Consider this column a companion piece to my review of Last House on the Beach. I mention therein that the finale of the film obviously inspired (to put it politely) that of Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof. I shouldn’t really use this opportunity to beat up on Death Proof all over again. But what struck me even more than the similarities between the two scenes was their instructive differences.
So, if you haven’t seen either of the films yet, consider this entire column a spoiler and leave now. Thank you.
The similarities, then: both films show a group of victimized women turning the tables lethally on their victimizer and gang-banging the jerk into unconsciousness or death, in a thoroughly satisfying manner. And this is where both stories end. But how we get there, and the overall effect of the scenes, are very different.
First, let me make myself abundantly clear: Quentin Tarantino is without question a more talented filmmaker than Franco Prosperi. He is a much better actor’s director, is a fine writer (at his best), and, also at his best, is a far more thoughtful artist. Prosperi’s biggest claim to fame, meanwhile, is as the man who, more than any other, is responsible for the shockumentary, thanks to such genre-defining efforts as the Mondo Cane films, Africa Addio and Farewell Uncle Tom. The man has had a subtlety bypass operation.
However, Tarantino also has an Achilles’ heel. Years ago, I read an interview with David Cronenberg where he explained that his problem with Tarantino’s film was that they were never about anything other than other movies. The risk, then, is that the films become nothing more than a collection of references with no emotional core. Kill Bill is obviously a gigantic love letter to grindhouse cinema, but is an invigorating exercise of its very own as well, and has real heart. Death Proof, on the other hand, is a perfect example of what Cronenberg was talking about, and because of this, its climax, despite being technically proficient and the most enjoyable scene of the entire movie, is no more than that. Since the heroines at this stage are nothing more than distaff Tarantino mouthpieces, all we are aware of is the fact that we are watching a film.
Now, Last House on the Beach is not without its share of clumsy moments, atrocious dubbing, and out-and-out tastelessness. But it nevertheless makes a concerted effort to bring us to the point of understanding what would bring a nun to blow a man’s brain’s out. And when we reach the climax, as the aforementioned nun watches the massive attack on the last villain, she turns her eyes away in pain. She is horrified by what she and her charges have been reduced to. The film’s English title is an obvious cash-in on Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left, and it does indeed share that film’s view of the cost of vengeance: it degrades the practitioner. And so whatever else the film might or might not be or do, it reaches for a real emotional resonance.
In other words, when Tarantino cribbed the scene, he missed its point.