From Dusk till Dawn

(Robert Rodriguez, USA, 1996)


In the immediate aftermath of terrible, tragic incidents such as the Port Arthur massacre in Tasmania in April 1996, there’s always a heightened sensitivity in the community and in the media about what are taken to be violent films. After Port Arthur, movies including Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) were pulled from televisions schedule and replaced with less sensational or potentially “inciting” fare. As a citizen, I respect this sensitivity. But, as a film critic, I do find myself questioning what seems to me the misplaced hysteria that comes down on certain movies at such moments.


I bumped into someone who told me that he’d seen a movie that disgusted and sickened him, because he had the media images and stories from Port Arthur still too fresh in his mind at the moment of viewing. The film he was referring to was one I had already decided to write on: From Dusk till Dawn. I choose it not to make some grand-slam polemical point about violence in the cinema. For me – and I suspect for most people who are likely to get a kick out of this movie – the violence is unreal, unfolding in some purely artificial, cartoon realm. I don’t know if violence is even the right word to describe what goes on here: it’s more like some kinky form of visual music or choreography, some outlandish depiction of a patently absurd tall tale.


I don’t mean to be flippant about real social issues and community concerns about violent incidents and violent fantasies. But I’m not at all certain that what From Dusk till Dawn offers us is exactly “violent fantasy” (whatever that would mean, after some careful determination). It’s more like a tremendously spirited joke or reverie.


From Dusk till Dawn was among the surprises of 1996, and it was duly underrated. In fact, at the time of its release, I hardly read or heard a single positive word about it, beyond a particular niche-cult of fans (whose nerdy praise was rather bland and predictable). It’s a movie that’s suffered from a more mundane, showbiz-backlash effect – a backlash not against screen violence, but against the wunderkind Quentin Tarantino, who wrote it and acts in it, too. His script here is certainly not half as dazzling or inventive as the scripts for his own Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994). But on the other hand, and to compensate a little, Tarantino’s acting here is at least twice as good as it is anywhere else – including in his own films.


But I think it would be a good move to basically stop talking about Tarantino right here, because From Dusk till Dawn is not really his movie. It’s directed by Robert Rodriguez, whose amusing contribution to the anthology film Four Rooms (1995) is worth a look. I like Rodriguez precisely because he’s not a cool, trendoid hipster like Tarantino or many other contemporary American independent filmmakers. When I first saw Rodriguez’s Desperado (1995) – a higher-budget reworking of his El Mariachi (1992) – I imagined that its crude jolt must be something like what the first Italian Westerns did to audiences in the early 1960s.


I have a particular theory – maybe it’s a fantasy – about Rodriguez. He seems to bring to mainstream cinema the strenuously grotty vulgarity of popular Mexican action-melodramas, films we don’t get to see many (or any) of through normal, non-diapsoric channels in Australia – just as we don’t see many Indian musicals or Israeli teen comedies or Greek romances or a vast range of national-popular stuff. 


I’ll say a little more later about Rodriguez’s extremely athletic vigour with a camera and an editing machine. But finally, I don’t really want to paint even him as the creative genius behind this movie. A friend of mine said to me, on the way out of the screening: “It’s not Tarantino’s movie, and it’s not Rodriguez’s movie, either. It’s cinema’s movie”. I’m going to try to work out what I think he meant by that remark.


If you’ve heard anything about From Dusk till Dawn, you’ll know that it comes on like two or maybe three different movies spliced together. [It later gave rise to two sequels, a video game and a TV series, all inferior to the original.] It changes genre, quite dramatically and radically, about a third of the way in. It starts as a violent, thrill-kill road movie starring George Clooney as Seth and Tarantino as Richie – the Gecko brothers. There’s a touch of Natural Born Killers (1994), although it’s instantly funnier and less Gothic than Oliver Stone’s opus.


The opening set-piece, occurring in a convenience store in the middle of nowhere, is very recognisably Tarantino territory. A guy behind a liquor store counter (John Hawkes) and a Texas Ranger (Michael Parks) engage in a long, banal conversation. We know that there are two killers rampaging around the countryside somewhere, and we keep waiting, during this slow burn, for them to burst in. Then comes the twist: when the cop goes off to take a piss, we discover that the Gecko lads are already hiding in the store, and have instructed the server to pretend that nothing unusual is going on. From here, the scene spins into the usual chaos and black hilarity.


Hitting the road that will take them to a criminal rendezvous, Seth and Richie hijack a trailer van, taking a bunch of hostages. The victims are an odd family unit. The Dad, Harvey Keitel as Jacob, is a preacher – but one undergoing a profound spiritual crisis. In the kind of multicultural mix that Rodriguez favours, the preacher’s teenage daughter (Juliette Lewis as Katherine) is a gum chewing all-American, while his teenage son (Ernest Liu as Scott) is Chinese-American.


As we follow the various psychological interactions between these characters, the film becomes less violent, more thoughtful – at least, in a comic-book kind of way. Themes of trust, complicity, faith, belief are sketched. They’re not deep humanist explorations but functional enough, pitched at a nice level between Breakfast Club-type group-therapy earnestness and brittle camp.


Finally, we reach the rendezvous point: a rough strip bar called the Titty Twister. When Rodriguez first lets you see inside this baroque extravaganza of a place in one long, circular camera movement, it’s a great spectacle: full of drunk, aggro truckers and topless girls thrusting and grinding; mountains of super-kitsch rubble; and live, loud, bar-stomping rock music. It is at this precise moment that every individual filmgoer will know whether or not From Dusk till Dawn is a movie for them. I was completely sold, in hog heaven. And then, soon after, the film performs its big genre switch. 


It’s blood, the sight of blood, that does it. Richie already has a hole shot right through the middle of his hand. In a brawl, he’s further stabbed in that same hand. He’s standing there in the middle of this kitsch arena, bleeding and whining. Near him, on a table top, is the show-stopping star attraction of the bar, an erotic snake dancer, Santanico Pandemonium (Salma Hayek from Desperado). Richie bleeds, Santanico gazes. She gets nervous, excited. You wonder: what the hell is going on? Then, she turns into a vampire and attacks Richie to suck his blood.


So it’s no longer an amalgam of thriller, action and character drama; now, suddenly, it’s a horror movie. And incoming is not one vampire, but a dozen, a hundred of them. And all of our main characters, whether serial killers, lapsed preachers or glassy-eyed teenagers, become fearless vampire killers for around the next hour’s worth of mayhem.


There’s more to From Dusk till Dawn than just this switch from action to horror. But that switch is, quite rightly, what everyone who’s seen the film talks about and fixates on. Those who don’t like the movie describe this genre turnaround as pointless, flashy, an empty game. In my mind, I can see QT firing back (as he loves to do) at such criticisms: sure, it’s a game, why not play around with the genres, why not “monkey around” with the usual plot formulae and screen clichés? A fair enough defense.


But I’d go even further. There is a poetic rightness to this fantastic narrative conceit. Vampires, after all, are mutant, hybrid, transforming creatures. This movie is obsessed with vampiric transformation in all its stages: being bitten, waiting nervously for the first signs of change from human to vampire, then full-blown metamorphosis. As well as, at the other end of a vampire’s life span, all the phases of dismemberment, dying, burning and disappearing – or resurrecting, as the case may be.


For Tarantino and Rodriguez, any film genre you care to name is a potential mutant form, like a vampire. You can prove this for yourself by watching any old Hollywood movie; the more formulaic and clichéd it is, the better for this experiment. There comes a moment in every sappy love story, every sanctimonious movie for kids, every sunny Hollywood musical, when something potentially violent, disturbing, scary or perverse rears its wondrous head. It might just be a fleeting moment, just a hint – but it’s there, you didn’t invent it, and this stain will haunt your viewing of rest of the movie, slipping deep into your unconscious. You may even be lucky enough, years later, to totally misremember the film as something it wasn’t!


This mutation idea is not just inherent in movie genres and their standard formulae. I’ll even go so far as to say that it lurks in every story, every narrative. There’s always the possibility that a story can fly off, take some strange turn, choose the oddest option at every nodal turning point. I’m not talking about films that suddenly cut to something completely whacky, unreal and incongruous, like in a Monty Python’s Flying Circus episode. I’m evoking a true surrealist principle: the idea that a story can evolve, grow and follow a step-by step logic, but also become progressively deranged by pushing that logic to extremes, by choosing the least usual path. That’s the way Luis Buñuel’s great films (including his Mexican melodramas) work. But its also a principle that informs many modest films within the popular genres – look at thrillers in the vein of the intriguing Nick of Time (1995) that embrace a heightened, paranoid, hallucinatory quality. The same principle is at work and at play in Pulp Fiction.


So, this spontaneous, intuitively philosophical reflection on film genres and narrative is the first thing that makes From Dusk till Dawn “cinema’s movie”. On another level, it bursts with spirited homages to other films, other filmmakers’ styles, or previous trends and impulses that fill the history of popular cinema. Some of these fond homages are entirely conscious; others may be semi-conscious or completely unconscious. It’s not a studied, academic, spot-the-quotation movie made just for the amusement of buffs. Rodriguez just doesn’t make movies that way (Tarantino, on the other hand, does). He’s more intuitive. But Rodriguez obviously has cinema, and cinema history in his veins, like Scorsese, Leos Carax or Emir Kusturica. He’s like a medium; cinema pours out of him when he shoots, stages and edits.


Here are some examples of what I mean. For a long stretch, the action is confined to that big, baroque, central space of the Titty Twister club. Eventually, our motley crew of vampire fighters finds a door and a passageway; they hole up in a much smaller space to prepare for the ultimate battle. In this superbly claustrophobic fantasia of space and place, tunnels and gauntlets, I recognise with pleasure the ghost of the cinema of John Carpenter.


During the protracted battle sequences, other characters enter the fray. One of them is a guy called Sex Machine – played by Tom Savini, the special effects wizard who did groundbreaking work on George Romero’s classic zombie films, the series inaugurated by Night of the Living Dead (1968). Savini gets one of the most delicious moments of horrific comedy here, when his body starts to sprout vampiric extensions – and he tries to cover himself up, like a nerdy adolescent boy who’s suddenly hit an embarrasing onset of puberty. Another character who pops up, Frost, is incarnated by the hefty black actor Fred Williamson, an icon of blaxploitation B movies since the 1970s.


And on it goes. There are all these living, breathing archives of cinema history and memory walking around in the film. But that’s not enough to account for its internal dynamism. When it comes to the nitty-gritty of Rodriguez’s often astonishing cinematic virtuosity, another contemporary director’s name swims to the surface: Sam Raimi, maker of the best zombie movies of the 1980s, the Evil Dead series (1982 & 1993). There’s a euphoria in his work involving the studious application of a principle of mad logic (and mad laughter), not just to genres and storylines, but also to the moment-to-moment progression of images and sounds.


Rodriguez has learned this lesson very well: how to look for the funniest, oddest little physical details in a scene, how to seize and magnify them, creating autonomous mini-spectacles. He does his own camerawork and edits the material as well – a rarity in mainstream cinema. What this means in practice is that Rodriguez works very quickly, breaking his scenes up into many tiny shot units, then stringing them together at a breakneck montage pace. Everything runs on energy waves, intensities.


Rodriguez deliberately fixates on details that are not the dramatic centre of the scene at hand. As a viewer, you find yourself suddenly staring at the imposing angle of Clooney’s head or his outstretched arm, as Rodriguez impulsively decides to devote multiple shots to such puncta in the middle of a dialogue exchange. Or we are sidetracked by the bizarre, unmotivated rhythms of inexplicable camera zooms, fade-outs and hallucinatory optical superimpositions, outbursts that happen at the slightest directorial whim. For once the academic cliché holds true: a cinema of excess!


Rodriguez is also aggressive and imaginative with his sound work; he loves putting in a sonic whoosh everywhere – when a vampire flies through the air or even just when someone turns their head or drives their car into the empty film-frame. There’s always a discombobulated dance going on between the camera, the actor and the physical, dramatic space of a scene.


That may all sound rather abstract. But part of the deep power and pleasure of cinema comes from such plastic, material, formal qualities – and Robert Rodriguez can really turn on the kinetic fireworks in that department.


2021 Postscript: I have not revisited From Dusk till Dawn since writing this review 25 years ago, and I’d probably be scared to do so now. I enjoyed and appreciated the first two Rodriguez features I encountered, and I still harbour some fondness for the Spy Kids franchise. But not only did RR increasingly become, in his public persona, the “cool, trendoid hipster” figure I once distingushed him from; his films – especially the dreadful Sin City series – progressively disillusioned me. (The same applies, in varying timelines, to some other directors I celebrate above, including Raimi and even Carpenter.) I’ve lost touch with Rodriguez’s projects since the mid 2000s; am I missing anything?

MORE Rodriguez: Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Spy Kids 3D, Sin City

© Adrian Martin May 1996

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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