Tuesday, October 22, 2013

From Dusk Till Dawn

From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), one of the earlier collaborations between Robert Rodriguez (director) and Quentin Tarantino (writer and co-star), is a lot of things: vulgar, violent, gory. It's also funny, exciting, intense, and, thanks to a key supporting performance by Harvey Keitel, poignant (at times). A blend of A- and B-movie sensibilities and stars, the film is never short of compelling and fun.

I first caught the movie on TV when I was 13 or 14 years (which, despite the R rating, is probably the ideal audience or at least an audience that can appreciate those sensibilities), and it was already about half way when I came in, thus spoiling the movie's big surprise. Most movies start in one genre and stick with it throughout, or they cross-pollinate characteristics of some into one big blend. From Dusk Till Dawn, however, does something rarer; it begins in one genre and on a dime propels into another seamlessly. What starts as a story of criminals on the run with their hostages changes gears and becomes heroes under siege by a horde of supernatural monsters.

On the run from Texas police and the FBI, criminals Seth Gecko (George Clooney) and his brother Richie (Tarantino) take a lapsed preacher, Jacob Fuller (Keitel), and his children, Kate (Juliette Lewis) and Scott (Ernest Liu), hostage and commandeer their RV. Crossing the Mexican border, they hunker down at a fancy little bar called "The Titty Twister," but Seth and Richie cause trouble with some employees (including Salma Hayek as "Santanico Pandemonium), who reveal themselves as vicious vampires that proceed to feed on much of the bar's clientele. Seth rallies the survivors (including Tom Savini as a biker named "Sex Machine" and Fred Williamson as a scarred Vietnam vet), but even after clearing out the bar, more vampires appear outside, just eager for a chance to get inside.

There's no real deep message here, just skilled, bravura filmmaking and affection for the bad taste material.  From Dusk Till Dawn is a comically gory movie: the Mariachi band whose instruments are revealed to be human body parts, Fred Williamson overturning a table and in sequence dropping four vampires heart-first on the upturned legs, Cheech Marin turning up in three roles (border cop, vampire, and gangster), and Clooney converting a jackhammer into a weapon that drives stakes into hearts. Heads roll, limps are lopped, blood flies, and bodies melt. It's gross, but it's so over-the-top, it's funny and exciting instead of just disgusting.

The humor comes from these characters being forced on a dime to confront and accept the supernatural. The first half of the movie plays like an edgy, slow-burn crime thriller. There's no transition, buildup, or hint in the narrative that the undead are going to appear. One minute Salma Hayek is dancing in a bikini with a giant snake, and the next, at the sight of dripping blood, she leaps atop Tarantino and bites his throat out. Then all the strippers and bartenders transform into these demonic, long-eared, big-fanged vampires and start biting and clawing anything that moves. It's pure chaos, and it's awesome.

Things slow down a bit as the characters get into discussion about the nature of what they're dealing with and what to do about it. "Does anyone know what's going on?" Jacob asks. "I know what's going on," Seth says. "We got a bunch of fucking vampires out there that are trying to get in here and suck our fucking blood. And that's it. Plain and simple."

Performance-wise, everyone is in the spirit of things and has fun with the material. Clooney, in his first starring movie role, is a cool, dangerous presence that he balances with steady authority: "I don't want hear anything about 'I don't believe in vampires' because I don't believe in fucking vampires, but I believe in my own two eyes, and what I saw was fucking vampires," he says in the take-charge moment. Williamson and Savini (I wish I was cool enough to have a nickname like Sex Machine) are badass and funny, but it's Keitel who commands the show. The lapsed-preacher-finds-his-faith trope has been done a thousand times, but Keitel really knows how to sell and bring heartfelt emotion to it. In his best moment, when alone and surrounded by dozens of ugly vampires and forced to use a baseball bat and shotgun to fashion a makeshift cross, you really believe this is a man facing the hordes of Hell.

And for those of you who don't like Tarantino, he's as obnoxious as ever, but he gets killed. Graphically. Twice. Hell, that's fun even if you are a fan.

1 comment:

  1. You're right on the money with this one in every way. This movie is a major guilty pleasure, with a perfect little twist at the very end.