Written By: Casey Powers
Directed By: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Kurt Russel, Vanessa Ferlito, and Rosario Dawson.
Death Proof is the second half of the Grindhouse double feature. The first half was Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror. Like Planet Terror, Death Proof has faux scratches and missing frames to give this movie an old exploitation feel. Overall the movie is the slower of the two features, but it is still very much enjoyable.
Whereas Planet Terror was fast paced and in your face with gore and over the top action, Death Proof is much more slow, deliberate, and chooses to take its time rather than jump into the fray right away. The two paces between the movies is appropriate considering that old exploitation films tend to fall into two categories. They were either non-stop over the top action, or slow and, frankly, boring. Death Proof falls into the latter category.
The story starts with Arlene (Venessa Ferlito), visiting her friends in Austin. She begins to get creeped out when she notices that a man (Kurt Russel), in a black 1969 Dodge Charger with a skull and crossbones painted on the hood, is stalking them around town. At first she tries to ignore it, but when the man shows up at the bar they are hanging out it in, their paths inevitably cross. The man is named Stuntman Mike, and he is, you guessed it, a stuntman.
This is where a large chunk of the movie takes place. The bar scene runs for 27 minutes, which is over 20% of the movie’s run time. Now some viewers might find this boring, but after repeated viewing I can say that it is the most entertaining part of the film. It’s a half hour of dialogue and character development which adds to a slow build-up of dread. The audience knows something awful is going to happen. The title of the film is Death Proof not Young People Party with No Consequences. So it really builds up an atmosphere of anticipation waiting for the inevitable carnage to ensue.
The bar scene is also the first time that we really get to know Stuntman Mike, and he is probably the best thing in the film. You’re never quite sure what to make of him. You know he drives a scary looking car, the car is death proof, meaning a stunt team rigged it so the driver couldn’t die from crashing, and he keeps pictures with him of the girls he’s stalking, but then he does these weird and charming things. Like he sloppily eats grande nachos without any regard to self-appearance and goes to a bar and orders nothing but club soda and virgin pina coladas. He talks to young girls about stunt work on old tv shows and talks Arlene into a lap dance. He has a different personality for different people, and you slowly start to realize that they are all covers for his true self.
All that small talk was just him gathering information on his victims. You see Stuntman Mike is a serial killer who likes to kill pretty young girls by running them down in his death proof car, and he has his sights set on Arlene and friends.
Now I usually don’t like to talk about spoilers in reviews, but I feel like it would be impossible to talk about this film without giving away major plot points, so you’ve been warned.
Okay, so halfway through the film Arlene and all of her friends are killed by Stuntman Mike in a high speed crash. The movie then jumps to 14 months later in Tennessee where Stuntman Mike is now stalking a new group of girls led by Rosario Dawson.
This transition is so abrupt and jarring that it kills absolutely all momentum the film has going for it. All of the characters, aside from Mike, that we spent the past hour or so getting to know are just gone. There is no connection from the first half of the film to the second half. Style wise it is even completely different as well. While the first half had the atmosphere and scratched film stock of an old exploitation film, the second half of the film abandons the premise and presents itself as just a regular modern movie. It’s pretty much two separate movies stitched together.
It’s almost as if Quentin Tarantino wrote two movies that both happened to be about cars and decided to just put them together like some kind of Frankenstein’s monster. The film would have benefited from a much stronger transition. Maybe instead of making the two groups completely separate, Tarantino could have made some connection between the two. This could have easily been a revenge thriller right from an authentic Grindhouse movie—have a girl from the second group trying to avenge her sister or something from the first group, anything to make this a single of movie, but sadly that didn’t happen.
The second half of the film is much slower than the first and can honestly be boring. There were times when I found myself losing interest and checking my phone instead of paying attention. But the second half does have a saving grace.
The last twenty minutes of the movie feature is what I can boldly declare the best car chase ever put to film. It has lots of thrills and keeps the audience on the edge of their seat. Tarantino brought in the best stuntmen that Hollywood has to offer, including Zoe Bell who spends half of the chase scene clinging onto the hood of a movie car. It’s here that Tarantino likes to give credit to the stuntmen, Hollywood’s unsung heroes, which is great but not really what was advertised.
This movie feels like Tarantino pulled a bait and switch. All of his films tend to be tributes to themes or genres from the film world. Pulp Fiction a tribute to mobsters, Kill Bill a tribute to Kung Fu flicks, and Death Proof promotes itself as a tribute to horror exploitation but is actually a tribute to stuntmen and stunt work.
Which isn’t really a bad thing, but it would have been nicer if the film had picked a single theme and stuck with it.
Bonus Review-–The Trailers
Part of the Grindhouse charm is the inclusion of the fake trailers that fill up the gap between the two films. The first two were Machete and Werewolf Women of the SS. The second two trailers are easily the best of the four. All of the trailers can be seen on Youtube.
Don’t is Edgar Wright’s contribution to Grindhouse, and is the most authentic of the four. If you just saw this trailer and knew nothing of the Grindhouse films you would probably assume that it was a real trailer from the seventies. The effects come straight out of the past and the trailer is incredibly vague about the actual plot of the movie, much like a lot of old horror trailers. This trailer is incredibly fun and if Edgar Wright fans look closely they can see some of Wright’s regulars hiding out.
I’ll admit that I am not a fan of Eli Roth. The only thing he can write is gross out gore and unlikeable douches of characters, but regardless of how I feel about his films, I have to admit he has the best of the fake trailers. Thanksgiving is a slasher film centered around a pilgrim dressed killer. The trailer is a clear tribute to all of the holiday themed horror films that came out after Halloween. This trailer captures the low budget and over the top nature of old grindhouse cinema. This probably is the best thing that Roth has done and is a must see.
While Death Proof is the weaker of the two Grindhouse films, it is still worth a watch.