DIRECTED BY: Robert Rodriguez
FEATURING: George Clooney, Harvey Keitel, Quentin Tarantino, Juliette Lewis, Ernest Liu, Fred Williamson, Tom Savini, Cheech Marin, Danny Trejo, Salma Hayek
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.
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)