‘Everybody be cool. You – be cool.’
Quentin Tarantino really has only a handful of skills. What sets him apart from most filmmakers though is that every single skill he does have is turned up waaaay the fuck past eleven. Tarantino has a vision that means most of his movies look like perfectly translated action comic-books. He has a talent for balancing stylised highfalutin’ language and naturalistic ‘nothing’ dialogue in the service of characterisation. And despite being a really, really heavy-duty geek, he has an instinctive gift for creating movie experiences that are cool as a barrel full of arctic fucks.
Robert Rodriquez, a friend and frequent collaborator of Tarantino’s, is no stranger to slick, hip, cool as fuck moviemaking either (Sin City, Planet Terror etc. Let’s not talk about Spy Kids shall we, it really doesn’t help our argument).
Getting the two of them together can only be a recipe for coolness, probably with casual, probably sickly funny ultraviolence thrown in.
From Dusk Till Dawn was their first major collaboration, Tarantino writing the screenplay from a story by Robert Kurtzman, and starring as Richie Gecko, with Rodriquez directing. Combining a bunch of Tarantino ‘tells’ -professionally and personally violent characters who still manage to be incredibly cool; dark, dark comedy; dialogue that swings from everyday gibberish to eminently quotable, and a thoroughly kickass soundtrack – with some Rodriquez trademarks, like vivid imagery and a Tex-Mex setting, it has all the potential it could possibly wish for in terms of being a hip, cool, gangsters-making-it-across-the-border comedy drama.
And then it goes absolutely, unrepentantly, in fact joyously bananas. From Dusk Till Dawn feels initially like two movies cut and shunted together for no reason other than the idea that it would be cool to fill the screen with vampires all of a sudden. It’s a dark explosion of joie de vivre that should on no account work (and according to many critics, on no account does), but it’s got legions of devotees who embrace its genre-busting madness and go with it for the sheer enjoyment of the visions on the screen and the work of a truly exceptional cast.
You can’t really get more Tarantino than the opening sequence – conversation between a convenience store clerk and a local Texas ranger which seems like practically nothing, but reveals a crime elsewhere, only to explode into urgency the minute the ranger goes to the bathroom, as it transpires the violent Gecko brothers are actually in the store, holding hostages, and commanding the clerk’s performance. When things get insanely out of control, Seth, played by a hungry-for-challenges George Clooney, shows himself to be the relative rationalist of the pair, using the strategy of a Roman general to blow the place to the ground. As the Geckos walk away, the place blows up and neither of them turn to look at it – they’re too busy talking about keeping a low profile.
Absolutely classic Tarantino scripting, the dark comedy just bursting from the screen.
When the Geckos run into the Fuller family, led by Jacob, a pastor who’s lost if not his faith in God, then at least his love for Him after losing his wife, Seth employs a standard ‘using the innocents to get across the border in a motor home,’ and as far as the Geckos’ story is concerned, it could end there, just as they pull up to the delightfully named Titty Twister bar and truck stop. But really, what we find is that everything that’s come before this point is really just character-building. The Geckos are brothers who have nothing but each other and the money they’ve stolen. Richie is a violent, hallucinating deviant, Seth a reasonably intelligent bank robber both hampered and sustained by his love for his brother. Jacob is a man of God who has lost his way. Seth, if not Richie, is capable of redemption, but has yet to be presented with an opportunity to deserve it. Jacob is a man already at a crossroads in his life, but one who’s taking the path of least resistance.
Welcome to the Titty Twister, everybody, let’s play our game.
Again, everything about the Titty Twister is comic-book writ large on the screen. A bar and truck stop seemingly in the middle of nowhere, with a lawless, frontier feel and the gaudiness of Vegas. Clearly, from Cheech Marin’s introductory monologue (as a character not without reason credited as ‘Chet Pussy’), alcohol is not the only thing for sale at the bar, and when Salma Hayek, no less, steps out to seduce and mesmerise both the patrons and the audience as Santanica Pandemonium, things get incredibly insane and demonic incredibly quickly. Again, in comic-book tradition, there are a couple of strong but only broadly defined characters – Sex Machine and his codpiece gun, and Frost the almost inevitable ’Nam veteran – and they’re delivered with such verve you really want them to survive. But really, when the world suddenly has a shitload of evil vampires in it, and they’re mostly trapped in a bar with you, you’re going to face a long, dark night of the soul, and for that, our focus is kept on the core characters, the Geckos and the Fullers. Seth resumes the role of ‘general’ in this fight, using his strategic brain and his presence to collate information and come up with a working strategy of how to kill the blood-drinkers. It’s also Seth who lays out the choices for everyone else: for Jacob, the choice between being a faithless pastor and a ‘motherfucking servant of God,’ since only the latter can help them get out of the bar alive; and for Kate (Juliette Lewis) and Scott (Ernest Liu) Fuller, the choice between being strong enough to do the unpleasant thing, the unpalatable thing, or to die. There’s a lesson there for all ‘younger’ views of From Dusk Till Dawn – the world is going to be hard, and it will kill you if it gets the chance, so what do you do? Do you let it take you down, or do you kick it in the nuts and stake it through the heart? It’s telling that of the Fuller kids, one falls and one survives – an idea mirrored in the Gecko brothers themselves: Richie, for all the sick, mayhem energy he brings to the picture, is too damaged to survive, but Seth, the general, the thinker, the strategist is able to come through from dusk till dawn and reap the rewards of life on the other side of that dark night. Perhaps perversely, his chance for redemption doesn’t come by defeating the vampires – that’s just him continuing his life’s pattern, doing what needs to be done to get through. His redemption comes at the very end of the movie, when Kate offers him ‘some company.’ Seth Gecko’s redemption comes when he tells her to go home. ‘I’m a bastard, but I’m not a total bastard,’ he tells her, and it feels like a truth. It’s always been there, that core of not being needlessly violent or grim, it’s what separates him from his brother all the way through the movie, but in that moment, it’s as though Seth realises it as a truth about himself.
Jacob meanwhile finds his faith as a ‘mother…mmmming servant of God’ before he dies, leading what in essence becomes God’s army of the flawed and the fallen against the absolutely damned, until he too succumbs to a scratch, and is turned. It’s part of the test set to his children that they are instrumental in setting him free from the clutches of vampirism, sending him theoretically to Heaven for his work against the damned, rather than letting him sink into their number.
That’s ultimately the weirdest thing about the mad, wild, glorious guilty pleasure that is From Dusk Till Dawn. While it looks from the outside as though the vampire section of the movie is only there to be cool and to be full of vampires, actually, the vampires are essential – they’re what give the film its grand antagonist, they’re what deliver the deeper, more philosophical meaning to the movie, and they’re what provide the points of both crisis and resolution for a bunch of core characters who up until they encounter the vampires are largely drifting. Vampire movies almost always work as avatars of some human triumph over adversity. But the trick is rarely achieved with as much aplomb and as much odd discretion as it is in From Dusk Till Dawn. By delivering the feeling of being two movies slammed together, it allows the character development to be set up in the pre-vampire world, and then subverted completely when the characters’ true strengths, weaknesses and fundamental natures are revealed in the high-pressure situation the vampires put them in.
Besides, it’s still freakin’ cool, twenty years on. Spin it again – you’ll love every minute of it.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk