In order to understand how weird From Dusk till Dawn was when it was released, just imagine yourself back in 1996. Some of you will remember the halcyon days of grunge, indie movies, and Bill Clinton, while others were simply a twinkle in their father’s eyes. Either way, in 1996 Quentin Tarantino was not the filmmaker he is today. He had directed two and a bit movies: the instant classics Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, plus his segment of whatever the hell Four Rooms was. His oeuvre was defined by ensemble crime movies with cartoony violence and a preternatural ear for dialogue. The same can be said for Robert Rodriguez. In 1996, he had also contributed to Four Rooms and was hot from Desperado, an over-the-top gunfight movie which helped make a star of Antonio Banderas and introduced the world to Salma Hayek.
Both men had made their names with crime movies that sparkled with wit and bravado, so when it was announced they were making a movie together there was much rejoicing. What would these two filmmakers create? The last answer anyone was expecting was a vampire movie. Especially not a vampire movie starring Tarantino and George Clooney, an actor from a TV show. If you remember, this is 1996, and George Clooney will still be on ER for another three years after this movie comes out. Next year he’ll be Batman, but we’re not going to talk about that. What became quickly apparent was that these two young filmmakers were heavily influenced by grindhouse movies, midnight screenings, exploitation movies, and horror flicks, and with Miramax’s backing and blossoming reputations they had thought, fuck it, let’s make a crazy-ass, bloody, ridiculous vampire movie disguised as a crime movie and just see what happens.
Today, if either of these filmmakers started talking about making a vampire movie it would be normal. Tarantino has moved from crime movies onto huge, violent genre pictures and Rodriguez followed up Dusk with The Faculty and then made a bunch of Spy Kids, Machetes and Sin Citys. At the time it seemed as though these two guys had seen success go to their heads, which happens a lot in Hollywood. Look at Barry Sonnenfeld. When he was riding high he threw his weight around and made his dream project, Toys, a $43 million flop. Or Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, made for 44 million and grossed just 3. The trick with Rodriguez and Tarantino’s passion project is that it was cheap. Cheap and nasty.
Modelled after the grindhouse movies of the ’70s, From Dusk till Dawn is a gross, violent, horror film full of exploding bodies, breasts, guns, blood, and long speeches about pussy. It is a throwback to a simpler time when a character could be called Sex Machine and have a gun that sprung out of his pants like a dick. It was weird movie in 1996 that seemed destined to be a career killer or a cult classic. Twenty years later it’s clear to see that it is the latter. For the first sixty minutes, the movie is a straight Tarantino-esque crime movie. The opening, in which John Hawkes and Michael Parks shoot the shit is pure Tarantino. It’s just two dudes hanging out and trading nonsense dialogue, before Parks goes the bathroom and Clooney appears with his brother, guns, and two hostages. Clooney goes back into hiding and the scene, once just about two people talking like buddies, takes on a tension that is ready to explode at any moment.
These kind of scenes would become Tarantino’s go to form in later years, perfected in the opening to Inglorious Basterds and expanded to movie length in The Hateful Eight, and in this scene they promise a movie that never materialises. We spend a long time with the Gecko Brothers hatching their plot to cross the border after committing a bank robbery we never see and it seems as though this movie is going to be about these two desperate fugitives trying to stay one step ahead of the law. The Gecko Brothers being Seth, played by Clooney, is super cool, calm and collected, and Richie, played by Quentin Tarantino, a fidgety, psychotic.
And then our characters, the thieves and their hostages, arrive at the Titty Twister, and all semblance of tightly plotted crime story go out of the window, replaced by pure fall of Rome-esque debauchery, high camp, exploitation, and B-movie insanity. If you had bought a ticket to this movie in ’96 on the strength of “Oh, it’s that guy who wrote Pulp Fiction,” then you would have been in for a shock as, around the hour mark, this robbers-on-the-run story turned into a balls-to-the-wall vampire movie. It is a shame looking back at the marketing material that vampires were put front and centre of the posters and trailers because in terms of movie bait and switches. From Dusk till Dawn has to rank up there with Audition and Life is Beautiful in the pantheon of movies that promised one thing and delivered another.
From Dusk till Dawn was divisive upon release for obvious reasons but has since become, deservedly, a cult classic. It was an interesting movie for me to watch twenty years after its release and after seeing Tarantino’s recent releases, avoiding Rodriguez’s recent output, and watching their Grindhouse double bill. When they made this movie Tarantino was 33 and Rodriguez was 28. This is the movie that two guys who love genre movies made. It is a movie by two big kids who have finally made it in a medium they love and one of the first things they do with their power is make something crazy and unique and entertaining as hell in a homage to the movies that made them love movies. It’s hard to think about a movie featuring a bar called The Titty Twister in sentimental terms but this movie feels like Tarantino and Rodriguez saying a big thank you to the movies of their youth. And a big blood-soaked, bare-breasted, foul-mouthed thank you it is too.