Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Completist Guide to the From Dusk Till Dawn series (1996-1999)

From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)
Robert Rodriguez was one of the most promising filmmaker of the 1990s. His first film El Marachi, the legendary $7000 action film, brought him enormous amounts of attention and he went on to follow it up with the superior big budget remake Desperado in 1995. Everyone knew he could make good movies about guitar case carrying hitmen but what else could do? Well, his answer was From Dusk Till Dawn.
The film sees George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino (in his only extended acting role to date) play Seth and Richie Gecko, two mildly psychotic but nonetheless charismatic criminals on the lam after a bank heist. Their plan is to get to Mexico and hope things die down however to get across the border they have to co-opt the unwilling help of a preacher (Harvey Keitel), his son Scott and daughter Kate (Juliette Lewis). Having successful escaped to Mexico in the preacher's RV, Seth forces them all to take a pit stop in a seedy club called the Titty Twister. However, little to they suspect the place is far more deadly than it already appears when most of the clientele turns themselves into reptilian vampires! The mismatched team are forced to fight for their lives to survive the night.
From Dusk Till Dawn was Rodriguez and Tarantino's first love letter to b-movie cinema. Their second being the less successful (commercially anyway) Grindhouse project. It's interesting comparing the two movies. There's quite a lot of similarity in terms of subject matter, Rodriguez's Planet Terror was an effects heavy gorefest while Tarantino's Death Proof was more of a tense talky thriller. Similarly on From Dusk Till Dawn the film is split down the middle with, the first half being a tense crime thriller as the criminals try to flee the country and the second half being an all out slaughterfest.
A lot of critics thought Tarantino was slumming it a little in this movie and to a certain extent they are right. Compared to the rest of his back catalogue this is a very straight forward movie; no time jumping, no postmodern deconstruction of a genre. However the dialogue (particularly in the first half of the film) is still very slick and well written with the banter between Clooney and Tarantino being a highlight. Famously, Tarantino worked in a video shop before his directing career and this film definitely feels like it was made by a person who's watched a lot of horror and crime films.
It's also funny to remember that this was one of the first leading roles for George Clooney who was clearly looking to transfer his success on the TV show ER to the big screen. He really picked a wild mixture of films as a testing ground; romantic comedies with One Fine Day, superhero flicks with Batman & Robin and this movie which posited him more as an alternative action hero. His performance as the anti-heroic Seth is very assured and he plays the role well, never dominating the rest of the actors but letting everyone work as an ensemble.
It's nice to see Harvey Keitel too, an actor more used to high brow roles, kicking back and enjoying making a brainless action horror movie. He adopts a gruff southern accent for the role. That's something I've noticed a lot with high profile actors when they do low budget genre pictures, they always put on silly accents. Luckily, this is one of the few times where the films so crazy it bears registers as being annoying. The film is wild, cartoonish and over the top. In fact the tagline on the poster was “How Far Can Too Far Go?”, which says a lot about the film itself. 
When I first watched this film, it was under the perfect circumstances. I knew nothing about it, other than it was a Tarantino-related film about two criminals. So the surprise of the “twist” in the middle of the film, that everyone in the bar turns into vampires, was truly a shock. The last half of the film is a virtual nonstop effects as the heroes start killing vampires left, right and centre in a number of creative ways from chair leg through the heart to being sprayed with a super soaker full of holy water. It was a really kick having special effects genius Tom Savini (who had spent most of the 80s creating some of the most amazing gore effects for films like Friday the 13th) play one of the patrons who doesn't turn into a vampire. And the fact he wields the cock pistol (glimpsed at in Desperado) was awesome too. Fred Williamson, a star of so many cheap b-movies from the 80s, also made a very welcome addition to the cast.
Considering the very immature nature of the film, it's ironic that Tarantino went on to direct Jackie Brown the following year, which is arguably his most mature work to date. And similarly Rodriguez went on to direct The Faculty, his cleverest and most subversive work. With From Dusk Till Dawn they both obviously just wanted to make a kick ass flick and for my money they really succeeded in making a B-movie that (unlike a lot of B-movies) delivers on it's promise of wild non-stop action.
Fult Tilt Boogie (1997)
I would be completely amiss to not mentioned Full Tilt Boogie the feature length documentary about the making of the film directed by Sarah Kelly which follows the making of the film in minute detail and show's just how much goes into making a film from shooting to set. From Dusk Till Dawn was shot with a non-union crew and ran into numerous problems that were creatively solved. It's a real eye opener but only of real interest to filmmakers or die hard fans of the film. You could also accuse it of being quite rambling and disjointed at times but for the most part that's done on purpose. Anyway it makes a nice change of pace from the usual backslapping “Oh so and so was fantastic to work with” bullshit behind the scenes stuff you usually see. This is available on the 2 Disc DVD version of the original film.
From Dusk Till Dawn 2: Texas Blood Money (1999)
From Dusk Till Dawn didn't make a massive haul at the box office but sold well enough on video to convince the studio Dimension to make some sequels. Whereas the original film was a B-movie with a $19 million budget and a cinematic release, the sequels were made for $5 million a piece and released direct to video. 
The first sequel Texas Blood Money sees Robert Patrick play Bucky, a criminal who agrees to reform his old gang to help his friend Luther (co-writer Duane Whittaker) pull a bank job in a little town on the Mexican border. However, on the way to meeting up with the rest of the gang Luther is bitten by a vampire from the infamous Titty Twister and slowly turns into a vampire. As the bank heist goes ahead Bucky realises what Luther has become and has to teams up with Sheriff Lawson (Bo Hopkins) to take him down.
Texas Blood Money was directed by Scott Spiegel, a friend of Sam Raimi who co-wrote (and by many accounts was responsible for much of the humour in) Evil Dead 2. Spiegel's directing style is very reminiscent of Raimi's and he chooses to put the camera in some of the weirdest places. For instance, in one part a vampire gets impaled on a scaffolding pole and the camera's placed inside the pole! On another occasion a vampire bites a victims neck and the camera is placed inside the vampire's mouth. It's very creative and helps give the film a fun atmosphere.
Robert Patrick (T1000 from Terminator 2) is very enjoyable as Bucky. I always enjoy someone who's predominately famous for playing a bad guy get to play the hero. The rest of the cast don't make much of an impression. Danny Trejo, who played the bartender in the original, plays that character's twin brother Razor Eddie and that's the only real link the first movie. Much like the original film, Texas Blood Money is split with the first half being a quirky crime drama, second half (or more accurately, last third) being vampire action. The bank robbery is a nice idea and I appreciate them not just having another group of people going in to the Titty Twister again.
The film has a lot of silly humourous bits, for instance one of the gang members gets turned into a vampire and is later drilling the vault in the bank and has to cover the cross on the vault door handle because his vampiric nature has made him allergic to them. What's missing though that made the first movie good, is some pace, the film moves quite sluggishly and is a little padded out. One standout bit though is where the gang are waiting a hotel room, watching TV and one of them tells a long winded story about a gunfight on a porno set; that bit felt quite Tarantino-esque.
A lot of people get quite angry about this film because Bruce Campbell's name is on the back cover. I'll tell you now, he appears only in the first 3 minutes in a cameo so don't expect this to be Evil Dead 4. The special effects work this time around is a mixture of CGI and practical effects (some more successful than others). It's less gory than the original film but still has some decent and creative kills. You know from the start when a character gets introduced driving a car with bull horns on the front that a vampire is going to get impaled on them later.
All in all, this is still a fun little flick that maybe requires some reduced expectations. Anyone who enjoyed the original film or Spiegel's earlier horror film Intruder will most likely enjoy this.
From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman's Daughter (1999)
The original film ended on a shot of the back of the Titty Twister bar, showing that it was built on top of a half buried Aztec temple, implying that it has been there for possibly hundreds of years luring innocent passersby. So it made a lot of sense for the third film to be a prequel.
Set in the 1900s on the Mexican border, the film follows Johnny Madrid (Marco Leonardi), an outlaw who is rescued from a hanging. In his escape he kidnaps the hangman's daughter Esmeralda and rides out into the desert. There he meets up with his gang and together they rob a stagecoach containing a married couple and the writer Ambrose Pierce (Michael Parks). As night draws in, both the gang and the stagecoach passengers head to a bar in the middle of the desert for shelter. And once again, the clientele all turn into vampires. However, most dangerous of all is Esmeralda, who turns out to be a long lost half-vampire princess!
The Hangman's Daughter was directed by P J Pesce who since directing this film seems to have become the go-to guy for DTV sequels having directed Sniper 3, Lost Boys: The Tribe and Smokin' Aces 2: Assassin's Ball (impressively he also wrote and performed a couple of pieces of music for this film). The script is credited to Robert Rodriguez and his cousin Alvaro. This is an okay DTV film that benefits from the change of mixing horror and western genres rather than horror and crime like the first two films.
Much like Texas Blood Money, one problem is that the film has a little bit of a sluggish pace and only really comes alive when the action kicks in. Another problem is that obviously the budget has had to stretch further than the second film, because it involves period settings and costumes. The Titty Twister was a huge lavish set in the original film and the makers of this film have clearly struggled to recreate it's earlier incarnation. Also, the set for the bar is quite confusing, I'm not sure if it's the way it's edited but I got really confused as to where everyone was located at times.
The western parts are well filmed and obviously show a huge amount of love for violent spaghetti westerns of the 60s and 70s. One sticking issue that Marco Leonardi doesn't make much of an impression as Johnny Madrid and worse, his character doesn't seem to have any redeeming features like Seth or Bucky in the earlier films.
Michael Parks (who played a sheriff in the original film and many other Tarantino projects) is far better as Ambrose Bierce - a character I had to admit I wasn't familiar with. He was a real life writer of bizarre fiction who disappeared in Mexico and it was a nice attempt to tie history and fiction. Unfortunately, he doesn't really get much of a story arc, nor does he turn into a kick-ass vampire fighter. It seemed like he would have made a far more interesting protagonist. 
The title character, the hangman's daughter Esmeralda, is sort of shoehorned into the movie. The idea the she is meant to be the younger incarnation of Salma Hayek's stripper character Satanico Pandemonium is a good one but apparently the makers of the film only thought of this after it was screened to test audiences. So they went back and redubbed a few lines and scenes; as a result, the “twist” is a bit of a washout.
Overall, this is an okay film, there's a lot to like about it but you'll feel after watching all three films there's not much else they could have wrung out of this franchise.
Video game: From Dusk Till Dawn
Released in 2001, the game sees you play Seth Gecko from the original film. Having escaped the Titty Twister Seth is arrested and put in a maximum security prison on a boat. However almost as soon as he arrives, a group of vampires break in and start turning everyone into vampires. The game is a third person shooter that comes across like a mixture of Tomb Raider and Resident Evil. While it clearly aims to be a lot of wild, violent fun the sluggish controls make it difficult, boring and repetitive. The weirdest thing is though the Seth character looks like Clooney the voice actor they got for him sounds far more like Bruce Willis.
Final analysis
From Dusk Till Dawn is a pretty good little trilogy. All three films aimed to be nothing more than fun, kick-ass horror movies, and for the most part they succeeded. If you liked the first film, there's no reason not to spend a couple of extra bucks and pick up the trilogy box set. Each sequel is deserving of at least one watch.


  1. Really great and thorough review on the entire series my friend. I love the original to death for all the reasons people might not like it. Two of the most aspiring filmmakers of there time went out and defied the system and protocol and decided to offer something different and with the best talent in front of as well as behind the camera. I love how it's 2 completely different films split right down the middle and just love the overall grindhouse feel to it.

    I never saw the sequels, but I do love Patrick so maybe I'll give part 2 a shot at least. And I enjoyed Spiegel's work on Intruder, and your right about silly camera angles, so that on top of having Trejo in here, it's definitely worth a shot. Thanks for the suggestion.

  2. Definitely check out Dusk Till Dawn 2, it's pretty enjoyable in its own way. It's a shame Spiegel hasn't been given more projects. I know he's directed Hostel Part III recently but I'm not massively interested in watching that.

    You're right, it is awesome that Tarantino followed up the massive critical success of Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs with such an over the top horror film. Maybe it's a bit of pattern considering he did Grindhouse ten years after Dusk Till Dawn. By that calculation, he'll probably do another exploitation film in 2016.

  3. Nice review. Quite thorough. Personally, I love the first movie of this series, but can't say the same for the next two. The last two just have weird plots and lots of bad acting. I think that only the genius of Quentin Tarantino could pull together the strange premise of these movies and make it work.

    I got the chance to review of couple others in this series on my blog. They are short reviews but cover most the series. Check it out if you get the chance.

  4. Thanks for the kind words. Yeah, I take your point. I think part of the problem was both sequels had ambitions that outweighed their budgets. And they both could have been scripted better.

    I think the second film, with the group of bank robbers, is at least trying to ape Tarantino's style but it's a very hard thing to capture.

    As far as bad acting goes, yeah, it's full of it but because the film's don't take themselves seriously I never really saw it as a bad point.

    Thanks for the link, I'll have to check out your site.