From Dusk Till Dawn ***1/2
One Liner Review:
A campy and over the top, fun movie filled with outrageous Tarantino ideas and dialogue, and fantastic Robert Rodriguez action.
FULL LENGTH ANALYSIS:
From Dusk Till Dawn is a criminals on-the-run movie meets a vampire / zombies in a bar movie. It’s the brainchild of two very different directors and the melding together of both of their styles. Quentin Tarantino wrote the movie, and for the first half of the film, it is very much his. Robert Rodriguez directed the movie, and his influence takes over in the second half, once the vampires come out.
To understand the difference between these directors, one could really compare any of their two films. Pulp Fiction vs. Desperado. Jackie Brown vs. Sin City. Or look at the movies they made together, Four Rooms (each had a room), and then Grindhouse (each contributed one feature length movie). Tarantino is the clever plot, dialogue guy. Rodriguez is the all-out action mayhem guy. And in From Dusk Till Dawn, we get the best of both.
The movie’s first half is entirely about these two bank robber brothers, George Clooney (in his first movie role since becoming George Clooney from ER) and Tarantino himself. They’re the Gecko brothers, and there’s a wonderful scene that introduces them to us in liquor store while holding the customers and store manager hostage. That scene ends with a gunfight and the store blowing up behind them, but not before Tarantino can give us some funny and snappy dialogue about the possibility of giving a cop signals.
As the movie goes on, we meet a family and the brothers take this family hostage. Clooney seems to bond nicely with the father, played by Harvey Keitel as a preacher who has lost his way. It’s a clichéd sounding role, but this movie is anything but clichéd. Any other monster / zombie / vampire / serial killer movie, would open up with a killing or attack. That’s the staple of this formula. The idea is to get the audience involved quickly by hitting them with some excitement right away.
But From Dusk Till Dawn finds a different way to get excitement to the audience at the start, and intentionally holds off the vampires until halfway into the film. This might frustrate some viewers who are looking to watch the same old thing they have seen a thousand times before, but Tarantino knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s allowing the audience to spend time with the main characters before the vampires show up, so that when they do arrive, the audience has gotten to know the characters and actually start to care about them. The other thing he’s doing by holding them off for so long, is allowing us to settle into this world of believability (over the top, yes, but at least plausible), so that when vampires suddenly appear out of nowhere, we are just as stunned and in disbelief as the main characters.
When they get to the bar, now a solid chunk into the film, the vampires do show up, and an all-out action movie appears before our eyes. At this point it’s become Rodriguez’s film, but Tarantino still has some nice touches here and there. Like the conversation about what they know about vampires, where they actually discuss vampire movie clichés. Or when they find a back room filled with weapons and each gets to pick a weapon of their choosing (like Bruce Willis trying out different weapons before going downstairs to kill some rapists in a pawn shop in Pulp Fiction).
From Dusk Till Dawn has all of this witty dialogue and cool, collected characters (not Tarantino, but pretty much everyone else). It has criminals on the run and hostage taking and then vampire attacks. And it all takes place in one night, or the events leading up to that night and then the night. All they have to do is survive one night, but it’s going to be one hell of a night. That’s a line from the trailer and it really fits the film well. This movie is campy and extreme, and therefore not for everyone. I mean body parts do get torn off and go flying everywhere. But it’s also a lot of fun and a creative version of a vampire movie with smart dialogue and a clever angle.
FULL LENGTH ANALYSIS
When Tarantino wrote a vampire movie about bank robbers who end up spending the night in a bar full of man-eating creatures, it was a departure for him. The crime part of the movie was right up his alley as business as usual, but the vampire sci-fi fantasy elements were entirely new. And so he found the perfect director to take charge of the project and make it into a wild, crazy-as-hell, action-horror extravaganza. That director was Robert Rodriguez.
It was 1996. One year earlier, Rodriguez and Tarantino had teamed up for both Desperado (Tarantino has an acting cameo and Rodriguez directs), and also Four Rooms (both of them directed one of the rooms). It was only two years earlier, in 1994, that Tarantino had given the world Pulp Fiction. And now, he found a partner and a friend with similar interests and enthusiasm.
These guys were on a roll and From Dusk Till Dawn pulled things together from each of those other movies to represent the final collaboration of this time period. It had the two different stories in one, like Four Rooms. It had the two criminals firing guns together (there’s a scene at the bar where both brothers raise guns and fire as a reflex, simultaneously, and it feels right out of Pulp Fiction). And there’s the band leader at the vampire bar as well as Danny Trejo and Cheech Marin working in the bar, all actors who played major characters in Desperado. There’s even the same kind of mellow, soft-sounding Mexican music used here, as was in that film.
But From Dusk Till Dawn is also very different. All of those other movies were action /crime movies. From Dusk Till Dawn is action / horror, or action / sci-fi. It’s a genre Rodriguez would continue to tackle in future projects, such as The Faculty. And it’s a genre that Tarantino would never touch again. To see the clear difference between these two guys, just look at their two “rooms” in Grindhouse. They each have a movie that’s put together into one single package (you could almost say the same thing about From Dusk Till Dawn). In Grindhouse, Tarantino’s movie is about a sadistic stuntman who kills young women. In Rodriguez’s movie, a virus has spread from a military base and has turned everyone into zombies.
These differences are the basic ingredients of From Dusk Till Dawn. Two movies in one. Just like Pulp Fiction, having different stories or different movies, all involving the same characters, melded together into one film. So in From Dusk Till Dawn, we get an hour or so of a crime movie, and then an hour or so of a vampire movie. It’s a pretty cool formula.
It’s also a formula that many people, who are used to the standard rules of a horror movie, object to. They say, “where are the vampires?” and “how can there not be any monsters for over an hour of the film?” What they don’t realize is, that’s exactly the point. Horror movies do tend to start off with killings early on as a staple of the genre. Just look at Scream, which began with Drew Barrymore being terrorized and then gutted. And there is certainly good reasoning behind it…they want to grab the audience’s attention and get them involved as quickly as possible.
But Tarantino knows something that most filmmaker’s don’t. He knows that tension takes time and that the longer you hold off, the more exciting the payoff. The specific reason why the vampires only appear after an hour of the film has gone by is because Tarantino wants us to get to know the characters. He wants us to spend some time and get close to them and by the time the vampires do show up, he wants us to experience it right alongside them.
To keep it simple, he wants to give us a reason to care. The crowd that wants to see killings and vampires in the opening moments of the film is the Final Destination crowd… the kind of people who just want cool death scenes and barely need any plot at all. But Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez are both way above that. They love shocking, extreme, and hardcore moments, but these guys are storytellers, and they let the tension build.
Now that’s not to say that the beginning of the movie is slow or dull in a “getting to know you” kind of way. We don’t exactly watch these guys in their normal, boring, day-to-day lives. Instead, we watch these guys hold up a liquor store and then shoot the sheriff, set the storeowner on fire, kill him, and blow up the store behind them as they walk off into the distance.
It’s a pretty brilliant opening scene, with both the storeowner and the sheriff played by the serenely casual actors (John Hawkes and Michael Parks). Tarantino loves Michael Parks (he played two different parts in the Kill Bill movies), and you can clearly see why. This guy is Mr. Cool. He even talks cool. And John Hawkes has that perfect way of talking as if he can’t believe how crazy the people he is talking to really are. Just watch him as Kenny Powers’ brother in the first season of Eastbound and down.
The opening scene is a lot of fun. Tarantino is out for blood and he tells Clooney that the storeowner is doing things that the man is not doing at all. On top of that, Tarantino holds a girl down on the counter so hard that when he lifts her up, she makes a gasping sound as if he just lifted her out of the water and she finally was able to catch a breath.
When Clooney doesn’t buy Tarantino’s garbage, the crazy brother shoots the storeowner himself. This sets off a gun fight, where the store owner gets a gun himself, and the brothers set him on fire, kill him, and blow the place up behind them as they casually walk away.
It’s a hell of an opening scene, filled with comedy, coolness, violence, and fun. I suppose you could really say that about the whole movie. Having the store blow up behind them as Clooney lectures his brother about the meaning of the words “low profile” is pretty brilliant. And we get to know the characters a little bit in those opening moments too. We see which one of them is in control and which one of them is a sadistic psychopath.
They drive off and we get the credits, complete with the movie’s title rising up onto the screen in giant red letters, similar to the huge bold font that Tarantino used to bring up his Pulp Fiction title. Presenting these titles in this away announces the movie as something big, something memorable, and something campy as hell.
The boys drive off into the morning sun and we see Tarantino taping up his hand that now has a hold in it, straight through. We also see an x-ray shot of what’s inside the trunk of their car, and there’s a woman back there, tied up and kidnapped.
The brothers check into a motel and there’s some catchy dialogue about the different features of the room that could have only been written by Tarantino. He asks about the different things the room might have and Clooney responds, “they have four walls and a roof and that’s all we need.” They settle in and Clooney gives the hostage a little talk about how if she behaves and doesn’t try to escape, she’ll be okay. Then he leaves.
We mix in with a family at a diner instead of staying around to watch Tarantino and the woman. This movie is edited real nicely so that whenever we need a break from the brothers, it’s given to us with a scene that helps further the plot. The first time we needed a break, before they got into the motel room, it was given to us in the form of a news report that explained all we needed to know about who these guys are. And now, for our second break, we are introduced to this family and thrown right into the middle of an intimate conversation between father and daughter about the loss of faith.
The father, played by Harvey Keitel, is a former preacher. The daughter, played by Juliet Lewis, is an innocent young thing. She’s playing the same kind of character she played in Cape Fear, only now more like college age instead of high school. Their diner conversation reveals that Keitel lost his wife and that’s when he gave up his faith and left his position as a pastor.
The family gets to the motel and nearly runs over Clooney in their RV. That’s Clooney on his way back to the room. Nice transfer from one story to the other. We follow Clooney into the room to see what Tarantino has done. He killed the woman. No surprise there. And the movie has the good sense to not really show the body, but just show flashes of it, making it all the more scary.
I love the dialogue between these guys when Clooney keeps asking his brother, “is this my fault?” and Tarantino responds, “no, it’s her fault.” It’s just such perfect delivery by Tarantino, trying to convince Clooney of this ridiculous story that the woman was attempting to escape, when clearly Clooney isn’t buying a word of it. This movie is loaded up with great Tarantino dialogue and that’s just one of it are many fantastic features.
And now its time to merge the two stories together. The story of Keitel and his family, and the story of our two Gecko brothers, Seth and Ritchie, on the run from the law. The two bad boys knock on Keitel’s door asking for ice and end up pulling out guns. They take the family hostage and pile into the RV, hoping that this way they can get safely across the border.
But the border patrol isn’t so easy. The two boys hide in a back bathroom with Juliette Lewis. Keitel tells border patrolman Cheech Marin there’s nobody back there. And then there’s a noise. It’s Ritchie being knocked out by Clooney and falling to the floor. Cheech goes back to investigate, catches Lewis on the toilet with her pants down, and leaves the scene. And now our boys are home free. Or so they think.
The arriving at the Titty Twister Bar is a moment that announces to us this is the start of a new movie. We just have to be aware of the signs. Like the flames in the air, just like the ones that started off the first movie as the boys blew up the liquor store. Or the wooden doorway that the RV drives through representing a new gate or tunnel into a new world.
They get to the bar and kick Cheech Marin’s ass for giving them a hard time. Clooney breaks his nose and hand and Tarantino kicks him when he’s on the ground. This is Marin’s second role in the movie, playing a worker at the bar. He will appear one more time by the end, playing the man these boys are trying to meet up with.
They enter the bar and come upon Danny Trejo as the bartender, with a vest that sports off his numerous tattoos. Rodriguez loves this guy and he loves showing off those tattoos. Just look at Trejo in Desperado, or more recently starring in his own Rodriguez movie, Machete.
Trejo gives them a hard time and there is nearly a fight, but Keitel who tells the bartender that he is a truck driver and these men are with him settles it all. But Clooney is still upset about the huge ape-man who put his hand on him and was about to start something before Keitel jumped in. They’re sitting down having shots of tequila, and Clooney tells Keitel, “I’ll tell you what I’m gonna do Jacob, I’m gonna finish my drink and then I’m gonna go find that ape that put his hand on me and…” Once again, Keitel now gives a convincing speech about how Clooney has beaten the entire police department and FBI and has clearly won, and needs to settle down. It’s as if this guy is Clooney’s father, the same way that Clooney is basically Ritchie’s father.
And then there’s Salma Hayek. She comes out as a stripper with a boa constrictor around her neck. And she gives a pretty phenomenal show, dancing slowly to the music and at one point even pouring whiskey down her body, over her foot, and into Tarantino’s mouth.
This is all before the three bad barmen, Cheech, Danny Trejo, and the big melon guy from earlier, come back to challenge our two stars. “Get back on the clock,” Clooney tells Tarantino. And we get gunshots and a stabbed hand. Tarantino’s again. Only this time it brings out the vampire in Salma Hayek. She turns into a demon right in front of our eyes, jumps on his back, and bits his neck. And blood spills everywhere. It is the messiest blood biting you’ve ever seen as it even drips out of his mouth.
That’s when the three barmen who were supposedly killed shoot back up as vampires. And that’s when all of the strippers turn into vampires too. It’s an insane frenzy with body parts flying everywhere and crazy vampire strippers slicing up the customers. By the end of it, our heroes are all left standing and they stake the body of Tarantino who has now become a vampire.
This is where the vampire movie crosses over into zombie movie territory. If when bitten, they become the creatures that bit them, then they are more like zombies. And that works just fine for this movie. I like that Tarantino mixes around the rules of different types of monster movies. Why not?
Some new characters are now brought in to join our team. We lost Tarantino, but we gained two others. Sex Machine, played by makeup special effects artist Tom Savini (he was one of the actors in the original Dawn of the Dead). And Fred Williamson playing an ex-marine from Vietnam. Williamson is so badass he actually tears out the biggest guy’s heart without moving anything more than his hand.
And Savini is sporting the cock-piece gun and chambers that pop out from over his crotch. It’s a weapon that was shown briefly in Desperado, just looking at it on a counter with Salma Hayek asking Antonio Banderas if he ever wore it. Well, now Rodriguez gets to show it off, and he puts it to good use.
So it’s Clooney and Keitel and Juliette Lewis and the Asian kid, and then these two new guys who have joined their crew. And now they engage in one of the best conversations in the movie. They discuss vampires from a cynical point of view, asking each other if anyone actually knows anything about vampires or if they only know what they’ve seen in movies. The discuss all of the clichés from crosses to stakes to holy water to sunlight to the idea that silver might do something. It’s a fun conversation. The kind that reminds me of Scream, where the characters talk about movie clichés as if they are not in another movie themselves.
The sound of bats now enters the picture. And a remaining vampire bites Tom Savini. He starts to turn while Williamson is giving his monologue about being in Vietnam. We listen to some of this monologue, about how Juliette Lewis should be able to take the sound of the bats because he had to listen to the sounds of the enemy killing his friends. But then we move on to Savini as her slowly starts to turn. First it’s a whistling sound. Then his teeth turn. Then his hands. And he handles it all with great humor, trying to cover them up from everybody else.
But it’s only a matter of time before Savini turns completely and he bites Williamson who is still telling his story. It’s as if the bite is to tell Williamson to shut up already. And Williamson throws him through a boarded up, wooden window, sending in all the bats. Our characters run down a hallway as a now-vampire Williamson points the bats in the direction our heroes have run.
They make it to the end of the hallway and into a room filled with boxes of stolen goods. Keitel is left in the bar and has to fend for himself. He somehow manages to get back there, to the room and bangs on the door hoping to get in. “Open the door,” he shouts. And he gets in to join his family.
Our heroes are now just the family and Clooney. Those two guys who joined the gang, Sex Machine and Williamson, are long gone. And our four characters left who are holed up in the back room now go tearing through boxes, making and searching for whatever weapons they can use. Each one of them comes up with a different weapon. From a crossbow to a drill with a wooden stake inside it. The trying out different weapons scene reminds me of Pulp Fiction, when Bruce Willis knew he had to go back down to save Marcellus Wallace from the rapists. But before he did so, he looked over the store and tried out different weapons. A bat, a chainsaw, and lastly a samurai sword. All of it, the Pulp Fiction stuff, and now this From Dusk Till Dawn stuff, reminds me of a videogame, like Legend of Zelda, where you go into a store and get to choose your weapon. It’s all very cool.
And with these new weapons, our foursome goes out into the crowd for one last fight. This is where the father turns into a Vampire and then bites the son. And the son is bitten by like ten vampires at once (for me, the only true horrific moment of the movie), and Juliet Lewis shoots her brother, who is begging her to kill him. Once sunlight starts showing up in the bar, Clooney and Lewis keep shooting holes in the walls until eventually sunlight hits the disco ball on the top and the whole place explodes.
Clooney and Juliette now stand outside talking to Carlos, the third Cheech Marin character. Clooney negotiates a deal of giving him a smaller percent than is the normal standard. This is a tribute to the Tarantino character, since it is the point that Clooney and Tarantino argues about earlier, with Tarantino telling Clooney they should give Carlos a smaller percent. At the time Clooney said, “You just don’t do it.” But seeing him do it now shows that he has changed. It’s his character arc. It’s also a direct result of all the things he’s been through this night. “Because you picked this place, my brother is dead. This girl’s whole family is dead.”
This is the start of one of the last great conversations in the movie with Carlos asking if they were psychos and Clooney saying, “psychos don’t explode when sunlight hits them.” After agreeing to the deal, Cheech and his crew go back to their car and Clooney and Juliette have some last words. She wants to come with him. He tells her he’s not that much of a bastard that he would take her. This points out that he’s not such a terrible guy. It’s a clear difference between him and his brother, Tarantino, who would have raped Juliette Lewis the first chance he got.
The final shot of the movie pulls back to reveal that this Titty Twister bar is actually built on the steps of an ancient Aztec temple. There are a lot of ways to read this final shot, which plays along with the opening music of the movie, “Dark night.” The first few times I saw the movie I thought those steps were going down into the earth, into hell. After all, in mythology, hell is underneath the earth. The underworld. And Tarantino is certainly well versed in Joseph Campbell and mythology.
But there’s also the history of Mexico and Cortez who came over and exploited the Aztec natives, searching for gold. He massacred tons of them, the same way these vampires massacred bikers and truckers and through their trucks into the pit behind the bar, where these stairs lead to.
Either way, it’s a hell of a last shot, giving us one final twist to end the film. This was Clooney’s breakout movie, his first film since ER made him a star. It’s also the only time he really tried fantasy, unless you include Solaris, which was more serious than it was fun.
With From Dusk Till Dawn, there’s no doubt about it, the movie was made for pure fun. It’s campy and cheesy every step of the way, and it has this tone on purpose, just like The Evil Dead 2 does. It’s incredibly graphic, just like Kill Bill: Volume 1, and again, it’s so over the top that it just becomes silly fun as opposed to a grotesque horror torture-porn movie (ironically Tarantino was the producer of Hostile, one of the two big torture porn movies of the last decade, right next to Saw).
But there’s a fine difference between writing and directing and producing. And Tarantino takes great pride in his writing / directing. From Dusk Till Dawn might be more Rodriguez than it is Tarantino, but it’s certainly got a little bit of both of them in there. The most obvious way to look at it is that the first half is Tarantino and the second half is Rodriguez (that certainly makes sense when comparing their two Grindhouse films).
Either way, the combination and way the story changes mid-movie works perfectly as a strategic move that keeps us invested in the characters long after the mayhem begins. This is an amazing vampire movie, not because of the vampires, but because of the tone. Just like the Lost Boys, this completely represented the 80s (how perfect that it featured the kids from The Goonies, alongside Jason Patrick and Kiefer Sutherland?) From Dusk Till Dawn represents Rodriguez and Tarantino in the mid-nineties when they were both making their best movies. Pulp Fiction is Tarantino’s best and Desperado is Rodriguez’s best. From Dusk Till Dawn, in a sense, is a follow up to both of those. It’s a crime movie, a vampire movie, a Mexico movie, and a B movie all in one. And it has one goal in mind: to have fun.