I’ve argued for some time now that vampires are the new unicorn: a fantasy creation that appeals to the female psyche specifically and leaves male genre fans befuddled, even angry if they’re not used to sharing their toys. This wasn’t always the case though. Even in as late as the mid nineties, just as Anne Rice was terraforming the myth for her sex, creative minds like Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino were pushing in the opposite direction, inserting the blood-suckers in the sort of testosterone-filled narratives only boys could dream up.
Enter From Dusk Till Dawn, which starts off as a slow-boil crime thriller and then turns into a balls-to-the-walls splatter flick at the halfway mark. The first hour had me on the edge of my seat: wanted by the law, Seth (George Clooney) and his disturbed brother Ritchie (Tarantino) kidnap a vacationing family in order to sneak through the Mexican border. The father, former preacher Jacob (Harvey Keitel), lost his faith after his wife passed away, so we fear he might try something heroically suicidal to protect his kids. Tensions rise when Ritchie becomes infatuated with the eldest child, Kate (Juliette Lewis), hallucinating lurid advances from the teenage girl.
Then From Dusk Till Dawn gets really, really silly as a pack of vampires trap our heroes in a strip club filled with colourful cannon fodder characters, such as the aptly named Sex Machine (Tom Savini) and Vietnam vet Frost (Fred Williamson), who gets his prerequisite flashback at the most inopportune moment. To say the film goes off the rails would be an understatement. If anything, it drowns the tracks in latex limbs and buckets upon buckets of red syrup, delivering one of the most immature, yet strangely exhilarating climaxes to grace the silver screen.
It was rumoured back in the day that Tarantino wrote the original treatment for From Dusk Till Dawn at the age of thirteen, which might explain its puerile humour and willingness to do things other motion pictures have the good sense (and taste) not to attempt. Consider Cheech Marin’s raunchy sales pitch in front of the Titty Twister, where we spend the second half of the movie. So as not to offend, I replaced the naughty words with the names of Twilight (2008) cast members:
“Come on in, Lautner lovers! Here at the Stewart Twister, we’re slashing Lautner in half! Give us an offer on our vast selection of Lautner. This is a Lautner blow out! We got white Lautner, black Lautner, Spanish Lautner, yellow Lautner […] smelly Lautner. We got hairy Lautner, bloody Lautner. We got snapping Lautner […] We even got horse Lautner, dog Lautner, chicken Lautner […] If you can find cheaper Lautner anywhere else, Pattinson it!
In lesser hands, this sort of material would have come off trite at best, but Rodriguez is careful to ease us into his lurid universe before unleashing the “lapdogs of Satan”, scattering subtle absurdities throughout the first act. Take, for example, the yummy popcorn sound after Seth sets fire to a convenience store clerk or his conversation with Jacob about the latter’s adopted son Scott (Ernest Liu): “So what’s the deal with you two? You a couple of fags?” By the time the vampires show up to tear everyone limb from limb, we, as viewers, are ready to face any idiotic comment, vulgarity, or extended gross-out gag.
Having mentioned that, I remain fonder of the build-up than of its payoff. The first half of From Dusk Till Dawn has got better rhythm by virtue of following a plot, and its set pieces rely more on suggestion than exploitation. Consider the scene in which Seth returns to his motel room and discovers his brother’s engaged in yet another unspeakable act. Save for a few cryptic flashes, we’re never shown what Richie’s done. All the information we need lies in George Clooney’s horrified expression.
Granted, it could be argued that the film largely consists of style over substance and that said style steers dangerously (and deliberately) close to campy trash, but then Rodriguez and Tarantino have each made a career of walking this fine line. Besides, one has to appreciate the way the former’s contagious exuberance complements the latter’s ironic wit. For all its craftiness, I can’t claim to admire From Dusk Till Dawn on any sort of intellectual level, but I do revisit it from time to time if only to remind myself that vampires don’t always sparkle. Sometimes, they “suck our Pattinson blood.”