October Horrorshow: From Dusk Till Dawn, or, a Tale of Two Movies

October has come again. It being the month of Halloween, we at Missile Test choose to celebrate by watching and reviewing horror films. Ah, blood. There just can’t be enough in October. Today’s selection has plenty of it, even though it’s mostly green. But what the hell, it’s all in fun.

Quentin Tarantino was riding high after the success of Pulp Fiction, a film that had a strong case for winning Best Picture at the Oscars the year it came out. Was it Tarantino’s youth which kept his opus from taking home the top prize? Who knows? Some of the competition were no slouches in their own right, but none broke any new ground, nor did they spawn a whole genre of imitations that crop up in cinema to this day (just like Alien and all its clones). And the winner that year, Forrest Gump, felt like little more than the Baby Boomers trying to justify their actions in retrospect by infusing their youths with blandness and innocence, when naiveté (with a sharp edge, at least) would have been a more apt description. This trivializes the profound role they played in turning public opinion against the war in Vietnam, but their role was not nearly as important as that played by the news media who brought home the images of war to the American public. The youth had always been suspicious, and were never onboard with the war policy from the beginning, but every other demographic in America couldn’t have given two shits if we had been winning the war instead of losing it. Anyway, I honestly can’t tell if that film was an apology to their parents or an apology to the directionless void of malaise left behind by their sudden thrust into real adulthood that was then passed on to their slacker Gen X children.

Anyway, the breakthrough that was Pulp Fiction showcased the talents of a filmmaker at the top of his game, but also one that, despite the skill he had shown behind the camera and with a typewriter, had yet to develop the biting retro style borne from his youthful love of grindhouse cinema.

Enter Robert Rodriguez. Tarantino may have written From Dusk till Dawn, but Rodriguez, he of the cartoonishly violent El Mariachi and Desperado, was tapped to direct this film, and the pairing of Tarantino’s outlandish script and Rodriguez’s talent for extreme visuals was a match made in heaven. What folly it would have been had Tarantino chose to direct this film. His style at the time was far too serious for the material, and while it would have served the first half of the movie well, he could have been lost in the second half, having not yet shown the levity towards gore that typified his later films. Rodriguez was the right choice at the right time to direct this project.

The film introduces two of the central protagonists (anti-heroes, really) early on. The Brothers Gecko, played by George Clooney, as Seth, and Tarantino as his psychopathic brother Richie. They are on the run after robbing a bank in Abilene, Texas, racing towards the border and freedom. Along the way, they enlist the unwilling help of the Fuller family and their Winnebago in crossing the border into Mexico without drawing unwanted attention.

The family is led by patriarch and former preacher Jacob Fuller (Harvey Keitel), who is dragging his daughter, Kate (Juliette Lewis), and adopted son Scott (Ernest Liu), on a journey of self-discovery in the desert while Jacob deals with his loss of faith following the senseless death of his wife.

The deal Seth offers the family is simple: help them get across the border and they will be set free. Resist, and they will be added to the tally of corpses the Geckos have left in their wake. This is the first half of the film, a gritty and ultra-violent crime drama centered around the tense interplay of the hardened criminals and their new hostages. The film easily could have continued in this direction, and no one would have complained, or been any the wiser about the second half shenanigans that would soon reveal themselves once the motley group arrived in Mexico.

At this point, I, as a reviewer, have a choice to make. Do I reveal what comes next? I remember seeing this film in the second-run theater across the street from the house I lived in while in college, dragging my friends across the way on dollar Wednesday to see this flick. I was the only one who had seen the trailer, so while the others were lulled into believing we were watching a bloody crime drama, no less than one would expect from Tarantino at the time, I knew what was coming. I can’t complete this review without giving the massive plot twist away, so here goes.

The seedy trucker/biker bar the group stops at, where the Geckos are to meet their contact in Mexico, is also a haven for vampires. After a sultry snake dance by a then-unknown Salma Hayek that I will take to my grave, the employees, all undead bloodsuckers, attack the bar’s patrons in relentless fury, twisting off heads and limbs with abandon. Rarely is there such a jarring twist in a film, and for those not in the know, it can leave their heads spinning at the absurdity of it all. But, it’s done so well.

The seriousness of the first half of the film could be a bit oppressive, but the viewer either adjusts to it or abandons the film before its supernatural denouement. When it comes, it’s a love it or hate it moment. For those unaware, i.e., those who had never seen the trailer or heard about it, From Dusk till Dawn becomes an unpredictable film. This is a rare moment in film, when audience is as confused as the characters on the screen. I found it refreshing. For those without foreknowledge, the reaction was split. For those reading this review, that won’t be a worry now, will it?

The first battle with the vampires is exhilarating and over the top, both in its action and in its gore, but it’s still tame compared to something like Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive. This sequence also features two worthy cult performances by former football player turned actor Fred Williamson as Frost, and horror legend Tom Savini as Sex Machine, in arguably his most recognizable role.

The cast is whittled down, the odds of survival become less and less, and then, finally, things get ridiculous. The final segment lacks the chaotic urgency of the vampire reveal, and it only remains to be seen who will survive to see sunlight. That’s one thing I won’t spoil.

As for the performances, most were damned good. Keitel is a consummate professional, displaying range that shatters any perceptions a viewer could hold of him being a one-dimensional, although fine, actor. From Dusk till Dawn was Clooney’s first big role after he left ER, and the contrast between the compassionate Dr. Ross of television and the hardened criminal of the silver screen could not be greater. Juliette Lewis plays innocence to a T, despite an unrealistic turn at the end. I miss seeing her in film, quite frankly. Even Tarantino, whose previous roles had been bombastic windbags, played things with a soft-voiced vulnerability that belied the demon lurking within. He was the other great unpredictable element in the film, and played it well. The only weak spot was Liu, who just lacked the chops to compete with the other talent on screen.

Other interesting appearances were put in by Rodriguez stalwart Danny Trejo, and a rare triple performance from Cheech Marin.

Love it or hate it, From Dusk till Dawn is a wonderful example of popcorn horror. And more than anything else, it pulls off the single most ridiculous plot twist I have ever seen in film with aplomb.