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From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)
~Review by Grawlix (December 2023)
I know I’ve said this before, but if by some miracle you are unaware of the twist that comes about halfway into From Dusk Till Dawn, I’d recommend closing this review now and going into it as blind as possible. If you’re a fan of the films of Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, you’ll like this one, trust me. Not like remaining spoiler-free was ever a realistic option with this movie; hell, even the contemporary TV spots gave the game away. I suppose it’s an unfortunate side-effect of advertising, to say nothing of critique, that you need to reveal what a film is about in order to sell it. Anyway, consider yourself spoiler-warned from here on in.
Brothers Seth (George Clooney) and Richard (Quentin Tarantino) Gecko are bank robbers. Seth is the calm, collected professional, Richard the more impulsive loose cannon, but neither are particularly bothered by the prospect of a bit of the old ultraviolence. In the aftermath of a big score that involved multiple (apparently predictable) casualties, the pair need to get to Mexico as quickly and quietly as possible to meet with their connect. The plan for this manifests itself in the form of Jacob (Harvey Keitel) a recently widowed former preacher on an RV journey away from his former life along with his two children Scott (Ernest Liu) and Kate (Juliette Lewis) whom the brothers duly take hostage and enlist as transportation and cover. After some tense moments at the border, they finally arrive at the Titty Twister, and out-of-the-way biker bar cum strip club populated by a host of colorful characters including a leather-clad, whip-wielding biker with a revolver for a codpiece named Sex Machine (Tom Savini), a Vietnam vet and unlikely martial arts enthusiast called Frost (Fred Williamson) and the club’s serpent-draped feature dancer, Satanico Pandemonium (Salma Hayak). Surviving the company of these rough customers seems like it would be more than enough to fill the remaining runtime, but Rodriguez decides to turn things up to eleven by having half the club turn out to be vampires, and when the dinner bell rings, our ragtag coterie’s final sprint from evening to morning gets a lot more interesting.
This is totally on brand for Rodriguez, though it maybe wasn’t so obvious at the time, whose movies (the non-kids’ ones, anyway) tend to start fast and then ramp up the action from there to an almost absurd degree. Absent the vampires, From Dusk Till Dawn could easily have taken place in the same universe as Desperado. Likewise, in addition to his acting role, Tarantino shares a writing credit, and his fingerprints are all over this film, with turns of phrase and flourishes in the dialog that are quirky and memorable even as they often end in shocking, casual brutality. And Rodriguez isn’t afraid to give the dialog its space. What sets Dusk apart from most other films of this type is that, up until the fangs come out, well past the halfway point of the film, there is absolutely no indication that supernatural action was even in the offing. And unlike those other films, that are often forced to delay their payoff due to a low budget or subpar writing, it’s clear that the addition of vampires was deliberate stylistic choice, and not even a necessary one. The dialog and character work are compelling enough (to say nothing of the more conventional action scenes), that the movie could’ve gone in a completely different, non-supernatural direction and still have been eminently watchable. But Rodriguez and Tarantino decided they wanted vampires, so it was vampires that we got.
From Dusk Till Dawn was George Clooney’s breakout film role. Prior to this, he was best known for playing pediatrician Dr. Doug Ross on TV’s ER (for those too young to remember, ER was a pretty big deal in 1994). Dusk proved that not only could Clooney carry an action picture, but he could be convincing as a badass while doing so (absurdly dated tattoo makeup, notwithstanding). Form here, Clooney vaulted directly into the lead role in Batman and Robin, which may be a punchline now, but was a quantum leap forward for Clooney’s profile when he was cast, and he recovered just fine from its failure.
In an overall sense, Rodriguez seemed to have fun mixing and matching character roles in unexpected ways. This might’ve seemed like a bigger deal to me when I was watching than it actually is, but I found it amusing how many roles were filled by people not primarily known as actors. Tarantino, of course, was a director and writer first, though he often appears in smaller roles in from of the camera, Hitchcock style. Tom Savini was known far more for his makeup and effects work than his acting, (here he’s credited only as an actor, though I wonder if maybe he didn’t give out a few pointers to the gore crew) and Fred Williamson initially made his name in professional football, although he transitioned soon enough to become a mainstay of Blacksploitation cinema starting in the 70’s. Similarly, Juliette Lewis’s portrayal of a meek preacher’s daughter is the polar opposite of the shrieking psychopath she played in Natural Born Killers a mere two years before. Ditto for Harvey Keitel, who’s Joshua here couldn’t be more different from the suave mob fixer known only as The Wolf that he played in Pulp Fiction, and Cheech Marin plays no less than three separate, and very different roles. The only enigma in the cast is Ernest Liu, a complete unknown with no film credits prior to this one and who seemed to fall off the map shortly afterwards. Poor guy doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page.
The effects are fine for a movie that’s nearly thirty years old. There are some rudimentary computer effects that are used sparingly enough that they aren’t too distracting. Any pretense of realism with the practical gore effects goes out the window once the monster party begins in earnest, and the bloodletting escalates to a positively cartoonish degree until, at times, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the infamous, lawnmower-centric finale to Peter Jackson’s Braindead (which was itself only four years old at that point so, like as not, this wasn’t a coincidence). Eventually you stop trying to make logical sense of it all and just let it carry you along for the ride.
The first time I watched From Dusk Till Dawn, years ago, I didn’t really care for it. I realize now, this is because I started watching in the middle, right when the vampire action began, and it seemed to just be so much pointless violence with very little rhyme or reason. Rewatching it from the beginning, for this review, was a lesson in the importance on context and continuity. The second half of Dusk, on its own, is ridiculous. There’s no room for extended dialog, so what sparse dialog is present sounds hackneyed and cliched, and we’re well past the point of suspending rational disbelief regarding the action once humans start morphing into monsters. It’s rare that a tonal shift this drastic works this well, but it’s also undeniable that, as different as the two halves of the film are, each is vital to counterbalance the other.
In the end, From Dusk Till Dawn is a fun romp that’s not really meant to be contemplated overly much after it ends. It’s an entertaining distraction with an impressive and diverse ensemble cast, though it probably wouldn’t be the first movie any of them is remembered for. (Well, maybe Clooney, given its arguable significance in his oeuvre, but his subsequent career has amply demonstrated that he was going to break though sooner or later and this movie is probably more famous, now, for its association with him, rather than his with it.) That said, probably nobody regrets having it on their resume either.
Final Grade: B
A bloodsoaked confection of a film, it’s Quentin Tarantino’s words, Robert Rodriguez’s action, and vampires, with nothing off limits by the final reel.