Movies like "Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS" are so bad, they're good. It's one of many '70s exploitation films referenced in "Grindhouse," the long-awaited double feature by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. The directors and long-time collaborators come together to produce two loud, grainy films shot through the overt skin and violence of the grindhouse theaters of old. Though Rodriguez turns in the livelier half, the project is suffused with Tarantino's style and fetishistic glee, which must give pop-culture geeks of all stripes shivers of admiration and envy. Those with Tarantino's stripes are at a unique advantage. They don't just get to revel in pop culture; they can reference their own movies. They are pop culture. So it's no surprise that "Grindhouse," though by no means the first contemporary remake of an exploitation film, should turn out to be the best.
After a selection of tongue-in-cheek "prevues," the first half features Rose McGowan as Cherry in "Planet Terror," a very self-aware variety show of '70s-B-horror-film clichés, strung together by a loose narrative. All the flesh-eating ghouls, creepy military bases, stubborn cops, ridiculous side plots, cheesy one-liners, butt-kicking heroes and busty babes of those old movies are here amped in over-the-top ironic self-satisfaction.
"Planet Terror" is the campier of the two movies, but since the whole has the mark of Quentin, it's surprising that Tarantino's half, "Death Proof," should drag. As in most of the director's work, witty violence and dialogue entwine in a battle of one-upmanship. "Death Proof" is decidedly small-scale, though, with a story about a "death proof" stunt car that is unusually simple for Tarantino. The dialogue, though profligate, is not as novel and engaging as we've come to expect, either. There are funny bits, but nothing approaching a conversation about a Royale with cheese.
"Planet Terror" and "Death Proof" are high-end fun houses. The two are also filled with buckets of blood, creating a thrill ride out of death and destruction at a time when the world has more than enough of the real thing. Though the two movies could be mistaken for parody, they are not. There's a simple reason: Tarantino who always looks much too pleased with himself in his scattered scenes is able to revel in a genre that was once a cynical ploy to turn lurid subject matter into ticket sales. Those mutilations and perversities are no longer shocking or exciting, just an endless supply of punch lines. Now is that good bad or bad good? (R) 191 min. **** S