R0BTRAIN's Bad Ass Cinema: From Dusk Till Dawn

It’s not often that I really come around on a movie that I completely hate upon first viewing. Movies will have the opposite effect on me on occasion, as repeated viewings reveal flaws that the first viewing seemed to hide because of my excitement. Other times I just get burned out on a film, as it gets too familiar to be exciting anymore. In either case, the situation usually sucks, as often I get into arguments about movies, and I hate to have to back down on an argument about my supporting or bashing of a film. Then again, sometimes you just can’t help but to be won over by a movie.

Oddly enough, one of the biggest examples of this occurring happened to two film makers that I absolutely adore. You would have been especially hard pressed to find two directors I loved in my high school years more than Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. While I would eventually cool on my fanboy obsessions in college, and then eventually come back to them when the quality of their work just became too good to deny, Rodriguez and Tarantino were especially beholden to me in my formative high school years.

This is why it crushed me when the two finally made a film together (besides Tarantino’s awesome cameo in Desperado), and the movie ended up less than what I wanted it to be. Apparently the two of them met on a junket while doing promotion for El Mariachi and Reservoir Dogs, and decided to do a Horror movie together, with Tarantino writing and Rodriguez directing. Perhaps my expectations were just too high after Pulp Fiction’s amazing direction and Desperados crazy onslaught of action, but From Dusk Till Dawn felt so uneven and haphazard that I couldn’t get my head around it. I wanted to like it immensely, but my dissatisfaction with it just went too deep.

Then, after years of bashing the movie, it completely turned around for me. I don’t really know what it is about the movie, but I now find the picture’s craziness infectious; it’s noncompliance with the usual rules of vampire movies are part of its charm instead of a detriment. Now it stands a proud member of the canon of awesomeness these two have created.

Now, with these two putting another collaborative effort into theaters, my expectations are through the roof once more. This time around, I’m anticipating Grindhouse not being a repeat of my negative experience with their first effort. I know exactly what to expect as I go into it, and if I don’t get that amount of craziness, I’ll then be disappointed. Then again, if I do end up not liking the movie, I’ll still have From Dusk Till Dawn to fall back on.

From Dusk Till Dawn Starring George Clooney, Quentin Tarantino, Harvey Keitel, Juliet Lewis, Ernest Liu. Directed by Rodriguez

Honestly, whatever I thought about From Dusk Till Dawn upon first viewing it, I’ve always loved the opening scene. Instead of a raucous, crazy first few minutes like those in Desperado, we get a breezy opening featuring Michael Parks’ Texas Ranger Earl McGraw. If ever a man were perfect for a role, it was Parks as McGraw, as he leaves an indelible impression on any of the pictures he’s featured in, such as in this scene, or in his awesome appearance in Kill Bill. I was excited to no end to hear he would be featured in Grindhouse as well.

Here, Tarantino has gone on record that when he found out Parks would be playing this role, that he purposefully slowed down the pace and wrote the role specifically for him. Rodriguez complies with him, as if McGraw was going to be the main character in this movie. In many ways, this scene is a reflection of the entire movie’s motif, as it is entirely anticipation for what’s going to happen next, but you wholly enjoy the experience while you wait. Frankly, I love McGraw as a character and would love to see a whole movie about him, but before you realize it, the movie has gone another way.

It’s a big possibility that the main reason for my turnaround on this movie has to do with the way I see George Clooney now as opposed to the way I saw him back then. Now, after Three Kings, the Ocean’s movies, O Brother, Where Art Thou? , Good Night, and Good Luck and winning the Oscar for Syriana, Clooney is one of the biggest stars in the world, and really I think its deservedly so. The guy just bleeds charisma, but at the time this movie came out, he was just “that guy from E.R.” pretending to be bad ass.

Watching it now, I get a totally different reaction. Clooney explodes onto the screen, with Rodriguez giving him an amazing amount of hero shots, and Tarantino giving him one bad ass line after another. The camera just loves him in this film, and Clooney comes back at the camera with bucket loads of cool. Seth Gecko is exactly the type of role a perennial good guy like Clooney needed. There’s darkness there and a cold-blooded killer of a mean streak, but there’s a weird honor there too, as he states over and over that he’s a bank robber, not a killer. He reminds me of various characters from Sam Peckinpah movies, but dressed a lot cooler. At the time the movie came out, I would have probably preferred the other rumored choices for the role, including Tim Roth, John Travolta, Michael Madsen, Steve Buscemi, and Christopher Walken, but in retrospect, Clooney is pretty tremendous here.

Of course, Clooney looks even better because he’s matched with Quentin Tarantino’s Richie Gecko. The other Gecko isn’t the man of honor his brother is, he’s a crazy rapist and killer, made even worse by his persona of childlike innocence. This is a more comic book version of this type of personality, but at the same time it works in this film, creating a dangerous element to the film and again making you like Seth even more, even though he’s pretty much a jerk.

Tarantino’s contribution is twofold, as his script seems to mold with Rodriguez’s directing style, giving the film a nice congruent feel, meshing the two styles. The first half feels very much like a Tarantino film, with spurts of violence, but focusing heavily on dialogue. This goes double when Harvey Keitel’s Jacob Fuller, as well as his children Kate and Scott (Juliette Lewis and Ernest Liu), come on screen. Kidnapped and held hostage by the Gecko’s, we learn much about Jacob’s resolve and his crisis of faith due to the loss of his wife.

Keitel gives a rock solid performance here, as his understated agony permeates the entire movie. You can see the internal anguish on his face and in his voice. There’s a hint of recklessness under the surface, as the only thing holding him back from the edge is his kids, and holding a gun to his face doesn’t help much. I wish Lewis and Liu were as good in this film, but it would be really hard to argue that. Lewis is in the running for perhaps my least favorite actress ever, and Liu hasn’t been heard from again after this movie.

Then, like the second half of a double feature, the setup gives way to an orgy of violence and horror. Rodriguez and Tarantino have both gone on record saying a big influence on the movie was the writing of Stephen King, who usually takes most of his novels to setup his varied characters, and then puts them into hell. With From Dusk Till Dawn, the gate to hell is the immense bar, “The Titty Twister”, which not only turns out to be the rowdiest bar ever, but also ends up a bloody haven for the grossest bunch of vampires ever put on screen.

Rodriguez has his own influences he likes to put in the film though. If ever there was a director that Rodriguez really borrows from, it’s John Carpenter, and in the case of From Dusk Till Dawn, his primary influence seems to be Carpenter’s first major film, Assault on Precinct 13. Much like that film’s ragtag bunch of cops and crooks that are put under siege by a faceless gang of street punks, Rodriguez has a hearty mix of good and evil characters that much face down the ultimate darkness in this bar full of vampires. We even get to add super bad asses Fred Williamson and Tom Savini as bar patrons Frost and Sex Machine.

Aiming to simply have fun, this last hour of mutants vs. men is the best battle of its kind since George Romero’s zombie went looking for blood and guts at the end of Day of the Dead. Greg Nicotero’s KNB EFX goes completely off the deep end here too, creating the nastiest looking vampires ever, along with some of the most disgusting creatures and demises for said creature ever caught on film. One vampire, an orc-looking abomination with a mouth in its stomach, was so gross that Tarantino and Rodriguez didn’t even want to look at it.

Rodriguez doesn’t even seem be to playing with any rules. The “Heroin-chic” vampires of Blade had to deal with specific weapons from the hero of that movie. Rodriguez seems to be shirking off as many rules as possible, even laughing at its ridiculousness in one exchange, where they simply talk about what weapons from the movies that can be used to kill the bloodsuckers. Eventually the director throws caution to the wind, as vampires turn into giant rats, the bar’s band starts playing instruments made of body parts and people and creatures start exploding for virtually no reason whatsoever. This bothered me at first, but now its just part of the film’s charm. Who cares if its wooden stakes or shotguns that kill the monsters anyway?

Also, seemingly having a lot of fun with this movie is Quentin Tarantino, but not onscreen as Richie Gecko. I’m talking about his screenplay, which is filled to the brim with bad ass one-liners and speeches. Playing with the screen presences of Savini and Williamson, Tarantino gets to have a ball with moments like “Now let’s kill that f****** band!” and Williamson’s big story about how he killed an entire squad of enemy soldiers in Viet Nam. Clooney again benefits the most, getting one great line after another, ending up with his incredibly quotable “Did they look like psychos? Is that what they looked like? They were vampires. Psychos do not explode when sunlight hits them, I don’t give a f*** how crazy they are!”

From Dusk Till Dawn is simply B-movie heaven, which is a place where its film makers seem to permanently reside. The difference here is that the film doesn’t subvert and then manage to rise above its pedigree in the way that the directors’ best work, Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, Sin City, and hopefully Grindhouse are able to do. The film was the first collaboration by a duo that will hopefully continue to prosper together for decades to come. If they keep making movies like they have, lets hope these ramblers keep rambling.

Picture Credits: impawards, outnow.ch, razyboard.com