‘Death Proof’ is the second of the Rodriguez-Tarantino ‘Grindhouse” double features. While ‘Planet Terror’ was a straightforward homage to drive-in and grindhouse monster/horror movies, ‘Death Proof’ takes the stylistic shell of the sixties southern car chase movies and marries it with a serial killer/slasher plot, resulting in some pretty novel variations.
Inevitably, because of their low budgets and male gearhead mentality, most of the car chase movies of the sixties and early seventies involved about five or ten minutes of actual action and 75 or 80 minutes of peripheral background, plot mechanics, and low-grade local color dialogue. The best known are the post-Opie Ron Howards ‘Eat My Dust’ and ‘Grand Theft Auto’, Peter Fonda’s ‘Dirty Mary Crazy Larry’, and the sixties classic ‘Vanishing Point’. The serial killer movies of the seventies, as we know, were most notable for the psycho-killer-pursuing-and- punishing-promiscuous-teenagers motif.
Tarantino sees the long stretches of exposition and dialogue as opportunity rather than filler. Almost the entire first half of the film, a little over fifty minutes, follows three girlfriends around for a night on the town in Austin, Texas, and the conversation, gossip and social concerns thereof. It’s notable that all three have boyfriends, and/or boys-who-are-friends, who are ultimately of no consequence in the action that follows. Weaving his way into their night out is Stuntman Mike (reliable pro Kurt Russell), an ex-stuntman who drives a stunts-reinforced 1970 Nova. Alternately just creepy enough to keep the girls cautious and just charming enough to get them to lower their guard, he actually starts to grow on them, and you, as a character. Then two fairly quick scenes shift the plot, and tone, VERY abruptly, and suddenly we know WAY more about Stuntman Mike than we’re remotely comfortable with.
I won’t tell you what happens, but on thinking about the movie later on, I couldn’t help but draw a parallel to Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’; how the first 45 minutes or so is the story of Janet Leigh’s crime and getaway, and how the shower scene shifts it into an entirely different direction. Obviously I’m not the only person to have thought of that. In an interview I saw online, Tarantino swears he wasn’t aware of this during the writing or making of the movie, but, on purpose or accidently, it’s remarkably effective.
The second section of the film follows a second trio of girlfriends who initially seem comparable to the trio in the first section, but we learn some important differences as we go. They are extraordinarily self-reliant, with two of the three possessing skills, and attitudes, that make them worthy adversaries for the resurgent Stuntman Mike, who ultimately targets them, leading into an admittedly thrilling extended car chase battle on a far more level playing field. Again, I’m delighted with the Russ Meyer influence that both directors obviously drew from. This would be an appropriate double feature match with ‘Faster Pussycat Kill Kill’ as well.
Ultimately, I found the film to be an entertaining success. In hindsight, it works as a whole, but I must admit that, at the time, that first fifty minutes seemed much longer – despite engaging work from Vanessa Ferlito, and a little later from Rose McGowan. Tarantino has a great ear for the familiar conversational rhythms, but you start to notice an overreliance on hipster subculture name-dropping. ‘Vanishing Point’ and ‘Dirty Mary Crazy Larry’ are directly cited, and I’m surprised a shameless hardcore geek like Quentin would allow one of his actresses to mispronounce Dave, Dee, Dozy, Beaky, MICK (not ‘Mitch’), and Tich.
And, as mentioned in the ‘Planet Terror’ post, this stuff won’t have much appeal for those who prefer the Hollywod higher-budget mainstream. The one thing I worried about most was the fact that the people who made these films in the sixties and seventies with those low budgets and those wildly variant levels of talent had every intention of making what they thought were really good films. The shortcomings are part of their somewhat squalid charm – some of their ‘mistakes’ turn out to be the best parts. Doing it on purpose, on the Weinstein’s checkbook, could have just turned out to be self-congratulatory indulgence. But I think both directors really found the balance, and made genuinely fun films.