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Grindhouse Gang 

Quentin Tarantino summons the masters to historic summit

Wednesday, Apr 4 2007

The following interviews were conducted on the evening of March 31. Sadly, as this story was going to press, it was reported that Bob Clark was killed in a head-on car crash on Pacific Coast Highway in the early-morning hours of April 4. His son Ariel, a passenger in the car, was also pronounced dead at the scene.

It was during a typically long and muggy Florida summer that I first wandered into the dimly lit recesses of a local video store and plucked from its dusty shelves the movies of the Australian suspense maestro Richard Franklin, including his 1978 Patrick, with its comatose yet telekinetic title character. In short order, I would similarly discover the work of the American urban-terror specialist William Lustig (of Maniac and Maniac Cop fame), and that of the Italian splatter king Lucio Fulci (New York Ripper, Don’t Torture a Duckling) — my fondness deepening, with each successive trip to the rental counter, for the golden age of grindhouse cinema. It was only later that I came to realize how thoroughly VHS and cable had cannibalized the theatrical exploitation market, so that by the time I made it to New York and Los Angeles in the 1990s, the decaying movie palaces along 42nd Street and Hollywood Boulevard that once served up exploitation movies by the pound had shuttered or been converted into more traditional places of worship (those with altars in place of screens). Low-budget horror and action quickies were now being manufactured almost exclusively for the home-video market. Per Norma Desmond’s prophetic words, the pictures really had gotten smaller.

Among contemporary filmmakers, none harbor greater affection for (or have been more influenced by) this bygone era than Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, whose Grindhouse offers a vintage double-header (complete with ersatz trailers and print damage) of cheap thrills and gory chills, starting with Rodriguez’s eco-horror zombie movie Planet Terror and concluding with Tarantino’s edge-of-your-(car)seat thrill ride Death Proof. Yet, when I proposed to these two nostalgia junkies that, in lieu of a conventional interview, we might organize a kind of roundtable with a few favorite grindhouse veterans, little did I imagine the historic meeting — or, to quote Tarantino, summit — that was about to transpire. Only too happy to answer our call were Richard Rush, who began his career with the classic biker movies The Savage Seven and Hell’s Angels on Wheels; Bob Clark, who directed the 1970s creep-outs Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things and Black Christmas before going on to create the Porky’s franchise; and the British-born Brian Trenchard-Smith, whose résumé ranges from directing Steve Railsback in the cult classic Escape 2000 to latter-day entries in the Leprechaun and Omega Code franchises. Joining them would be three alumni of the Roger Corman dream factory: Allan Arkush (Hollywood Boulevard, Rock ’n’ Roll High School), George Armitage (Private Duty Nurses, Vigilante Force) and Lewis Teague (The Lady in Red, Alligator).

click to flip through (6) Tarantino on location: When he says action, he really means it. (Andrew Cooper/The Weinstein Company)
  • Tarantino on location: When he says action, he really means it. (Andrew Cooper/The Weinstein Company)

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Like the great B-movie directors of the 1950s before them (and Tarantino and Rodriguez afterward), these industrious auteurs often bridged the gap — or muddied the waters — between grindhouse and art house, with Rush going on to receive an Oscar nomination for his direction of The Stunt Man, while Clark helmed the elegant Sherlock Holmes–meets–Jack the Ripper thriller Murder by Decree and that holiday classic known as A Christmas Story. Some, like Teague, graduated to studio tent-pole fare (The Jewel of the Nile), while others, like Arkush, settled into careers in network television. The elusive Armitage emerged in the 1990s from a decadelong hiatus to deliver two memorable slices of modern pulp fiction: Miami Blues and Grosse Pointe Blank. The recent work of Trenchard-Smith, perhaps the most unpredictable of the lot, includes the 9/11-themed Showtime docudrama Time of Crisis and two films (Tides of War, In Her Line of Fire) in the burgeoning subgenre (who knew?) of gay-themed action movies.

As we convened over dinner on the night following Grindhouse’s first press screening, the admiration flowed freely between the masters and their disciples, while the conversation (particularly when Tarantino himself held forth — which was often — with his exhaustive inventory of B-movie arcana) encompassed such obscure objects of cinephilic desire as the forgotten low-budget master William Witney, the Filipino action director Cirio H. Santiago and the sexploitation actress Candice Rialson. Above all, the discussion offered a reminder that, for the filmmmakers present, no matter where their careers have taken them, their hearts will always belong to the grindhouse. What follows are highlights culled from that evening, with the caveat that, per Tarantino’s own sage advice, I have elected to keep some of the magicians’ secrets just so.

ARKUSH: Sometimes, I’ll just yell, “Freedom take. Do anything you want as long as you hit the same marks.” Of course, they do it kind of the same, but they feel that the pressure’s off and they give it that little extra something.

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