FROM DUSK TILL DAWN (1996)
Two criminals and their hostages unknowingly seek temporary refuge in a truck stop populated by vampires, with chaotic results.
Quentin Tarantino exploded onto the scene with his low-budget crime thriller Reservoir Dogs (1992), but while audiences and critics were kneeling at his altar by the time Pulp Fiction (1994) was nominated for numerous Academy Awards (winning ‘Best Original Screenplay’), it was From Dusk till Dawn that sealed the deal for me. And that’s despite the fact Tarantino himself wasn’t behind the camera, as his friend Robert Rodriguez (Desperado) directed his screenplay’s strange mix of crime and horror.
Robert Kurtzman (a writer, director, producer, make-up artist of some repute) hired Tarantino to write From Dusk till Dawn as his first paid writing assignment, based on Kurtzman’s own rough outline and premise. This was around the time when QT was selling scripts (Natural Born Killers, True Romance) and polishing others (Crimson Tide), and Universal Pictures made it known they wanted to produce From Dusk till Dawn as a sequel to their hit Tales from the Crypt movie Demon Knight (1995). This obviously didn’t happen and Dimension Films ended up producing the film instead, but Universal’s resulting Bordello of Blood (1996) likewise featured a brothel full of vampires. That can’t be a coincidence!
From Dusk till Dawn is famously a movie of two halves. The first is close to what one expects of a mid-’90s Tarantino crime thriller, as we follow fugitive criminals Seth (George Clooney) and Richie Gecko (Tarantino) after a failed bank robbery. The two brothers are hoping to make it to Mexico, heading for the safety of El Ray (a fictional town taken from 1958 crime novel The Getaway), but need hostages to help them evade US-Mexico border control. The unfortunate family chosen to help them in this endeavour are the Fullers: a grizzled pastor suffering a crisis of faith called Jacob (Harvey Keitel), and his teenage children Kate (Juliette Lewis) and Scott (Ernest Liu).
The second half of From Dusk till Dawn is either the reason things go off the rails, or how it cements itself a cult classic, depending on your taste. For once the gang make it to Mexico’s sleazy ‘Titty Twister’ nightclub, they discover the establishment is a trap used by ancient Mayan vampires who’ve been feeding off customers for decades. And so our motley crew must band together to slaughter undead strippers and demonic barmen, in order to make it through the night until rescue and sunlight arrives.
It’s a heady mix of tones and flavours, but that’s what works for me. From Dusk till Dawn isn’t as intelligently-written as Reservoir Dogs, or as narrative complex as Pulp Fiction, but it’s full of colourful lines and the climactic mayhem is a feast of weird, camp, trashy, bloody, violent, and hilarious violence. The film manages to shift into a goofier tone without it upending or spoiling what’s come before, which is quite a feat!
And there are excellent moments of tension to remind us the Geckos aren’t particularly nice people—which is especially true of weirdo Richie, who clearly suffers from a mental disorder after needlessly killing their first hostage in a motel room. He also has a worrying tendency to stare at Jacob’s underage daughter (and QT indulged his foot fetish during Salma Hayek’s memorable striptease), which puts both the characters and audience on edge about what Richie might do when his brother’s back is turned.
Seth’s the saner half of the duo (were they inspired by London gangsters The Krays perhaps?), and Clooney’s big-screen charisma was first tested in this role. We’ll ignore that he technically appeared in some trashy B Movies like Return of the Killer Tomatoes (1988) before his ’90s breakthrough! Taranto had already worked with Clooney on an episode of ER that he directed in 1995, so clearly saw potential in TV’s newest hunk. Often credited with rejuvenating the careers of actors like John Travolta and Robert Forster, one forgets QT played a key part in making the likes of Clooney become A-listers.
Often ridiculed for his wooden acting (graciously limited to small roles he gives himself in many of his own films), Tarantino here got to play a major character in From Dusk till Dawn. And it actually works. I could be unkind and say it’s just easier to buy into QT as a creepy oddball, but the role of Richie Gecko is nicely played and I enjoy the dynamic he shares with his more charismatic and handsome brother.
There’s no denying From Dusk till Dawn is essentially a string of scenarios hung together, which is perhaps why Rodriguez later remade it as a multi-part TV series. There’s the liquor store heist that kicks things off with a literal bang (featuring Michael Parks as Sheriff Earl McGraw, who reprised the part in later Tarantino and Rodriguez films), the Gecko’s decision to take the Fuller family hostage at the motel, the gang’s tense journey across the US-Mexico border in an old RV, their celebratory evening at the Titty Twister club downing drinks, and finally the long action sequence where everyone has to stay alive once the place starts swarming with monsters.
When I first saw From Dusk till Dawn on VHS, I must have replayed the final act every day for a month. It was perhaps the last hurrah for mainstream practical make-up and animatronic monsters, and the weakest moments are shots they used CGI for. But the cumulative effect is still bracing and enormous fun, as the gang make friends with biker ‘Sex Machine’ (make-up wizard Tom Savini) and Vietnam veteran Frost (Fred Williamson), in order to annihilate the stream of creatures that come at them. The script finds fun ways for every character to fight back against all the odds, after finding a storeroom of equipment, involving a stake-tipped pneumatic drill and water pistols blessed with holy water. And who can forget Sex Machine’s iconic spring-action crotch pistol?
Decades later, it’s a shame Tarantino hasn’t directed his own supernatural horror movie, but perhaps this was his one idea and he knew Rodriguez would do a better job wrangling all the VFX and making the $19M budget appear bigger. Reviews at the time were mixed because of its strange tone and melding of genres, but the QT-flavoured quips and splatter played well to the teenage crowd, so it was successful enough for Dimension Films to later produce two direct-to-video sequels…
From Dusk till Dawn 2: Texas Blood Money (1999) was a limp rehash involving five bank robbers, whereas the more intriguing From Dusk till Dawn 3: The Hangman’s Daughter revealed the origins of the Titty Twister in a story taking place a century earlier. Both didn’t match the original’s mix of filmmaking bravado and sharp dialogue, but a better project was masterminded by Rodriguez himself when he remade From Dusk till Dawn as a 2016 TV series. The first season mirrored the plot of this movie, with some embellishments and additional characters, while the second and third seasons continued the story further.
From Dusk till Dawn remains a bit of an outlier in Tarantino’s filmography, as it’s not one of the 10 movies he’s claimed he’ll make before retiring, and it’s certainly not his best script another director made. But I saw it when I was an impressionable 17-year-old, so it turbo-charged my burgeoning enthusiasm for Quentin Tarantino and was a gateway drug to other high-concept and gory horror films.
USA • MEXICO | 1996 | 108 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH • SPANISH
director: Robert Rodriguez.
writer: Quentin Tarantino (story by Robert Kurtzman).
starring: Harvey Keitel, George Clooney, Quentin Tarantino, Juliette Lewis, Cheech Marin, Fred Williamson & Salma Hayek.