Planet Terror

(Sight & Sound, BFI)

Texas, the present. At an army base, a secret transaction goes awry and a deadly gas is released. Nearby, go-go dancer Cherry Darling encounters ex-boyfriend El Wray. She accepts a lift from him, but they’re attacked by mutating cannibals who tear off Cherry’s leg…

Planet Terror began life as Robert Rodriguez’s half of the package feature Grindhouse. That said, according to a Fangoria interview with Mary Shelton, who appears in both Planet Terror and Quentin Tarantino’s accompanying Grindhouse film, Death Proof, the Rodriguez picture was actually very much a two-hander. On Shelton’s account, Tarantino was an active co-director, adjusting performances and changing lines on the Planet Terror shoot.

While Death Proof was a veering hybrid of girls’ talk and car carnage, Planet Terror – whose plot amounts to mutant cannibals running amuck –is clearly part of the hyper-violent, junk-culture universe that both grown men use as a playground. The film shares several characters with Death Proof, but it’s located far closer to Kill Bill and Sin City.

Tarantino’s film was criticised in these pages by Tony Rayns for its conceptual, structural and dialogue deficits. Planet Terror has a simpler problem; it’s annoyingly indulgent and only fitfully entertains even as the trash it presents itself to be. There are cherishable scenes (a doctor enthusing over a database of disgusting diseases as if it were a porn stash), amusing bad dialogue (no risk of Rodriguez’s writing being likened to Mankiewicz as Tarantino’s was in Variety) and a sleazy glitz to make the film a worthwhile pleasure in widescreen, only enhanced by the trademark Grindhouse picture jumps and on-screen scratches. However, the good moments are spread thin over Planet Terror’s running time, especially in this extended version.

At first, the lively presentation and speedy scene-shifting imbue the coarse content and makes it palatable. Witness Rose McGowan’s opening-credits go-go dance, more decorous than raunchy, but inflamed by a seared, sizzling print on the brink of burn-out. Another early scene on an army base where the film’s Unspeakable Horror is released offers grunge (a character half-swallows a severed specimen testicle) and wonder (entranced soldiers march into unearthly green mist, a la Close Encounters). Characters career past each other at the scene changes; pop singer Ann Ferguson shows up briefly and has her brain scooped out as the film’s protagonists drive by oblivious.

However, the film is so busy layering on the mucus, blood and brains that it hasn’t time for real development, let alone genuine characters or shocks. The overt genre references are to vintage John Carpenter whose music is borrowed in the film, but without tension it feels pointless, even when Rodriguez follows Carpenter’s taboo-breaking in Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) by disposing of a young child. (The matter-of-fact way in which the careless child, played by Rodriguez’s son Rebel, dies by his own hand is cold but not chilling, and he’s resurrected after the end-titles.) More memorable is a sick gag where Shelton’s anaesthetist character has her needles used against her, causing an accident with numbed hands and a car door.

The film at least offers enjoyable caricatures, including Jeff Fahey as an improbably resourceful redneck diner owner and horror effects legend Tom Savini as an inept deputy whose grisly fate is never in doubt. Several characters, including Shelton’s, cross over from Death Proof, with yet another turn from Michael Parks as readymade archetypal Texan lawman Earl McGraw (also seen in From Dusk Till Dawn and Kill Bill Vol 1). Nominal leads McGowan and Freddy Rodriguez (no relation) bring good humour to mechanical roles, and there’s a nice touch when McGowan, who played the outcast Pam in Death Proof, reluctantly accepts another lift with nasty consequences.

The best joke, though, is when a film reel ignites during a sex scene, leading to the story jumping several minutes forward minus some (apparently) exciting action and “vital” plot exposition. But having deftly short-circuited the narrative, Rodriguez then shows he doesn’t know where to stop, taking the film into a distended last act so Bruce Willis can turn into a blob-monster and Tarantino can gatecrash as a rapist with a melting dick. This is also when McGowan becomes a barely-metaphorical chick with a dick, strapping a gun to her severed leg stump and blasting the opposition. An arresting trash image, to be sure, one that brings happy memories of the chainsaw-armed Bruce Campbell in Evil Dead 2 (1987) and ends Planet Terror on what on its terms is a high, but the damage is already done.