From Dusk Till Dawn (1996, Robert Rodriguez)

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Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Criminals Seth and Richie Gecko force a family to smuggle them across the border into Mexico, where they all end up in a bar run by vampires…

What does QT do? Working on From Dusk Till Dawn in about 1990 was Quentin Tarantino’s first paid scriptwriting job. It was a commission from Robert Kurtzman, a special-effects designer who wanted a project to showcase his new company’s talents. (Kurtzman gets a ‘story by’ credit.) It took a few years for the film to go into production, by which time Tarantino’s friend Robert Rodriguez had been hired as director. He convinced Quentin to play the part of Richie Gecko. Creepy and committed, it’s – by some distance – the best acting performance of his career.

Notable characters:
* Texas Ranger Earl McGraw (Michael Parks) is a cop who stops at a liquor store in the first scene to shoot the breeze and use the toilet. The part was written for the actor, making use of his slow-talking cadences and world-weary manner.
* Pete Bottoms (John Hawkes) is the guy working in the liquor store. Unbeknown to McGraw, Pete is actually in the middle of being held up by two criminals. It’s a great opening scene. It’s not about what you think it’s about, but is still feeding us important information. There’s then sudden violence, black comedy, flames and gunfire, and it ends on a grandstanding shot of the brothers arguing as they walk away from an exploding building.
* Seth Gecko (George Clooney) is a bank robber who works with his brother, Seth. As the story begins they’re on the run, having stolen a chunk of money, kidnapped a bank teller, and killed a few cops and bystanders. Clooney was then a TV actor but is filmed here like a movie star; he often dominates the frame. It’s a terrifically cool performance, full of vim and swagger.
* Richie Gecko (Quentin Tarantino) is the less levelheaded, more psychotic half of the team. He rapes and kills one hostage, then hallucinates that another is coming on to him. Later, when the characters reach a bar called the Titty Twister, he’s turned into a vampire.
* Gloria Hill (Brenda Hillhouse) is the bank teller, who we first see tied up in the Geckos’ car boot.
* Jacob Fuller (Harvey Keitel) is a pastor who’s going through a crisis of faith, having recently lost his wife in a car accident. He’s on a road-trip holiday with his two kids, driving a Winnebago around the country, when the Geckos take them prisoner.
* Scott Fuller (Ernest Liu) is Jacob’s adopted son, who likes playing guitar.
* Kate Fuller (Juliette Lewis) is Jacob’s teenage daughter who goes through an awful lot of trauma in the story… and seems to take most of it in her stride!
* Kelly Houge (Kelly Preston) is a TV news reporter who fills us in on he Geckos’ recent crimes, complete with on-screen tallies of how many people they’ve killed. She also interviews an FBI agent played by John Saxon.
* Cheech Marin (of Cheech & Chong fame) has three discrete cameos in the film. (Why? Just because.) He first appears as a customs official at the US-Mexico border, then as the guy advertising all the different types of pussy available at the Titty Twister, then finally as Carlos, Seth’s contact who shows up after all the carnage.
* Razor Charlie (Danny Trejo) is the Titty Twister’s vampiric barman.
* Sex Machine (Tom Savini) is a customer at the bar who joins forces with Seth, Jacob and the others once the vampires attack. He’s generally a comic-relief character with some good gags (and a pop-up gun hidden in his groin).
* Frost (Fred Williamson) is another patron who’s caught up in the chaos. His set-piece scene involves telling an earnest anecdote about Vietnam, which acts as a distraction while Sex Machine comically turns into a vamp.
* Santánico Pandemonium (Salma Hayek) is a dancer at the bar who performs a *spectacularly* sexy routine, which brings the entire room to a standstill… right before she turns into a monster and starts eating people.

Returning actors: Juliette Lewis was one of the stars of Natural Born Killers. Quentin had recently directed George Clooney in an episode of ER. This is Harvey Keitel’s third Tarantino role. Marc Lawrence (who cameos as a motel manager) and Salma Hayek had been in Four Rooms, though not in Tarantino’s section of the film. Brenda Hillhouse was in Pulp Fiction and ER: Motherhood. This is the fourth time Quentin’s played one of his own characters, but it’s the only time he’s done it while being directed by someone else.

Music: The source songs, a mixture of Tex-Mex, blues and country-and-western, are well chosen. Especially effective are the down-and-dirty Dark Night (The Blasters) for the title sequence and the sultry After Dark (Tito & Tarantula) for Santánico’s dance. (Tito & Tarantula actually appear on-screen as the bar’s in-house band.) The bespoke score is written by Graeme Revell but often gets swamped in the sound mix.

Time shifts and chapters: The film is in chronological order, playing out across 24 hours or so. Like in Reservoir Dogs, the robbery that kicks off the plot is not dramatised.

Connections: Deep breath… A few months after From Dusk Till Dawn, a Tarantino-produced movie called Curdled was released. The Gecko brothers are mentioned in the story (we also see photos of them) while Kelly Preston reprises her From Dusk character in a cameo. More interestingly, From Dusk Till Dawn later spawned two straight-to-video sequels and a spin-off TV series. From Dusk Till Dawn 2: Texas Blood Money (1999) was directed by Scott Spiegel. It’s an inventively shot heist movie and is good, schlocky fun. It was followed a year later by From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman’s Daughter, directed by PJ Pesce, which is actually a prequel to the original; set 100 years earlier, it enjoyably mixes Western and horror conventions. Then, in 2014, a television adaptation of the original film began on cable channel El-Ray. Currently on its third season, it features an all-new cast and expands the movie’s plot in interesting ways. (Oh, and just to be thorough: a documentary film called Full Tilt Boogie (1997) was made about the production of From Dusk Till Dawn. It mixes footage of the actors larking about with coverage of the producers’ dispute with a labour union. There’s a huge amount of hubris on show, but the film also has sequences focusing on likeable crewmembers.)

Review: Partly a road movie, partly a crime film, party a horror and increasingly a comedy, From Dusk Till Dawn has a lot of different tones to balance. So much so, in fact, that even on repeat viewings you forget where the story is heading. It’s not until the 59th minute that something supernatural happens, and the first half of the film is so slick and well written that – whisper it quietly – it’s actually a disappointment when the vampires attack. The early scenes of Seth, Richie and the Fullers contain some terrific dialogue, great group dynamics, reversals of expectation, power games, grudging respect and edgy humour. It’s brilliant stuff. However, in the second half, the character work is mostly forgotten about in favour of Grand Guignol. When the characters arrive at the Titty Twister, the bar is surrounded by flames and neon lights: it’s like the characters are descending into hell. The movie is now all about blood, impalings, severed heads and limbs, and inventive ways of killing vampires. There are lots of effects on show, mostly practical or prosthetic but also some CG, and also a shift towards tongue-in-cheek comedy. It reminds you of, say, Evil Dead II or Bad Taste (both 1987). The film is still entertaining, but frankly the two halves of the story don’t especially marry up. Was the comedic influence from director Robert Rodriguez (who later made the very silly Spy Kids films)? This is such a difficult film for me to score. It has issues, but because the first half is so strong my heart says ten. However, my head says…

Eight psychos do not explode when sunlight hits them, I don’t give a fuck how crazy they are, out of 10

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