From Dusk Till Dawn

From Dusk Till Dawn ★★★★

At this point, I’m just filling in a few remaining blanks on Quentin Tarantino’s filmography and “From Dusk Till Dawn” was his last major project I was missing. I have to confess that I didn’t realize he wrote it; I only knew that he had a starring role, something that remains, mercifully, a rarity. Five minutes in, it was obvious that he had at least some involvement with the script and when his name popped up during the credits, it was no longer a surprise. It’s a Grindhouse feature without the Grindhouse label, a pilot project for Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez to experiment around with 70s exploitation and monster trash before they went full bananas a decade later with their official tribute to the genre. During the 90s, Tarantino had a fairly limited range of storylines. They always boiled down to incompetent criminals getting in over their head but refusing to back down until there is some major shootout and most of them end up dead. That, with minor variations, is the plot of “Reservoir Dogs”, “Pulp Fiction”, “True Romance” and “Jackie Brown”. “From Dusk Till Dawn” fits the bill as well, but the sudden appearance of vampires at least adds some unusual supernatural elements that Tarantino isn’t exactly known for.

The film can be split up into two halves fairly equal in length; before the main characters arrive at the Titty Twister, and after. Going by their “Grindhouse” contributions, the former has more Tarantino influences, while the second one has Rodriguez going nuts with violent vampire deaths, numerous dismemberments, a band using human body parts as instruments and a gunslinger named Sex Machine armed with a crotch pistol. But let’s back up to the first half. During the cold open, we meet Seth and Richie Gecko, brothers on the lam from Texas Rangers and on their way to Mexico. They took hostages during a bank robbery, but two make their escape during a shootout at a gas station (a young John Hawkes gets shot to shit and then burned alive) and one is murdered by Richie when Seth leaves their motel room to run errands. They are both violent and not above shooting people, but Seth is the more levelheaded of the two, a self-declared “professional thief”, who prefers not to kill people in cold blood. He talks a big game, but ultimately, you believe him when he says that if all goes according to plan, he’ll keep his word. Richie on the other hand is a demented pervert, a convicted sex offender with a foot fetish whom Seth can sometimes only control by knocking him out cold to shut him up.

George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino playing brothers is a hilarious bit of casting, but Clooney, in what is now the earliest role that I have seen him in, already shows his effortless charm that would serve him well in future roles as career criminals like Jake Foley and Danny Ocean. That’s not unimportant here, because Seth and Richie are complete scumbags who wouldn’t work as protagonists if one wasn’t charismatic enough to keep you invested in their fortunes. It’s a bit like what Sidney Lumet did in “Dog Day Afternoon”. Tarantino is Clooney’s John Cazale. By which I mean their characters serve a similar purpose, not that the acting is on par. If one of them is so unhinged that they might just kill everyone in the room, you are hoping that the other is able to keep the situation defused enough to prevent that from happening. Once they take a preacher with a crisis of faith and his two kids hostage, there is a constant dread that something might go wrong. There is some nice interplay between Harvey Keitel and Clooney, especially during the RV ride to the border when he questions Jacob about his life. Seth pretends not to give a shit, but he’s also a people person, like Clooney himself, and he knows that when people talk about themselves, they don’t have time to think about ways to escape. Richie on the other hand lusts after Jacob’s underage daughter. Only Tarantino would voluntarily play such a creepy part. But then again, it pays off handsomely for him at the Titty Twister.

I’m of course talking about Salma Hayek putting her foot in this mouth and pouring whiskey down her leg into it. Yes, the audacity to write such a scene when you’re the one playing the part is such an insane conflict of interest that it should prevent people like him from acting in movies they wrote ever again. George Clooney apparently asked at one point why Santanico Pandemonium only looks at Richie, and none of the other characters. His blunt answer was: “Because I’m the writer”. I get it though. How could I not after that dance? Hayek apparently overcame a phobia of snakes and even though it has become such an iconic scene that dials the eroticism to peak levels, she apparently completely improvised the routine. There was no choreography, because the snake was too unpredictable. Like in “Sin City” and “Grindhouse”, Rodriguez has such an eye for strip dancing that it’s no wonder he enjoys putting those scenes into his films again and again. I doubt he got permission to do it for “The Book of Boba Fett”. That probably doesn’t fly on a family-friendly channel like Disney+. In any case, after the dance, the bartenders, waiters and dancers turn into vampires and begin to dismember the patrons. It’s a wonderful WTF moment, even if you already know the premise, and it’s then that “From Dusk Till Dawn” turns into a bloody, pulpy and hilariously violent survival thriller deluxe. I’m not sure it can be called art and it’s a shame that some of the carefully set up relationships in the first half are blown to shit thanks to some cheap spectacle, but I was into it.

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