Tuesday, August 5, 2014

From Dusk Till Dawn 2: Texas Blood Money


Vampires need money, too.

The 1996 Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino collaboration From Dusk Till Dawn did well enough for distributor Dimension Films that the company soon gave the greenlight for two direct-to-video follow-ups to go into production and be filmed back-to-back in South Africa, although both would be almost entirely set in Mexico (and neither in South Africa).

One of the films would be a prequel, and while Rodriguez paired with his cousin Álvaro Rodríguez to craft the story for that one, the other film, a sequel, was brought to life by a good friend of Tarantino's, Scott Spiegel. Spiegel is best known for co-writing Evil Dead II and writing/directing one of my favorite slasher movies, Intruder (1989). In addition to directing From Dusk Till Dawn 2, Spiegel also came up with the story with Boaz Yakin, his co-writer on the 1990 Clint Eastwood/Charlie Sheen movie The Rookie, and co-wrote the screenplay with actor Duane Whitaker, who played the memorable role of Maynard in Tarantino's Pulp Fiction.

Texas Blood Money begins on the 30th floor of a skyscraper, where defense attorneys Pam and Barry, played by Tiffani-Amber Thiessen and Spiegel's old pal/genre icon Bruce Campbell are calling it a night after a long day of trying to figure out how to defend a serial killer who is clearly guilty of killing fourteen people. Pam has a guilty conscience, but Barry insists that she needs to focus on the fact that their client is innocent until proven guilty in court.

At the twenty-fifth floor, the elevator the pair are riding down to the lobby comes to an abrupt halt. When Barry opens the maintenance hatch in the ceiling to figure out what's going on, the mutilated corpse of a maintenance worker comes tumbling into the elevator with them. When Barry starts to climb through the hatch, he's swarmed by bats that quickly bite him to death... The hopes any viewers might have had that Bruce Campbell would turn out to be the hero of the film are dashed within the first three minutes.

Then the bats come swarming into the elevator and start attacking Pam, while some of them start chewing through the elevator cable. Soon the cable snaps and the elevator plummets down the shaft. When it reaches the lobby, the doors open and the bats come flying out. As hundreds of the winged creatures fly toward and into the camera, the picture stutters, then turns to static...

The plight of Pam and Barry has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the film. In fact, they don't even exist. They were just characters in a movie being watched by the film's lead character, Buck Bowers, during a relaxing day at home. The picture went out because Buck is stealing cable from his neighbors.

I'm not quite sure why the movie starts out with that movie-within-a-movie scene. Are these four and a half minutes a miniature version of the switch the first film pulled, changing genres at the 55 minute point? Was it just to tease the audience, to make them think Tiffani-Amber Thiessen and Bruce Campbell might play prominent roles and then kill them off?

Regardless, the star of the film is actually Robert Patrick as Buck, a former bank robber who swears he has gone straight but definitely hasn't. After his old bank robbing cohort Luther Heggs (Duane Whitaker playing a character whose name comes from the Don Knotts movie The Ghost and Mr. Chicken) escapes from police custody while being transferred to prison, Buck gets a call from Luther letting him know that the job they've been planning is a go and Buck needs to assemble a team so they can pull it off.

The job: the robbery of Banco Bravo in Mexico, a bank they're going to relieve of the $5 million worth of freshly laundered drug money they have in their safe.

Buck assembles a team that consists of C.W. (Muse Watson of I Know What You Did Last Summer), a rodeo clown who has lost a step, Jesus (Raymond Cruz), who trains dogs to fight, and dimwitted, henpecked Ray Bob (Brett Harrelson). Together, the four head down into Mexico meet with Luther at El Coyote Motel.

Luther runs into some serious trouble on the way there. The problems start when, while driving through the dark, desert countryside, he hits something that causes his Jeep to break down. Opening the hood, Luther is surprised to find that what he hit was a bat. A huge, ugly, fanged thing. He's so surprised to see it that he shoots it. Then he has to walk off to the nearest place to try to get a ride to El Coyote.

The nearest place is the vampire den/strip club from the first film, the Titty Twister.

When I first heard there was going to be a sequel to From Dusk Till Dawn, I assumed that it would be set, like all of the vampire action in its predecessor, at the Titty Twister. Texas Blood Money is not. Luther's brief visit to the establishment to ask the bartender for a ride is the only part it plays in the film.

The Titty Twister isn't nearly as rowdy as it was in '96, they don't have much in the way of clientele on this night, and following the explosive events we've seen there previously the place has gotten a really tacky redesign. The place was very unique before, now it looks pretty much like any strip club anywhere.

As he did in the first movie, Danny Trejo plays the bartender, although this time he's called Razor Eddie instead of Razor Charlie, since Charlie got staked. Eddie appears very concerned when he hears that Luther hit and shot a bat, so he drives Luther back to his truck to check things out. There, Luther is double teamed by the vampiric Eddie and Victor, the mangled humanoid form of the bat. Victor sinks his fangs into Luther's neck.

Now a vampire with the ability to turn into a bat, Luther gets back to the plan and flies off to El Coyote. The first thing he needs to do is sate his newfound bloodlust, which he does by attacking a girl in a motel room shower... The girl Jesus has been having a one night stand with. As she gets attacked and collapses into the tub, there are some visual references to the famous shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho.

Luther and the vampirized girl then attack Jesus, and though the girl quickly loses her head - literally - Luther manages to take a bite out of Jesus. Then offs the motel desk clerk for witnessing it.

Together, Luther and the now-also-a-vampire Jesus round up the other members of their crew, who have just been hanging out, chatting and watching porn, and announce a change in plans. There will be no planning of the Banco Bravo robbery, no scouting the place out, they are going to pull off the job this very night. Buck isn't pleased with this idea, but goes along with it. He does stand to make a whole lot of money if the job is successful.

The crew of bank robbers make their entry into Banco Bravo at about the halfway point of the film's 88 minute running time, and the entire rest of it is set in and around this location.

Luther's vampire powers certainly come in handy while pulling off the robbery. He infiltrates the bank by turning into a bat and flying in through the air vents, taking his human form again once he's inside and simply unlocking the door for his buddies. But his bloodsucking urges and over-the-top reactions to anything that forms the shape of a cross also stirs up some unforeseen problems - like when he accidentally causes the alarm to go off while he's attacking C.W.

Buck is increasingly unnerved by the situation, both the fact that the bank is soon surrounded by trigger happy police officers, and the increasingly strange behavior of his old friends, who are acing recklessly and being excessively violent... It gets even worse when the entire crew reveals their vampirism to him. Buck is stuck with vampires inside the bank while death or imprisonment waits outside the bank.

Joining the local police outside are two Texas lawmen who have tracked Luther into the country - Otis Lawson (Tentacles' Bo Hopkins), who once sent Buck to prison for a bank robbery in Lubbock, Texas, and Deputy Edgar McGraw, son of Earl McGraw, the Texas Ranger who was murdered by the Gecko brothers in the opening sequence of From Dusk Till Dawn. Earl McGraw had been played by Michael Parks, and in the role of his son is Parks' real life son, James Parks.

In their attempt to escape from the bank, the vampires begin to massacre the police force, and thanks to a total solar eclipse, they don't even have to stop the killing at dawn. After many shots have been fired, explosions set off, and throats ripped out, Buck and the antagonistic Lawson are forced to team up to stake the vamps and save the day.

From Dusk Till Dawn 2 is full of Scott Spiegel's trademark oddball camera angles and POV shots, including shots that go up and down with Jesus as he does push-ups, a shot from inside an elevator button as it's pressed, a POV through glasses as a lens is broken, shots from the bottom of a dog's water bowl, the bottom of a cooler full of beer, from the top of an oscillating fan, etc. There is more than one shot from inside a vampire's mouth.

Spiegel also plays with reflections in the early parts of the film. While Luther talks on a pay phone, the focus is on his reflection in the phone's silver surface. As Buck and C.W. talk beside a vehicle, C.W.'s face is reflected in the driver's side mirror in the angle on Buck. Once the vampire action kicks in, it's made clear why Spiegel was featuring reflections before, because now he can play with the absence of reflections. When Luther strangles the bank security guard to death, the man is getting strangled by nothing in the reflection of him on the screen of his computer monitor.

The biggest reflection trick in the film happens in the motel, when Jesus is attacked by his vampirized one night stand. In a Fangoria article I read before the movie came out, Spiegel seemed very excited about and proud of what they had pulled off with that bathroom fight scene, and it is pretty neat. Jesus smashes the woman's head into a mirror that she's not reflected in, then no reflections show in the shards that are left stuck in her face.

The extended action/massacre sequence outside of the bank is a whole lot of fun, with all sorts of damage being inflicted. Spiegel even works in an homage to a death in the 1985 film Thou Shalt Not Kill... Except, which he co-wrote, when he has a character get their head impaled on a utility pole climbing rung, the rung sticking out through the person's mouth. The corpse hangs there for a while, but eventually the rung snaps off, dropping the dead body to the ground. The same thing happened in Thou Shalt, except there it was a broken tree branch sticking through the victim's head.

The sequence that follows, with Buck, Lawson, and McGraw fighting back against the vamps, is quite entertaining in itself, and the way Spiegel shows the vampires melting down into puddles of goo after they get staked is reminiscent of moments in The Evil Dead.

From Dusk Till Dawn 2: Texas Blood Money didn't seem to get a very good reception, I've seen it catch a lot of negativity online over the years, but I feel that a large part of that negativity isn't so much because it's not a good movie, but mostly that it's not what people were anticipating from a sequel to From Dusk Till Dawn. The approach Spiegel and his co-writers took the story is completely unexpected, as is the tone. FDTD2 is exceptionally silly.

While the original was a rather serious and intense movie with moments of levity, this sequel is pure horror/comedy, much like the difference between The Evil Dead and Evil Dead II. But while Evil Dead II had a enveloping style and reached levels of absurdity and insanity that made it captivating to watch, allowing it to become its own thing, this sequel's silliness plays out within a style that's a bit more down-to-earth, which makes the different tone more jarring. Evil Dead II pummeled you into acceptance, but From Dusk Till Dawn 2 provides a distance that enables some viewers to just sit back and say, "I can't believe they're doing this to From Dusk Till Dawn."

With that said, while it's not the sequel I was hoping to see, I do enjoy watching From Dusk Till Dawn 2. It's goofy, low rent, and doesn't really feel like it's in the same world as the movie that came before, some moments do make me cringe, but overall I find it to be a decent little time killer of a vampire flick.

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