Monday, October 5, 2009

From Dusk Till Dawn

Bob and Harvey Weinstein must have been salivating at the prospect of teaming up Quentin Tarantino, red hot from Pulp Fiction (1994), and George Clooney, red hot from the television show ER, on a film. What they got wasn’t exactly a mainstream crowd-pleaser but rather a down ‘n’ dirty grindhouse movie called From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) that was several years before Tarantino and his filmmaking brother-in-arms Robert Rodriguez would make it official with the double bill of Planet Terror and Death Proof in 2007. The screenplay for Dusk Till Dawn had been kicking around for years, before Tarantino exploded on the scene with Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Rodriguez with El Mariachi (1993). The two filmmakers used their new found clout to push this pet project through the system: a drive-in movie on a studio-sized budget and with recognizable stars like Clooney, Harvey Keitel, and Juliette Lewis.

From Dusk Till Dawn starts off in familiar Tarantino territory with the Gecko brothers: Seth (George Clooney) and Richie (Tarantino), stone cold killers on the run from the law. It seems that Richie broke Seth out of prison and to celebrate the two have gone on a crime spree that has resulted in a bank heist and many dead lawmen. They are introduced in an exciting prologue that could be a mini-movie unto itself. A Texas Ranger (the always watchable Michael Parks) enters a liquor store in a tense yet chatty scene where he talks it up with the greasy-haired register jockey (John Hawkes). In Tarantino’s world, having the gift of the gab is essential to one’s survival and when a character runs out of things to say they tend to die. Pretty soon the Gecko brothers are walking out of an exploding store thanks to a well-aimed flaming roll of toilet paper.

They take refuge at a roadside motel with a female bank teller they took hostage from the bank robbery that is never shown (just like the heist we never see in Reservoir Dogs). Ritchie and Seth plan to make a break for Mexico and find safe haven in a place called El Rey (a reference to a similar place of salvation in Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway). All they have to do is cross the border and meet their contact Carlos (Cheech Marin) at a biker bar called the Titty Twister. To escape the ever-increasing manhunt, the Geckos decide to hijack a Winnebago with a preached named Jacob (Harvey Keitel), his daughter (Juliette Lewis), and his adopted son (Ernest Liu).

The Titty Twister turns out to be a really raunchy, biker bar/strip club where if you even look at someone funny you run the risk of dismemberment. But this is the least of their problems. It soon becomes apparent that this is no ordinary low life scumpit, but an ancient home to a rather large army of vampires. It is at this point that From Dusk Till Dawn mutates into a full-on, balls-to-the-wall horror film. The Gecko brothers and Jacob and his family are forced to defend themselves against hordes of the undead in a siege situation straight out of John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) with a healthy dose of George Romero’s zombie films.

Robert Kurtzman of KNB Effects Group, a special effects company, had a treatment called From Dusk Till Dawn and was looking for someone to turn it into a screenplay. Writer Scott Spiegel (of The Evil Dead fame) had met and befriended a then-unknown Quentin Tarantino through a mutual friend. He recommended Tarantino to Kurtzman based on the strength of his Natural Born Killers screenplay. Kurtzman read and liked it and agreed to pay Tarantino $1,500 to write a draft of Dusk Till Dawn. While filming Desperado (1995) in Acuna, Mexico, Tarantino asked Rodriguez if he would consider directing his Dusk Till Dawn script that he had shown him briefly in 1992. The director agreed to helm the project with the only stipulation being that Tarantino would rewrite the script. He agreed and the project was a go, but only after the two filmmakers finished shooting their respective vignettes for the anthology, Four Rooms (1995), which featured two other up-and-coming indie filmmakers, Allison Anders (Gas Food Lodging) and Alexandre Rockwell (In the Soup). Without giving a chance for the buzz surrounding Four Rooms to die down, Rodriguez and Tarantino moved on to Dusk Till Dawn.

From the start, the two men established the agenda that their film would adhere to. As Tarantino stated in an interview, "The thing that's kind of cool is we're basically making this head-banging horror film buff drive-in movie with this really big-budget – and we're not pulling back. We're going for it." It is this kind of take-no-prisoners attitude that propels the hyperactive (and hyperviolent) narrative of From Dusk Till Dawn. The film marked Rodriguez's biggest budget yet at $18 million, but still small potatoes compared to a Sylvester Stallone film where $20 million of the budget goes towards the actor's salary. Like he did with El Mariachi and Desperado, Rodriguez uses all of his resources to make the film look better than it costs and gives the material his own unique spin despite the presence of Tarantino's obsessions which often threaten to overwhelm the film.

Rodriguez's influence lay in the origins of the vampires which were rather vague in nature in the script. The director decided to use his working knowledge of Mexican history and base the creatures' genesis on ancient Aztec and Mayan culture. "There were actual vampire Goddess statues and things during Aztec times ... So the idea is that this den of vampires in an old Aztec temple has, over the years, been turned into a sleazy bar in Mexico to continue to attract victims." It is this playful attitude towards his own heritage and the film's story, coupled with Tarantino’s strong script, which keeps From Dusk Till Dawn from slipping into self-parody.

This was the first film that demonstrated George Clooney’s ability to make the jump from the small screen to the big one. With the character of Seth Gecko, he isn’t afraid to portray an amoral criminal and yet Clooney’s natural charisma makes you like him. The actor is able to turn on the charm and also show a more intense side when someone crosses him, like the opening shoot-out in the liquor store. Unfortunately, this is one of the films that Tarantino acts in and demonstrates why it is better he stay behind the camera. He looks like someone trying to play a twisted criminal instead of becoming the character like everyone else. Tarantino even sports a ridiculous looking Burt Reynolds-circa-Deliverance (1972) haircut. His character’s death doesn’t come soon enough. It’s a credit to Rodriguez’s skill as a filmmaker and the strength of the material that the film isn’t ruined by Tarantino’s lousy acting.

It doesn’t hurt that there are plenty of distractions, like a showstopping scene where a scantily-clad Salma Hayek dances seductively with a rather large snake. Of course, she turns out to be the queen vampire at the Titty Twister. There are all kinds of inside jokes and references for genre fans, like a bit where make-up legends Greg Nicotero (who also worked on the film) and Tom Savini play rival bikers who have a disagreement. That is, until Savini shows off his crotch gun (first seen in Rodriguez’s Desperado). Another genre veteran Fred “The Hammer” Williamson also has a memorable turn as a biker who gets to deliver a monologue about the Vietnam War a la Bill Duke in Predator (1987).

Harvey Keitel gives From Dusk Till Dawn some much-needed gravitas as a preacher who has lost his way after his wife’s death and must find God again if his family and the others are to survive the vampire attacks until dawn. Keitel does a nice job of showing Jacob’s transformation from a faithless preacher to, as Seth puts it, a “mean motherfuckin’ servant of God.” In addition, several Rodriguez regulars show-up in supporting roles, like Danny Trejo as the Titty Twister bartender and Cheech Marin in an impressive three different roles.

Not surprisingly, this film divided critics. Roger Ebert gave it three out of four stars and described it as “a skillful meat-and-potatoes action extravaganza with some added neat touches.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “The latter part of From Dusk Till Dawn is so relentless that it's as if a spigot has been turned on and then broken. Though some of the tricks are entertainingly staged, the film loses its clever edge when its action heats up so gruesomely and exploitatively that there's no time for talk.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Rodriguez and Tarantino have taken the let-'em-eat-trash cynicism of modern corporate moviemaking and repackaged it as junk-conscious ‘attitude.' In From Dusk Till Dawn, they put on such a show of cooking up popcorn that they make pandering to the audience seem hip.” However, in his review for the Washington Post, Desson Howe wrote, “The movie, which treats you with contempt for even watching it, is a monument to its own lack of imagination. It's a triumph of vile over content; mindless nihilism posing as hipness.” The San Francisco Chronicle’s Mick LaSalle called the film, “an ugly, unpleasant criminals-on-the-lam film that midway turns into a boring and completely repellent vampire ‘comedy.’ If it's not one of the worst films of 1996 it will have been one miserable year.” Cinefantastique magazine’s Steve Biodrowski wrote, “Whereas one might reasonably have expected that the combo of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez would yield a critical mass of nuclear proportions, instead of an atomic fireball’s worth of entertainment, we get a long fuse, quite a bit of fizzle, and a rather minor blast.”

At its heart, From Dusk Till Dawn carries on in the proud tradition of other low-budget, gonzo horror films like Sam Raimi's Evil Dead trilogy and Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator (1985), while paying homage to classic horror films like George Romero's Dawn of the Dead (1979). Rodriguez admires these "lower budget, edgier kind of horror films, the ones where you didn't know what the filmmaker would do next. Because they didn't have any money, they would just try and grab you any way they could." Rodriguez and Tarantino now had the money to play with, but still maintained the low-budget aesthetic that they admired so much.

If the first half of From Dusk Till Dawn feels like a Tarantino film reminiscent of True Romance (1993) and Natural Born Killers (1994), which feature amoral outlaws on the run from the law, then the second half is all Rodriguez as he lets his John Carpenter-esque freak flag fly for a blood-drenched finale with all sorts of creative deaths involving balloons filled with holy water, a crossbow and a disco ball. As with most of his films, Dusk Till Dawn is a fun ride with everything you could want from something like this: gun-totting criminals, tough bikers, cool action sequences, memorable dialogue, lots of inventive gore, and half-naked vampire strippers. What more could you ask for?

10 comments:

  1. Hey J.D. Great writeup. I love this movie. I've been a fan of it since I first saw it. I've watched it countless times. I never tire of it.

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  2. Me too! Last week I got the hankering to watch this film again and really enjoyed revisiting it again. It had been awhile.

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  3. I met Sex Machine a few times(Tom Savini. This past weekend I met Frost (Fred Williamson) but he wated $20 just for me to take a freaking picture with him, so I passed. But I am kinda regretting not waiting in a very small line to met Danny Trejo, but hopefully i will run into him at a convention again. I met special effects guru Greg Nicotero before and if I remember correctly he is in the bar at Sex Machines table in this movie?...BTW IMO this is George Clooney's best role. I am not a big fan of his but seems like QT got a great performance out of him.

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  4. Another great examination of a film that is exactly as you describe. Your words, "a fun ride with everything you could want from something like this: gun-totting criminals, tough bikers, cool action sequences, memorable dialogue, lots of inventive gore, and half-naked vampire strippers", nail it. That is what should be on the DVD cover, J.D.

    I also agree with you acting assessments, here. Clooney really showed what he could bring to the big screen, here. He made the role memorable, and compared well to the veteran in the cast, Keitel. And QT, had the weakest of his screen roles. And that's notable since it's for a script he's written. I would have been happier, if he had to make an appearance to have taken a smaller (even cameo) role. I would have wanted more Cheech, if I had my druthers. But, that's just me ;-).

    Keep 'em coming, J.D. You are on a roll, my friend.

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  5. Great write up.

    One of my personal faves this, even though an over-enthusiastic newspaper review spoiled the changing-horses-in-mid-stream crime caper to horror movie shift when I first saw it at the cinema.

    A few friends of mine saw it first time round without any preconceptions and report that they sat through the last half in a stupour of dumbfoundedness that quickly gave way to genre-heaven delight.

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  6. "C":

    That's very cool that you got to meet Tom Savini. I've always been a fan of his work. Same goes for Greg Nicotero.

    I dunno if this is Clooney's best role (for me that would probably be MICHAEL CLAYTON or OUT OF SIGHT) but he is quite good in this film.


    le0pard13:

    Thank you for all the kind words! That means a lot to me.

    Yeah, Clooney and Keitel are definitely the strongest actors in this film and really bring a lot to their roles, esp. Keitel in what could have been a pretty cliche character, gave it some real soul. And yeah, QT was just not that good. I mean, even Tom Savini blows him outta the water and he's not an actor either! And yes, I would have liked to see more Cheech as well. I'm hoping he gets a meaty role in the upcoming MACHETE.


    Neil Fulwood:

    Thanks for the compliments! That sucks about the film review ruining the genre switcheroo partway through the film. It must've been a hard film to review in that respect. You want to rave about it but you don't want to give away stuff as well.

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  7. I've always had a soft spot for this one, although I don't think it's wholly successful.

    I remember reading a very early script for it which had a speech very similar to one that ended up in Pulp Fiction.

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  8. Mark Salisbury:

    Now, in retrospect, we can see that this film was a warm-up for GRINDHOUSE and I think that Rodriguez's contribution, PLANET TERROR, is the best thing he's ever done. But I've always enjoyed FROM DUSK TILL DAWN for what it is and the Rodriguez and co. don't try tom make it anymore than what it is: a down 'n' dirty drive-in movie.

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  9. I'd agree with your comments re Planet Terror, but Dusk - for my money - runs it a very close second. So much to enjoy in this film and you nailed it perfectly. Have yet to see Full Tilt Boogie, so must try to add the DVD to my collection.

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  10. FULL TILT BOOGIE is fascinating viewing as it sheds light on some of the union problems Rodriguez and co. ran into at the time.

    Thank you for the kind words.

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