Correction to This Article
A photo caption with an April 6 Style review of the movie "Grindhouse" misspelled the name of actress Sydney Tamiia Poitier.

Flicks In the Days Of Gore

Sydney Tamila Porter as Jungle Julia in Quentin Tarantino's
Sydney Tamila Porter as Jungle Julia in Quentin Tarantino's "Death Proof" half of "Grindhouse." (By Andrew Cooper -- Dimension Films)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 6, 2007

What truly grinds in the film "Grindhouse," the Quentin Tarantino-Robert Rodriguez double feature, is your butt against the seat.

Clocking in at more than three hours, the film is one grand self-indulgence that is calibrated exquisitely for an audience that pines for the gory double-feature format that petered out in the early '70s. That audience can be counted: One, two. Named Tarantino and Rodriguez.

"Grindhouse," actually two movies in one, attempts to reconstruct to the tiniest detail the actual double-feature experience in a sleazy urban theater 35 to 40 years ago, and if the boys had been able to afford Smell-O-Vision, they'd have offered up the fumes of popcorn decomposing in a greasy bin in the lobby, the stench of ancient Jujubes annealed to the ceiling, and even the sickly-sweet chemical tang of that wafer or whatever it was they put in the urinal.

As it is, they replicate the scratchy, ratchety nature of oft-showed film stock; the hang-ups where the movie sticks in the projector, ignites and achieves bubbly, brown liquefaction; the crude emergency splices; the out-of-sync sound system; and all the high hallmarks of exhibition at its lowest, cheapest level. (The term "grindhouse" usually refers to a single-screen theater showing exploitation films.)

The films -- Rodriguez directed the first, "Planet Terror," and Tarantino the second, "Death Proof" -- are bloody, stupid and buoyant in a kind of infantile way, celebrating mayhem and flesh and gore; they are ersatz replicas (with slight satirical exaggeration but not as much as you might expect) of films by Herschell Gordon Lewis ("Blood Feast") or the automotive violence of, say, Richard Sarafian's "Vanishing Point."

But it goes further: There's also a selection of "comic" previews both before and between the features that compress the joys of upcoming grindhouse fodder, like Nazi atrocity films ("Werewolf Women of the SS"), gimmicky splatter parties ("Machete") and so forth. They're designated by that staple of childhood memories, the whirlpool of color set to cheesy public domain music that announces "Coming Attractions." You feel the directors enjoying themselves as if at a giggly slumber party, as the tropes pile up, come around again and again and approach tedium.

As for the two "films," they offer marginal pleasures. "Planet Terror" is by far the livelier, drawing from work by Lewis, the Italian goremeisters Mario Bava and Dario Argento, and George Romero. The situation involves a bunch of people, including a beautiful doctor in high heels, a one-legged go-go dancer ("And I wanted to be a stand-up comedian"), a barbecue chef, a wounded sheriff, an old guy and a deputy (played by makeup artist Tom Savini, who did some of the early gore effects in splatter flicks of the '80s), trying to escape from a landscape of heavily armed zombiefied cannibalistic killers. Also, they are led by Bruce Willis with a bad case of chronic, greasy, bubbling facial tumors, and believe me, you don't want to know more.

Okay, here's what you get for your entertainment buck: Lots of folks being shredded, atomized, liquefied, splattered, Cuisinarted or otherwise deconstructed by gunfire. Lots of folks. Almost an hour's worth of folks. The payoff is when the go-go gal (Rose McGowan) is fitted with an assault rifle where her leg used to be, and does some serious zombie pacification. It looks like when you put jelly beans in a microwave and hammer out a big 10 on the dial and you get splatsplatsplatsplat as the beans detonate. The movie doesn't bother to tell you, by the way, how she manages to pull the trigger, but that's just the critic in me, details, details, details.

Tarantino's movie, "Death Proof," is so narratively simplistic that to describe it is to ruin it. Let's just say it's a car chase movie fused with a women's acting workshop and leave it at that.

The antecedent is the early-'70s "car chase" movies but also "Dirty Mary Crazy Larry" and "Gone in 60 Seconds" -- the filmmaker invokes them twice in the dialogue (and movie geek Tarantino has to specify "the original and not the remake!"). But for the longest, longest, longest time the movie simply indulges two sets of four actresses as they appear to improvise their way through long buildups that will ultimately have nothing to do with the completely arbitrary action sequences that mark the halfway point and the climax. And for some reason, Tarantino gives the women a tough-gal gangsta stylization to their lines, as they call each other "bitch" and the n-word (it's a diverse crowd) and the 12-letter word over and over. Ach, and nothing happens except their little circle is evoked: The first quartet are young Texans, one a deejay; the second is a group of young movie professionals, in Tennessee on a shoot, looking for the exact duplicate of the car Barry Newman drove in "Vanishing Point," a boss-mother bootie-smackin' 1959 sky-blue Corvair with three on the floor and a 68-hp monster slamming away in its guts.

Some surprisingly high-end performers make a contribution. Kurt Russell plays "Stuntman Mike," a bar visitor with what looks like the San Andreas Fault ripped across his face by King Leonidas's beer-can opener, who tries to chat up the young women. He later makes an appearance in Tennessee, where, among that group of young women, the blindingly beautiful Rosario Dawson stops the action with the Helen of Troyesque power of her mythologically classic face.

All this, really, sets up the film's final few minutes of car-crazy, Viking-berserker to-the-death demo derby along Tennessee's rural byways, and in turn an excuse to show off the stunt stylings of Zoe Bell, the New Zealand stuntwoman of whom Tarantino is an unabashed fan. (She doubled for Lucy Lawless in "Xena: Warrior Princess" and for Uma Thurman in Tarantino's two "Kill Bill" movies.) She's quite possibly the best stuntwoman in the world and the movie features her on the hood of a speeding car (no, it's not a Corvair, it's a Dodge Challenger, that was my little joke) more or less surfing on her backside (but staying alive) while someone rams the car, trying to knock her off. It's a great stunt exhibition, and if it was half as dangerous as it looks, it was very dangerous.

But really: You have about an hour and half of yappy chatter in exchange for four minutes of high-octane road rage. Is that a deal or are you a sucker?

Hmm, well, I would have left earlier, but my shoe got stuck to the floor by an Affy Tapple stick tarred in caramel that had been there since 1972.

Grindhouse (191 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for graphic bloody violence and gore, pervasive profanity, some sexual content, nudity and scenes of drug use.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company