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These plotlines get hacked to bits

April 01, 2007|Mark Olsen | Special to The Times

DO not be fooled into heading for the bathroom or concession stand during the "intermission" that breaks up the double-billed features that make up "Grindhouse" -- "Planet Terror" and "Death Proof."

Perhaps the craftiest trick pulled off by writerdirectors Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino in creating their much anticipated, self-conscious throwback to the heady days of low-rent theaters, scratched prints and the all-scuzz, all-the-time exploitation ethos is the false movie trailers that make up the intermission reel.

The filmmakers enlisted the likes of Rob Zombie ("The Devil's Rejects"), Edgar Wright ("Shaun of the Dead") and Eli Roth ("Hostel") when it became clear they were too bogged down with finishing their features to take on the trailers as well.

Rodriguez recalled Zombie's pitch: "He goes, 'It's called 'Werewolf Women of the SS.' I said, 'Say no more. Go shoot it.' "

And shoot he did. While all three trailers were shot in just two days apiece, Wright and Roth essentially shot only what ended up on screen. Zombie estimates that he had enough footage to make a solid half-hour movie and was particularly pained to whittle it down.

Zombie assembled quite a cast for his mini-movie, including Udo Kier and Sybil Danning, B-movie character actors Bill Moseley and Tom Towles, and his wife, Sheri Moon Zombie. Best of all, however, is an appearance by Nicolas Cage as Fu Manchu.

How exactly one gets from Nazi scientists to topless superwomen, machine-gunning werewolves to Fu Manchu remains delightfully obscure in the trailer, and that confusion is not only intentional but, as Zombie explains, a tip of the hat to exploitation convention.

"I was getting very conceptual in my own mind with it," he says. "A lot of these movies, they would be made cheaply. The real famous Nazi-type movie, 'Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS,' was made on the leftover sets from 'Hogan's Heroes.' That's why that movie, for a cheap exploitation film, it looks pretty nice.

"A lot of times these movies would be made like, 'Well, you know, I've got a whole bunch of Nazi uniforms, but I got this Chinese set too. We'll put 'em together!' They start jamming things in there, so I took that approach."

Wright created a trailer that is a pastiche of English haunted house pictures and super-stylized European horror films. The very title of Wright's faux film is the central punch line for the trailer (and so it will not be revealed here).

Viewers with a deep knowledge of British acting talent will be able to spot not only "Shaun" stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, but also such faces as Jason Isaacs, Matthew Macfadyen, Georgina Chapman, Lucy Punch, Stuart Wilson and Katie Melua. The uproariously paced narration was done by "Arrested Development" star -- and voice of GMC truck ads -- Will Arnett.

To get the necessary 1970s look, Wright used vintage lenses and old-style graphics. During editing, he scratched some of the film with steel wool and dragged it around a parking lot to make it appear neglected by wayward projectionists.

While growing up in Massachusetts, Roth loved the holiday-themed slasher films -- "Silent Night, Deadly Night," "Halloween," "April Fool's Day," "My Bloody Valentine" -- but there was always one day that seemed to be overlooked. The result: "Thanksgiving."

Scheduling a couple of days onto the end of production for "Hostel Part II" in Prague, Roth shot his trailer, appropriately enough, just after Thanksgiving. Somewhat desperate for English-speaking performers, he drafted "Hostel" actors Jay Hernandez and Jordan Ladd, actor Michael Biehn, who just happened to be in Prague, and assorted crew members, and he even made a cameo as one of the victims of a mad killer in a pilgrim outfit. (He also got the "Hostel" special effects team to help create some particularly gruesome images, most notably what appears to be a human body stuffed and roasted like a Thanksgiving turkey.)

"Shooting the trailer was so much fun," Roth says, "because every shot is a money shot. Every shot is decapitation or nudity. It's so ridiculous, it's absurd. It's just so wrong and sick that it's right."

It was Roth's trailer in particular that needed some trimming to avoid earning "Grindhouse" an NC-17 rating.

Suffice it to say there are plenty of see-it-to-believe-it moments, including a cheerleader simultaneously stripping and bouncing atop a trampoline, multiple lopped off heads and a killer who stuffs a turkey in a most revolting way.

"Instead of seeing it spread out in a feature, watching it all jammed together nonstop makes it more shocking," Roth says. "But we had a great discussion with the ratings board. They got it. Once they saw it with all the bad splices and the distress and scratches they were fine with it."

Zombie, Wright and Roth all express their appreciation and admiration for Rodriguez and Tarantino, not only as filmmakers, but for creating the "Grindhouse" project in the spirit of dementedly rekindling the lively, night-out fun of old-time moviegoing.

Yet for "Grindhouse" to really capture the spirit of the original grind houses, the seedy, run-down movie theaters that would show wild and relentless releases truly devoid of any redeeming values, the filmmakers had to take it down a few notches and be sure to connect with the lowlifes and the squalor. They needed the merely odd to become the truly outrageous.

"To me the only thing missing from our grind-house movies is they are not quite sleazy enough," says Tarantino of "Planet Terror" and "Death Proof."

The mock trailers, however, are something else.

"These guys brought the sleaze factor. They are coming from a sleaze place that me and Robert did not come from, but that needed to be there for the picture to be proper."

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