge itself in the mainstream. The plotline, whilst strutting through a mocking pastiche of B movies, essentially describes a mass cultural experience, portraying a pair of hopeless squares being exposed to the stranger side of life and finding themselves, if not necessarily better off, certainly wiser—a Sadean narrative rendered in a light, fun, mostly harmless manner. At the same time, Rocky Horror has undoubtedly helped a lot of gay, bisexual, and just plain fabulous people come out of the closet and wield its fantasy as a weapon.

All that said, though, is The Rocky Horror Picture Show any good?

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As a record of this peculiar cultural artefact, certainly. The movie, like the stage version, opens with the song “Science Fiction/Double Feature,” an ode to the pleasures of cinema from yesteryear, the stuff of O’Brien’s youth, referencing the likes of Tarantula (1955) and Day of the Triffids (1962). The film is littered with references to the glory days of Hollywood filmmaking, and there’s an interesting contradiction in there somewhere, this creation of fringe art celebrating a lost Eden of commercial art—although in the context of the mid-’70s, that legacy had faded and the same studios were trying to reinvent themselves by making stuff like, well, stuff like Rocky Horror. Moreover, such referential gambits feel like a miscue to me, as the project never really settles for pastiche or lampooning, and, least of all, for straight-up genre thrills, but instead subjects those tropes to a transmutation, turning subtext inside out and exploring less the ideas of classic genre cinema than camp culture’s take on it. Sharman’s expanded cinematic scope and the production circumstances allowed him to directly evoke the glory days of British cinefantastique, particularly Hammer horror, which was in its death throes at the time. Much of the film was shot around the decaying Oakley Court mansion, a popular location for horror film shoots. The central scene of monstrous creation directly references the laboratory scenes of Fisher’s Frankenstein films.

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One of the cleverest touches of the film adaptation was casting Charles Gray, consummate player of villains in such films as Terence Fisher’s The Devil Rides Out (1967) and the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever (1971), as a “Criminologist” whose introductions and narration evoke the likes of Edgar Lustgarden, the crime writer famous for hosting true crime TV series in the ’50s, and Boris Karloff’s hosting of the anthology show Thriller. Some of the film’s truly killer vignettes include the cutaways to him lecturing on how to do the Time Warp, and casting away his dryly portentous dignity to dance on a table top. Drive-in movie fare isn’t the only subject for satirical mirth: Brad and Janet overhear Richard Nixon’s resignation speech, symbolic fall of the establishment about to be mirrored by the young couple’s impending date with subversive elements.

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An early sight gag unsubtly, but pertinently lampoons the couple representing middle American values, as Grant Wood’s famous “American Gothic” painting looms over protagonists Brad Majors (Barry Bostwick) and Janet Weiss (Susan Sarandon) and their friends at a wedding. The inference is obvious, the lurking spectre of parched, repressed, cheerless conformity the legacy behind their white-bread, upright, uptightness, and several of the church congregants watching the wedding revels with parsimonious intensity are, in fact, the very same perverts who will later turn the couple’s lives upside down. Brad and Janet are citizens of the Texas town of Denton. After they bid farewell to their just-married friends, Brad finally confesses his love for Janet via the song “Dammit Janet,” and they set off for a night of celebrating their smouldering blandness. But the couple’s journey is complicated by a storm and strange motorcyclists, and their car busts a tyre after they take a wrong turn. Luckily for them, there’s a castle nearby where they can ask for help.

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Brad and Janet immediately stumble into an asylum of weirdness, greeted by a cabal of partying oddballs attending the “Annual Transylvanian Convention,” overlorded by pansexual, transvestite scientist Frank-N-Furter (Curry) and his fake servants, hunchbacked butler Riff Raff (O’Brien) and his sister and maid Magenta (Patricia Quinn), as well as hanger-on and former lover Columbia (Campbell). Frank has gathered the cabal together to celebrate the culmination of a great experiment: he is about to bring life to a man he’s constructed, dubbed Rocky (Peter Hinwood). Frank’s creation emerges from the vat as a perfect Aryan vision, ready and willing to flex his physique to the amazement of the audience even as he wonders what strange situation he’s been plunged into. But Frank’s road to triumph has been paved with his sins, including frozen biker Eddie (Meat Loaf), who busts out of cold storage in a dizzy rage. A delivery boy who was ensnared by Frank’s lustful attentions but who gravitated to Columbia, Eddie’s been partly harvested to provide Rocky’s brain, and he careens through Frank’s lab on his motorcycle until the vengeful host dispatches him gorily with an ice pick. Having disposed of this momentary distraction, Frank sets Rocky to building up his body to ever greater heights of masculine glory before chaining him to his bed. Rocky Horror revolves around this one central, inarguably brilliant premise—though the film doesn’t do much interesting with it—turning the classic Frankenstein figure into a freak who wants to create not just a human being, but a perfect male love object and then doubling down on this joke by having the monster’s traditional rebellion be that he is resolutely and helplessly heterosexual.

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Curry inhabits the role of Frank-N-Furter with such total ease and charismatic verve that it seems like he was born in his lofty stilettoes and garters, credibly locating jolts of pathos and flickers of melancholy under the surface of a creature otherwise defined by totally shameless hedonism and dedication to his own outsized talent and ego. From the moment he enters the film dressed like Dracula, only to throw off his cape and reveal his very masculine body swathed in burlesque-ready underwear, Frank-N-Furter commands the proceedings. Later, as he acts as impresario mad scientist at Rocky’s revival, he sports the pink triangle of gay pride (adapted and reversed from a Nazi designation), but doesn’t stop at any polite or merely political limits of gender orientation. The figuration of Frank and Rocky could well have been originally inspired by Z-Man and his lust object, Lance Rocke, in another hugely popular camp relic, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970); Frank very strongly recalls Z-Man as the imperious host of debauched revels and jealous creator with not-so-secret peccadilloes. There’s also a strong whiff of Cabaret’s (1972) Emcee to him, and Bob Fosse’s sleazy-sexy sensibility pervades the film as an influence.

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Sharman’s theatrical talent mostly works once Brad and Janet reach Frank’s castle and are confronted by an the alternate-universe rock’n’roll party as a moment of revelation. The Transylvanians line-dance, and Riff-Raff, Magenta, and Columbia regale them with “The Time Warp,” that most insistently catchy and seemingly nonsensical of songs with lyrics that bespeak a defining obsession with nihilism countered with a sense of freedom and release found in remembered pleasures. Frank enters from a cage elevator and struts through the scene with carelessly convivial enthusiasm laced with erotic potency. The movements here obey their own warped logic, the mood of having stumbled through veil into a strange zone of reality, true in its way to many a classic horror film with the twist of discovering not horror and madness—although there is some of that—but rather the strangely alluring invite of a secret society dedicated entirely to making life a trifle less dull. Of course, it’s the songs here that tie this act together: “The Time Warp” segues into “Sweet Transvestite,” and, a little later, “Hot Patootie,” all musical bits that roll on with driving force, the first and the last perfect floor-fillers and the middle song an impudently sexy declaration of Frank’s wont that burrows deeply into the ear.

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The stage is set for wild and shaggy times, and some do actually happen. Very much the pivotal sequence of Rocky Horror and its mystique comes at the halfway mark in a sequence that plays as an omnivorous replay of the health clinic scenes in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), except whereas James Bond was fox in the henhouse with a bunch of horny ladies, here Frank-N-Furter revels in having a couple of ripe, young dweebs to make a tilt at. Frank first pretends to be Brad visiting Janet and then Janet visiting Brad, with both squares letting him have his way with them on the assurance the other won’t find out about it, climaxing, literally and figuratively, with the silhouetted, but still declarative shot of Frank fellating Brad, a moment that does still feel gutsy and unique in the context of such a work of broad appeal.

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Riff Raff and Magenta’s general program of torment and sabotage sees them drive Rocky crazy with fire and cause him to escape, and then make sure Janet can see through the house’s TV monitors that Brad and Frank are together. Janet stumbles out in an anguished delirium and meets Rocky. She succumbs immediately to his boy-man virility, a spectacle that, in turn, shocks both Frank and Brad. Eddie’s father, a scientist named Everett Scott (Jonathan Adams) and a rival of Frank’s, reaches the castle in search of his son, necessitating a very uncomfortable dinner that climaxes with Eddie’s dismembered body being revealed in a glass coffin under the banquet table.

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Unfortunately, Rocky Horror leaves itself no particular place to go after Frank’s bout of bed-hopping, and in the above-described scenes, retreats into shtick that, frankly, could be in any average dinner theatre show (“Or should I say Von Scott?” Gimme a break). The odd witty line does drop throughout the film—I got a good laugh from Brad’s question, “So, do you any of you guys know how to do the Madison?” after “The Time Warp”—but too often there’s a surfeit of true wit or even good wisecracks. A late swerve for a note of pseudo-pathos as Frank-N-Furter faces his downfall doesn’t come off in part because his divaish final song is the dullest tune in the film, and besides, who wants to take Frank seriously? His wonderful line, “It’s not easy having a good time—even smiling makes my face ache,” gives the character a signature facet that doesn’t need underlining. Such flailing probably didn’t matter so much on the stage, where the compulsive energy of the performers and the tunes can carry the material along, but the film finally suffers from a lack of a real cinematic invention. Part of this surely stems from the general decision to make the film as a road-show version of the stage production rather than striking out as a genuinely expanded vision. It’s tempting to wonder what a real filmmaker would make of the material. Ken Russell, who had made The Boy Friend (1971) a genuine cornucopia out of the same kind of material, and released Tommy (1975) the same year as Rocky Horror, could perhaps have conjured something really extraordinary. Ditto Fosse or Richard Lester, filmmakers who might have developed a real visual counterpoint to the material’s obsession with movie history. Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (1974), which the film was paired with on a double bill for a time, lacks Rocky Horror’s hoofer bravado, but far excels it for originality and vigour in filmmaking.

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In this regard, Rocky Horror ran upon a reef that often lies in wait for stage-to-screen adaptations: how far can you go in revising a project before it ceases to be the thing people liked in the first place? Not that the film lacks cinematic values. Cinematographer Peter Suschitsky, who had worked with Kevin Brownlow early in both their careers and would go on to shoot The Empire Strikes Back (1980), gives the film a rich, vivid palette of colour and lensing, one that cranks up the loopy garishness of the material to 11 in places, particularly during Eddie’s madcap terrorisation of the assembled on his motorcycle, and gives the sequence when Brad and Janet approach the castle singing “Over at the Frankenstein Place” a strange, elegiac beauty. But frankly Sharman, whatever his gifts as a stage director and his real hand in creating Rocky Horror as a theatrical entity, was an annoying filmmaker. A couple of years later he tried to film Nobel Prize-winning author Patrick White’s The Night, The Prowler, a story with a not-dissimilar theme to Rocky Horror of a repressed young women being assaulted and finding a certain sick liberation in the experience, but the film is just as leeringly overacted and unsubtle as this one. At least here, overacting and unsubtlety are part of the point. But the superficial energy of the filmmaking and performing can’t ultimately cover up the fact that Rocky Horror loses its mojo badly by the end. Scott’s arrival at the castle sets the scene for some really lame slapstick comedy, with Scott’s wheelchair being attracted up a staircase with a giant magnet and the rebellious guests and flesh toys being zapped with a “Medusa” ray that turns them to stone. The finale is particularly weak and feels like a missed opportunity, as Frank forces his posse of lovers to join in a kick-line chorus in front of the old RKO Radio Pictures logo.

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Here Sharman could have gone nuts and expanded the staging and conceptualism, but settles merely for replaying the stage show’s climax with Rocky going nuts and carrying Frank on his back in a limp King Kong (1933) spoof. In spite of the overt desire to pay tribute to the cheesy glories of classic scifi and horror, Rocky Horror never really gets a chance to engage with them. Maybe it’s because the previous year’s Young Frankenstein had already beat it to the punch on so many jokes. At least there is a gaudy nod to Busby Berkeley as the camera surveys Frank floating in a life ring from the Titanic in a swimming pool with Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” at the bottom. Moreover—and now we’re edging into the realm of pure personal taste here, I admit—Sharman’s work presented a blueprint of freaky style not just to the burgeoning Punk and New Wave scenes (particularly Sue Blane’s costuming), but also to every terrible fringe theatre group and art-pop wanker around for the next two decades, and what was fresh was quickly beaten into the ground; just looking at the chorus line of Transylvanians makes me feel a little stabby as a result. Of course, it’s churlish to critique such a project for a lack of story cohesion or dramatic heft; in fact, the lack of both probably explains the popularity of Rocky Horror, its ultimate rejection of deep meaning as well as the kind of rigour that might have made for a more genuinely funny, tighter experience, which then wouldn’t have allowed the same room for an audience of adherents to write in their own amusement.

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Admirably, too, Rocky Horror never backs down from its joy in transgression even as it tries half-heartedly to locate a deeper meaning. The shots of Frank, Rocky, Columbia, Brad, and Janet exulting in a moment of orgiastic sexuality in the pool weirdly echoes the climax of David Cronenberg’s Shivers, also released that year, purveying a similar sense of the blurred distinction between the elatedly liberated and the genuinely freakish. Frank-N-Furter is soon delivered a comeuppance by Riff Raff and Magenta, two fellow aliens who have been oppressed playing his servants and now take command, but far from being representatives of any controlling order, they’re an incestuous couple who just want Frank’s foot off their necks. Curry’s extravagance, matched to his character, tends to drown out rivals, but just about everyone still brings something great to the table: O’Brien’s bug-eyed, yawing-lipped rock’n’roll face, Quinn’s plummy pseudo-Lugosi accent, Campbell’s look of irritation after falling over at the end of her “Time Warp” tap dance, Bostwick’s shows of facetious charm, and Sarandon right at the beginning of her career, with her big eyes and ditzy-lustful smile suggesting Betty Boop before she reached for the hair dye and went to the dark side. By its end, it must be said, I was left frustrated, even disappointed by Rocky Horror, as its moments of invention, even genius, are balanced by just as many that don’t work or run in circles. Yet I’m still glad I finally watched it, and moreover, I’m glad that it exists, if just for the sake of the fabulous.


16th 09 - 2008 | 10 comments »

Grindhouse: Planet Terror and Death Proof (2007)

Directors: Robert Rodriquez and Eli Roth
Director: Quentin Tarantino

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Quentin Tarantino’s love of film genres, particularly those of the 1970s, is well known to film fans. Robert Rodriguez is no stranger to low-budget, high-action films; he has something akin to a grindhouse aesthetic. The two writer/directors first teamed up on the wildly inventive and entertaining vampire Western From Dusk Till Dawn (1996). I always imagine that Tarantino and Rodriguez were jawing one day when Q.T. said “Let’s put on a grindhouse double bill”—B exploitation films sandwiched between trailers of other (in this case, nonexistent) exploitation films. Being the skillful filmmakers they are, Rodriguez and Tarantino turn in films that obviously have a lot more money and technique behind them than real grindhouse films ever did. Given that their homage is already in a different category of filmmaking, should they be judged as grindhouse films or as contemporary films that use the visual vocabulary of the originals?

Planet Terror literally opens in a grindhouse, as Rose McGowan as Cherry Darling, “go-go” dances under the opening credits. She hates her job and quits that night with plans to change her life by becoming a stand-up comedienne. At the same time, a biochemical weapons leak is turning humans into zombies who, of course, are highly contagious to those they feed on. A biochemical engineer named Abby (Naveen Andrews) enters a military base to sell a supply of the gas to military troops who have already been exposed and who can stay human as long as they can breathe it as a form of temporary vaccine. He intends, however, to wipe out the troops and work on developing a permanent vaccine. In a spectacular battle that pits Abby and his commandos against Lt. Muldoon (Bruce Willis) and his troops, the green vapor is blown into the air.

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Cherry meets up with her old beau El Wray (Freddy Rodriguez) at a barbecue joint, J.T.’s Bone Shack, run by quintessential Western “cookie” J. T. (Jeff Fahey) with his own running gag—he won’t share his recipe with his brother, Sheriff Hague (Michael Biehn). Soon they are under attack from a pack of zombies.

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Meanwhile, the town hospital has been treating some patients with unusual boils erupting on their skin. Bisexual doctor Dakota Block (Mary Shelton) is attacked by her murder-minded husband, Dr. William Block (Josh Brolin), who has learned that her ex-lover (Fergie) is coming to meet her. Cherry gets her leg chewed off, goes to the hospital, replaces it with a table leg to escape the zombie-infested hospital, and hobbles out with El Wray at her side. Eventually, a small band of survivors meet up with Abby and plan an assault on the military base to kill the ringleader of the zombies and get Abby what he needs to create a permanent vaccine.

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The fairly high production values, the presence of an A-list star like Bruce Willis, and the elaborate gunfire and pyrotechnics all mark this film as something other than grindhouse. I thought that Rodriguez brought his Mexican absurdity and sexually open sensibilities to this over-the-top film. Although the film discreetly inserts a “Missing Reel” title card in place of the sex scene between El Wray and Cherry, we still get a screen full of steam beforehand.

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There is a fairly high level of humor in the film. For example, Cherry, newly equipped with a machine gun for a leg, somehow mows down dozens of zombies by pointing her artificial “limb” straight out, spinning on her foot and, I guess, using her thoughts to pull the trigger. The return of Josh Brolin’s character to menace his wife, reminiscent of Glenn Close’s repeated returns from the dead in Fatal Attraction (1987), is a predictable, but still effective gag, and Dakota’s anesthetized hands made for some floppy fun. Quarrelsome twins who were babysitting Dakota’s son have to be reminded that they are about to be eaten to stop their bickering. Even the Bone Shack is cartoonlike in appearance.

I found this first half of this double bill extremely entertaining, with pitch-perfect performances from the entire cast, with special kudos to the sexy and powerful Rose McGowan and “why isn’t he a star yet” Freddy Rodriguez. The level of gore was pleasingly high and the overall story jam-packed with so many odd bits and pieces that it seemed sewn together from other B movie scripts. Even so, this film was an original creation with the hallmark elements of grindhouse films but a contemporary sensibility.

The bard of film homage, Quentin Tarantino, sought to craft a close-to-authentic recreation of a grindhouse film, and has populated Death Proof with artifacts of real grindhouse movies (the Alpine White 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T with a 440/375 horsepower engine from Vanishing Point, the duck hood ornament from Convoy) as well as references to other films, including his own. Since this was my first experience of a Tarantino-directed film, I was finally able to see what everyone else has been talking about for so long.

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The film opens on the rear end of a woman. Her cotton panties saunter about her spacious home; she stretches out on her couch in exactly the same pose as the gigantic photographic print hanging above it, an imitation that highlights Tarantino’s own effort. The woman is Jungle Julia (Sydney Tamiia Poitier), a local radio host. She’s entertaining Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito), a friend of hers who is in town for the weekend. The two young women drive with Julia’s friends Shanna (Jordan Ladd) and Marcy (Marcy Harriell) to a bar, talking about their sex lives and arguing about who is going to score some dope. Arlene hesitates on the front stoop of the bar, where she sees a black muscle car standing, seeming to watch her, and then peeling out.

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The women pretty much pick up their conversation where they left it when they take up a table at the bar, with Julia relaxing with her leg dangling over a chair back; they gossip about a blonde at the bar named Pam (Rose McGowan), who was not part of their clique in high school. Pam finds a sympathetic ear from a middle-age man who calls himself Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell). He’s an old-fashioned guy with an enormous scar down his face who ticks off the ancient TV shows he worked on to an uncomprehending Pam. The four friends walk out of the bar intending to drive to a cabin on a lake. Stuntman Mike follows them out and proffers a challenge to Arlene, aka “Butterfly,” that Julia foisted upon her on the air. She accepts the challenge to give Mike a lap dance. Again, a “Missing Reel” title card flashes on screen.

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When next we see the girls, they are driving away, with Julia dangling her leg outside the window and participating in another lengthy conversation. Pam gets a ride from Mike and is unprepared for the stunt car rigging inside. Mike reveals himself to be a psycho, driving in a reckless way that throws Pam about the car, eventually killing her. He cuts his lights and prepares to hit the car carrying the girls head on.

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After Psycho Mike recovers from the crash that killed all the women, he goes on the prowl again. He photographs four more women, colleagues working on a film shooting on location. Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Abernathy (Rosario Dawson), and two stuntwomen, Kim (Tracie Thoms) and Zoe (real-life stuntwoman Zoe Bell). One of New Zealander Zoe’s ambitions during this trip to the States is to drive a 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T with a 440/375 horsepower engine. She has already contacted a man with one for sale in the area, and the women persuade him to let them take it on a road test by insinuating that Lee (unbeknownst to her) will give him a blow job.

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They take the car out and Zoe persuades Kim to drive fast while she lays on the hood holding onto leather straps strung through the front-seat windows. That’s when Stuntman Mike makes his move, ramming their car in an attempt to get Zoe to let go and roll under the wheels. He didn’t count on becoming the hunted instead of the hunter, and the film ends in a thrilling chase.

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True to his style, Tarantino alternates long sequences of dialogue with explosive action, and terrific action it is. He builds suspense in the first half by cutting between Pam’s plight in Stuntman Mike’s car and the unsuspecting women he intends to kill. When the cars collide, Tarantino provides some grisly images to cap off the innocent ones they mirror. It’s also thrilling to see Zoe, Kim, and Abernathy shouting for payback and pursuing this cowardly killer, unafraid and able to give better than they got, including a gunshot to Mike’s shoulder from Kim’s concealed weapon.

Rod told me that “Death Proof is the first Hawksian action film since, well, Howard Hawks died.” He has a point. The film has nothing extraneous or tricked up as a distraction from the characters and their situation, and at least a couple of the characters—Arlene and Stuntman Mike—show some inner life that makes them interesting. The end of the film does rather echo Red River (1948), though it is less meaningful that Clift and Wayne’s head to head.

The killer, though, is the insipid dialogue he puts into his characters’ mouths. True, grindhouse films weren’t very well written, but then this film is an homage and, frankly, Tarantino is a great writer who can do better. The dialogue in Death Proof is so boring and annoying that I actually fast-forwarded through several scenes when I couldn’t take it any longer. There is the liberal use of the f-word, of course, which, I must admit, does establish a certain rhythm after a while, but not one I would care to hear again. I suppose there are scholarly treatises by now on the use of the word “fuck” in the films of Quentin Tarantino. I don’t find its use particularly interesting or necessary, blunting its power to convey emotion through overuse. But then, that’s just me. Death Proof isn’t really very sexy either, and therefore the action sequences are its only viable form of stimulation.

I can find things to admire in Death Proof, but it overwhelmed me with tedium for overlong stretches. Planet Terror was much lighter and fairly unfaithful to grindhouse films of the past, but it was very entertaining. I recommend the top of the bill to everyone and the bottom of the bill to those more seriously interested in film history and original technique. The trailers were entertaining and part of the nostalgic experience. I’ll leave those to you to discover for yourself.


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