Tuesday, March 12, 2013

From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)

The Movie: The Gecko brothers, Seth (George Clooney) and Ricky (Quentin Tarantino) are the current escaped dangerous criminals in the news. After making a jailbreak and robbing a bank, the two are headed across the border to Mexico where Seth has made arrangements to find refuge. Unfortunately, he’s got a lot on his plate. Not only are the entire Texas law enforcement apparatus and the FBI after the brothers, Seth’s also got to deal with Ricky. Delusional, psychotic, and probably a little paranoid; Ricky is very much a loose cannon and makes Seth’s already difficult task of getting the two across the border twice as hard. To further exacerbate matters, Ricky winds up brutally killing the hostage the brothers have with them.

Luckily for the Geckos, and unluckily for everyone else involved, there is another set of guests at the hotel where the brothers are currently holing up. Reverend Jacob Fuller (long time movie vet Harvey Keitel of Saturn 3) is on a trip with his two children, Kate (the ubiquitous Juliette Lewis) and Scott (Ernest Liu) in their Winnebago. The family has suffered a tragedy recently with the death of Jacob’s wife, and Jacob himself is suffering a crisis of faith as a result. Of course, things get much worse when the Geckos, a little desperate at this point, take the family hostage and hijack their vehicle.

Somehow, despite Ricky’s quirks and a few unseen complications, the motley crew makes it across the border into Mexico. However, the real trouble comes when they arrive at the place where Seth arranged to meet his contact; a skuzzy biker bar/strip club/brothel that goes by the charming name ‘the Titty Twister.’ You see, the Titty Twister is a very literal tourist trap. It’s run by a group of vampires, who use the place to prey on the bikers and truckers who come through. Suddenly, the desperados, their hostages, and the few remaining customers of the bar find themselves trapped and forced to band together if they’re going to survive the night.

The Review:

And I don't want to hear anything about "I don't believe in vampires" because I don't believe in vampires, but I believe in my own two eyes, and what I saw is fucking vampires!"
-Seth Gecko

I must admit to feeling very ambivalent about Quentin Tarantino. On the one hand, he’s very definitely inspired by the same kinds of grindhouse movies I have come to love. He’s even put a lot of work into rereleasing many of the more obscure examples so they can be seen by a modern audience. And he’s not just a fanboy imitator either; Tarantino knows what makes them work, and he has enough talent and experience as a director that he’s able to use them as inspiration for movies that are very much his own.

On the other hand, Tarantino has the unfortunate habit of running off with his id and reveling in the more unpleasant aspects of these kinds of movies. He is all too prone to exulting in onscreen carnage and brutality, to the point where it can override everything else and become difficult to watch. To get an idea about how conflicted my feelings are toward Tarantino’s movies, know that I really enjoyed Kill Bill, and then look at my review of his Inglorious Basterds remake. If you just want the short of it, that movie repulsed me, pissed me off, and even offended me; which is extremely difficult to do. In short, Tarantino can make some good movies; but only so long as he keeps a leash on his id.

Tarantino wrote the screenplay for From Dusk Till Dawn, and as a result his fingerprints are all over the movie. It is an odd little film in some ways, namely where the characters seem to start out in one movie genre and then take a detour into another halfway through. However, it is very competently put together and the end result is great; a love letter to the old grindhouse exploitation thrillers, specifically the crime-thriller and survival horror subgenres. And, unlike so many movie “homages” made today; while there are plenty of little in-jokes and references to other movies of this type (note Scott’s Precinct 13 t-shirt for one example), they are kept subtle and non-intrusive, and From Dusk Till Dawn very much works as a movie in and of itself.

Just the film’s genre jumping goes miles in showing how good the script is. For about half the film it’s a crime-thriller about two bank robbers who take a family hostage and try to escape to Mexico, then about halfway through it’s suddenly a survival horror about being trapped in a bar run by vampires. And yet, the momentum is so good that the cognitive dissonance doesn’t set in until the credits start rolling.

The vampires themselves are very well done. For one thing, they’re definitely monsters. Most of the vampires are hot (half of them being strippers and one being played by Salma Hayek), but it is a very far cry indeed from the tragically sexy vampires that have infested pop culture. These are very definitely monsters, and never shown as anything different. What’s more, there’s never really any exposition about what they are or what they’re all about. None of the protagonists have any interest in investigating it, as their primary motivation is just trying to survive the night. In fact, one scene has them trying to remember all they know about vampires, and then debating over whether it will actually be of any use against their current opponents or whether they just remember it from some old movie. There are a few intriguing hints throughout; but they are just that, hints. The last shot just before the credits blew my mind the first time I saw it; and I was still very ignorant about the wonderful cinematic worlds I was taking my first steps into.

Ricky Gecko, as played by Tarantino, provides us with one of the more pervasive archetypes of the crime-thriller genre: the Loose Cannon. In short, this is the criminal with no self control whatsoever, who’s constantly buggering up things for everybody else. Tarantino is convincing; but considering that nearly every role I’ve seen him play has been Ricky in one form or another; I’m at a loss as to how much of it is due to talent and how much is typecasting.

Seth Gecko was apparently Clooney’s first major film role, something I was unaware of until I started writing this review. You wouldn’t guess it; Clooney is one of Dawn’s two major heavies who carry the movie. Seth is an intriguing anti-hero; on the one hand he is a career criminal and a brutal son of a bitch, but on the other he also has a very strong sense of honor and duty. In fact, he really tries to keep things as quiet and safe as possible; his more brutal deeds are largely due to Ricky.

Seth’s relationship with Ricky also does what none of the other crime-thrillers seem to have been able to and provides an answer to the one urgent question surrounding the loose cannon character; namely, why the hell don’t they cut him loose at the first signs he’s going to be trouble, much less after the first dozen or so times he’s loused things up for everyone else? In this case it’s simple; Ricky is Seth’s brother. Seth loves him and feels responsible for him, despite the fact that Ricky makes things twice as hard as they should be for him. That whole honor and duty thing can really bite you in the ass sometimes.

Harvey Keitel is the other heavy who carries the film. The man has a very, very long string of roles behind him, even at the time he played this one, and it really shows. Jacob Fuller is completely believable as a movie character despite his fantastic circumstances. Keitel plays him as a man who, upon first glance, is completely unremarkable in any way. He quiet, soft-spoken, not a coward but obviously not looking for excitement, either. Fuller is a man you could see every day and, unless you have some kind of in-depth dealing with him, not think anything of it.

However, there’s a whole hell of a lot more beneath the surface. Once trouble starts, Fuller turns out to be a very tough and competent old guy. Just observe his attitude and demeanor from the moment he and his family are first kidnapped by the Gecko brothers; everything he says and does conveys the message that he’s not going be pushed around. He does bend a little, not much you can do when someone’s pointing a gun in you and your children’s’ faces after all; but he makes it clear that he will not bend more than he absolutely has to.

Aside from being a stubborn old cuss, Jacob also shows a much needed level-headedness. He’s along on this trip unwillingly, but that doesn’t mean he won’t step forward and do what needs to be done when the Geckos’ methods aren’t working. Several times through the first half of the film, it’s Jacob who takes charge of the situation; and he’s ultimately responsible for getting everyone into Mexico. It’s never said in words; but watching Seth and Jacob interact, you can tell that Seth is developing a grudging respect for Jacob despite himself.

There’s one more aspect of the character of Jacob Fuller that I’d like to comment on, and that’s about his status as a clergyman. This is important to me because I, myself, happen to be a preacher’s kid. Now, the thing about my father is that unless you happen to be in church on Sunday, or it comes up in conversation, you’d never know he was a minister. If his job doesn’t call for it, he doesn’t advertise. Not only that, my father has actively encouraged my interest in other religions. I was never a Christian myself, my faith journey took me in an entirely different direction; but I have the utmost respect for my father and his faith, and both have had a strong influence on my own spiritual views.

I’ve noticed in Hollywood movies that when they’re not Catholic priests (who have their own set of stereotypes), Christian clergy tend to be presented in one of three ways: they’re rabid Bible-thumpers, they’re myopic hypocrites, or, to paraphrase my father, they have little haloes. Suffice to say, they’ve rarely if ever matched my experiences with the main clergy presence in my own life. Jacob Fuller changes that. In demeanor and personality, he very much reminds me of my father. This is particularly true where his faith is concerned. He does talk about his religion when the subject comes up, and it’s clear that his crisis of faith is having an effect on him. However, there’s far more to him as a person; his faith is part of him, it doesn’t define him entirely. It was only on my most recent viewing that I consciously realized how much Jacob reminds me of my own father, but it makes the movie more real for me, and is no doubt the main reason I’ve always found him so endearing.

Lewis and Liu do well enough in their roles. I’ve noticed that Lewis in this film isn’t too different from other characters I’ve seen her play, but it works. Also, and the fact that this bears any mention at all depresses me to no end, I so love a truly strong, competent movie heroine who’s able to handle herself.

As well as our main characters, From Dusk Till Dawn has a rather large supporting cast that’s full of B-movie veterans. Fred “the Hammer” Williamson appears as one of the Titty Twister’s customers; as does the famed gore-effects artist Tom Savini, who plays Sex Machine, a biker with the most interestingly shaped and mounted gun. Tom Saxon makes a brief appearance at the beginning. Cheech Marin plays three minor, but very distinct, roles. The supporting role most people take away from this movie is probably Salma Hayek as the vampire queen “Santanico Pandemonium”, the name a reference to the Mexican nunsploitation Satanico Pandemonium. Even if he wasn’t credited, you’d know Tarantino wrote the script to this movie from the lap dance she gives Ricky during her number. I would say nasty things about the man, if it weren’t for the fact that I’d do the exact same thing myself in his situation.

One final positive element about From Dusk Till Dawn, particularly as a horror movie, is that there’s no safety net for any of the characters. Big name actor or second stringer, protagonist or supporting cast; from the moment the vampires first make their appearance it’s made very clear that none of these people is safe from them. In fact, by the end of the movie nearly the entire cast has been killed off. This makes it extremely suspenseful, as we have no idea who will live or die.

So in conclusion, From Dusk Till Dawn is a love letter and homage to the old grindhouse exploitation movies of yore that at the same time is very much its own movie. It’s full of gunfights, explosions, gore and female nudity. It also has a good script, great dialogue, and a cast full of talent and B-movie veterans. This is definitely not a date movie; and my male readers, if you are lucky enough to find a woman who is willing to see this with you on a date, hold on to her. However, if you’re into exploitative trash done very well (guilty!), you do not want to miss this one.