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, Richie. 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, partly 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

Four Rooms (1995, Allison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino)

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Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The Hotel Mon Signor, Los Angeles, New Year’s Eve. A bellhop called Ted becomes embroiled in the goings-on of four groups of guests…

What does QT do? Quentin Tarantino and three pals wrote/directed a quarter of this film each – the stories are set in the same hotel on the same night and are linked by a bellhop called Ted. Quentin’s story, The Man from Hollywood, is based on a 1960 episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents called Man from the South (which itself was an adaptation of a Roald Dahl short story). The characters acknowledge the debt in the dialogue, though for some reason they think the episode was called The Man From Rio. Quentin cast himself as a flamboyant, successful actor called Chester Rush.

Notable characters (The Man From Hollywood only):
* Ted (Tim Roth) is running the hotel singlehanded on New Year’s Eve and is not having fun. After an hour of trauma in the other stories, he’s called by the penthouse and asked to deliver some champagne… Roth is *horrendous* in this film. It’s a jittery, manic, childish, cartoony and intensely irritating performance, gurning and eye-popping all over the place. (In one scene he does a Michael Caine impression, seemingly just to assume himself.) The part was written for Steve Buscemi, but he wisely passed.
* Angela (Jennifer Beals) is hanging out in the penthouse in a dressing gown. She’s one of the main characters in the movie’s second story, and it appears Tarantino added her here simply as a way of connecting the sections.
* Chester Rush (Quentin Tarantino) is an actor staying in the hotel’s penthouse. He’s just had a hit with a movie called Wacky Detective and has high hopes for new film The Dog Catcher. He’s made a bet with a hanger-on that the guy can’t light a cigarette lighter 10 times in a row. If the mate can’t, he loses a finger.
* Norman (Paul Calderón) is the sycophant who’s risking a digit for the bet.
* Leo (Bruce Willis) is Chester’s manager, who’s drunk and distracted by his on-going divorce. Willis is not credited on the film because he did the part for free and that broke union rules.

Returning actors: Tim Roth and Quentin Tarantino were in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, while Bruce Willis and Paul Calderón were just in the latter. Kathy Griffin (Pulp Fiction, ER) appears earlier in the film – as does Madonna, who was mentioned in dialogue in both Dogs and Pulp.

Music: Pretty awful. The score is annoying cocktail-lounge music by a band called Combustible Edison. The film’s theme tune, which plays over a Pink Panther-style animation, is a scat-sung travesty.

Time shifts and chapters: The Man From Hollywood is one scene played in real time. Elsewhere, the movie’s second and third stories seem to be happening concurrently.

Connections: Earlier in the film, producer Lawrence Bender has a cameo as a drunk party guest. He’s credited as Long Hair Yuppie Scum, the same credit he had for a cameo in Pulp Fiction – so let’s assume this is the same man. Around this time, Tarantino did some script-doctoring on films such as Crimson Tide (1995, Tony Scott) and The Rock (1996, Michael Bay).

Review: The opening section of Four Rooms is The Missing Ingredient, written and directed by Allison Anders. It’s a dreary, inconsequential story about a coven of witches trying to resurrect their goddess. They get stuck when they realise they need semen for a spell, so one of them seduces Ted. In story two, The Wrong Man by Alexandre Rockwell, Ted gets caught up with a married couple who are staging a hostage situation as a sex game. It’s very silly. The highlight of the movie is the third quarter, The Misbehavers by Robert Rodriguez, in which Ted has to babysit two children. It has a beginning, a middle and an end, as well as good visual comedy and a pleasingly macabre punchline. So it’s been a mixed bag by the time we reach Tarantino’s The Man From Hollywood, which is a fun enough shaggy-dog story with a good climax. There are two interesting things about the sequence. Firstly, like in Reservoir Dogs, cinephile Quentin actually relies on a theatre-like style. There are numerous uninterrupted takes of actors giving big performances as they move choreographically around the small set. It’s vaguely reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s long-take-heavy Rope (1948). (Having said that, the final gag is delivered via some nifty editing). And secondly what the scene says about its writer/director is very telling. Between this movie’s production and its release, Quentin acted in From Dusk Till Dawn. A behind-the-scenes film called Full Tilt Boogie was shot on and around the set, and the real-life Tarantino it documents (successful, brash, verbose, upbeat, the centre of attention) is not a million miles away from his Four Room character. Chester Rush rules his little world and does most of the talking. He even appears to be a fan of Quentin Tarantino: his dialogue contains the phrase ‘tasty beverage’, a reference to Pulp Fiction.

The Man From Hollywood: Seven declarative statements out of 10.
Four Rooms overall: Five balls to back up the action of your huge cock out of 10.

Predators (2010, Nimród Antal)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Eight strangers are transported to an alien planet to be the prey in a hunting ritual…

The cast: The characters are all human killers who’ve been kidnapped so the predators can hunt them. Royce, a former special-forces solider, is played by Adrien Brody. It’s an effective bit of casting against type: the usually soft Brody has fun going all gravely voiced and macho. Alice Braga plays the dour Isabelle, an Israeli sniper. Topher Grace gets both comedy and sinister stuff to do as Edwin, who seems to be a coward but is then revealed to be the most fucked-up of them all. Elsewhere, there’s Stans (Walton Goggins), a prisoner who boasts about “raping bitches”; Nikolai (Oleg Taktarov), a Russian heavy; Hanzo (Louis Ozawa Changchien), a mostly mute Yakuza; Mombassa (Mahershalalhasbaz ‘Mahershala’ Ali), a mercenary from Sierra Leone; and Cuchillo (Danny Trejo), a Mexican drug-cartel enforcer. As with Alien vs Predator, Arnold Schwarzenegger was asked to cameo as Dutch from Predator, but it didn’t happen. Presumably because he was Governor of California at the time.

The best bit: There’s a nice twist when Royce comes face to face with a predator. He thinks he’s a goner, but then the creatures removes his mask to reveals he’s actually a human in disguise. Noland (Laurence Fishbourne) has been trapped on the planet for so long that he’s gone a bit loopy. But he’s able to impart some fun exposition before being killed.

Review: Robert Rodriguez (Desperado, From Dusk Till Dawn, Sin City) had been touting to make this film since the early 90s, though when it finally got green-lit he moved to a producing role and hired another director. Nimród Antal does a decent job. The script might be a vague retelling of the original Predator story (tough guys in jungle get picked off one-by-one), but there are a few nice twists to the formula and the whole film is suitably atmospheric. We learn about the characters through behaviour as well as dialogue, and there are some flashes of humour. So while they’re stereotypes, they’re still more complex than the people in, say, Alien vs Predator. They’re also very far from being nice, which makes them more interesting and the story more unpredictable. And in terms of the movie’s look, long-lens shots make the jungle – actually in Hawaii – seem otherworldly, dangerous and threatening. On the whole, an enjoyable enough film. Nothing extraordinary, but better than I was expecting.

Seven spinal columns out of 10

Next time: Ridley Scott directs an Alien prequel? What could go wrong?!