The movie might be playing to "near empty theaters" someplace, but I saw it last Saturday in a full (though not sold out) theater in New York City. And everyone seemed to have a good time - even the women in the audience (there were quite a few couples - although the guy next to me had to keep explaining all the B-movie references to his girlfriend she seemed to be enjoying herself as much as he was).
I had a good time, too. I can see why it didn't make money, though: it's an oddball movie and though the studio was supposed to have spent $30M in marketing, no one involved there seemed to really get exactly how oddball it is. If Harvey Weinstein thought that Grindhouse could ever have been a straightforward teen horror hit (like Disturbia), then he really needs to see more movies.
And how exactly did they spend that $30M? I'm not super hooked into the "coming attractions" scene (I don't seek out trailers on the internet, for example), but I do kinda/sorta pay attention to this stuff and I don't recall seeing anything about Grindhouse (i.e., no TV ads, not as part of the coming attractions when I saw 300 and Zodiac). I guess I saw a poster and a couple of displays, but it seems like $30M should buy a bit more.
Anyway, the movie itself:
First, Planet Terror and Death Proof are really different kinds of movies. Rodriguez and Tarantino take very different approaches to this little exercise. Planet Terror is a pastiche of sub-Romero 1970s horror walking dead flicks.
Visually - in terms of the photography, the design, and the effects - Rodriguez gets it just about perfect. Narratively, there's a little bit too much going on (even with the benefit of a "Missing Reel", the movie is ten minutes too long): in The Crazies, for example, there are really only two plot threads, Planet Terror has two major one plus a bunch of subplots. One of the things that I love about genuine Z-movies is that the filmmakers tried to wring a lot out of very little, but the poverty of the production (not to mention their ideas) usually showed through anyway. Rodriguez obviously wanted to cram everything he loves about this kind of movie into Planet Terror, which is understandable, but undercuts the movie's effectiveness.
Something else I noticed:
Some of the actors seem to "get" how to play this kind of material. Michael Biehn, Jeff Fahey, (surprisingly?) Marley Shelton, and, especially, Josh Brolin. That is: their performances give the impression of professionals doing a job, not giving their all, but giving just enough to put the material over.
But others in the cast - Freddy Rodriguez, Rose McGowan, Naveen Andrews, and (surprisingly) Bruce Willis - can't help winking at us, turning in consciously ironic performances. (Andrews does the best, because at least he's precise with his campiness).
I can't help but think that Biehn, Fahey, and Brolin learned this by living it: years of taking roles to pay the bills, artistic excellence be damned. This is one of the more interesting phenomena in movies: they require so many people to make that even on a labor of love, there will probably be some folks who just see it as another job.
Adding these two problems together - too much going on and half the cast letting us know they're in on the joke, too - makes Planet Terror, ultimately, just a little bit disappointing. Of course, hardly any of Rodriguez's movies have been afflicted by both restraint and coherence, but this is another case where I wish someone was there to tell him, "Don't".
Oh - something else about Planet Terror: I read one review of the movie where the gist was that Rodriguez and Tarantino need to put away childish things (i.e., stop making movies about the junk culture they've grown up) and grow up (i.e., start making serious movies that don't have anything to do with kung-fu or zombies). Well, personally, I prefer an unrepentant genre movie like Planet Terror to something like Pan's Labyrinth a genre movie that also wants to make you think "serious" thoughts and feels "seriously" unpleasant.
So, I liked Planet Terror, but, perhaps, more importantly, it set the mood for Death Proof. Michael Newman suggested that the better movie should go first, but, in this case, Death Proof works better coming after Planet Terror.
I don't want to talk too much about Death Proof, since the surprising ways it tweaks its genre are a big part of its fun (I think I'll end up writing a long essay on it at some point though). However, I will say that unlike Planet Terror, this isn't pastiche: it's a real movie and it's genuinely it's own thing. It's probably closest to Reservoir Dogs in that, depending on how you look at it, it's either a B-movie with an art-house sensibility or an art-house movie with a B-movie sensibility. But it's much more relaxed than that movie - for maybe the first time, Tarantino doesn't seem like he's trying to prove anything. This makes it feel almost like a masterclass on how to combine a genre exercise with "personal" filmmaking (hopefully Eli Roth took notes and even Neil Marshall, a favorite of mine, could learn a thing or two).
I also liked the fake trailers: too bad this was a flop, I would have paid to see Grindhouse 2 with a Werewolf Women of the SS and Thanksgiving double feature. (I guess I'll have to make do with Rob Zombie's Halloween remake: the real preview looked pretty interesting).