CAPSULE: FROM DUSK TILL DAWN (1996)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: George Clooney,  , , , Ernest Liu, Fred Williamson, , , ,

PLOT: Two vicious criminals take a preacher’s family hostage and head for a rendezvous at a biker bar in Mexico, but it turns out that the establishment is run by the undead.

Still from From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: From Dusk Till Dawn is really two different movies: it starts out as a gritty killers-on-the-lam flick, then turns into a campy horror film once dusk falls. Unfortunately, the first movie really sucks, and the second one has some great set pieces, but is spotty. And, although the collision of these two sensibilities is somewhat weird (though perhaps a better word is “jarring”), neither movie standing alone is bizarre enough for our tastes.

COMMENTS: As the first serious collaboration between two exploitation enfants terribles Robert Rodriguez (who directs here) and Quentin Tarantino (who wrote the screenplay and acts), From Dusk Till Dawn was a hugely anticipated project. You can tell by the lineup of talent eager to work with the duo: big-time star Harvey Keitel was joined by up-and-comers George Clooney, Juliette Lewis and Salma Hayek, with a cool comeback appearance by Fred Williamson and an exotic presence in the person of Cheech Marin (who plays three roles, for no particular reason). The triumph of Pulp Fiction was fresh in everyone’s mind, while Rodriguez was still considered of an indie legend for making El Mariachi for $7,000. The thought of these two collaborating on a vampire movie made hip 1990s cineastes salivate.

I have to say that at the time I was disappointed at the results, however, and in the two decades since my opinion of the film has only softened a little bit. It seems that Tarantino, unquestionably a genius director, envisioned Dusk as his big acting break. Casting himself as a sadistic nerd (so he wouldn’t have to stretch—zing!), QT wrote himself a role that dominates the early half of the film. He plays the live-wire with the itchy trigger finger who complcates the plot by killing everyone in sight, much to the exasperation of cooler-headed Clooney. The problem is, Tarantino is whiny-sounding and even whiny-looking, and rather than fearing him as a dangerously unhinged psychopath, you just want to slap him with the back of your hand (perhaps realizing this would be audience’s natural reaction, Tarantino scripted a scene where Clooney knocks him out with one swift backhand to his impossible-to-miss forehead).

Tarantino does do a good job of making you despise his character, but the problem with the film’s (completely unnecessary) first ten minutes is that it sets you up to despise everyone: Tarantino, Clooney, and most of their victims, including a ranger who goes on a rant about “Mongoloids” in the food service industry. The movie gets better when Harvey Keitel enters, and even better when Tarantino leaves. As a preacher of lapsed faith, Keitel is the first decent person to appear in Dusk—why wait until almost 20 minutes have passed to introduce the first likable character? Although almost half the movie is over at this point, things improve greatly once the killers and their hostages reach the”Titty Twister,” a South-of-the-Border den with enough sin stored up behind its Hellfire-spouting portals to put the entire city of Tijuana out of business. Inside, “Santanico Pandemonium” (how much better of a stripper name is that than “Kandy” or “Neveah”?) puts on a dance that’s so hot, she doesn’t even have to take her bikini off to make Tarantino’s eyes glaze over, and soon sexual tension leads to hot vampire action as a brood of bloodsuckers descend to feed on the assembled truckers and bikers. Unfortunately for the vampires, they decided to locate their lair in a bar with wooden chairs whose breakaway legs make for hundreds of perfect stakes, leading to vampire genocide on a massive scale. I would have gone with Naugahyde booths, but then vampires never ask me for decorating tips.

Williamson and Savini are a treat as a pair of badasses and natural vampire killers. Savini has a crotch gun and kickboxing moves, Williamson has a cigar and the fact that he’s freakin’ Fred Williamson. Unlike Tarantino’s pedophile rapist, they are both exactly the type of characters that a fun B-movie romp needs. It’s great to see the undead meet their doom at the hands of stereotypical macho men—much more fun than it was too see innocent people tormented by a believable sex pervert in the movie’s opening reels. If From Dusk Till Dawn had started soon after Keitel made the scene and progressed more quickly to the Titty Twister, the movie could have earned a recommendation.  As it is, it’s a curious failure that has been surprisingly overrated by people who remember the vampire-stabbing fun of the pre-dawn finale, but forget the  incongruous and unpleasant pre-dusk sequences.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A deliriously trashy, exuberantly vulgar, lavishly appointed exploitation picture, this weird combo of roadkill movie and martial-arts vampire gorefest is made to order for the stimulation of teenage boys.”–Todd McCarthy, Variety (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: MODUS OPERANDI (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Frankie Latina

FEATURING: Randy Russell,

PLOT: The CIA convinces an alcoholic ex-agent to track down two stolen briefcases in return for

Still from Modus Operandi (2009)

the name of the man who killed his wife.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST:The post-Tarantino/ fake-grindhouse movie is a sub-genre that’s less than a decade old, but already feels stale. Newcomer Frankie Latina, however, freshens the formula by spiking this exploitation cocktail with a shot of some sort of quick and dirty experimental hallucinogen he synthesized in his kitchen using drain cleaner, pencil shavings, and an over-the-counter hangover remedy. It’s a minor, but bizarrely entertaining, concoction.

COMMENTS: Exploding cowboy heads! Random film stock switches from black and white to Eastmancolor! Pubic hair shaving! Debuting director Frankie Latina throws everything he can think of into Modus Operandi, including the kitchen sink and whatever other plumbing fixtures he can bum off his Milwaukee pals. Bizarre bikini coke party! Authentic funk soundtrack! Time lapse shot of rotting fruit! Ideas and interruptions come fast and furious, and yet the plot is comfortingly simple to process. The missing briefcases are classic MacGuffins, and although it’s utterly preposterous, almost everything in the story tracks—except when the film breaks and VHS nude model auditions suddenly bleed into the movie. Gratuitous Alexandre Dumas quote! Strip club massacre! Danny Trejo! Ideas, you see, are free, an important asset when you’re filming a movie with no money. Latina disguises the fact that his movie has almost no action by blindsiding the audience with exploitation staples (nudity and gore) and stylistic non sequiturs at every turn. There is little of that alienating “look at us, we’re making a bad movie and we know it” jokiness in Modus Operandi; instead, the comedy in this parody arises from juxtaposition and weirdness. Senseless zooms! Snuff movies! Real life lesbian vampires! Among the film’s subtler jokes is the fact that the nominal hero and supposed ace agent, Stanley Cashay, is a middle-aged, frequently nude drunk who has no observable talent and who doesn’t actually do anything remotely heroic, or even interesting. The CIA is desperate to rehabilitate him from his stupor, but once sobered up the only thing he does is to put in a phone call to his underworld contact, Thunderbird. Thunderbird then calls Xanadu, Xanadu calls Foxy Borwn-wannabe Black Licorice, and somehow, through a confusing series of swaps and double crosses between a series of colorful agents, the briefcases eventually work their way back to Cashay. Meanwhile, Latina delivers more of what we tuned in for. Japanese torture vixens in black corsets! Hitchcock tributes! Intermission sequence with suggestive ice cream licking! As the promo for “Ayesha Ayesha,” the fake Bollywood spy babe TV show that’s a smash hit in Modus Operandi‘s universe, explains, it’s “psychedelic… razor sharp… rainbows and waterfalls… espionage… Air Mumbai… ice cold… bizarre adventures… far out!” To which we can only add: Corkscrews to eyeballs!  Split screens! Background painting of a topless woman riding a unicorn!

Modus Operandi also features fellow low-budget auteur Mark Borchardt (American Movie, Coven) in a small role. It’s “presented by” recently retired adult star Sasha Grey, for no observable reason except for the huckster logic that a porn starlet’s endorsement will sell tickets. Latina is already at work on his second feature, Skinny Dip (due out any day now), which brings back Trejo in a larger role and adds an expanded roster of acting talent including Grey, , Brigitte Nielson, and Pam Grier (now entering her fifth decade of exploitation filmmaking).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…its free-floating storytelling is more akin to the associative human mind than cinema’s traditional flow of familiar establishing shots, medium shots, close-ups, and cutaways. Like a found-footage film, Modus Operandi‘s logic is fragmented and unpredictable…”–Diego Costa, Slant (contemporaneous)