Try as you might, you can’t make a real grindhouse film today. The reason for this simple: grindhouse films were a product of a particular place and time, an era of social/cultural upheaval when an enterprising hustler could make a film for nothing with minimal interference and get it distributed all over the world. Everything about modern filmmaking – from the current zeitgeist to the development process to modern film distribution – works against what we once called grindhouse filmmaking.
On a deeper level, people forget that grindhouse films weren’t designed to be cult movies. They were simply designed to make money from a segment of the public that the major studios ignored – and any personality put into these films came from filmmakers trying to innovate within the confines of what most considered to be a throwaway style of filmmaking. The grindhouse films that resonated with audiences after their sell-by dates – Jack Hill’s Pam Grier vehicles, Last House On The Left, I Spit On Your Grave, etc. – became classics with the cult movie crowd because they bravely explored provocative subject matter and did so with an oft-ignored sense of artistry.
By comparison, most modern attempts at grindhouse filmmaking fall flat because they settle for being superficial exercises in style. Whether they come from the low budget end or the high budget end, nuevo-grindhouse fare strains to convince its audience that is outrageous on the strength of content alone. It rarely tries to convey a message or any sincere emotion – and instead pumps up the levels of bloodshed and nudity to earn its street cred with the fanboy brigade. That’s not grindhouse filmmaking – it’s just an excuse for self-indulgent filmmakers to imitate what they’ve seen without having to try very hard.
This nuevo-grindhouse trend may have reached its nadir with the recent release of Hobo With A Shotgun. This film began as a faux-trailer that won a contest sponsored by the producers of Grindhouse, even managing to play alongside that film during its Canadian theatrical run, and sparked enough interest to earn its own feature length version a la Machete. Sadly, the resulting film proves that what might work for a minute or two quickly grows tiresome when padded out to 85 minutes.
The feature version of Hobo With A Shotgun does attempt to graft a plotline onto its chaotic mayhem: the Hobo (Rutger Hauer) jumps off a train and finds himself in Scum Town, a portrait of urban blight drenched in trash and graffiti. It is run by sadistic crimelord Drake (Brian Downey), who is assisted by his sons Slick (Gregory Smith) and Ivan (Nick Bateman). Hobo tries to stay incognito but snaps when he sees Slick manhandling Abby (Molly Dunsworth), the archetypal hooker with a heart of gold. He saves her and gets further sidetracked when he attempts to fight the onslaught of crime in Scum Town. This causes Drake and his sons to fight back, leading to a series of showdowns that escalate as they paint the screen with arterial spray and gunfire.
Unfortunately, the execution fails to do justice to the slender but workable premise. . Like many attempts to imitate vintage b-movies, Hobo With A Shotgun feels like the filmmakers are working through a checklist of “outrageous” things they want to do. The characters function as cardboard archetypes and the storyline is just barely there, serving as a flimsy pretext for a lengthy series of setpieces. When the film does try to slow down for scenes where characters actually talk to each other, the writing falls flat because it lacks the basic level of substance needed to support these moments.
The weak writing is amplified by memorably lousy, self-conscious performances. Hauer and Dunsworth are the only ones who actually try to act but they have too little to work with to make their efforts stick. Everyone else just mugs shamelessly for the camera while shouting their lines as loudly as possible, a factor that makes Hobo With A Shotgun the most annoyingly shrill film in recent memory. Most of the cast is trying way too hard to be outrageous – and like the filmmakers, they fail to recognize that when you start off at top volume, you have nowhere left to go.
The one real surprise is that for a film that is marketing itself as the ultimate grindhouse homage, Hobo With A Shotgun doesn’t really look like a vintage grindhouse film. It’s obvious that a lot of work went into Karim Hussein’s color-saturated cinematography but its Technicolor-in-overdrive look is the antithesis of the grimy, desatured look associated with most grindhouse fare. Instead, it looks like they were either trying to cater to a youthful crowd raised on video games and music videos.
Finally, and most importantly, Jason Eisener’s direction confuses being frenetic with being kinetic. Like so many other elements in his film, his directing is frantically intense from the get-go and finds little modulation as it goes along. Even worse, the much-vaunted setpieces are all pretty much the same: people shout and wave around weapons, there are outbursts of gore punctuated by rancid one-liners, rewind and repeat. You can only see so many crushed heads or exploding stomachs before it starts to get boring – and the fast editing (also handled by Eisener) further adds to the numbing quality of these poorly orchestrated scenes. The end result isn’t much different from the awful horror remakes that Michael Bay produces through his Platinum Dunes company – it just has a trendy “grindhouse” tag on it to fool the gullible.
In fairness to Hobo With A Shotgun, it is getting a lot of good reviews from fanboy and mainstream critics alike. However, that just illustrates how nebulous the nuevo-grindhouse trend is. The film’s defenders all seem to think the word grindhouse just means a barrage of cheap gore served up with a wink from the filmmakers that says “it’s meant to be bad.” Anyone who has studied the history of grindhouse fare knows that there is much more to a grindhouse classic than just being explicit – films like Rolling Thunder and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remain popular decades after the fact because they are built on a foundation of strong, brave filmmaking. In comparison, it’s hard to foresee Hobo With A Shotgun having that kind of shelf life because it is just bad modern filmmaking in ill-fitting b-movie drag. If this is the future of “grindhouse” filmmaking, perhaps it is better to let it die out now.