Monday, October 31, 2011

From Dusk Till Dawn

After a month of horror movies, I have come to the realization that there are not a lot of great vampire movies out there.  The premise is sound, but many vamp flicks just fall short of the mark, whether from budgetary reasons, stylistic choices, or simply bad writing.  I have seen From Dusk Till Dawn before, but it has been a few years since I watched it last.  This movie obviously had a budget, since legendary special effects master Tom Savini wouldn't be seen acting in a film without cool effects.  The writing is handled by Quentin Tarantino, back when his dialogue was ridiculous and overly entertaining.  As for the style, it is directed by Robert Rodriguez, features monstrous vampires, over-the-top action, and has a good part of the story take place at a strip club.  Right off the bat, you know that this isn't going to have the subtle moodiness of Interview With the Vampire.
Not the first, but certainly not the last clue

From Dusk Till Dawn opens with the notorious Gecko brothers, Seth (George Clooney) and Richie (Quentin Tarantino), on the run from Texas Marshals on their way to the border.  Richard broke Seth out of police custody, and the pair had left a trail of corpses in their wake ever since.  This is partly because they are a couple of no-nonsense villains, but also because Richie is a bit of a psychopath and manufactures reasons to kill. 
They look like brothers, right?
Thanks to Richie's habit of murdering people, it has become harder and harder for the pair to maintain a low profile.  They need to sneak across the border, but how can they do it without being caught?  As luck would have it, a disillusioned preacher, Jacob (Harvey Keitel), is taking his kids on a road trip in the aftermath of their mother's death.  Their motor home catches the attention of Seth as it pulls into his motel parking lot, and suddenly, the Geckos are forcing Jacob to drive them into Mexico.

So...where are all the vampires?  Hold on, they're coming.  Once in Mexico, the crew arrives at the place where Seth is supposed to meet his contact; by morning, Seth and Richie will be on their way to their safety zone and Jacob will be free to take his two kids back home.  The meeting place happens to be a strip club named the Titty Twister, which caters to bikers and truckers.  The place is open from dusk until dawn, so it's the perfect spot for a fugitive to spend a few hours unwinding.  Except everyone in the Titty Twister happens to be a vampire.  Oops.  The best laid plans...
This scene makes me laugh every time

For being a ridiculous vampire movie, the acting is surprisingly solid in From Dusk Till Dawn.  This was George Clooney's first starring film role since he became famous in ER, so it's kind of interesting seeing this as his first step toward super-stardom.  And he is very good here; he delivers Tarantino's dialogue naturally and fits the sleaziness of his character quite well.  His role isn't perfect --- he's on the run and wears a leather vest, of all things, to blend in? --- but he is able to be a bad guy and a fairly charismatic character at the same time.
Even if he has douchebag tattoos
Quentin Tarantino isn't anywhere near as likable, but his character isn't supposed to be.  While I dislike QT as an actor, I will admit that his style fits the abrasive nature of his character perfectly.
Side note: I hate Tarantino's face
Harvey Keitel is pretty good as Jacob, but I think he is awfully stiff given the shitty day he is having; at first, I thought the awkwardness was pretty natural for a hostage, but he never unclenches.  Juliette Lewis plays his teenage daughter, and I guess she was fine.  She's a little awkward, and her screams are kind of annoying, but it was a tough role to be likable in.  Ernest Liu plays her brother and manages to be less charismatic than Lewis.  Seriously, what a dull character.  There are a lot of noteworthy actors in the rest of the cast, but most of them have far less screen time as supporting actors.  Cheech Marin played three different characters for no real reason; he was kind of funny as a vampire and later, as a crook, but his first appearance as a border patrol cop was surprisingly bland.  Salma Hayek writhed around as a stripper --- named Satanico Pandemonium --- who doesn't take her top off, dances with a snake, and lets Richie suck on her toes as she pours booze down her leg.  There isn't any substance to her character, and the toe and snake things kind of gross me out, but it's hard to criticize Hayek's portrayal of a lusty babe.
Nope.  No problems here.
Frequent Rodriguez collaborator Danny Trejo makes a brief appearance as a tough guy vampire, which adds a whole new layer of depth to his acting oeuvre.  Fred Williamson also gets to play a bad-ass, which is about the only thing he has ever done in his life.  Tom Savini didn't get much dialogue, which speaks to how little Tarantino trusted him to act, but he kicked a lot of vampire ass, which is plenty good enough for me.  There are also some noteworthy bit parts in the film; Kelly Preston is a news reporter, John Saxon is an interviewed FBI agent, Michael Parks introduces his Texas Marshal character for the first time (he pops up again in Kill Bill and the Grindhouse double feature), and John Hawkes delivers the most vintage Tarantino dialogue in the whole film as a liquor store clerk.  And to think, I was impressed by the cast of Interview With the Vampire!

Since this is a vampire movie, it is important to take a quick look at the creatures.  This time around, they are normal-looking people who transform into hideous monsters.
Danny Trejo, before transforming
Post-transformation, the creatures sometimes resemble their human selves, but not always.  The are super-strong, but their bodies are mushy, so blunt force attacks are effective against them.  They are vulnerable to sunlight, crosses, holy water, and wooden stakes, although you can just opt to punch holes in them, too.  Pretty standard stuff, but you never know what the rules are going to be in a vampire movie.

I really enjoyed the special effects in From Dusk Till Dawn.  They don't really come up much in the first half of the film, but once people start vamping out, there is a ton of very cool makeup and practical effects in every scene.
That also means that there is a good amount of gore in this movie.  Hearts get pulled out, heads get melted, and there is an absolute ton of blood.  Honestly, there isn't much more you can ask for in an action/horror vampire story.

Unfortunately, this isn't just an action/horror vampire story.  In fact, the first half has very little action or horror at all.  It's a crime yarn that makes a left turn and winds up in the unfamiliar territory of the supernatural action/horror sub-genre.  I'm not complaining, mind you; both halves are very entertaining.  However, the shift in tone, pacing, and style makes this feel like two separate films.  I knew that going into this viewing, but the effect was still jarring.  The first half feels like it could have been taken from leftover Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction scraps (I mean that in a good way), except for the fact that the most likable character (Seth) is obviously a complete bastard, instead of the usual cool-guy-that-does-bad-things type Tarantino usually creates.  The second half doesn't play to Tarantino's strengths, as there is very little dialogue, and even less of it is clever.  The action scenes are staged well, though, and Robert Rodriguez is able to keep the film entertaining, even as is shifts its focus.
He kicks ass for the lord

I'm not saying that From Dusk Till Dawn is a bad movie, but it is far from the best work of either Rodriguez or Tarantino.   Objectively, this movie lacks solid pacing and focus.  The writing is uneven, and the acting takes a back seat to the effects in the second half.  It's fun, but a little empty.  Of course, this film was never meant to be a critical darling.  It feels less like a cool story that the filmmakers really wanted to tell and more like a couple of friends having a blast, making the type of movie that would have blown their minds as teenagers.  In that, they are successful.  This is silly, cheeky, gory, and absolutely ridiculous, which makes it very entertaining, warts and all.

1 comment:

  1. I've just downloaded iStripper, so I can watch the sexiest virtual strippers stripping on my taskbar.