The closest I ever came to an actual Times Square grindhouse was in 1983 or '84, when I persuaded my friend Nicholai to head downtown to the Hollywood Twin on 48th and Eighth for a one-day revival of Ralph Bakshi's Wizards. We were in eighth grade. I recall almost nothing about the movie, but I remember how scuzzy the theater was, and that we were the only 13-year-olds. We survived.
It was a feeling of having missed the glory years of watching appalling films in scary theaters that led me to see Grindhouse on the Deuce (if one can still call it that). The AMC Empire 25 takes its name and façade from the burlesque theater–turned–movie house that preceded it; the lobby is what's left of the theater itself, with the two balconies still visible and the proscenium arch towering over the ticket-buyers. In their piquant book Sleazoid Express, Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford say that "the Empire had a raunchy reputation for male hustling during the 1960s Midnight Cowboy era, but by the 1970s … the theater became a prime venue for the great three-day-run triple bills so endemic to the Deuce." They make it sound almost quaint: "A fella selling Dixie Cup ice creams occasionally patrolled the aisles, catering to a weed-smoking crowd that was hungry for sweets."
Grindhouse is to grindhouse movies as the AMC Empire 25 is to the Empire: a gussied-up homage that can't compare to the real thing. Rodriguez's Planet Terror is fun—a cheeky, fast-paced gross-out. Two of the four fake trailers are really clever: the spot-on Machete (by Rodriguez) and the witty Don't (by Edgar Wright). But they can't make up for Tarantino's wretched Death Proof, which commits an unforgivable cinematic sin. It's boring, just a talky set-up for a climactic car chase. Yet it features two genuinely horrific moments at midpoint—the kind of visceral shocks that only grindhouse films can deliver.
Landis and Clifford again: the Deuce's audiences "were film's harshest critics, and demanded that the exploitation movies the theaters screened lived up to the promises made by their graphic, outrageous ad campaigns and shocking trailers. If the movies let them down, the audience would react by shouting, tossing food containers, and physically damaging the theaters." The guy sitting in front of me showed his displeasure in another way. He was fast asleep.