Grindhouse

Grindhouse movie poster

Grindhouse” is a double feature of movies written and directed by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, and it is their ode to the exploitation movies of the 70’s and 80’s which used to play in all those seedy movie theaters in New York and Los Angeles. Now a lot of those movies were poorly made and had bad acting, writing and directing, but this is not the case here as this crazy love letter to all things exploitation gets brilliant treatment from two renegade minds of Hollywood cinema. To put it mildly, “Grindhouse” was an awesome experience. How great it is to see some kick ass movies made by two guys who have such a love for movies and who love making them.

“Grindhouse” starts off with the first of four fake movie trailers. This is part of Rodriguez’s and Tarantino’s plan to immerse you in the experience of watching grindhouse movies like they did as kids; the scratched-up prints, those missing reels, the restricted ratings, the film breaking apart, and of course those insane coming attractions trailers which at times were more memorable than the movies they were promoting.

Anyway, the first trailer was for “Machete” which was done by Rodriguez and stars Danny Trejo as a Mexican framed for a crime he didn’t commit, and he ends up going after the bad guys with a bloody vengeance. This was a blast to watch and the best of all the fake trailers in “Grindhouse” as it captures the ridiculous one-liners we gleefully remember from all those over the top action movies from the 80’s. I especially liked how they had Cheech Marin playing a priest who Machete gets to kill the bad guys with him. He almost succeeds in stealing the trailer right out from under Trejo’s feet.

Then things get underway with “Planet Terror,” Robert Rodriguez’s addition to the “Grindhouse” movie. It is basically his ode to all those zombie movies which came out before we met the fast-paced zombies of “28 Days Later,” and it’s a cross between a George Romero movie and a John Carpenter movie. “Planet Terror” even features a score composed by Rodriguez himself, and he wrote and shot a lot it while listening to Carpenter’s music from “Escape From New York.” In fact, you can even hear a small part of Carpenter’s score in “Planet Terror” if you listen very closely.

“Planet Terror” was a total blast, a flashback to those go for broke action and horror movies that didn’t even try to hold anything back. It reminded me of the “Evil Dead” movies among others where everything and everybody were going nuts. Then again, with the characters running for their lives away from zombies chasing them, can you blame them?

Rodriguez has put a great cast together for “Planet Terror.” The one person who will be remembered forever from it is the ever so luscious Rose McGowan who plays Cherry, a dancer at a strip club who can’t keep from crying as she dances in front of customers. As you know from the movie’s trailer, one of her legs ends up getting chopped off and it eventually gets replaced by a machine gun which she uses to gleefully sadistic effect. It makes for some hilarious moments as Cherry doesn’t even hesitate in blowing away as many zombies as she can.

Also great in “Planet Terror” is Freddy Rodriguez who brings a total rebel quality to his role as El Wray who is a very cool customer indeed. You also have Michael Biehn playing the sheriff, Josh Brolin who plays Dr. Block whose wife, Dakota (played by Marley Shelton), has been cheating on him with another woman, and even Bruce Willis shows up as a military commander who knows more than he is willing to let on.

One of the people I was especially impressed with was Jeff Fahey who I have not always been a big fan of as he always seemed to me to be playing himself in every role he takes on. But here he is loads of fun as J.T., a gas station and restaurant owner who continually claims to have the best barbecued meat in all of Texas. It ended up making me look at Fahey in a whole new light, and as a character actor, he proves to be invaluable.

“Planet Terror” is one gory ride, to put it mildly, but then again what do you expect when you have Tom Savini playing one of the sheriff’s deputies? Have you even seen the movies he has worked on in the past? Rodriguez gets all the gross details down like body parts getting blown or ripped off in an ever so disgustingly precious fashion. Those same body parts are, as a man, the last things I ever want to lose! Ever!

After “Planet Terror” ended, we were treated to the other three fake movie trailers that “Grindhouse” had to offer. Edgar Wright, who directed “Shaun of the Dead,” did the trailer for “Don’t,” and it was endlessly hilarious as it showed us all the things we shouldn’t be doing when we’re in a horror movie. Then there was Rob Zombie’s “Werewolf Women of The S.S.” which was as funny as it was bizarre. Don’t worry, I won’t spoil this one for you as there are cameos here that are too inspired to just give away. And finally, there was “Thanksgiving” which was directed by Eli Roth, the same man who gave us “Hostel.” Thanksgiving does seem to be one of the few holidays left which have yet to be turned into a horror franchise where horny teens get slaughtered in a creatively bloody fashion.

Then we get to Tarantino’s addition to the “Grindhouse” movie: “Death Proof.” It stars Kurt Russell as Stuntman Mike, a serial killer who uses a car instead of a knife to murder young women. No reason is really given as to why he does this, but in a movie like this does it even matter?

“Death Proof” has its share of gruesome moments including a car crash that is shown from different angles as you see how each person gets horribly injured in a head-on collision. Suffice to say, if you have been in a nasty car accident, you probably won’t want to see this. It also features one of the more exhilarating car chases in recent memory where Russell tries to run a Dodge Charger which is occupied by a trio of women off the road. One of these women, Zoe Bell (Uma Thurman’s stunt double in “Kill Bill”) is riding on the hood of the Charger like the insane stunt woman she is. Seeing her struggle to stay on the car makes the scene all the more frightening and exciting as a result. Tarantino clearly has no interest in throwing all sorts of CGI effects at us. He wants to give us the real thing, and that he does.

Of the two movies in “Grindhouse,” I have to say that “Death Proof” was my favorite. Although it takes a while to get to the action, the dialogue is fabulous in a way only Tarantino can come up with. He continues to come up with great lines which make the characters much more distinct than those in your average action movie filled with stock characters. One of the actresses involved with “Death Proof” said Tarantino really knows how to write for women and knows how they think. Now, this might be open to debate for a lot of people, but I think that is absolutely true as it is shown here and in other movies like “Pulp Fiction” and “Jackie Brown.”

Russell remains one of the most underrated actors working in movies today as he can go from genre to genre and from playing a good guy to a bad guy pretty easily. He is great in this role where he plays a pure psychopath who is clearly schizoid as he goes after his next trio of soon to be victims, and it resembles the kind of work he did in movies like “Escape From New York.” Russell is perfect as Stuntman Mike that it got to where I just could not see Mickey Rourke playing this same role even though he was originally cast in it. Rourke wouldn’t have been bad, but this role feels like it was tailor-made for Russell.

So overall, “Grindhouse” was a kick-ass experience that I am ever so eager to see again. I already have the soundtracks to both “Planet Terror” and “Death Proof” which are fantastic to listen to. Then again, I did actually get them before I even saw “Grindhouse” because I was pretty confident that I would not be disappointed, and I wasn’t. Although it drags a little in spots, it is never boring. It’s not going to appeal to everyone, and it is as politically incorrect as any movie in recent years, but it will definitely appeal to those who have been eagerly and patiently awaiting the resurrection of grindhouse cinema they grew up watching in the past. Many had no choice but to watch those exploitation classics on video and DVD, but with Rodriguez’s and Tarantino’s “Grindhouse,” we finally get to see movies like them again on the big screen where they belong.

* * * * out of * * * *

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Exclusive Interview with Ben Ketai about ‘Beneath’

Ben Katei

He has made a place for himself in the horror genre with the “30 Days of Night: Dust to Dust” miniseries and the web series “Chosen.” Now with “Beneath,” Ben Ketai breaks into the feature film realm with a story about a bunch of coal miners who get trapped several hundred feet underground after a catastrophic accident. The movie stars Jeff Fahey as veteran coal miner who spends the last day on the job with his co-workers and his daughter Samantha (Kelly Noonan) when the accident happens, and they have to work together to escape the mine before madness and toxic gasses kill them.

I got to speak with Ketai over the phone, and it was great fun talking with him as he explained what it was like working with Fahey, the challenges of maintaining a strong level of suspense for ninety minutes, and the research he did on coal miners for this movie. “Beneath” might look like your typical horror movie, but in many ways, it isn’t.

Beneath movie poster

Ben Kenber: I thought this movie was very riveting and I like how you managed to keep the suspense up until the very end. How much of a challenge was it to maintain that suspense from start to finish? It could not have been easy.

Ben Ketai: One of the challenges when doing a horror movie like this where you are stuck in one space for the entire film, and I give all the credit to Chris (Valenziano) and Patrick (Doody), the writers, is figuring out how to build a proper level of escalation that keeps the story moving without breaking the suspense until the very, very end. It definitely makes my job much easier when you have a creative group of people like that.

Ben Kenber: This is definitely an interesting story for a horror movie. There have been a lot of stories in the news over the past years of mines collapsing and miners being trapped for an agonizing period of time. Was there a specific event that inspired the story for this film?

Ben Ketai: It was really, for Patrick and Chris, the Chilean coal miners and what they went through was the first seedlings of the idea. And then while they were working on it, I think there were a couple more incidents that came along and so we had a lot of different unfortunate happenings that allowed us to draw inspiration from. A lot the inspiration for the film also comes from just coal miners who haven’t been in collapses, and Chris and Patrick did extensive research while writing the script talking to coal miners and visiting coal mines in West Virginia. We had a recently retired coal miner talk to our cast before production. It was like a little seminar on what it’s like to be a coal miner. There were lots of wonderful sources of inspiration.

Ben Kenber: Where exactly was this movie shot? It looks like a real coal mine, but I came out of it not knowing if it was actually a movie set or not.

Ben Ketai: We actually shot it on a soundstage in Culver City, and pretty much everything you see inside the mine was constructed by our brilliant and very resourceful production designer Michael Barton.

Ben Kenber: At times, I thought it looked so real.

Ben Ketai: I had to remind myself sometimes when we were actually on set. I would start to get claustrophobic, and I had to remind myself that we were on a soundstage and that there was sunlight outside.

Ben Kenber: While watching “Beneath,” I was reminded of a number of other movies like “The Descent” where a group of women went cave dwelling and encountered a bunch of vicious monsters. Was there any movie which inspired you or played through your mind while you were making “Beneath?”

Ben Ketai: We actively tried to avoid “The Descent” and other movies like it because we knew it would draw such strong comparisons just because of the subject matter. But of course we watched “The Descent” and we looked at what works best in that movie, and then also what signifies what that movie is and what that movie looks like it feels like. It sounds too derivative, but while making the movie and immersed in the experience I tried to pull from movies that aren’t actually entirely of the genre. I wanted to try to put something more human to the horror experience. Honestly, one of the movies that my crew and I watched the night before we shot was “Friday Night Lights” simply because it’s a film to me that just does a great job of capturing real camaraderie, and also it has a very piece of life feel to it. That was something that we wanted to bring to a movie like this and to try to make the characters feel like real people that we love and care about, and if we can do that then the horror is going to take care of itself. “The Wrestler” was another movie we watched, and it did such a great job of getting the camera to capture the world of wrestling in such a personal way. I wanted to do that same thing with coal miners and have that same sensation.

Ben Kenber: I’m assuming that you did a lot of research on coal miners and mining accidents, and I imagine that when you have a lack of oxygen down there beneath the earth that you start seeing things that may or may not actually be there. What kind of research did you do in preparation for directing this film?

Ben Ketai: All sorts really. The writers had a great head start obviously and they worked on the script for about a year and a half. When I came onto the project just a couple months out from production, they kind of dumped all the research into my lap and I had to do a crash course and catch up fast with them. We were developing the script through craft and with the actors. We just gathered as much information as we could about what happens to your brain during oxygen deprivation, and not only that but what happens when you were trapped in a coal mine. It’s not just that you are running out of oxygen, but the air itself is becoming toxic. There are always toxic gasses that are leaking into the coal mine, and usually if the mine hasn’t collapsed there is stuff that extracts that from the working environment. When the collapse happens, it basically cuts off their flow of fresh air, and things like methane and poisonous gasses continue to build up. All the crazy things that can happen to you like hallucinations to total personality changes, that was really the most exciting thing to me. We had this great device that creates a real-life thing that could explain away all those supernatural things. We really wanted to make it all ambiguous, and we did.

Ben Kenber: The cast for this movie is really spot on. All the actors look like they have worked in a mine for a long, long time. What was it like casting this film?

Ben Ketai: The casting process on this movie was awesome. It was probably the most enjoyable process that I ever had working on movies because we didn’t have a studio looking over our shoulder and we didn’t have foreign sales companies to answer to. So we really just got to do it the old school way and we just had auditions. We really took our time to figure out who were the best people to embody these characters, and we managed to assemble what I felt was a cast of just all incredibly talented and incredibly realistic people/actors.

Ben Kenber: What was it like working with Jeff Fahey?

Ben Ketai: It was a really, really incredible experience. I’ve always been a fan of his. I was probably 12 years old when I first saw “Lawnmower Man.” I grew up with Jeff Fahey. It’s kind of a dream to get to work with a guy like this, and not only that but he’s got so many years of experience under his belt and so much passion for his craft that working with him is sort of like… You turn him loose in a scene and his energy and his expertise kind of permeates to the rest of the cast. I think it really helped pull everything together. I feel like, as a director, I’m just lucky to be able to put that in front of the camera.

Ben Kenber: Robert Rodriguez once said having less money to work with forces you to be more creative. Was that the case for you on this movie, and did you have to cut any corners to get the shots that you wanted?

Ben Ketai: It definitely forces you to be more creative, and I really actually think in many ways it’s what gives the movie its voice and personality. We had to spend so much money building the set itself because we couldn’t film in a coal mine. There really wasn’t much left for anything else. When I came onto the film as director, my first role was to try to make everything feel as real as possible. Myself and Tim Burton, my cinematographer, we wanted to make it feel like we were down in the coal mine with flashlights and headlamps. So what you actually see onscreen is lit with practical lights. Instead of spending our time and our electric budget on a huge lighting truck like you would get on a big studio movie, we were at Home Depot looking at different kinds of flashlights.

I want to thank Ben Ketai for taking the time to talk with me. “Beneath” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital.

Exclusive Interview with Jeff Fahey about ‘Beneath’

Jeff Fahey photo

Actor Jeff Fahey is one of those actors in Hollywood who has never been lacking for work. Ever since his first major role on the soap opera “One Life to Live,” he has appeared in an endless number of movies like “Silverado,” “Psycho III,” “White Hunter Black Heart” opposite Clint Eastwood, and more recently he has starred in Robert Rodriguez’s “Planet Terror” and “Machete.” On television, he has left his mark on such shows as “Miami Vice,” “The Marshal” and “Under the Dome.” No matter what year it is, Fahey is always busy appearing in something, and it’s always great to see him onscreen.

Fahey’s latest film is “Beneath,” a horror movie from director Ben Ketai which is now available to watch on VOD and will be released in theaters on July 25. In the film, Fahey plays George Marsh, a veteran coal miner who is retiring after many years on the job. But on his last day which has him taking his environmental activist daughter Samantha (Kelly Noonan) on a tour 600 feet below the ground, a disastrous mine collapse traps them and a couple other workers. They wait to be rescued but as time runs out and the air becomes more toxic, each slowly descends into madness and starts turning on one another.

I spoke with Fahey on the phone as he was in Mexico shooting the movie “Texas Rising.”

Beneath movie poster

Ben Kenber: This is a very gripping film where you didn’t know how things were going to turn out, and the suspense was very well maintained from beginning to end. How did this project come to you?

Jeff Fahey: My manager actually had read the script and said, “There’s a film, they are interested in you.” I said what’s the genre and he said, “Well it’s a horror film but…” And I said I’m not interested at the moment but he said, “No I think you ought to read this one.” So, I read it and right away I called them back and I said I’d like to meet with the director and the producers because this is a nice piece. It was the psychological horror, the psychological drama that drew me to it, and it didn’t have the gore that other films of that genre would have. It read more like a short story and a psychological drama, and that’s what attracted me to it. Then when I met Ben, he very clearly showed his vision and what he wanted to do with it. That made it even more interesting.

BK: Yes, the psychological trauma is what really drives the movie I think. On the surface, “Beneath” looks like your typical horror movie but it isn’t.

JF: Yeah, and the performances those other cats brought in… Kelly’s performance was amazing, and she had to carry that film on her shoulders and she pulled it off in aces.

BK: I think all the actors in this movie were perfectly cast because they all look like they have spent a lot of time in the mine.

 

JF: Yes exactly, and the sets and the production design were top, top quality so you had the sense that you were really in a mine. That was a character in of itself and was equally important as the script and the performers.

BK: The set design was excellent and I really did feel like I was in a mine while watching this movie. Ben said it was shot on a soundstage but it never feels like you are on a soundstage in the slightest.

JF: Yeah.

BK: In regards to your role, did you do any of research before shooting began?

JF: No, this all happened pretty fast. We had a real miner come in and speak with the cast the day before we started shooting for a couple of hours, and then we were on the sets and everybody was getting to know each other while we were filming. That was another thing that made it so easy, that everyone got along so well.

BK: I imagine this movie had a very tight shooting schedule.

JF: Oh yeah.

BK: Was this a role where everything was on the page for you?

JF: Yeah it was there, but then the magic happens when you get with the actors and especially when you get along. So, when you’re on a tight, limited schedule or budget, you spend a lot of time together especially in a film like this where we are all in a cave together. Everybody in between filming the scenes was sitting around talking and getting to know one another or going over the scenes and talking about the scenes and the relationships. That I think helped the fact that it was a tight schedule, and we all had to be together for the duration. That created that group ensemble feeling.

BK: There are scenes where your character has some breathing problems, and they are like a ticking time bomb in this movie. How did you go about acting those scenes?

JF: Well that’s a process. Everybody has a different process and you have a process that you build up and deliver on, but a lot of the coughing I was able to lay in on post-production which I discussed with Ben. I told him I will cough, but I won’t put the full pressure on because at 12 hours a day for three or four weeks would get to you especially with that real dust. So, we were able to lay all the coughing, that heavy, heavy breathing, in post-production. Knowing that we’re able to do some of this in post-production, I didn’t have to hyperventilate 12 hours a day while I was doing the film.

BK: Have you ever been in a movie before which has had a setting that is as claustrophobic as the one in “Beneath?”

JF: I don’t think so, certainly not for the whole duration of the film. I’d have to say no. This would set the stage right now for the most claustrophobic film I’ve touched thus far, and certainly the most dusty. They had to have that real dust blowing around in a confined area hour after hour, but out here you can ride away from it sometimes.

BK: You have had a very strong acting career to where you have gone from project to project with what seems like relative ease. You don’t seem to be lacking for work at all. What’s your secret?

JF: I think it’s no great secret. I think everybody has it. You just go forward and take it project to project and grow a little bit with each one and hopefully understand the interpretation of story and the interpretation of the development of your craft and moving through the industry. But just moving from story to story and group to group, now I’m at the place where the greatest joy along with a good story and the good directors is the relationships working with people you respect and enjoy. That seems to happen more and more. I am with a wonderful group now down here in Mexico doing “Texas Rising.”

BK: One last question, I have to ask you about “Grindhouse.” What was it like filming that one?

JF: Well I love Robert Rodriguez. There were times when Robert will be operating one camera and Quentin (Tarantino) will be operating the other. So, it was fascinating that you got these two world-class filmmakers operating the two cameras while you’re doing a scene. It was fascinating. I’ll be working with Robert again. I just spoke with him the other day. And hopefully I’ll be working with Quentin. It was a great joy to be working with those guys and watching them work.

I want to thank Jeff Fahey for taking the time to talk with me. “Beneath” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital.