Sunday, August 3, 2014

From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)

Cody discusses the first movie he ever watched one hundred times.

It's a hot day in the Texas desert, and Ranger Earl McGraw is having a miserable time. Not only did he have a lousy restaurant experience that left him puking up his breakfast, but he's also had to be on the lookout for a couple homicidal bank robbers, the Gecko brothers. Richie Gecko recently broke his brother Seth out of prison and while on the way to Mexico they robbed a bank in Abilene. The robbery went wrong, resulting in the deaths of four Rangers, three local cops, and one civilian before the Geckos made their escape with a female bank teller as a hostage. As they continue their run for the border, they should be going right through McGraw's territory.

But McGraw's day of work is done. He stops by a liquor store/gas station called Benny's World of Liquor to get some beer and whiskey from the clerk there, his pal Pete, then spend his evening getting tanked.
Pete is having a really bad day himself. He puts on a brave face while chatting with McGraw, but the fact is the four other patrons in the liquor store's aisles are actually the Gecko brothers and two young girls they have at gunpoint.

Seth just wants Pete to keep cool until McGraw leaves. Problem is, Richie is severely mentally unbalanced and has a tendency to hallucinate, to visualize people saying and doing things they don't actually say or do. That's the case when he thinks Pete is giving McGraw signals and mouthing the words "Help us" to the Ranger, so he steps up and shoots McGraw to death... That kicks off a shootout with Pete that ends with the liquor store clerk dead, the store itself erupting into a fireball, and Richie with a large hole shot through the palm of his left hand.

Despite this hole, Richie's hand remains entirely functional, never mind the finger bones that would have been obliterated by the bullet that caused this damage. Richie just wraps his hand with duct tape and goes on with his life. This movie isn't going for realism.

Somewhere down the road, the Geckos stop off at a motel. Their final destination is a place in Mexico called El Rey, a haven of sort for criminals that was also where the characters in Jim Thompson's novel The Getaway, which was adapted into two different films, one starring Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw, the other starring Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger, and neither of which dealt with the El Rey aspect. To get into El Rey, the Geckos need to pay a gangster named Carlos 30% of their Abilene loot. While Seth is out calling Carlos to set up a rendezvous point, Richie again goes off the rails, raping and brutally murdering - offscreen, thankfully - their middle-aged bank teller hostage.

Seth is disturbed and disgusted, and now the brothers are going to need another hostage to help them get across the border... They end up with three of them.

These new hostages are Jacob Fuller, a pastor who has been going through a crisis of faith since losing his wife in a terrible car accident, and his teenage children; daughter Kate and adopted son Scott. While Richie keeps an eye on Kate and Scott (and drools over Kate, imagining her making him risque propositions), Seth keeps a gun on Jacob and forces the former pastor to drive them into Mexico in the family's RV.

After enduring some tension and suspense at the border, the group gets out of the country and are almost home free. The Geckos just need the Fullers to stick with them through the night, which requires them to accompany to the meeting place chosen by Carlos: a remote, rowdy strip club that caters solely to truckers and bikers, called the Titty Twister. The club is open from dusk till dawn, and Carlos is going to meet Seth and Richie there "sometime before dawn". At that point, the Fullers will be free to go.

The Titty Twister is, of course, not the Fullers' natural environment, but the two families have come to somewhat of a mutual understanding by the time they reach the club and Jacob wants to do anything he has to in order to get his family through this ordeal, so he talks the bartender and bouncer into accepting the fact that he drives an RV makes him a truck driver so they don't kick the group out.

They really all would have been better off if they just waited for Carlos in the parking lot.

Soon after they've taken their seats and Seth has talked the Fulles into having some drinks with him, the lights go down, the other dancers stop dancing and the bartender, Razor Charlie, announces a featured dancer. Santanico Pandemonium takes the stage. She's kind of a big deal. The house band starts playing a slow song. Santanico begins to dance.

The dancer picks Richie out of the crowd and approaches him. She dances just for him on the Gecko/Fuller table. She feeds him liquor by sticking her foot in his mouth and pouring the alcohol down her leg. The crowd is entranced, seemingly almost hypnotized. When Santanico finishes her dance, the lights come up and the crowd applauds.

The good times come to a quick end. The Geckos have very bad tempers, which leads to some unnecessary violence between them, Razor Charlie, bouncer Big Emilio, and Chet, whose job is to stand outside and announce what the club has to offer, like a vulgar carnival barker. Their confrontation ends with Emilio shot to death by Seth, Chet shot to death by both brothers, and Richie stabbed in his duct taped hand by Razor Charlie with a knife that he then uses to stab the bartender to death.

Where can the Geckos go from here? A club full of people just witnessed them killing three of the employees. Are they going to have to take the everyone hostage?

It doesn't come to that. Santanico Pandemonium has a very strange reaction to the blood pouring from Richie's re-wounded hand. She seems to lust for it. And what's with the green blood on the knife Richie stabbed Razor Charlie with?

55 minutes into the film, just over halfway into its 108 minute running time, From Dusk Till Dawn makes an abrupt shift from crime thriller into full-on horror movie, as Santanico Pandemonium morphs into a snake-like creature and launches herself off the table and onto Richie's back, sinking fangs into his neck.

The corpses of Razor Charlie, Big Emilio, and Chet rise from the floor, their faces having taken on monstrous features, sharp fangs in their mouths. Every stripper in the club also morphs into hideous, fanged creatures. Even the house band turns into monsters with instruments made out of human body parts. The Titty Twister is a den of vampires the type of which had never been seen on screen before.

The front doors are locked with a board running across them and one of the monster strippers announces, "Dinner is served."

All hell breaks loose as the vampire club employees tear their clientele limb from limb, gorging themselves on the blood of the truckers and bikers.

The characters have found themselves trapped in something straight out of a nightmare, and yet one has to assume that things go much more smoothly for these vampires on a typical night at the club, because a small group of intended victims are able to fight back and wipe out all of the strippers and other employees.

The group that survives the initial attack is made up of Seth, the Fullers, Vietnam vet/truck driver Frost, and biker Sex Machine, who is armed with a whip and pop-up gun hidden in a cod piece and designed to look like the male anatomy. How this gun fires is a complete mystery, but when Sex Machine needs it to shoot, it pops up and does the job.

Killing the working vampires isn't the end of the ordeal. After that, there's the vampirized truckers and bikers to stake. Seth has to kill his own vampire brother.

Then there's the hundreds of bats swarming the outside of the building. Bats that gain entry once some of the survivors join their vampiric ranks.

When the film gets down to its climactic sequence, it's up to Seth and the Fullers to take on a horde of bloodsucking creatures that look like they've come straight out of Hell. In this battle, the group uses items they've found in a storage room and retrofitted into vampire-killing weapons. Waterguns fire water blessed by Jacob. Condoms become Holy Water grenades. Kate arms herself with a crossbow. The shape of crosses are cut into the tips of bullets.

The most awesome weapon of all is the one which Seth makes for himself. A jackhammer with a wooden stake as the tip.

The vampires in this film don't just fall over dead when they're killed. Some explode into pieces, others burn down in flames, others melt down in grotesque manners, ending up as puddles of goo or slimy skeletons. Eyes explode in waves of pus, eyeballs roll into the corner pockets of a pool table. Blasts of Holy Water disintegrate their flesh and bone. A balloon full of the water smacking into the side of a vampire's head can leave it with half a head.

Causing a vampire to lose their head isn't the hardest thing to do, because their bodies seem to be softer than a person's.

These vampires also aren't all just people with fangs or even fangs and strange looking faces. Santanico Pandemonium becomes a snake woman. There was a deleted scene where a snake-like creature burst out of Santanico's mouth and bit a man's head off. There's another vampire stripper with a giant mouth in her stomach. Some of them are bats. When another vampire gets his head pulled off, his body splits open and he becomes a giant rat-monster.

From the 55 minute point on, the movie is almost non-stop horror/creature feature action. Some viewers are put off by the shift in tone and genre, but I've always found the two-movies-in-one approach to be brilliant. If you're surprised as a viewer that the characters have found themselves in a monster movie, just imagine how they must feel.

From Dusk Till Dawn started as an idea conceived by special effects artist Robert Kurtzman, the K of the FX group KNB. Kurtzman wrote a twenty-four page treatment for the idea in 1988, and would later hire a writer named Quentin Tarantino to flesh the treatment out into a screenplay. At that point, Tarantino had written the scripts for True Romance, Natural Born Killers, and Reservoir Dogs on his own time, but none had yet been produced. The From Dusk Till Dawn gig was the first time Tarantino ever got paid to write anything. He earned $1500 for writing the script. After that, he quit his day job and has been making his living as a writer and director ever since.

The original intention was for Kurtzman to direct the film, with Joe Pilato of George A. Romero's Day of the Dead in the role of Seth Gecko and possibly Robert Englund as one of Pilato's co-stars, presumably as Jacob Fuller. Late in the summer of 1991, during a break from providing the effects for Sam Raimi's Army of Darkness, Kurtzman even shot a promo trailer with Pilato as Seth.

The Kurtzman/Pilato version of From Dusk Till Dawn never got off the ground, though. Soon after, Quentin Tarantino was touring the film festival circuit with his film Reservoir Dogs, and while making the rounds he met a fellow filmmaker who would quickly become a close friend. Robert Rodriguez, who was also touring with his shot-in-Mexico independent film El Mariachi. Tarantino mentioned to Rodriguez that he had once written a horror script set in Mexico... A few years later, From Dusk Till Dawn was filming, with a freshly polished script by Tarantino and Rodriguez in the director's chair.

Part of what Tarantino's polish did was to make the Mexico setting more relevant, like replacing a character called Blonde Death with the one called Santanico Pandemonium, a name he got from the title of a 1975 nunsploitation movie (Satánico Pandemonium). Never mind that the female version of the name should be Santantica.

Tarantino also acted in the film as Richie Gecko. Although I would have been very interested to see the Pilato/Englund version of From Dusk Till Dawn, the cast it did end up with is fantastic. George Clooney stars as Seth Gecko, and this was the first theatrical feature he made after breaking out on television with E.R. The great Harvey Keitel plays Jacob Fuller, Juliette Lewis is Kate, Blaxploitation hero Fred Williamson took on the role of Frost, genre legend Tom Savini is Sex Machine. The Titty Twister is populated with Rodriguez veterans like Salma Hayek, Danny Trejo, Tito Larriva, and Cheech Marin, who actually plays three different roles throughout the movie - Chet, a border guard, and Carlos.

Robert Englund's Nightmare on Elm Street co-star John Saxon makes a cameo, as do Kelly Preston, Diamonds Are Forever/The Man with the Golden Gun's Marc Lawrence, Tarantino's acting teacher Brenda Hillhouse (who I've also seen as a contestant on the '70s game show Match Game), and special effects artists Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger, the N and B of KNB.

John Hawkes appears a liquore store clerk Pete, sharing his scene with the amazing Michael Parks as Texas Ranger Earl McGraw. McGraw may get killed in this opening scene, but that didn't stop Tarantino and Rodriguez from bringing the character back in Kill Bill Volume 1 and both segments of Grindhouse - Planet Terror and Death Proof.

Never have I watched From Dusk Till Dawn with someone who didn't know where it was going, but I wish I had. It would be very interesting to see the reaction of a person who had no idea it was going to become a vampire movie.

Myself, I knew it was going to be a vampire movie from the moment it was announced. I read about it in the pages of Fangoria, and I was hyped. Eleven years old when it was in production and I was already a massive fan of the works of Quentin Tarantino, and Rodriguez's Desperado had been something of a phenomenon among my family and friends. Everybody loved that movie. So I was very excited to see these two working together, and even moreso that they were going to be working together to make a horror movie, horror being my favorite genre. Tarantino had just won an Oscar for writing Pulp Fiction, and the feature he had chosen to follow it up with was a vampire movie... This was awesome.

I poured over every Fangoria article about the movie, I counted down the days until its release. It sounded amazing to me. It ended up being 108 minutes, but there was a quote in an issue of Fangoria where either Tarantino, Rodriguez, or producer Lawrence Bender said the movie could turn out to be two and a half hours long. I was ready for such an epic, and enthralled by the vampire concept art that was included in these issues. I couldn't wait to see these creatures on the big screen.

Seeing From Dusk Till Dawn theatrically at the first opportunity, I greatly enjoyed the film, although I was a bit letdown simply because although the vampire action it delivered was incredible, I wanted even more. I was looking forward to that two and a half hour version!

Still, I loved the movie. I bought it when it hit VHS, and proceeded to watch it over and over again. A crazy number of times. I studied every frame of this movie. I watched it multiple times a day for days in a row. Still being a young kid who played at that time, I would play a game inspired by the film, imagining I was in the club and surrounded by vampires. I was obsessed with From Dusk Till Dawn and watched it repeatedly until it became the first movie I had ever seen one hundred times.

As you might be able to tell, I count From Dusk Till Dawn as one of my all-time favorite films. I don't watch it as often now as I did back in '96/'97 it would be nearly impossible to maintain that level of dedication to watching a movie, but I do still revisit it regularly, and it still rocks.

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