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September 3, 2010

Midnight Movie of the Week #35 - Death Proof

Back in the Spring of 2007, I initially struggled with what my true feelings were for Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof.  Presented as the b-side feature in Grindhouse, the throwback collaboration between QT and long-time friend Robert Rodriguez, the film seemed out of place after the non-stop cheesefest that was Planet Terror and the batch of fake trailers that surrounded it.

It had been easy for me to see some of the film's charm when Grindhouse hit on that April night, but it just simply wasn't clicking then.  At that moment, I looked at Death Proof the same way I would look at a fabulous Mexican restaurant right after I'd spent three hours downing burgers and dogs at a 4th of July cookout.  It's a completely different brand than what it was packaged with, and I simply didn't have the energy to care at the time.

But something kind of amazing happened when I got the film alone later that year...I kinda loved it.
 Death Proof - in a roundabout way - focuses on the character of Stuntman Mike, played by Kurt Russell.  Putting Kurt Russell in your movie is about the easiest way to catch The Mike's eye (I almost went to that Dreamer movie about a horse just for Kurt!), and he doesn't disappoint as Tarantino's unhinged stunt driver.  Thou shalt not doubt Kurt is one of The Mike Commandments, so I knew that would happen.  But I wasn't prepared for what else the film had to offer.

A majority of the film focuses on the groups of young women who become Stuntman Mike's prey, which is where the film caught me off guard.  I should have known a little better - half of Tarantino's films are scenes where characters sit around a table drinking beverages and yammering about cool stuff - but the hectic nature of Rodriguez' preceding film had clouded my judgment.  As I looked at the film later, I realized that these scenes were quite a bit more interesting than I'd realized.  Particularly enjoyable is the discussion that opens the film's second half (or, Grindhouse's fourth quarter) in which '70s car chase movies become the topic.
While Planet Terror embraced horror conventions thoroughly, this film sits squarely on the ledge of the horror genre, seeminlgy unsure of if it really wants to step inside and join the party.  Stuntman Mike is built up as a likeable character before his "turn", and when he does become menacing the effect is doubled by Russell's ability to fill the role.  But when you step aside from the fact that there's a menacing fellow, there aren't many horror movie trappings here.  The film is more indicative of those "gearhead" films of the '70s - where the cars were the stars - than any horror films of the era. It definitely doesn't matchup with Planet Terror in this regard, as that film plays more like something Lucio Fulci would have thrown up on the screen at the time.

It's incredibly easy to sit here and point out the disconnect I felt with Death Proof while my mind was being manipulated by the horror genre, but nowadays it's also easy for me to point out the things I love about Death Proof as a standalone film.  The pace of the film allows each major character to gain a bit of depth, and Tarantino's camera lingers patiently as they move through the film.  As is always the case with Tarantino, the soundtrack accentuates the mood perfectly, and offers plenty of funky beats.  The car scenes and stunts are most impressive, and are an example of Tarantino succeeding in an arena of film that had rarely been seen in his repertoire before.
Though Stuntman Mike is at the wheel, Death Proof is driven by the characters who may become his victims.  Rose McGowan, Vanessa Ferlito, and stuntwoman-turned-star Zoe Bell are the most interesting characters, though side players like Jordan Ladd and Tracie Thoms also get a few moments to shine.  The film is Tarantino's most dialogue driven work this side of Jackie Brown, and the actresses - for the most part - manage to become characters that the viewer has some interest in.  There are a couple of token victims thrown in to the film - one character seems to appear in a car without having been in the rest of the film - but the characters we're introduced to are well-written and the execution of the characters (no pun intended) carries more weight than many horror films could dream of.
Death Proof is subdued in comparison to the rest of that Grindhouse experience, and even a bit tame compared to most horror films.  Regardless, Tarantino's film is always interesting to me these days, and Russell's sick character still manages to get under my skin at times.  I underestimated it grossly when we first met, and I'm willing to make it up to Death Proof.  I'm incredibly fond of the film these days, and think it just might have a longer shelf-life than anyone - including myself - ever expected.


Michele (TheGirlWhoLovesHorror) said...

I never got the Grindhouse experience, and had to see both films separately. I definitely prefer Death Proof and really love it as its own film. Yes, the characters all talk like every single one of Tarantino's other characters all talk (meaning that they talk all geeky like he does) but that didn't really bother me as much in this film. I liked all the actresses, and they're good actresses, so that helped me like their characters. Good story, with a hella fun ending.

Emily Louise Church said...

I really enjoyed this review and I absolutely adored Death Proof. Everyone else that I know that watched the move didn't like it but I think you hit the nail on the head, Kurt Russell can do no wrong.

I agree with you also that this is a very dialogue driven movie but it's one that I absolutely enjoyed every minute of. I'm glad you came around to liking it.

Anonymous said...

I love Death Proof, why? Three things, Kurt, the car, and Zoe! She's freakin amazing and I really want to see more of her.
I've loved Kurt since his days with Disney in things like The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, but I really got my school girls crush on him with The Thing and Escape from New York...sigh.
Dreaded Dreams
Petunia Scareum

TheodorePuertoriquez said...

I'm surprised you didn't mention Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Her in that cheerleader outfit alone justifies this movie's existence. I have to say though, I found Sydney Poitier Jr. to be a really grating actress, I really did not like her character and her it just seemed like the hipness came across too forced when she was saying the dialogue like you could tell she was acting. But not stylized like Adrienne Shelley in a Hal Hartley movie just actually bad acting.

Andre Dumas said...

Awesome post The Mike. I have actually to this day only seen Death Proof and not Planet Terror. I love Death Proof though and was disappointed when I showed it to people and they did not like it. As a straight woman I am continuously turned on by the lap dance scene, I think because Vanessa Ferlito is not necessarily dressed in anything sexy (she's wearing flip flops) but she just oozes sex anyways. It's pretty inspiring. Especially to me who one day hopes to give Kurt Russell a lap dance.

Fred [The Wolf] said...

I always liked DEATH PROOF, even back when I saw GRINDHOUSE in theaters. But even as an alone film, I still find that long conversation between the second group of girls to be really uninteresting. I know Tarantino loves his dialogue, but that particular piece does nothing for me. Other than that, I dig the film a lot. The first half is great and I love the build up at the end when the girls are chasing after Stuntman Mike. And I do feel it's the most "grindhouse" of the two films. But I prefer PLANET TERROR over DEATH PROOF. Great post!

The Mike said...

I'm glad to see there are more fans of this one, I kinda thought it was more despised!

@GWLH - Completely agree that the actresses work well with Tarantino's dialogue. Rosario Dawson really seems like she was made for Tarantino's brand of cinema, particularly.

@Emily - I too had to deal with everyone I saw this with not liking it, which I think added to my clouded judgment. Also, glad to find another member of the cult of Kurt!

@Pete - I too am a big fan of Zoe Bell after this movie. I checked out an independent action flick she starred in, Angel of Death, a while back. She definitely has the look and persona to carry an action film, just needed a better project.

@Detector - Winstead and her outfit are fantastic, and you're right in saying they deserved mention! I will also agree slightly on Poitier. I've seen her elsewhere and liked her more, she just didn't seem right here.

@Andre - The lap dance was not in the Grindhouse version of the film - replaced with a "reel lost" message - and I'd be lying if I didn't say it's one of my favorite bits of the film on DVD. You're dead on about Ferlito, and I dig that 'Down in Mexico' song too. Great stuff, and keep that Kurt dream alive!

@Fred - I completely agree that the intro to group two is a little long. I like a lot of it - as I mentioned, the discussion of car movies gets me - but it could have been shorter. As far as this vs. Planet Terror, I could take either one any day and be happy. Today it was Death Proof, but who knows with time. Love 'em both.

Michele (TheGirlWhoLovesHorror) said...

Yes, Rosario Dawson was my favorite, with Vanessa Ferlito not far behind. The scene I always look forward to is the lap dance, strangely... I feel a little gay when I watch that because she doesn't look all that hot in just a t-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops but she's got a confidence that's very sexy. Plus that song is totally awesome and I downloaded the mp3 as soon as I found out what it was!

Bärrÿ said...

When I saw Grindhouse, I thought it was okay. I loved Stuntman Mike and the last 20 or so minutes of Death Proof is, my opinion, the highlight of Grindhouse but after Planet Terror and the trailers, it wasn't as exciting as the rest of the film.

Upon its DVD release, I revisited Death Proof and found it to very enjoyable. There are definite parts I'd cut out but I genuinely love the film and it holds up much better on its own. I even watched it a couple of times last month. It's definitely a film that gets better with each viewing