From Dusk Till Dawn [25 Year Retrospective]: Okay Vampire Killers…
The 90’s were dominated by a certain set of voices, each creating unique, slightly cynical, stylish and self-aware films that would stand out and shape that generation of cinema. One of the loudest voices amongst them was Quentin Tarantino, a man whose idiosyncratic writing and homage filled directing won him acclaim and an Academy Award. Standing firm alongside him was ‘one man film crew’ Robert Rodriguez, who’s early feature films celebrated his philosophy of creativity being superior to budget in the film industry. After meeting at the Toronto Film Festival these two hit it off and began working together, starting with segments in Four Rooms before banding together to create From Dusk till Dawn, the cult film that exploded onto screens in 1996 and celebrates its 25th anniversary this month.
The film was the product of collaboration from the get go with Tarantino being commissioned to create the script by Robert Kurtzman, the ‘K’ in KNB EFX Group (with Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger contributing the other initials), who wanted to showcase the companies makeup effects skills. After scheduling conflicts Tarantino offered the script to Rodriguez and KNB jumped on to do the effects and play many a bloodied extra. It’s a perfect concoction that led to one hell of a practical effects spectacle with hardened anti-heroes and a surprise encounter at a Mexican biker bar.
Just from the opening scene we see the perfect combination of the two different and yet harmonious forces behind the film. The sprawling open desert of Texas is our setting, more specifically a small, out in the middle of nowhere, liquor shop, where Texas Ranger Earl McGraw (Michael Parks) and clerk Pete Bottoms (John Hawkes) exchange some quintessential Tarantino dialogue. Unfortunately for these two this is the first stop off for ‘on the lam’ siblings, Seth and Richie, who are armed and heavily wanted by law enforcement. From the early introduction of these characters their dynamic is clear. Seth (George Clooney) is the measured, cool brains of the operation and Richie (Quentin Tarantino) is the loose cannon younger brother with an unhinged bloodlust. These are the Gecko brothers.
As the two venture closer to the border its clear that Richie Gecko is a fucking psycho with almost zero self control, a penchant for sexual assault and a real mean streak. Tarantino pulls this character off with enough creep to be thoroughly unsettling. In opposition to this is Seth, with his sprawling tattoos and dangerous charm he makes the criminal lifestyle feel cool and exciting. Yet for everything cool about Seth there’s something utterly disturbing about Richie. The two play well off of each other, with Seth having fatherly tendencies and clearly loving his brother but constantly battling with his unhinged mentality.
At a motel on route the criminal brothers come across a family who they take hostage, using their RV to clear the border into Mexico. Patriarch Jacob Fuller (Harvey Keitel), a former pastor experiencing a crisis of faith after the death of his wife, is on holiday with his teenage children, Kate (Juliette Lewis) and Scott (Ernest Liu), and definitely wasn’t expecting to be sharing their family time with a bank robber and his dangerously delusional younger brother. They are told they’ll survive if they can get the brothers to their meeting point, the Titty Twister bar, and ‘stay cool’ until sunrise. Unfortunately, this particular bar is like none they’ve ever been to before and hides a menacing secret inside.
Lights flash, flames spurt and the music pounds as we approach the Titty Twister, the most ridiculous, over the top and yet amazing bar put onto film. Of course this leads to the ‘pussy’ monologue, a trope that should be stupid but somehow ends up being hilariously fitting for this film, and gives Cheech Marin his second of three roles in the film. Bikers are scattered around in different states of disarray, and it’s the neon doors to hell that we all know we’re tempted to walk into. The house band, Tito & The Tarantula, bring the borderlands sound of Latin Rock with a hard edge, adding to the perfectly crafted soundtrack of the film and once again combining the styles of the writer and the director.
This is where, in a typical crime drama film the crew would lay low and celebrate until dawn, but one thing this film isn’t is typical. Instead this is the setting for an explosion of practical effects as dancers, bartenders and patrons turn into vampires. It’s here that KNB shine, showing off amazing makeup and imaginative kills from beheadings, heart removals and even a ‘cock gun’. Earlier in the film, when Richie commits a horrendous crime, we are shown through flashing imagery, sly editing and distracted cinematography, making it a background player to the narrative. The human tragedy is not dwelled upon as much as the monster killings, this is where the violence is indulged in and shown in all of its glory. Of course these are not your average fanged killers, taking more influence from Mayan and Aztec legends. Each one has their own look, from feline, to serpentine, to just plain bulky hideousness. Melting, popping, beheading and impalement are all on the menu now. And on the side is some B-Movie dark humour to wash it all down with.
“Combined with the collaboration of two intensely visual, playful and talented filmmakers, Tarantino and Rodriguez, this is the ultimate in bringing two great flavours together.”
In lesser hands this could have been a complete tonal mess, switching from an outlaw movie, to a hostage situation, a celebration at a seedy bar to the explosive vampiric finale, yet it never feels messy. Rodriguez keeps the pace and encourages the audience to follow this long road to hell with a smile on their face. To allow the film to continue for almost two thirds of its runtime before introducing a horror element is a big risk, and it’s here the audience could be lost. But somehow it seems perfectly in keeping with what came before, and for those who enjoy a horror burst it was a gleeful surprise that only enhanced their love for the film.
Another element that pins down the tone and keeps the twisting tones moving is the completely committed cast. Heartthrob Clooney makes a fun and believable turn as a charming criminal, with the idea behind his casting being to take him from his life saving character on ER and have him be a life taker in From Dusk till Dawn. Keitel brings layers to his preacher character, he is easy to empathise with and his faith is key to his character without becoming a stereotype. Keitel’s cool and calm demeanour works great against Clooney’s controlled criminality making the rapport between them stunning to watch. Then there’s an ensemble of Rodriguez regulars and Special Effects masters thrown in as well. Salma Hayek is the show stopping Santanico Pandemonium portraying sultry beauty and power in her dance scene, wrapped in a snake and looking unfathomably comfortable. It’s no surprise Tarantino was willing to worship at her feet. Danny Trejo is behind the bar, Tom Savini is clearly having a blast as Sex Machine and Fred Williamson brings the cigar chomping muscle as Frost.
Genre collision has never been finer, with a twist that could jar the audience being ultimately the most satisfying element. Combined with the collaboration of two intensely visual, playful and talented filmmakers, Tarantino and Rodriguez, this is the ultimate in bringing two great flavours together. The formula must have worked as it has spawned two sequels, albeit direct to video sequels that only had Tarantino and Rodriguez as executive producers, a well received TV series that expands on the mythos of the original film and there’s even an animated series rumoured to be in the works. It even gets a foot filled homage in Rammstein’s music video ‘Engel’. It’s clear that it deserves its cult status, even many years on.
Like every good Film Studies student I spend part of my education delving deep into the films and scripts of Tarantino, watching Robert Rodriguez’s 10 minute Film School series and reading his book ‘Rebel Without a Crew’. These two are icons to most who have ever sat through a film lecture or had aspirations of writing and directing their own feature film. This is what led me to watching their collaborative work and finding myself completely loving the mash up of From Dusk till Dawn. It still stands strong 25 years later as an action packed, fast paced, genre melding, gore spectacle which hits the funny bone just right and definitely deserves a rewatch to celebrate. Okay Gorehounds, lets go hound some gore!