Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, January 14, 2019

Director Report Card: Robert Rodriguez (1996)

5. From Dusk Till Dawn

With his first three features, Robert Rodriguez was certainly rising his way through the Hollywood ranks. By teaming up with Quentin Tarantino in “Desperado” and “Four Rooms,” he was officially sanctioned into the hearts and minds of nineties film nerds everywhere. Obviously the two enjoyed working together. The two would collaborate again on his next film, in a more serious manner. “From Dusk Till Dawn” began as an idea from Robert Kurtzman, the K in KNB Effects. He commissioned Tarantino to write the script and the two obviously realized Rodriguez was the right man to bring this wild premise to fruition. The resulting film would become an immediate cult favorite, helping further solidify both filmmakers' reputations.

The Gecko Brothers are the most dangerous sons-of-bitches in Texas. Richie has recently sprung Seth, the older of the two, from prison. The bank robbers have left a trail of blood across the Lone Star state. The two hope to make it across the Mexican border before the end of the day, escaping the authorities. After Richie kills their previous hostage, the two fugitives meet up with Jacob Fuller and his two children, daughter Katherine and son Scott. They successfully take his R.V. across the border and meet at the place their contact has specified. That would be the Titty Twister, a wild strip club and bar. However, the place has a dark, unexpected secret. It's run by vampires. After the bloodsuckers attack, the motley group must fight to survive until dawn.

Ideally, “From Dusk Till Dawn” would have been released without anyone knowing what it was really about. That's how the movie is designed. The first forty minutes or so play out without any suggestion of supernatural content. It's a brutal crime movie and over-the-top action flick, pairing Tarantino's hard boiled characters and quick dialogue with Rodriguez' aptitude for gun fights and explosions. A clear tension occupies the air, as you wander if the Fuller family will survive being the Geckos' hostages. We already know how trigger-happy the two guys are. Of course, right when it looks like the two groups have come to an understanding, that's when the fucking vampires show up. The twist is programmed into the movie's DNA, catching the characters off-guard as much as the audience. The film does a wild tonal shift from tense crime flick to over-the-top horror/comedy. At least, that was the plan. The trailer, naturally, spoils the film's true nature. (At least the posters only hint at it.)

“From Dusk Til Dawn” was destined for a cult following, simply due the men who made it and the outrageous content in its second half. However, one of the most fascinating things about the film are its bank robbing protagonists. Seth and Richie Gecko are not good people. They are robbers, murderers, and clearly unhinged. Richie, in particular, is an unrepentant rapist. He assaults and murders their female hostage, the graphic aftermath of which we see just enough of to make a sickening impression. Despite their psychopathic acts, the two are brothers. Seth watches out for Richie, no matter how disgusted he is by his actions. He may smack him around some times but he genuinely loves him. Richie's status as the dorkier younger brother is solidified in a small moment: When Seth instructs him to put in his retainer. There's something oddly touching about how these two robbing, murdering, raping lunatics care about each other.

“From Dusk Til Dawn” is truly a collaboration between two very distinctive filmmakers. Yet you can't help but feel like Quentin Tarantino's influence really drives things here. Tarantino's trademark fast paced dialogue adds so much humor and energy to the motion pictures. This is a film, after all, that begins with Michael Parks delivering a rambling monologue. From there, the barbs fired between Seth, Richie, and the various unfortunate souls they encounter come fast and hard. So many of these lines are hilarious. Such as Seth flatly answering a question with “a punch.” Or the way Richie describes what is in Mexico. This frequently hysterical dialogue does not cease after the vampires show up. There are even more gut-busting lines, about Time-Life books or the dry way Seth describes the events of the nights. Even before the insane monster movie antics begin, Tarantino's script makes “From Dusk Till Dawn” a memorably nuts but darkly funny adventure.

The appearance of the vampires mark a definite tonal shift in “From Dusk Till Dawn.” The bloodsuckers roar on-screen in a glorious tidal wave of gore and mayhem. From this manic sequence onward, “From Dusk Till Dawn” continues to distinguish itself as a unique take on the vampire concept. It mostly does this with its gruesome special effects. These vampires are shape-shifters. When revealing their true nature, their faces become monstrous. They can change into bats but also serpents. In their natural state, they are pale, naked, hairy creatures with ugly, fanged faces. They have transparent, green blood and melt or burst into flames upon death. They are ravenous feeders, making “From Dusk Till Dawn” as much zombie movie as vampire movie at times. The effects, despite the occasional unconvincing rubber head, are excellent. The concepts and executions are wildly creative.

As much as Tarantino's script and KNB's effects are responsible for “From Dusk Till Dawn's” success, Robert Rodriguez' energetic direction is what holds it together. From the very first scene, Rodriguez is cranking up the manic energy. During the opening shoot-out, the camera careens around the three men as they shoot at each other. This is, after all, a movie where a man completely ablaze falls into a wrack of popcorn. Rodriguez doesn't calm down any as the movie gets nuttier. The montage where the vampires reveal themselves is a sight to behold. Through a series of quick cuts, guys are bitten torn apart, blood spurting all over the place. A head even bounces across the floor, in deadpan, almost comedic fashion. The action sequences remain this frantic throughout, the camera spinning through the bloody chaos.

Maybe the main thing I love about “From Dusk Till Dawn” is this: The filmmakers put every awesome idea they had in the movie. Considering we start with “strip club full of vampires,” I guess it makes sense that Rodriguez and Tarantino do not back away from their craziest ideas. So we have the hottest stripper in the bar turn into a snake monster. Not only does the film have the balls to name a character Sex Machine, it gives him the codpiece gun from “Desperado” and then let's him use it. Later, after becoming a vampire, he turns into a giant rat for no reason other than it's cool. One vampire is staked on a pool table and his eyeballs roll into the corner pockets. The vampire bands play instruments made of body parts. A shotgun and a table leg become a make-shape crucifix. Condoms and super soakers are filled with holy water. A jack-hammer becomes a thrusting, phallic instrument of death. A disco ball reflects sunlight everywhere. It's all amazing and it all actually happens in the movie.

Even though “From Dusk Till Dawn” has a ridiculous, exploitation movie premise, Tarantino and Rodriguez' clout was such that A-list talent was attracted to the film. George Clooney wasn't yet a major movie star, still best known for “E.R.” at the time. He shatters that wholesome image, spitting the vulgar dialogue with vigor. Clooney manages to perfectly balance Seth, making him both an uncompromising criminal and a slightly charming rouge. The main criticism pointed at “From Dusk Till Dawn” when it was new, aside from its general excess, was Quentin Tarantino's acting. I'll dissent here and say that Tarantino is actually perfect as Richie. Probably because playing a sleazy weirdo is something the director is good at. Or maybe because being directed by someone else reels in his more annoying attributes. Either way, he has great chemistry with Clooney, is often hilarious, while also being appropriately weird and creepy.

Despite the Geckoes being the obvious protagonists, Harvey Keitel gets top billing. Jacob Fuller's character arc, a man who has lost his faith, is standard stuff. Keitel is such a good actor, he still imbues him with a certain sadness and a stern sense of authority. Juliette Lewis plays Kate. Lewis' cuteness effectively makes Kate vulnerable, which is what she needs to be in the first half. She's also surprisingly good at being an improvised bad-ass in the second half, slinging arrows with a crossbow. Ernest Liu, as Scott, gives probably the least memorable performance in the film. This isn't bad. Liu nicely brings an excited young boy to life, gawking at the strippers upon entering the bar in a funny way. Yet he's not so distinct against such a load cast.

In fact, every corner of “From Dusk Till Dawn” is filled with cult icons. Tom Savini is hilarious and surprisingly adapt at action as Sex Machine. Fred Williamson is an over-the-top bad-ass named Frost, casually yanking hearts out and staking vamps. He gets this hilariously exaggerated 'Nam flashback. Danny Trejo actually gets dialogue this time, his tough guy exterior already being used for deadpan comedy. (Such as his sole scene as the club's M.C.) Cheech Marin, after his smaller role in “Desperado,” really gets to shine in a trio of parts. The best of which is the club patron obsessed with a certain part of the female anatomy, which he rants about in amusing detail.

Michael Parks' Sheriff McGraw is only in one scene but is so hilarious, handling Tarantino's verbose dialogue in a perfectly dry manner, that the director would bring the character back several times despite killing him off here. Salma Hayak may not get much of a character arc, as star vampire stripper Satanico Pandemonium. She's so sexy as to define easy description, her dance scene ushering a number of boys into manhood, which is exactly what the part calls for. At the same time, Hayak does command a certain villainous sway, once the character's true vampiric nature is revealed. Even bit parts include recognizable faces, as John Saxon and Kelly Preston stop in for cameos.

Oh yeah, the soundtrack is bitchin' too. Choice needle crops from the Blasters, Z.Z. Top, and Jimmie Vaughan perfectly suits the film's dumb-smart macho atmosphere. When I first saw “From Dusk Till Dawn” as a stupid teenager, I couldn't quite correlate the film's trashy, outrageous content with its massive entertainment value. I thought it was one of those “so-bad-it's-good” movies. I wasn't sophisticated enough at the time to realize it was simply so-good-it's-good. Breathlessly manic and effortlessly entertaining, “From Dusk Till Dawn” is pure sex-and-violence-and-monsters joy from start to finish. This is Robert Rodriguez operating in peak form, generating the kind of perfect adolescent male fantasmas that would become his bread-and-butter. [Grade: A]

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