Release Date: January 19, 1996
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Writer: Quentin Tarantino
Domestic Box Office: $25.8m
Through the early 1990s, independent cinema auteurs were rising through the indie film ranks to become Hollywood darlings. Quentin Tarantino had burst onto the scene in 1992 with a handful of luridly violent scripts that reworked the crime genres into an expression of hip and cool entertainment. In her must-read novel Killer Instinct, Jane Hamsher made the claim that Tarantino original wrote a single 300+ screenplay that he chopped into Reservoir Dogs, True Romance, Natural Born Killers, and Pulp Fiction, all of which were released from 1992-1994. Tarantino’s 1994 sophomore directorial feature, Pulp Fiction was nominated for multiple Academy Awards and won the Best Picture award at both Independent Spirit Awards and the MTV Movie Awards.
By 1995, Tarantino was writing his own checks. While on the festival circuit with Reservoir Dogs, he became friends with another freshman independent director, Robert Rodriguez. Rodriguez exploded onto the scene with El Mariachi, a bloody grindhouse movie produced for $7,000 intended for the Mexican video market that became a hit in the American arthouse circuit. Rodriguez followed up El Mariachi with a largely unseen movie for Showtime’s Rebel Highway series, Roadracers, but came out swinging with his second entry in the Mexico Trilogy, 1995’s Desperado, featuring a cameo by Quentin Tarantino.
At the end of 1995, Lawrence Bender, who had produced Tarantino’s films, would celebrate the indie scene with the anthology comedy Four Rooms. Consisting of four segments in a hotel room, each with different writer-directors, the crown jewels of the movie were the final two segments directed by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. Even so, Four Rooms is considered a critical and financial failure pulling the names of all involved through the dirt.
Hot on the heels of Four Rooms came the first of Rodriguez and Tarantino’s collaborations, From Dusk Till Dawn. At the time, common knowledge held that Tarantino’s big secret strength was an impeccable ear for dialogue and genre re-mashing, while Rodriguez’s strength was in his ability to craft an impeccable gritty action movie on budget and on schedule. Naturally, a genre exercise directed by Robert Rodriguez and written by Tarantino sounded like a can’t fail proposition.
From Dusk Till Dawn is a Frankenstein movie, with two entirely different halves hammered together right in half. The first half of From Dusk Till Dawn is a 70s grindhouse throwback following Richie and Seth Gecko (Quentin Tarantino and George Clooney), brothers on the lam after Richie broke Seth out of prison so they could rob a bank and run to Mexico. Richie, the unstable brother, suffers from delusions causing him to kill people based on specious processes, while Seth has to clean up the mess and try to get the pair out of the country.
This first half, as Richie and Seth kidnap a family in an RV on the Mexican border, feels like the ultimate expression of both Tarantino’s and Rodriguez’s mutual obsession with amoral 70’s grindhouse. D.P. Guillermo Navarro, who had began his career with Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos before working on Desperado, takes on a sunburnt, overbaked, dusty aesthetic making the world look coated in sand and misery. Seth and Richie casually bitching as they walk away from an exploding gas station/liquor store is the sort of amoral violence idealized by fans of 70s crime movies.
As soon as Seth, Richie and their kidnapped family make it across the border, they end up at the Mexican dive bar, the Titty Twister. Surrounded by motor bikes and semis, the Titty Twister feels like a prototype for the early-00s Burning Man clubs, complete with leather, liquor, fire and bright obnoxious neon. It’s a teen boy orgasm of Cool, where men are manly and violent, women are strippers, and rough violence is encouraged as part and parcel with the bar experience. Cheech Marin makes an appearance (his second) as a carnival barker with an epic speech about pussy (NSFW).
Around the hour mark, From Dusk Till Dawn uses a stripper scene as its hinge point to become the movie we all knew was coming. After Selma Hayek forces her foot into Quentin’s mouth and then pours champagne down her leg, From Dusk Till Dawn flips the switch from 70s grindhouse to vampire movie. The doors lock, then the strippers, barker and barkeep all change into vampires stemming from the ancient Aztec pyramid beneath the bar.
What still works:
People have charged Tarantino and Rodriguez of passing off masturbatory material as real cinema. Nowhere in Tarantino’s long career is that more obvious than in From Dusk Till Dawn. Tarantino not only has close-ups of Juliette Lewis’ feet, but also has his sucking feet as the central act of a stripper scene. From Dusk Till Dawn feels like it was made by giggling teenage boys with raging hormones who has overdosed on crime thrillers and vampire movies.
In the modern era, that might feel reductive, but, between Rodriguez’s then impeccable eye and Tarantino’s ear for clippy dialogue, the material is elevated far beyond what it deserves. From Dusk Till Dawn is a quality thriller/horror comedy hybrid that nonetheless dishes in weird sexist fetishism and gratuitous violence. Sometimes it’s just fun to revel in somebody’s basest senses to find a movie operating on all cylinders.
Visually, Navarro’s 70s throwback aesthetic takes From Dusk Till Dawn to a timeless era that feels caught between a variety of decades of filmmaking. Sonically, Graeme Revell’s score embraces the variety of elements competing for attention. The aesthetic hints to the work that Rodriguez would foist onto the public starting with his next pairing with Tarantino, Grindhouse.
The primary ways that From Dusk Till Dawn fails is if you’re allergic to rampant unapologetic joyous displays of testosterone, if you find Tarantino’s dialogue insufferable, or if you hate the neo-pulp genres in general. Otherwise, its a celebration of the b-features of a cinema drive-in. Tarantino and Rodriguez repackaged the pulp as deserving of quality or polish.
Where Are They Now?
After From Dusk Till Dawn, Robert Rodriguez would split his time between R-rated pulp and PG-rated kid’s features. Once he re-discovered filmmaking on the fly during Spy Kids, and especially with the invention of digital filmmaking, Rodriguez’s features took on increasingly erratic qualities. Despite finding success with Sin City, Planet Terror, and Machete, Rodriguez ran headfirst into a wall with Machete Kills, and Sin City 2. Rodriguez, instead of finding maturity through cinema, instead insisted upon making cinematic documents of his Id, without much intervening maturity.
Quentin Tarantino…well…his career totally died, and he doesn’t even have a movie nominated for Best Picture this year. Tragic, I know.
Recommendation: Yeah. I mean, it’s a pulp vampire movie, and you should know if you’re going to like it or not.