Early in a marathon battle with undead predators, a clash that takes up most of the second half of From Dusk till Dawn, a flustered antihero is asked the inevitable question: how is he holding up under the pressure? Actually, he's doing fine, thank you very much. "Except for the fact," he notes, "that I just rammed a wooden stake through my brother's chest because he turned into a vampire!"
Such gruesome activity is typical in Quentin Tarantino's and Robert Rodriguez's exuberantly trashy amalgam of '90s road-kill melodramas, '70s exploitation flicks and assorted other video store staples. There's even an affectionate tip of the fedora to the Hammer horror films of the '50s and '60s. When one character suggests a way to improvise wooden crosses to ward off bloodsuckers, another character agrees, noting, "Peter Cushing does it all the time."
But not even Cushing had to deal with so many of the undead in such a limited amount of time as the hapless humans besieged in From Dusk till Dawn. Much as he did in last year's Desperado, the El Mariachi sequel whose periodic surges in body counts worked as a darkly comic running gag, director Rodriguez piles on the wildly exaggerated mayhem like a man who believes deep in his heart that nothing succeeds like excess. In this, he's greatly assisted by Tarantino, the manic moviemaker and multimedia celebrity who wrote From Dusk till Dawn back before he made his first big splash with Reservoir Dogs. Tarantino also co-stars as Richard Gecko, a dangerously unstable criminal who has no control over his darker impulses. His persuasive performance will doubtless provide additional amusement for the folks who thought that, in Four Rooms, Tarantino basically played himself as a newly powerful Hollywood megalomaniac.
Tarantino and Rodriguez bring out both the best and the worst in each other during Dusk, a movie that, ironically, seems most mean-spirited before the body count starts to climb above the double digit mark. For the first half-hour or so, long before the vampires bare their fangs, Dusk comes across as an exceedingly nasty caper flick, and the hip young filmmakers come across as sadistically smart-alecky.
En route to Mexico with the booty from a bank robbery, Richard and his brother Seth (George Clooney) cut a bloody swath through West Texas. Seth is by far the more levelheaded of the pair, preferring to shoot only when he has to, and to kill even more rarely. He views himself as a disciplined professional with a rigorous code of honor, sort of like Harvey Keitel's character in Reservoir Dogs. Trouble is, Richard more closely resembles another Dog, the ear-slashing psycho essayed by Michael Madsen. Richard's penchant for impulsively killing anyone he imagines to be a threat is a constant source of annoyance for Seth. Worse, it's also an excuse for Rodriguez and Tarantino to engage in a viciousness that's far more unsettling than all the wild and woolly stuff about vampires and their prey.
The movie's low point is reached in a painfully long sequence that has Seth warning a terrified hostage to be quiet and behave. Rodriguez is too good for his own good when it comes to conveying the captive woman's sweaty terror. So much so, in fact, that when Seth returns from a shopping spree to finds his brother has bludgeoned the woman to a bloody, lifeless pulp, the shock of the slaughter is too great to be mitigated by Rodriguez's evasive camera placement. It's one thing for a filmmaker to sprinkle bodies of nameless, faceless bad guys throughout a movie like so much confetti. But when a filmmaker spends so much time on making violence seem so up-close and personal, so specific and intimate, as Rodriguez does in this sequence E well, the sequence really belongs in an entirely different kind of movie. That is, a movie that doesn't otherwise take such a sardonically jokey approach to death.
After this episode it takes a while for Dusk to recover its equilibrium. Indeed, when the Gecko brothers commandeer the RV of lapsed minister Jacob Fuller (Harvey Keitel) and his two children (Juliette Lewis, Ernest Liu) so they can elude the police and slip across the Texas-Mexico border, we're primed to expect the worst at any second. That's no doubt what Rodriguez and Tarantino want us to expect. But that, too, would have been more acceptable in a different kind of movie.
Once the RV gets past the border guards and the Gecko brothers arrive with their hostages at the place where they're supposed to meet their partners in crime, Dusk reveals its true colors. The movie tumbles through a cracked looking glass to become a roller coaster joy ride through a new and improved Night of the Living Dead. And not a moment too soon.
It's not exactly a surprise to see what happens next, since the commercials have already dropped the cat out of the bag. The Titty Twister, the inelegantly named and vivaciously raucous biker bar where the Geckos plan to rendezvous with their criminal contact, is really a haven for ferocious vampires. Even the bar's most alluring attraction, the spectacularly sultry Santanico Pandemonium (played by the spectacularly sultry Salma Hayek), eventually turns into a hideous nosferatu. Before she does so, however, she performs a wantonly suggestive dance with a massive snake, then steps onto a tabletop and glides toward Tarantino as Richard. And then, she pours whiskey onto her shapely thigh, and places her toe into Tarantino's gaping mouth, all the better for him to drink heartily. Which just goes to show that while it may be good to be the king, sometimes it's even better to be the scriptwriter.
The rest of From Dusk till Dawn is a full-throttle thrill machine, pitting a handful of human survivors against the onslaughts of the bloodsuckers. Keitel occasionally gives the movie some semblance of moral heft, with a surprisingly affecting performance as a man who regains his faith in God just in time to battle the forces of darkness. But even this element of the movie is never taken too seriously. When Seth encourages the minister to become "a mean motherfuckin' servant of God," the minister can't quite bring himself to repeat all of the admonishment.
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Tarantino's screenplay owes a great deal to John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13, a furiously clever 1976 thriller that had cops and criminals trapped in a deserted police station and terrorized by members of a street gang. (Just in case we miss the connection, Rodriguez has a character wear a Precinct 13 T-shirt.) Like Carpenter's film, Dusk generates some nasty shocks by killing off characters you would normally expect to survive. It also pokes fun at its own ridiculousness with special effects that are gleefully cheesy as often as they're joltingly realistic. The supporting cast includes some B movie icons -- Fred Williamson, John Saxon, Michael Parks, splatter-movie makeup whiz Tom Savini (Friday the 13th) -- who clearly enjoy being invited to the party. But the real acting honors go to Clooney, Keitel and Lewis, who manage the difficult task of being at once dead serious and self-mocking.
This talent serves them well in a movie made by such notorious put-on artists as Tarantino and Rodriguez. The pair are kindred spirits, Generation X film brats who view lurid B movies of the past three decades with the same reverence that their immediate predecessors once reserved for the likes of Citizen Kane and The 400 Blows. It will be interesting to see if these determinedly hip but undeniably talented young filmmakers ever move beyond recycling the cheap thrills of yesteryear. Right now, the sheer gusto that Rodriguez and Tarantino take in hot-wiring tired clichs and overly familiar archetypes is highly entertaining, if not downright addictive. But even when From Dusk till Dawn is operating at its most exciting, most deliriously kinetic pace, it's hard to shake the impression that, sooner or later, these filmmakers really should seek inspiration from something other than other people's films.
From Dusk till Dawn. Directed by Robert Rodriguez. With Quentin Tarantino, George Clooney, Juliette Lewis and Harvey Keitel.
Rated R. 108 minutes.