Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Miles To Go Before I Sleep - DEATH PROOF Revisited

A long time ago, a younger, less wiser (but not exactly stupid), version of myself got into a debate (not heated, barely lukewarm) with a former friend's dad (always experts on everything) as to what constituted a horror film. I had referred to THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (then still in theaters) as a horror film, and my debate partner disagreed, calling it a thriller instead. His point was that what made something "horror" was an element of fantasy or the unreal; if it could be grounded in reality, it couldn't be called horror. I began rattling off a list of classic titles: JAWS wasn't horror because shark attacks were real; PSYCHO wasn't horror because it had no fantasy to it (and was based on a true story). THE BIRDS, however, was horror because it wasn't realistic, since "birds don't do things like that" and THE EXORCIST was horror because, well, "no one's head can spin all the way around". It was a debate without winners or losers, but I must admit that the point always stuck with me, that if there's no fantasy to it, does that indeed make it horror? I've always maintained that it can be done, but how rarely do we see it happen? How many horror films out there are pulled from the pages of "real life". Not a lot. Real life is scary enough without trying to turn it into a shriekfest, but taking "the real world" and making it fit into the horror mold doesn't seem to be too easy a thing to do. Sure, you're always meant to identify with characters and situations in horror films, but that idea of "this could actually happen" doesn't seem to be properly utilized enough in this genre. So that's what makes Quentin Tarantino's DEATH PROOF such a delight; it's characters and situations are very much part of a Tarantino movie, but the horror? As real as anything can be.

If you read my original GRINDHOUSE review from back in April, you'll remember that I was pretty much over the moon about DEATH PROOF and I've been waiting for an opportunity to see the film again in one form or another since my initial viewing back in April. I was able to get my hands on the upcoming DVD over the weekend and watched it pretty quickly out of the wrapping, not something I often do and one of my signs of a really good movie. Since a couple of months have passed (and since I was on such an overall movie high while watching GRINDHOUSE), I was able to look at DEATH PROOF a little clearer, though my opinion really hasn't changed all that much, because it's still the best film I've seen all year. It may not be "great" in the way PULP FICTION was, but no other film this year has been as alive as DEATH PROOF is; it's full of the joy of movies, of movie watching and movie making, not so much a film made for audiences but a film made for the love of all movies. Even the end credits are about what make movies great. If PULP FICTION was Tarantino's BREATHLESS, DEATH PROOF is his PIERROT LE FOU (did I just say that?!?).

Watching DEATH PROOF again, a few things begin to stand out. To start, the opening of each of the two segments seems to go on a little too long and contains dialog that you keep thinking should be trimmed for timing and pacing. Yes, I was watching the extended (or international) cut of the film, but there wasn't much of anything added to these bits. However, it isn't until later that you realize Tarantino is merely baiting you, making you wait for the good stuff to come. And by "good stuff", I'm talking Kurt Russell's Stuntman Mike, one of the greatest sociopaths ever put on screen and probably Russell's finest performance yet. Russell works his way around Taratino's dialog beautifully (the bit where he rattles off his credits is priceless) and his interaction with the yummy Vanessa Ferlito ranks with the great Tarantino scenes in my opinion. The guy is truly dangerous, friendly when he wants you to like him and batshit as hell when he lets it all out and I've got to wonder just how much of a thrill it was for Russell to play this part. It's when he enters the film does DEATH PROOF truly become a horror film and with that it simply gets more and more intense until Tarantino brings the horror to the forefront and brings out one of the greatest moments in horror film history, the car crash. Let go all SPOILER ALERT FOR THE REST OF THE ARTICLE for those who haven't seen the film yet, though the rest of you know just what I'm talking about. Once Russell gets behind the wheel of his "movie car", truly terrifying things happen. I mean, this shit really freaked me the fuck out. I was actually in a nasty car crash at the end of last year and the memory of it is a pretty god damn unpleasant one (no one was hurt, thankfully, but my car was totaled) and Tarantino gets that fear down better than any director I've ever seen. The scene of the crash, all that leads up to the hit (great song choice, too) and the actual moment of impact (seen from five viewpoints) is simply brilliant and is one of the all-time great horror moments in movie history. It probably seems like I'm just a geeky fanboy gushing over Tarantino, but I've got to tell you, with this scene he fucking nailed what true horror is and he did it without slipping into fantasy. All I can say is, it's a moment that I will truly never forget.

Going into the film's second half (the one that gets considerably more extended in the international cut), the horror is mixed with a sense of excitement, as our new characters are thrill seekers themselves, out on a pretty cool set of adventures that Stuntman Mike decides to, uh, butt in on. So again, we get something incredibly nerve-wracking and scary as fuck. But it doesn't stay that way. Tarantino wisely turns the tables and gives us an opportunity to see Stuntman Mike get his, giving the film a satisfactory ending that's unique to the horror genre (which usually doesn't end so happily). In doing so, he also makes it something else not seen too often in the genre, a female empowerment tale, and again, it's all the better for it (Kim Morgan's Huffington Post appreciation of this is highly recommended reading). Making Mike a danger to women and having these strong women beat him (literally) at his own game makes it all the more thrilling, because, in a sense, it answers the genre's many critics who have held the genre up to charges of sexism for so long. It takes a geeky horror fanboy to have made the strongest women's genre picture since ALIENS and the fact that it is a women's picture makes DEATH PROOF just a little bit better. Now, I had heard an interesting theory put forth by a well-known film writer (not me) that Tarantino was playing games with us again, that he was actually switching time periods around on us and that DEATH PROOF's second half was actually the story's first half. Well, turns out this isn't right, as the new cut makes it very clear that it's set 14 months later, but it would have been interesting if he did, Mike's actions (if part one were indeed part two) would have a backstory to them, as well, and would show him off to be even more of a dangerous scumbag than he is. Would that make it less of a "women's picture"? Yes and no. Yes because, in a sense, Mike's getting away with murder, but no because we'll know that Mike can be whipped by the same sex he's out to destroy. He can murder all he wants to, but his power will always be diminished since he's not the man he seems to think he is; we will always know that he got his ass whupped real hard by the so-called "weaker sex". If you ask me, I find that fascinating. But then again, it's not the case, so never mind.

OK, I've been prattling on about this for far too long now. DEATH PROOF is awesome. If you saw it once, see it again, and if you didn't see it, see it soon. It's something fresh and new and yet old and smelly and that's a wonderful thing. I have no doubt I will watch it again soon.

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