Written by Michael Nazarewycz
It was the best of films; it was the worst of films.
Okay. So it isn’t really either extreme. But it does suggest what I find wrong with From Dusk Till Dawn, the 1996 action/horror movie written by Quentin Tarantino and directed by Robert Rodriguez: what it gets right it gets very right, and what it gets wrong is…well, you know.
The story is about two brothers – Seth and Richie Gecko, played by George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino (respectively). As you might imagine (based on who is playing them), Seth, while a bit short-tempered, is the cool one in charge; Richie has a couple of wires crossed. The brothers are on the run from all kinds of law, having recently turned a bank robbery into a bloodbath and a hostage situation.
Their goal is to get out of Texas and into Mexico, where a contact will meet them to conduct some shady business related to the money from the bank robbery. Along the way, they hijack a camper that belongs to Jacob Fuller (Harvey Keitel), a pastor who has lost his faith in God because of his wife’s accidental death. Fuller is travelling with his two teenage children, Scott (Ernest Liu) and Kate (Juliet Lewis).
They manage to get past the border into Mexico and make it to the rendezvous point – a bar called the Titty Twister that is open only from dusk until dawn. And once dusk comes, we learn why it has such odd hours: it is managed, run, and patronized by vampires. Seth, Richie, Jacob, the kids, and a couple of other unsuspecting human patrons find themselves locked in and trying to survive the night.
In 1996, Quentin Tarantino could do whatever he wanted. He was riding high off a string of successes that included Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994). He was a close friend of Robert Rodriguez, who was also something of a boy-wonder, having blown away the indie film circuit with his made-for-$7,000 El Mariachi (1992), its glossier follow-up Desperado (1995), and the best segment of the four-part anthology known as Four Rooms (1995). The two were known for specific things, including maintaining a stable of actors that appeared in their films and excellent choices in music. And because they “came up together” in Hollywood, there was this sense that they might have been 2/3 of the second coming of another trio of directors that came up in the 1970s: George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg.
So when the two of them decided to make a movie together, it seemed like a dream pairing. Combining Tarantino’s storytelling and dialogue with Rodriguez’s shooting and editing style, coupled with their combined musical tastes and a mash-up of those stables (Keitel, Lewis, and Tarantino-style Fred Williamson from one camp, Danny Trejo, Salma Hayek, and Cheech Marin from the other camp) seemed like the perfect match. And it was.
For about the first hour of the movie.
From the time Seth and Richie appear onscreen in a hole-in-the-wall convenience store, with Seth barking orders to the clerk (John Hawkes) and Richie seeing things that aren’t there, to the motel scene where Seth confronts Richie on something that happened between Richie and the hostage, to the bar scene where the five travellers (and the film’s viewers) are treated to a sultry dance by Hayek, the film absolutely crackles.
The pace ebbs and flows nicely, the dialogue is enviable to anyone who writes anything for a living (with the exception of a Marin monologue about pussy, which is childish), the violence is enough to grab your attention but not so stylized as to be excessive or unbelievable, and everyone pulls their weight in their roles, especially Clooney.
George Clooney, who himself was a rising commodity in 1996 after a successful run on TV’s ER, makes a great splash on the big screen in his second first film (his half-dozen or so previous film appearances, all pre-ER, are remarkably forgettable, if you heard of them in the first place). While you probably wouldn’t have guessed then that he would become the actor/director/producer/writer/political activist he is today, you could certainly tell he would be a bona fide Movie Star.
But despite Clooney’s wattage on the big screen, once the surprise is sprung and the denizens of the Titty Twister are revealed to be vampires, the film shifts from crackling to lazy, with taut pacing being replaced by an excessively long barroom brawl and endless, mindless gore. I’m no prude, and it certainly isn’t the goriest thing I’ve ever seen (hell, TV’s The Walking Dead is gorier by comparison), but it’s as if Tarantino and Rodriguez knew how to get to the bar, knew that the change to vampires had to happen, and knew how about the last five minutes would play out (which, like the first hour, extremely well, with a clever use of a disco ball of all things), and said, “Dammit. We have about 35 minutes to fill. Start killing time and vampires.”
It’s that mindless. I understand that when your heroes find themselves in a bar full of vampires and they can’t get out, vampire slaughter has to happen. But the absence of any plot progress left me looking at my watch and wondering when something other than another stake would be driven into a chest, or another vamp would be set ablaze, or another creature would be blown up.
Oh. That reminds me. Do vampires blow up when they die? Many here melt/dissolve (which is what I expect), but some actually exploded. This was new to me, and another one of those things where I suspect Tarantino and Rodriguez said, “Hey, all of these stabbings and slashings are cool, but let’s blow some shit up, too!”
In the end, I think the film is worth viewing, not only for its place in the history of Tarantino, Rodriguez, and Clooney’s careers, but for a great lesson in what to do and what not to do when making an action/horror film.