CULT CORNER: From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)

With the TV series about to come back, we take a trip to the original Titty Twister for this crime/horror pastiche from Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez.

Who made it?: Robert Rodriguez (Director), Quentin Tarantino (Writer), Meir Teper, Gianni Nunnari (Producers),  Dimension Films/A Band Apart/Los Hooligans Productions.

Who’s in it?: George Clooney, Harvey Keitel, Quentin Tarantino, Juliette Lewis, Ernest Liu, Salma Hayek, Cheech Marin, Tom Savini, Fred Williamson.

Tagline: “One night is all that stands between them and freedom. But it’s going to be a hell of a night.”

IMDb rating: 7.2/10.

Although unusual for me to make a football reference, it is accurate to describe From Dusk Till Dawn as a game of two halves. The very nature of the film as a genre hybrid has been a sticking point for some viewers ever since its release. While no-one went to the cinema in 1996 oblivious to the fact it was essentially Pulp Fiction with vampires (the trailers had spoiled that much), it was still a mishmash that left some scratching their heads. “The first half is better” remains the most common complaint. I disagree… both halves have merit. This is a bold genre entry that displays two very disparate talents at the top of their respective games, creating two very distinct films that come together alarmingly well. In my opinion, one half just compliments the other.

Quentin Tarantino first crossed paths with wunderkind Robert Rodriguez on the festival circuit for his 1992 debut, Reservoir Dogs. The Mexican maverick was out touting his own first feature, El Mariachi, and the pair became indie siblings. Their friendship is typical of a video store clerk and a man who made an action movie on $6,000. They were creatively made for each other. After Tarantino rode the success of Pulp Fiction (1994) and Rodriguez entered the mainstream with his El Mariachi remake, Desperado, it became increasingly likely that the pair would collaborate. (Let’s not forget Q.T.’s infamous Desperado cameo.) It just so happened that Tarantino had been hired to write a screenplay by make-up effects legend Robert Kurtzman about crooks tackling vampires in Mexico. Such nonsense was perfect for the pair. From Dusk Till Dawn is a straight-to-video movie produced on a $20 million budget.

By this point, Q.T.’s love of criminal protagonists and twisted partnerships had become somewhat of a parody, but that was largely the point of Dawn. Dogs had the father-son dynamic of Mr. Orange and Mr. White. Pulp had the wearisome working relationship of hitmen Vincent and Jules. And Dawn has the Gecko brothers… surely his most quintessentially badass spin on the men in black. Ritchie (George Clooney) and Seth (Tarantino) don’t look like relatives, of course, but realism isn’t one of the film’s aspirations. They’re on the run from the law and gunning it to Mexico with a hostage in their boot. In order to get past border patrol, they commandeer the RV of former preacher Jacob Fuller (Harvey Keitel) and his family, forcing them to drive to their rendezvous point to meet Cheech Marin. However, their pit-stop is complicated when they run into a nest of vamps…

The real joy of From Dusk Till Dawn is the interplay between Seth and Ritchie. After an amazing opening sequence introducing the pair (more on that later), Dawn has one of my favourite title sequences in history. Rodriguez couldn’t have sold their attitude any broader. (I particularly love that the shot of Ritchie’s bullet-drilled hand is quickly followed by the make-up effects credit.) Clooney and Tarantino are having a blast, and the fact the latter can’t act never seems to ruin the experience. While we never buy them as siblings, there’s still an interesting dichotomy between the two. Seth has a conscience and only resorts to violence when he needs to. Ritchie, on the other hand, is a full-bloom psychopath who hears voices and idolises women’s feet. Wait, who’s he based on again?

One of my favourite sequences is just after Seth returns to their motel room with Big Kahuna burgers, only to discover that Ritchie has butchered their hostage, the motherly Gloria (a convincingly terrified Brenda Hillhouse). Rodriguez uses flash-cuts of her butchered remains as Seth looks on, visibly shaken. The resulting altercation is not only a testament to the abilities of Clooney, who was still best-known for TV’s E.R., but to Tarantino’s scripting for making us like Seth in spite of his love for the demented Ritchie. We even get the sense that he will never harm Mr. Fuller’s family, the feisty Kate (Juliette Lewis) and Scott (Ernest Liu). Seth is virtually a younger, more charismatic Mr. White.

After a tense drive across the border, From Dusk Till Dawn becomes the Robert Rodriguez show. The introduction of Mexico’s most extravagant biker bar, the Titty Twister, would have felt right at home in Desperado. This place is far more grindhouse than Jack Rabbit Slims. There’s also the presence of “Santanico Pandemonium” (Salma Hayek), who will live vividly in male fantasy for the next fifty years. That dance really is a sight, managing to be both alluring and strange in equal measure. Even the sight of Tarantino sucking greedily on her toes doesn’t spoil it.

This musical interlude is also notable for signalling the change in tone for the film. The crime elements are peeled away, and when the Geckos get into yet another confrontation, the blood spewing from Ritchie’s wound is the catalyst for a night of unexpected monster hunting. The changeover is fantastic because there isn’t much of a build-up, and the following sequence of ultraviolence is the moment some audiences will turn on the film. But not me. There’s something triumphant about seeing Clooney, Keitel, Lewis and cult legends Tom Savini and Fred Williamson taking on a coven of blood-suckers. That’s the coolest horror cinema could ever get.

Rodriguez should also be commended for making the Titty Twister’s interiors endlessly appealing, seeing as how we spend much of the picture’s duration in its increasingly claustrophobic surroundings. It almost becomes a siege film where the enemy is amongst them (Scott’s “Precinct 13″ t-shirt is surely no accident). The director ramps up the suspense and builds steadily to a take-no-prisoners finish that incorporates, amid wildly OTT gore, a rock-scored tool-up montage, a giant stake on a pneumatic drill, and a vampire turning into a rodent. Like, why the fuck not?

Dusk is a childish picture, but there’s excellence to be found across the board. It features some of the best dialogue Tarantino has ever written, Rodriguez directs with a steady hand rarely seen in his filmography, and the acting is better than the genre usually dictates. Keitel imbues his character with a respectability that you would never expect from this story, and even Lewis, playing a role usually relegated to the sidelines, gains our sympathy. But it is Clooney who leaves the lasting impression. Dawn made him a movie star overnight, and I say with regret that he’s never been more interesting or iconic since. He should really think about collaborating with this pair again.

From Dusk Till Dawn more than earns its classic status as a crime/horror hybrid, as well as a celebration of two very unique filmmakers. Those halves make, for me, a hugely satisfying whole.

Best Scene

Hands down the opening in which Seth and Richie turn Benny’s World of Liquor into Benny’s World of Blood. After killing Texas Ranger Earl McGraw (Michael Parks), who would later return in Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, the boys get into a ludicrous fire-fight with the unluckiest store clerk in the world (played memorably by the underrated John Hawkes). It’s just a shame that I can’t include the full eleven-minute scene here…

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • The name of the movie is taken from the signs found on drive-ins. These signs indicate the length of the shows, which ran “from dusk till dawn.” The movie is full of references to midnight movies and films which were often intended for teenagers to watch late at night from their cars. It was the first script Tarantino was specifically paid to write, for a paltry $1,500.
  • Green blood was used for the vampires to get the movie past the censors.
  • The “Fuller” family are named after writer-director Samuel Fuller, one of the primary influences on Quentin Tarantino’s (and everybody’s) style of “pulp” cinema.
  • The band playing in the Titty Twister is Tito & Tarantula, featuring Robert Rodriguez; the lineup also features Oingo Boingo drummer Johnny ‘Vatos’ Hernandez.
  • According to the DVD featurettes, when “Sex Machine” (Tom Savini) is throwing around the other characters, he actually punches many of the actors, including George Clooney.
  • Salma Hayek did not have a choreographer for her dance. Rodriguez just told her to feel the music and dance to it. He would later use the same tactic with Jessica Alba in Sin City.
  • Two straight-to-video sequels were executive produced by Tarantino and Rodriguez (Texas Blood Money and The Hangman’s Daughter). Neither are worth sitting through.
  • The making of the movie was documented in Sarah Kelly’s feature-length special Full Tilt Boogie (below). If only for the intro, this is worth a watch.

Dave James

Editor-in-Chief at Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator, podcaster, video-maker, all around talented git.

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