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FROM DUSK TILL DAWN
CAST: George Clooney, Quentin Tarantino, Harvey Keitel, Juliette Lewis, Salma Hayek, Cheech Marin, Fred Williamson
Robbers-on-the-lam Seth (George Clooney) and Richard Gecko (Quentin Tarantino) take an ex-preacher (Harvey Keitel) and his kids hostage. On a race to the Mexican border, they rendezvous at a cantina, not knowing the owners and clientele are bloodthirsty vampires. That’s when director Robert Rodriguez (Desperado) abruptly switches from hostage drama to tongue-in-cheek, vampiric melee, creating a blood-stained ode to 1960s Mexican horror movies.
There’s a perverse thrill in going back to the earlier roles of big stars before their on screen persona is canonized, like stealing glances at pictures of your friends during their dorky teenage years. Returning to FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, we are treated to a particularly excellent example of this phenomenon with George Clooney rehearsing the unflappable charm undercut with sleaze while remaining innately likeable of later roles like O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?, and MICHAEL CLAYTON.
While we can see he’s already nailed the core of the star appeal he rides now, Clooney as Seth is much skeevier than his agents would ever allow now—checking out an underage Juliette Lewis, protecting his psychotic rapist of a brother played by Quentin Tarantino, and, while espousing the usual semi-redemptive code of honor among killers he supposedly follows, he barely bats an eye at the many needlessly murdered innocent people.
Robert Rodriguez and his fellow connoisseur of trash cinema, Quentin Tarantino, who wrote the film in addition to starring in it, have spent much of their career delighting in getting big name actors to wallow in the strange and filthy. But DUSK TILL DAWN is more purely B-Movie than the A-level cinema pastiche of most of their other work, in no small part due to the film’s uncomfortable opening scenes which revolve around making out Quentin Tarantino’s character to be as creepy and unlikable as possible. Tarantino turns in a bizarre performance as Richard Gecko, whose strangeness stems mostly from how close to his normal nerdy media persona the character feels. If I could so convincingly play a homicidal sex criminal, I would never let that make its way onto screen, much less write it into my own screenplay—but that’s the awkward genius of Tarantino.
Once the movie crosses the border into Mexico and the Titty Twister Cantina, the film dispenses with the convincing creepiness and moves into the pure camp expected of the premise. The rest of the movie is all splatter fest, horror comedy of the best sort complete with the Tarantino flair of bringing the star of Blaxpoitation classic Black Ceasar and the Rodriguez touches of not one but three different Cheech Marin’s (the most memorable one seen below), Salma Hayek as a demon-stripper, and a proto version of Rose Magowan’s Cherry Darling in PLANET TERROR, Sex Machine who’s gun replaces another type of limb all together.
When the vampires rear their ugly heads, with none of the sex appeal that’s currently making them so in vogue, the film follows a predictable trajectory with the characters riding a series of pyrhhic victories to an ambivalent ending under the unrelenting Mexican sun. Harvey Keitel steals every scene he’s in, transforming his stock character of priest who’s lost his faith into a hilarious testament to the Protestant spirit. He continues to exhibit the same straight-laced disciplinarian personality through his abduction by professional killers and facing up to a horde of demons. Watch him in this scene:
That scene also showcases the other refreshing aspect of FROM DUSK TILL DAWN—the characters act like they’ve seen a horror movie before. One scene involves them all running through everything they know can kill vampires and Seth parses out the logic of monster movies with the utilitarian knack of a horror fan. Rodriguez and Tarantino share the movie goer frustration of never seeing characters in a horror movie who can rely on a working knowledge of horror movies (nearly a full year before Wes Craven would start a whole franchise on the same premise). So go ahead, relive the days when George Clooney wasn’t all-american and vampires weren’t sexy and universally loved.
You can watch it here.