Movie: “Planet Terror” – a nerdy horror picture

23 07 2010

Robert Rodriguez directed “Planet Terror“, using modern technology to recreate the experience that was delivered in back street movie houses in the 1960s and 1970s. It is fun to see the different ways in which it portrays a bad movie house experience, but as a horror movie it has no special good properties.

"Planet Terror" -- poster

"Planet Terror" -- poster

Short résumé

Some evil scientist invents a strange chemical that serves as a cure for soldiers that have been exposed to some toxic chemicals in a foreign war. The chemical cure is accidentally released into the air at a US Army base in Texas, the local population is exposed to this airborne chemical, and this turns them into murderous  zombies. A few persons do not get exposed, and they try to get away from this dangerous environment, by shooting everything that gets in their way. And some manage to escape. After major massacres of zombies. And massacres of the contaminated army soldiers.

Grindhouse

The term grindhouse denotes sleazy movie houses showing B-movies. Many now middle-aged persons grew up in or around such movie places. Robert Rodriguez has affectionate feelings for the grindhouse experience. This is a familiar phenomenon … when people get older they remember things they  experienced in a rosy light. If you associate  grindhouse to some satisfying experiences, then will others — who did not come into contact with grindhouse — have a good time  if they get exposed to that same experience?

"Planet Terror": Rose McGowan with machine-gun leg

"Planet Terror": Rose McGowan with machine-gun leg

Not likely. Which is why this movie did not succeed at the box office. Its origin is definitely ego-centric. Rodriguez got a kick out of doing this movie, and can no doubt give us many reasons why we should appreciate his cinematic creation. But we do not have to be triggered in the same way by the same things.

The context

Making a horror movie is easy, and can be done on an extremely low budget. Think Roger Corman, the creator of many horror movies on a shoe-string budget. Rodriguez had more money at his disposal, so could embark on more costly creation of scenes and special effects.

Well, the point of making this film was not to make yet another horror movie. It was rather to revisit the childhood experiences, when watching B-movies in a back-street movie theatre. The movies shown there were not provided in mint condition. Rather, the distributors made as few copies as possible (a way of saving costs), and then let each copy circulate for a very long time. This caused the acetates to physically degrade. There were scratches — seen as long vertical lines on the screen. There were breaks in the acetates — crudely mending it with glue caused jump in the picture. There were burnouts — the acetate stopped in the mechanisms for some reason and after a second, the acetate frame melted. There were even reels lost — unexplained jumps in the story seen on the screen.

"Planet Terror" -- poisoned soldier

"Planet Terror" -- poisoned soldier

Such experiences are now becoming extinct, as we go for distribution and exhibition in digital formats. Future generations will never know what it was to watch a bad acetate copy. But exactly that  is one of  the main goals of Rodriguez’  venture … to let us experience what a bad copy of a B movie looks like. Here we get all of the types of degrade effects mentioned above. but this time digitally simulated using modern format processing technology.

In addition, we get some fake trailers for coming features — features that do not exist, and very likely will never exist. The exception may be “Machete“, an action movie starring Danny Trejo, which has been talked about as an upcoming work by Rodriguez.

The movie “Planet Terror” is one of the two movies made concurrently to be configured into a grindhouse double feature , the other one is “Death Proof” by Quentin Tarantino. The double feature distribution did not work well in this case (the format did not fit in with the movie theatre schedules? the TV-addicted audience did not fancy a double feature?) , so they split it into two separate movies, padding each of them to get to a full length format. This did improve box office intake, but the end result was that it has so far not recovered the money invested in their production.

So, what is this “Planet Terror” really? What unique value does it offer? As indicated above, I do not find the story or the visual action interesting. From that point of view it is just another of those incoherent and meaningless horror movie  made in a week or so. We have already seen enough of those. No, the forgiving feature is that they (Rodriguez and Tarantino) tried to “age” the visual impression of their movies, so that what we visually observe is a faithful rendering of what it looked like to visit the backstreet movie houses in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

Conclusion

Interesting example of what nerdy enthusiasts can achieve when they get their hands on a budget of sufficient size. They surely enjoyed making this movie. But it is of limited value for an ordinary film lover. Fans of cheap horror flicks will of course find some stimulation here, but perhaps they will also get irritated by the simulated “bad film reels”.

Data

Planet Terror”  (2007). Directed by: Robert Rodriguez; written by: Robert Rodriguez;  starring: Rose McGowan, Freddy Rodríguez, Josh Brolin, Marley Shelton, Jeff Fahey, Michael Biehn, Bruce Willis (special appearance;)
length: 105 min; (Movie at imdb)

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