This year marks the 15th anniversary of Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s cult artifact, From Dusk Till Dawn. Like everything Q.T. has put his hands on, it’s reception has been polarized, and predictably even those that have praised it couch their attaboys in meaningless platitudes about “fun” and “exploitation.”
“…made to order for the stimulation of teenage boys.”—Todd McCarthy
“On a mindless exploitation level this is pretty good…”—Jonathan Rosenbaum
“A skillful meat-and-potatoes action extravaganza with some added neat touches.”—Roger Ebert
While the movie certainly is fun and exploitative—most critics seem to have ignored the film’s elegant formal structure and its delicate interplay between diverse genres and allusions. While not necessarily Tarantino’s best script to date, it is an extremely impressive genre pastiche—and really his only film that fits as neatly into that category as critics would like all of his work to.
Its plot moves along at a brisk clip. Two brothers on a “kill-crazy rampage” through Texas kidnap a family with a faithless preacher patriarch, hijack their RV, and hole up in a dive-bar off the beaten path in Mexico. In the middle of the night the strippers and patrons all turn into Vampires and a battle royale ensues.
“I never said do what I do; I said do what I say.”—Seth Gecko
Originating in a story idea by the contemporary makeup-effects legend Robert Kurtzman, the film at first glance appears long on spectacle and short on ideas. Oddly, it pays far more attention to character than it needs to for its run-and-gun purposes. Details in the Sherriff’s monologue hint at a whole world of emotional ins-and-outs within his mind, Richie’s “bit” (“I grind my teeth”), and Jacob Fuller’s carefully laid out backstory are all superfluous to the simple story of two guys shooting their way to Mexico, but they give the film a sense of unity far in excess of most Action movies—much less an Action-Horror-Comedy hybrid.
We’re so used to Action films that move from set-piece to set-piece, one explainer explaining where we are to the character who will explain it to the next character in the next scene of exposistion: an endless explanation that never satisfies and never ends until the inevitably dreadful anti-climax where one character kills another and everyone lives happily ever after—really a pretty poor excuse for “closure.”
From Dusk Till Dawn avoids this paradigm by actually lavishly embellishing character and giving it the foremost position in the story; the pornographic spectacle at the end is also entirely in the service of character. For instance, Richie’s resurrection as a vampire ties into both Seth’s ability to see into his brother’s true nature and his need to symbollically kill his brother—his darker half—and move on. The group’s need for Jacob’s blessings—holy water and crosses to fight the vamps—ties into the larger story of his crisis of faith. And finally Kate’s escalating confrontation with corrupted sexuality: from Richie, to Santanica, to the Undead patrons of the Titty Twister en masse—ties into her larger coming-of-age project that actually provides the film’s true resolution.
“To your family” — “To yours”—Gecko and Fuller having a drink
Formally, the film goes to great lengths in its effort to both upset audience expectations and fulfull genre requirements. Beginning, as almost all Tarantino scripts do, in media res we’re instantly thrust into a a situation where the characters know far more than we do. So with each revelation: the robber and hostage at the back of the store, the execution of the Sherriff, Richie’s psychosexual madness—the audience is being coached to expect the unexpected. Later in the film, when Vampires appear and the script takes its strange Evil Dead turn, these early scenes of shock are put into a different context. The unexpected takes on new dimensions. In order to put the Brothers Gecko into the same state of mind as Jacob the Preacher’s family, Tarantino needed them to be confronted by a threat that was equal in proportion to the threat they posed to the white, middle-class family unit to which they stood in stark opposition.
More grindhouse than Grindhouse
The movie is also filled with mirroring devices that reinforce its sophisticated formal structure. Repeated elements like: a family of crooks and a family of hostages, Richie’s complaints about the hotel and Kate’s complaints about the hotel, Sex-Machine’s whip and later Seth’s whip, and even Cheech’s multiple roles all create rhyming patterns that recur throughout the film.
The most obvious mirror in the film is the plot itself—divided into two seemingly incompatible halves. Like an un-self conscious predecessor to their bloated but brilliant double-feature Grindhouse collaboration in 2007 the film is split down the middle. Part 1—killers on the road talking a lot, part 2—Mexican Vampires eating people a lot. Salma Hayek’s famous go-go dance provides the necessary pallette cleanse that eases the audience into the second half’s bizarrely cheerful bloodbath. In fact, if part 1 is the “Tarantino” and part 2 is the “Rodriguez”, then Santanica Pandemonium’s dance would perfectly parallel Cherry Darling’s credit sequence scorcher in Planet Terror.
“People sit on porches, thinkin’ how things used to be.”—Dark Night
What truly gives the film power though—beyond its clever structure and in-depth characters—is the way it weaves sub-genres and storylines from Exploitation history into a recognizably contemporary quilt. Each Tarantino script is always a mass of allusions—although most have one or two primary ancestors:
- Reservoir Dogs=City on Fire + The Asphalt Jungle
- Natural Born Killers=Gun Crazy
- Pulp Fiction=Vivre Sa Vie + The Set-Up
- Jackie Brown=Don’t Shoot the Piano Player + Foxy Brown
- Kill Bill=Death Rides A Horse + Lady Snowblood
- Death Proof=Maniac + Vanishing Point
- Inglourious Basterds=Sabotage + Navajo Joe
While these films all contain visual, oral, and aural allusions to literally hundreds of other films, they take their most basic story elements from just a few. But with its bevy of central protagonists, each culled from pulp cinema, each rooted in multiple traditions, and with no specific subjective narrator (even Pulp Fiction gives the tiniest bit more psychological depth to Butch)—Dusk Till Dawn is undoubtedly his most allusive script. Not only is each character trapped in a moldy fungus of filmic tropes, their stories grow out of this fetid swamp as well.
“We get into Mexico, it’s gonna be sweet Rosemary, hundred-proof liquor, and rice and beans.”—Seth Gecko
Seth may feel like a character out of The Wild Bunch, but Richie acts like a freak from The Last House on the Left. Jacob Fuller may have Father Karras’s crisis of faith from The Exorcist, but he’s also the white-bread house-head that gets his family into deep shit from The Hills Have Eyes. Kate panics and chokes like a candidate for first-to-die, but she’s the Final Girl. Even the bloodsuckers are mythological Frankensteins. They drink blood and respond to crosses—like the Hammer and Universal vamps, but they convert you with just a bite and move in swarms like zombies. The whole final showdown has a lot more in common with Assault on Precinct 13 and The Evil Dead than Dracula. Speaking of Assault on Precinct 13, how about Rio Bravo? Assault may provide visual cues, but Rio Bravo provides psychology (two men—one a hard-ass pro and the other a snivelling alcoholic—that have to work with a bitter old man to survive a siege).
Because the characters in this film rely on their cinematic ancestors more exclusively than those in Kill Bill or Death Proof or even Inglourious Basterds, From Dusk Till Dawn‘s script is more Tarantino’s Breathless than his Vivre Sa Vie. The characters vampirically live off the films of the past, and they can’t escape. Typically Tarantino’s scripts offer emotionally perverse conclusions that go directly against genre expectations:
- Natural Born Killers—they escape and symbolically destroy the media. A happy ending.
- Pulp Fiction—because of its structure, the ending has the hitman finding redemption and leaving his life of crime. A happy ending.
- Jackie Brown—most Blaxploitation films end with a righteous victory over the Man. While Jackie does get the money, she doesn’t get love; she can’t be happy AND independent. An unhappy ending.
- Kill Bill—The movie becomes more and more realistic as it goes, and in the end the Bride’s vengeance is one of the great anti-climaxes in cinema. Bill’s so pathetic by then that you almost feel sorry for him. She wins, but it’s filled with a profound sense of melancholy—quite unlike a typical revenge fantasy.
However, Dusk Till Dawn resolves each character’s storyline exactly in line with their ancestors.
- Seth (like Robert Ryan in The Wild Bunch) escapes to Mexico with a more rounded view of life.
- Richie (like a pervert from Last House) gets killed by a former sex-object.
- Jacob (like Father Karras) regains his faith, becomes a demon, and then dies.
- Kate (like the Final Girl in a Slasher) learns the power of the phallus and grows up the hard way.
“Now is my shit together, or is my shit together?”—Seth
In the end From Dusk Till Dawn isn’t terribly complex, and even though in some ways its audacity is refreshing—it isn’t original. It feels more like an exercise for Tarantino’s pen than anything, but it does fit into his oeuvre nicely. It’s very intense. The opening scene is rightly remembered as one of the most rip-roaring of the modern era, and it sports some of his most naturalistic dialogue alongside some of his most unusual wordplay. Part of his stories’ intrigue is their pitch-worthiness, and this Road movie meets Vamp-fest is no less so than his WWII Spaghetti Western. I haven’t spoken of Rodriguez much, because his presence is barely felt. The only times you notice his existence is when you think to yourself, “hmm, that’s not how Quentin would have done it.” He lends more of an artistic signature to the editing; several quick metric cuts on dialogue (“Be cool”, “I swear to Jesus Christ”) have a distinctly Rodriguezian flair, but all in all he directs the action blandly. I can’t help but feel like the veteran thespians—even Clooney had been a long running player on E.R.—just took QT’s pitter-patter dialogue and ran with it. For his part Quentin turns in a good performance, but who didn’t think he could play Richie Gecko? It’s yet one more of his Godardian touches that he always gives himself hyperbolically self-critical roles in his movies. In this one he gives us a great performance and a sophisticated, streetwise screenplay that ranks amongst his best work.