These days, it's generally accepted that Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez are in entirely different leagues as filmmakers. The former is a modern icon whose influence is all over the past two decades of movies, while the latter has churned out an endless supply of increasingly lifeless action films and family flicks. Still, they were both scrappy young up-and-comers once upon a time, and their mutual affection for schlocky grindhouse cinema has inspired them to collaborate on a number of occasions. The pinnacle of their work together is almost certainly the flawed but ambitious double feature Grindhouse (which featured Rodriguez's surprisingly enjoyable Planet Terror and Tarantino's underrated Death Proof), but I'd give a silver medal to From Dusk Till Dawn (written by Tarantino and directed by Rodriguez), a juvenile but undeniably entertaining piece of genre-hopping mayhem.
From Dusk Till Dawn feels like a warmup for Grindhouse in the sense that it's basically two movies in a single package. The first flick is a rambling crime movie about Seth Gecko (George Clooney, Up in the Air) and his troubled, pervy brother Richard (Tarantino), a pair of wanted killers on the run from the law. We observe as the brothers blow up a liquor store, hide out in a roach motel and eventually hit the road while holding a reserved preacher (Harvey Keitel, Reservoir Dogs) and his two children (Juliette Lewis, Natural Born Killers and Ernest Liu, The Westing Game) hostage.
Tarantino is clearly the dominant voice during this stretch of the movie, and not simply because he's onscreen a good chunk of the time (delivering a weird but surprisingly effective performance). His unmistakably colorful dialogue is what fuels the first hour or so of the movie, and more often than not it's a pleasure to listen to. I love the opening exchange between Texas Ranger Earl McGraw (Tarantino regular Michael Parks, Kill Bill) and a young clerk (a greasy-haired John Hawkes, Deadwood). Parks is only onscreen for a few minutes, but he has a way of making even the most ornate bits of Tarantino writing sound spare and to the point. Clooney also fares quite well with his chatterbox of a character. There's a musical quality to the way Clooney delivers his lines; he's so clearly a movie star you wonder why it took so long for someone to give him a big-screen part this juicy.
Eventually, the Gecko brothers, the preacher and the preacher's kids wind up at a seedy Mexican strip club called “The Titty Twister,” which is where things get crazy: after a brief confrontation with a bartender (Danny Trejo, Machete) and a memorable performance from an exotic dancer (Salma Hayek, Everly), a huge portion of the bar's patrons and employees transform into vampires. These aren't the sexy, seductive creatures that populate so many movies and TV shows, but feral, horrific-looking beasts with bad tempers and incredible strength. In other words, they actually look monstrous.
At this point, Tarantino's dialogue is reduced to a miniscule supporting role (it gets purposefully worse, too, as cleverly constructed dialogue scenes are replaced with cornball one-liners like, “You know what people say about me... I suck!”) and Rodriguez's knack for staging violent, inventive action scenes comes to the fore. Rodriguez's work might seem lazy and sloppy these days, but back in 1996 he had a real knack for this sort of thing. His editing is razor-sharp, and he finds plenty of preposterously violent ways for the humans to kill the vampires (and vice-versa). It's a non-stop barrage of bloody chaos, and it really does feel like our characters have suddenly been transported into some sort of hellish action flick. Alas, the fun starts to fizzle before the action does, and by the time the climax arrives we're more than ready to ride off into the sunset. The “everything but the kitchen sink” approach is admirable in theory, but sort of exhausting in practice.
As with Grindhouse, the side of the film you enjoy most will largely depend on your own sensibilities. Like messy gore and non-stop action? The second half has got you covered. Like listening to Tarantino characters yammer on about this, that and the other thing? The first half will be more your speed. It feels like a footnote in contrast to the bulk of Tarantino's work, but it's among Rodriguez's most accomplished and satisfying flicks.
My favorite thing about the film is Harvey Keitel's performance as the soft-spoken reverend. While most of the actors embrace the film's B-movie tone and run with it, Keitel opts to take his character (and the material) seriously. He plays a man whose faith has been shattered in the wake of his wife's recent death, and his grief has a weight that nothing else in the film comes close to matching. Even during the lurid climax – as condoms filled with holy water are being flung across the room – Keitel's work feels natural and honest. It's an even more striking contrast than the difference between the film's two halves.
Elsewhere, From Dusk Till Dawn is largely a grab bag of silly pleasures: Tom Savini (Dawn of the Dead) sporting a pop-up crotch gun, Fred Williamson (Mars Attacks!) impaling four vampires with the legs of a wooden table, Cheech Marin (Nash Bridges) delivering broad, entertaining performances in three different parts, the way Seth treats Richard like a beloved dog who has just peed on the carpet, the ridiculous neon sign above The Titty Twister, etc. The “blood, boobs and badass bros!” tone more or less ensures that the movie will appeal most strongly to teenage boys (indeed, 16-year-old Clark thinks this review is a bit too unenthusiastic), but it's still a fun snapshot of two rowdy filmmakers goofing off.
From Dusk Till Dawn
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 108 minutes
Release Year: 1996