From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) ***½
One of the fun things about revisiting old movies that I haven’t seen since their initial runs in theaters is the chance to spot connections to later works that had eluded me for whatever reason. In the case of From Dusk Till Dawn (and before anybody gives me shit about calling From Dusk Till Dawn “old,” remember that kids who were born in 1996 will be starting their senior year of high school this September), what struck me upon watching it last night was its retrospective obviousness as an unheralded influence on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Indeed, From Dusk Till Dawn makes a more plausible prototype for that show with regard to tone, attitude, and visual style than does the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie! Or at any rate, the second half of From Dusk Till Dawn does. Even in the mid-1990’s, it was unmistakable that this was only half of a vampire film. The undead come bursting out of absolutely fucking nowhere during the second act of what up to then is a heist movie in a vein more typical of writer Quentin Tarantino and director Robert Rodriguez. The transformation is incredibly disorienting, but for the most part it’s also enjoyably so.
We start off with a fairly artful exposition dump. At Benny’s World of Liquor, someplace in southern Texas, US Marshal Earl McGraw (Michael Parks, from Red State and The Savage Bees) is shooting the shit with counter-monkey Pete Bottoms (John Hawkes, of Congo and I Still Know What You Did Last Summer) about his current business. McGraw is on the hunt for the Gecko brothers, a pair of vicious criminals currently speeding toward Mexico with a fortune in stolen cash and a captive bank teller, leaving a lengthening trail of bodies behind them. At last count, the tally stood at eighteen dead cops and seven dead civilians. What the marshal fails to realize is that Seth and Richie Gecko (George Clooney, from Solaris and Return to Horror High, and Quentin Tarantino, playing a much larger part than the bits he usually takes in the films he directs himself) got to Benny’s before him. The Geckos are lurking out of sight with a pair of freshly taken hostages, and Pete is under orders from them to hustle McGraw along as rapidly as possible. (In case you’re wondering about Gloria Hill [Brenda Hillhouse] the teller, she’s locked up securely in the trunk of the brothers’ car.) Unfortunately for everybody, Marshal McGraw is a talkative sort, and the longer he goes on jawing with Pete, the more convinced Richie becomes that the two men are passing coded signals back and forth about the robbers crouching beside the beer coolers. Self control is not Richie’s strong suit, and by the time he’s done making a scene, Pete, the marshal, and both hostages are dead, Richie himself has a bullet wound through the palm of his left hand, and Benny’s World of Liquor is burning to the ground. So much for that low profile Seth was looking to keep, huh?
Richie behaves with only slightly greater restraint at the next stop, a shitty little motel just a few dozen miles from the border. Seth’s plan for their permanent escape is to cross into Mexico and rendezvous with an old contact of his named Carlos (one of no fewer than three small parts played by Cheech Marin) at a remote desert dive bar called the Titty Twister. There the Geckos will hand over 30% of their loot in exchange for various forms of protection and anonymity. Richie isn’t crazy about those terms, but Seth is the professional here, and he knows what he’s doing. Of course, one doesn’t just sashay across the border all footloose and fancy free when every cop in five states would like nothing better than to pop a cap in one’s ass, so Seth goes out on his own to reconnoiter for an hour or two, leaving Richie to stand guard over Gloria. By the time Seth returns from his scouting mission, Richie has Jack-the-Rippered the shit out of the teller, throwing his brother’s carefully laid plans into total disarray yet again. Obviously there’ll be no staying the night now, but that’s only the start of the hassle. The motel clerk knows which car the Geckos were driving, so they’ll have to ditch the old Cougar. And of course they’ll also have to replace their hostage, unless they relish the prospect of being shot on sight by anybody with a badge.
Enter the Fuller family. Minister Jake Fuller (Harvey Keitel, from Saturn 3 and Red Dragon) lost his wife some months back in a completely random, completely senseless car crash, and his faith has imploded to such a degree that he no longer feels capable of discharging his holy offices. Consequently, Jake has bundled his teenaged children, Kate (Juliette Lewis, of Cape Fear and Strange Days) and Scott (Ernest Liu), into the family Winnebago, and set off onto the highway in search of an epiphany. He’ll find one, but not in any form he might have expected— and he finds the Gecko brothers first. To Kate and Scott’s considerable dismay, Jake picks a familiar skanky rat-trap of a motel as a suitable place to rest up, and the Fullers arrive just as Seth is looking around the parking lot for new wheels and new hostages. The next thing Jake and the kids know, the Gecko brothers are in their room with them, waving pistols around. The ex-preacher may have had no firm destination in mind previously, but evidently he, Kate, and Scott are headed for Mexico now. And curiously enough, Jake and Seth spend the American leg of the journey with equivalent crowd-control problems on their hands. Jake has to keep Scott from getting them all killed by playing hero, while Seth has to keep Richie from blowing the escape by going all Manic Sex Psycho again.
Amazingly, both men are successful, but a new set of challenges await at the Titty Twister. Carlos has never actually been to his designated rendezvous point. He merely figured that its out-of-the-way locale and dusk-to-dawn hours of operation made it a fit meeting place for two wanted fugitives and the gangsters securing their refuge. Also, Carlos thought a combined strip club and whorehouse would nicely serve the Gecko brothers’ entertainment needs while they waited for him to show up. There are two important points about the Titty Twister that Carlos has failed to take into account, however. First of all, the bar observes a strict “bikers and truckers only” policy with regard to its clientele. The Geckos and the Fullers are neither of those things, although the Class-B license that Jake needs to drive the Winnebago enables them to squeak by on the letter of the house rules, even if they fall somewhat short of the spirit. More significantly, though, the entire staff of the Titty Twister— Chet Pussy the doorman (Cheech Marin again), Razor Charlie the bartender (Danny Trejo, from The Devil’s Rejects and Machete), headlining dancer Satanico Pandemonium (Salma Hayek, of Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant and The Faculty), and all the other strippers and whores— are vampires, and the bar itself the means whereby they prey upon two inherently nomadic populations that society as a whole doesn’t give a tin shit about. What was I saying before about Jake finding that epiphany he was after? The Gecko brothers are both pretty tough and deadly; bikers Frost (Fred Williamson, from Dropping Evil and Black Caesar) and Sex Machine (renowned gore-makeup genius Tom Savini, whose other acting credits include Creepshow and Knightriders) are tougher and deadlier still. But the best hope for any of tonight’s Titty Twister customers to survive the vampires’ onslaught is for Jake to decide that this unambiguous display of supernatural evil implies the existence of a countervailing force of supernatural good, and to get his flagging faith back.
I’ve read that in earlier versions of From Dusk Till Dawn’s screenplay, Tarantino had all of the major characters live through the night to go their separate ways come sunrise. That’s very much not how it goes in the completed film, and From Dusk Till Dawn is much stronger for the extra human casualties. It isn’t just the stakes-raising effect of the deaths among the core cast, either, although that effect is both obvious and significant by itself. A bigger benefit derives from the canny way in which those deaths are used to combat some of the more annoying conventions that had attached themselves to horror movies by the mid-1990’s. A single detailed example ought to suffice for our present purposes. From Dusk Till Dawn’s vampires resemble most post-Romero zombies in that their bites alone are contagious; these vampires needn’t drain a victim unto death to pass along their condition. So when Richie is badly hurt by Satanico Pandemonium after the table dance she performs in front of him, Seth is soon faced with the old zombie-movie commonplace of having to put down a loved one who has become a monster. Seth’s response is practically revelatory in its melding of practicality, pathos, and character integrity. He does initially prevent any of his allies from killing the undead Richie, but he does so only long enough to weigh the options before him— at which point Seth unhesitatingly delivers the killing stroke himself as a final, terrible act of brotherly love. Note, too, that this sort of thing is the rule in From Dusk Till Dawn, not the exception. Every time this movie kills off somebody whom it bothers to name, it grants them the courtesy of a meaningful, intelligently handled demise.
Another commendable bit of cliché-busting comes during the short lull after the first wave of vampires has been repelled. Seth gets a wonderful little speech about how he doesn’t believe in vampires, but he doesn’t care about that now, because he knows what he just saw, and what he saw was goddamned vampires. Those of you who’ve been reading my reviews for a while will know that this sort of thing is a longstanding sore point for me in movies that inject the supernatural into a setting where people don’t habitually accept it, and in vampire movies especially. It doesn’t seem like it should be so hard to find the sweet spot in between denying modern skepticism its due and pushing it to extremes more ridiculous than any leap of credulity, but From Dusk Till Dawn still stands out as a film that gets it right.
Where From Dusk Till Dawn stands out most, though, is in its sheer abnormality within the careers of its two principal creators. Quentin Tarantino, so far as I know, has never made another horror movie, either before or since, and Robert Rodriguez would not return to the genre until the Planet Terror segment of Grindhouse eleven years later. Impressively, the structure of the film itself seems designed to highlight and to exploit that oddball status. If you somehow went into From Dusk Till Dawn not knowing anything about its midpoint plot detour (and some of the original promotional materials were cagey enough to make that a legitimate, if remote, possibility), you’d be just as blindsided as the protagonists when Satanico Pandemonium first reveals her true face. To some extent, that’s a weakness as well as a strength. Obviously the audience for witty, stylish, implicitly amoral, extremely violent crime melodramas overlaps that for absurdist gore-horror overkill on the Bad Taste-Evil Dead 2 model, but those audiences just as obviously aren’t coterminous. Some viewers are going to get impatient waiting for the undead to make their appearance, while others will scoff at the jump from gangsters to monsters. Even I can’t help but feel like the movie is cheating a little when Satanico Pandemonium finishes her dance, and suddenly it’s *KABOOM!*— vampires! Still, half of a really good caper movie followed by half of a really good vampire flick adds up here to something approximately equal to the sum of its parts.