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THE REAPING and GRINDHOUSE: A Tale of Two Flops


Okay, I’m stumped. 

     Two horror-themed would-be blockbusters have recently opened, THE REAPING and GRINDHOUSE, and in the month since their respective April 6 releases both have flopped majorly. 

     Box office analysts have been scratching their heads at these films’ failure, particularly that of GRINDHOUSE, as have studio executives and myself--although I have plenty of thoughts as to why.  No hard-and-fast answers, mind you, just ideas...good ones, I believe. 

     First, let’s talk about Warner Bros.’s THE REAPING, an end-times chiller with Hilary Swank confronting various stages of the apocalypse.  It is without question a rotten movie, which may partially explain why audiences are staying away, but there are other factors.  Publicity these days is always a big decider of a film’s fate at the box office, and THE REAPING had an expensive promotion campaign that included splashy billboards touting the various calamities seen in the film (Plague, Frogs, locusts, etc.). 

     Unfortunately, that campaign also included an incredibly shrill trailer that obnoxiously alternated moments of quiet with screeching noise.  Irritating?  You bet!  Scary?  Not by a long shot. 

     Add to that the fact that Hilary Swank, multi-Oscar winner or not, is hardly a marquee idol, and that the apocalypse has already been done to death in Christian scare films like the APOCALYPSE and LEFT BEHIND series (nor did Warners bother courting the bible-thumper crowd in promoting this film the way Sony did with ‘05’s EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE) and...well, maybe the failure of THE REAPING isn’t too inexplicable after all.

     But the Weinstein Company’s GRINDHOUSE is another matter entirely.  The movie is quite good, at least in the minds of critics across the country and quite a few viewers, this one included.  I’d say it’s my favorite film of the year so far, a two-part three-hour cinematic thrill ride packed with nearly everything we go to movies for: zombies, mutants, guns, fire, exploding heads, car chases, hot chicks, mad doctors, trash talk, beatings, booze and bloodletting! 

     GRINDHOUSE also has Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez in the directors’ chairs, two of the VERY sparse crowd of superstar filmmakers, along with a cast that includes Rose McGowan, Bruce Willis, Nicholas Cage, Rosario Dawson and Kurt Russell, as well as side-splitting fake trailers directed by Rob Zombie, Eli Roth and SHAUN OF THE DEAD’S Edgar Wright.  In short, the movie contains something for everyone--or maybe not. 

     It tanked during its opening week, earning a meager $11 million (less than half the anticipated amount).  That’s despite the fact that the Weinsteins went all out promoting the film, splashing out a reported $30 million in publicity, which included an expensive making-of book (coming soon to a remainder shelf near you) and an LA WEEKLY hosted roundtable summit with Tarantino, Rodriguez and a number of veteran grindhouse moviemakers.  Plans were hatched for a whole series of GRINDHOUSE double features to be released in the coming years, with different filmmakers doing the directorial honors (somehow I think those plans have since been put on hold). 

     Many, including me, believed admissions might pick up with the spread of enthusiastic word of mouth (for which I did my part).  Yet during its second week of release attendance for GRINDHOUSE dropped over sixty percent to a cataclysmic $4 million, and has continued to plunge.  Bottom line: audiences are simply NOT responding.   

     Why?

     Well, GRINDHOUSE is a Quentin Tarantino flick (even if half of it was helmed by another filmmaker), and Tarantino’s films, more than those of just about any other major American director, are the kind one really needs to “Get”.  Part of their success, I’d argue, is the way they make receptive viewers feel like they’re in on a private joke.  I love Tarantino’s ass-kicking debut RESERVOIR DOGS, but accept that others will always remain violently opposed--after all, it’s a heist movie in which we never see the heist, and whose characters spend a large portion of the running time talking.  It works for me!  Ditto PULP FICTION, although many of my friends can’t seem to wrap their heads around its time-tripping narrative that ends with John Travolta strutting out of a coffee shop even though his character was killed an hour earlier.  Similar reactions greeted KILL BILL: How the Hell is Uma Thurman able to carry a samurai sword onto a plane, and what’s up with those patently fake arterial blood geysers (a frequent point of contention on online message boards)?  As one who’s viewed quite a few Japanese exploitation flicks and the entire LONE WOLF AND CUB series (where spurting blood was a constant), it all made perfect sense to me.

     With GRINDHOUSE there’s an awful lot to “get”, even more than Tarantino’s previous efforts.  The scratched-up film stock, for one, and the missing reels, which I understand have inspired complaints in theaters across the country from viewers who don’t understand that those things were intentional, being part and parcel of the grindhouse experience.  In addition, a mini-outcry has arisen over one of the fake trailers, a Rob Zombie directed number called WEREWOLF WOMEN OF THE SS; what nobody seems to realize is that Zombie was aping one of the most prevalent exploitation subgenres of the grindhouse era, the Nazi-sploitaiton movie (which included the popular ILSA: SHE WOLF OF THE SS series). 

     Then there’s GRINDHOUSE’S three-hour running time, which has turned off viewers who came of age long after theatrically released double features bit the dust.  And finally, the title itself appears to have bewildered many--exiting the theater I overheard a disgruntled patron complain that he was expecting a movie about a house where people were taken to be ground up!

     But it seems even some hard-core exploitation movie buffs were left unsatisfied.  The Clinton theater in Portland, OR, which regularly screens grindhouse flicks, wasn’t given a print of GRINDHOUSE to run, even though its management vigorously lobbied for one.  Nor was Dan Halsted, who runs Portland’s Grindhouse Film Festival (and who apparently “knows more about grindhouse films than anyone in the country”), able to screen the film.  According to Clinton manager Seth Sonstein, “I attest that the distribution was botched on this film. When your local Grindhouse isn't allowed to screen the Grindhouse, then you KNOW that there is trouble."

     So it seems bad marketing is primarily to blame for GRINDHOUSE’S floppage.  The Weinstein Company claims it might re-release its two segments as stand-alone features sometime in the coming weeks, as it’s already scheduled to do in Europe and Australia.  That may well make for greater box office, but I love the film in its present form, scratched-up celluloid, missing reels, fake trailers and all...and anyway, will audiences who didn’t get GRINDHOUSE as a double feature really be amenable to two separate films? 

     Finally, I know I’ve offered quite a few possible reasons why GRINDHOUSE tanked, but in the end the question remains: just why the Hell did people reject one of the most enjoyable moviegoing experiences of recent years?

     Once again, I’m stumped.

 

--4/4/07
 


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