Saturday, August 16, 2014

TV Review: From Dusk Till Dawn - Season One

The vampires make their way to television.

The following reviews were originally posted on Life Between Frames with separate articles for each individual episode. Due to unforeseen circumstances, I have had to consolidate the write-ups into one article, minus screen caps.

Episode 1: Pilot 

The El Rey television network, headed up by filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, launched on December 15, 2013, and on March 11, 2014 came the debut of the network's first foray into original programming, a series extrapolation on Rodriguez's 1996 collaboration with Quentin Tarantino, the vampire movie From Dusk Till Dawn. The idea that From Dusk Till Dawn would be becoming a series was surprising to me at first, I wasn't sure just how it might get expanded in a way to sustain hours and hours of story, but it also made sense that this property would be the one to kick off El Rey, since El Rey was also the name of a town in Mexico that a couple characters in the film had been trying to get to.

The pilot episode was directed by Rodriguez himself, who also wrote the teleplay, based on the original story by Robert Kurtzman and screenplay by Tarantino.

From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series begins with a scene set hundreds of years ago, as a young girl who we'll come to know as Santanico Pandemonium is pursued through the jungle by Mayan warriors. When they catch her, they drop her into a snake pit, where she's quickly enveloped and bitten by the venomous creatures. Horrifically, one snake even finds its way into her mouth and down her throat...

This is a glimpse into an entirely different backstory for the Santanico Pandemonium character than we had been shown in the prequel film From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman's Daughter. Rodriguez had co-written the story for that film with his cousin Álvaro, and Álvaro is a staff writer on the show, so they're really ignoring themselves here.

The flashback ends, and from that point on the pilot episode is essentially an extended version of the film's opening sequence, the story of Texas Ranger Earl McGraw and homicidal, bank robbing brothers Seth and Richie Gecko at a store called Benny's World of Liquor.

McGraw is played by Don Johnson, stepping in for Michael Parks, who played the character in not only From Dusk Till Dawn but also Kill Bill Volume 1, Planet Terror, and Death Proof. In the film, all we saw of McGraw was his interaction with liquor store clerk Pete and his murder by Richie, but here Rodriguez fleshes him out a bit more.

59 years old, Earl McGraw is obsessed with time. How much time in a person's life is spent on the important things, how much time they spend with the people who are important to them. He advises his young partner Freddie Gonzalez, a husband and father to a newborn, to make the most out of every day. And he laments that he likely only has 237 good weather days before he reaches 80 years old.  McGraw is saddened by that, but even sadder is the fact that we know he's going to be shot through the chest by the end of this day.

McGraw stops by Benny's World of Liquor to make his daily pit stop in the restroom there and to buy some hooch while Gonzalez waits out in the car. Unbeknownst to the lawmen, Pete the clerk and the two young ladies in the store are currently hostages of the Gecko brothers.

Richie just recently busted Seth out of the Kansas State courthouse mid-transfer, bringing his brother's prison sentence to a premature end, and now the pair are on the run to Mexico. Between Kansas and the border, they stopped off to relieve a bank in Abilene, Texas of 30 million dollars... But something went wrong during the robbery, something that Seth is clearly disturbed by. Richie is mentally off balance, and he's the reason why their bank robbery resulted in the deaths of four Texas Rangers and two local cops.

The character of Richie was subject to hallucinations in the movie, and his psychosis is further delved into as we see him experience the hallucinations that have led to this hostage situation in the liquor store. Not only does he imagine that people are saying things they're not really saying, as he did in the film, but there's also a new twist on his hallucinations: he sometimes sees people as demonic creatures, and he's seeing visions of a vampiric Santantico Pandemonium. And Richie really doesn't appreciate it when people suggest he might not be quite right in the head, which is why his gun gets pulled in Benny's World of Liquor when the Geckos are only supposed to be in there to get snacks and drinks for their drive to Mexico, where they're planning to give 10% of their Abilene haul to a criminal kingpin named Carlos in exchange for them being allowed residency in the criminal haven of El Rey.

Unlike his cinematic counterpart, Johnson's McGraw isn't instantly killed by the shots fired into him by Richie, and his shooting leads to a standoff between the Geckos and Gonzalez, which takes up a large portion of the episode's 44 minutes.

By the end of those 44 minutes, many shots have been fired, lives have been lost, and Rodriguez has set this series up to be a very interesting take on From Dusk Till Dawn, one with familiar moments that play out in new ways and the option to go down some intriguing avenues.

The familiar characters are handled well, with DJ Cotrona and Zane Holtz taking the characters of Seth and Richie Gecko over from George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino. Cotrona's delivery is a little weak compared to Clooney's when he has to re-enact lines from the film, but he's able to take his own approach to Seth, who's clearly very concerned about what's going on in his brother's head, when he's not being forced to follow in Clooney's exact footsteps. Holtz shows promise in his variation on Richie.

Michael Parks is a master, so it seems blasphemous to recast his role, but Don Johnson turned out to be incredibly endearing and touching as McGraw, making his ill-fated character the standout element of the pilot episode.

Jesse Garcia's Freddie Gonzalez also appears to be a strong character, one who is going to be determined to catch up with the Geckos and avenge the death of his partner, the man he had asked to be the godfather to his daughter, as the series continues.

Episode 2: Blood Runs Thick

Directed by Robert Rodriguez from a teleplay by Diego Gutierrez, a writer who has been credited on such shows as Without a Trace, Warehouse 13, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the second episode of the El Rey Network's From Dusk Till Dawn television series based on the 1996 feature tells stories from two different time periods intercut with each other.

In flashback scenes, we are shown exactly what happened in that bank in Abilene that the Gecko brothers stole 30 million dollars from. We see the entire robbery go down, and what led to the brothers taking a bank teller hostage and killing multiple law enforcement officers. The reason for the job going south and for all the bloodshed is, of course, the hallucinations Richie Gecko has been having. The visions of vampire queen Santanico Pandemonium, her whispering voice asking him to set her free. Whatever is causing these hallucinations and visions has also given Richie some extrasensory perception, he knows things he shouldn't possibly know. It's like he's being guided toward some kind of destiny.

The storyline that follows criminal kingpin Carlos (Wilmer Valderrama) seems to confirm that this is all playing into some kind of grand plan. Carlos is the man who can get the brothers into the safe haven of El Rey in Mexico, and he has arranged to meet them at a bar across the border... But instead of waiting in Mexico to meet with the brothers, Carlos has crossed over into Texas to make sure everything happens the way it's supposed to, the way it needs to for the Geckos to reach that bar. This show's version of Carlos is much different than the character Cheech Marin played in the original film, who just had a small part in the final scene.

When Richie's odd behavior drives Seth to call Carlos and inform him that he's considering ditching his brother, Carlos insists that he bring Richie along and that he trust him, no matter how out of his mind he seems to be. So the Geckos continue to make their way through Texas as Richie continues to hallucinate and act increasingly strangely.

The shootout in Benny's World of Liquor in the first episode has left Richie with a gunshot wound in his left palm big enough for him to look through, just like in the movie, and if you thought it was unrealistic that Richie's hand was still functional in the film, just wait until you see how nonchalant he is about this wound in the show. He's not phased by it at all.

In his psychotic haze, Richie has also taken to drawing symbols on people and surfaces. Symbols like the one on the handle of the knife he told Seth he won in a contest, a knife that ended up in the possession of Texas Ranger Freddie Gonzalez after the liquor store incident. Symbols that Gonzalez recognizes - they've been left at the scenes of murders committed by the "cartel killer" who has been terrorizing Gonzalez's area recently.

While all of this is going on with Gonzalez and the Geckos, this episode introduces us to a group of characters from the film. The Fuller family. In the role of Jacob Fuller, originally played by Harvey Keitel, is Robert Patrick (already a veteran of the From Dusk Till Dawn franchise, having starred in From Dusk Till Dawn 2: Texas Blood Money). It has been six months since the death of Jacob's wife, in a car accident that he was behind the wheel for, and since then the pastor has been having a crisis of faith. He has abandoned his church, bought an RV, and is now headed into Mexico, specific destination unknown, with his teenage children - daughter Kate and adopted son Scott (Madison Davenport and Brandon Soo Hoo filling in for the film's Juliette Lewis and Ernest Liu).

Kate is not happy with this road trip at all, she feels kidnapped, she wants to stay home with her Bible-quoting boyfriend Kyle and attend her senior year of high school, so she texts Kyle and asks him to come rescue her.

Somehow Carlos has gotten wind that the sequence of events that need to occur might be going off track, somehow he knows the Fullers will play an important part in getting the Geckos into Mexico (maybe he has seen the movie), so he hitches a ride with Kyle and kills him before he can reach Kate. Not only is Carlos revealed to be a vampire with cobra-like fangs and the ability to stand out in the sun without bursting into flames (his skin does smoke a bit), but he can also shapeshift - he appears to the Fullers in the form of Kyle and ruins his rendezvous with Kate by being violent and insulting.

Thanks to the intervention of this variation on Carlos, the series continues to follow the path of the film while re-telling the story in its own unique way.

The character of the Fuller family members are intact and recognizable from the film. The show's version of Scott already shows within this episode more personality and depth than the film's Scott ever did, but Patrick and Davenport have big shoes to fill, following performances from Keitel and Lewis. They prove rather capable at making these characters their own. Kate has been modernized, while Patrick's take on Jacob is very soulful. I'm looking forward to seeing this group handle the situations I know (and Carlos knows) are in store for them.

Episode 3: Mistress 

The third episode of the From Dusk Till Dawn television series is the first to not be directed by Robert Rodriguez, the filmmaker who also helmed the 1996 film the series is based on. The episode entitled 'Mistress' was directed by The Blair Witch Project co-director Eduardo Sánchez, working from a teleplay by Carlos Coto, a veteran television writer and executive producer who has worked on shows such as Nikita, Heroes, and 24.

In the film, the psychotic Richie Gecko rapes and murders the bank teller he and his brother Seth took hostage during a robbery gone wrong when Seth leaves them alone in their room at the Dew Drop Inn for a while. The core of this episode is an expansion on that scene, an examination of what happens between Richie and the bank teller while Seth is out. The hallucinations he has that drives him to kill her.

While that is going on, we are privy to several meetings between characters that did not occur in the source material.

First, there's a flashback to sometime during the five years Seth served in prison before Richie recently broke him out. One day, Seth was visited by a man named Carlos, a criminal kingpin based out of Coahuila, Mexico who deals in drugs and human trafficking. Carlos told Seth of a place in Mexico called El Rey. A safe place for criminals to run to. Located on a mountain, near the ocean. It sounds like paradise. That's why the Gecko brothers are making a run for El Rey now, and Carlos has arranged for them to get across the border into Acuña at 10pm this very night.

As time ticks down toward 10pm, Seth is having another meeting, this one at the Big Kahuna Burger fast food joint near the Dew Drop Inn. A meeting with a character who was merely mentioned in one line in the film ("I already had a wife"), a line which Rodriguez had wanted to cut, but felt obligated to keep in after it was included in the trailer. Vanessa Styles, played by Adrianne Palicki, is Seth's ex-wife, but the two have reconciled, so much so that she was the one who scoped out the bank the Geckos robbed, and now she wants Seth to part company from the out-of-control Richie and run off with her. Trouble brews up between them when Vanessa tells Seth she had Richie surreptitiously evaluated by a psychiatrist, who determined that he has disassociative disorder. Seth thinks his brother is going insane, but doesn't want to hear anyone else say that.

Texas Ranger Freddie Gonzalez is having a meeting at bar with Professor Aiden Tanner (Jake Busey), an expert in Mesoamerican mythology, and through their interaction a whole lot is revealed about what's going on with Richie, Carlos, and the hallucinatory figure of Santanico Pandemonium. The knife Richie had, before losing it in the first episode, was used in ritual sacrifices committed by an ancient Mayan blood cult that worshipped the Vision Serpent, one of the Lords of the Night. The cult serves a demi-goddess, once a human girl whose beauty caught the attention of the Serpent god. As shown in the opening scene of the first episode, this girl was captured by the Serpent's followers and given over to it. She was consumed by his powers and transformed into a mistress of the night. The mistress/demi-goddess is Santanico Pandemonium.

The symbol on the handle of Richie's knife, the image of an eye in a hand, represented one of the most powerful gifts the Vision Serpent could provide a follower with - the gift of extrasensory sight, and the ability to take murderous action. His hallucinations and killing spree make it apparent that Richie has received these "gifts", and they're driving him mad.

It's a neat element to the hallucinations he experiences in this episode that the gunshot wound Richie has in the palm of his left hand, something he also had in the film, provides a hole for him to see an eyeball in, playing into the symbolism in this take on the material.

I usually find Jake Busey to have a very cheesy screen presence, so the fact that this episode requires him to deliver so much exposition was very risky in my opinion, but he actually pulls it off in a serious manner, and the information he's imparting is very interesting. The only time his cheeseball side comes through is a brief moment in which he attempts to flirt with teenage Kate Fuller.

Kate is at the bar Gonzalez and Tanner are meeting in because the Fuller family's RV has broken down right outside of it. The proximity of the bar enables her father, the former pastor Jacob Fuller, to proceed to get rip-roaring drunk... and while he's doing that, the episode deals out to its viewers another shocking bit of info: the real reason why Jacob is taking his children on this road trip is much darker than previously thought. This is no vacation to get in some good family time. Jacob is taking them into Mexico because back home he's facing a charge of vehicular manslaughter for driving drunk and causing the death of his wife six months earlier. This was not part of the character in the film at all, in the movie Jacob Fuller's wife was driving alone when she had the accident that killed her. Although it's an interesting addition and gives the characters more drama to deal with, it doesn't really seem necessary at this point.

With the RV fixed, the Fullers get back on the road, heading over to the Dew Drop Inn... Worlds are about to collide.

Episode 4: Let's Get Ramblin'

In Quentin Tarantino's directorial debut, the character of Joe Cabot at one point, when ready to leave a place with the crew of thieves he has assembled, says to them, "Okay, ramblers, let's get ramblin'." It's a line Tarantino reused in the screenplay for the 1996 film From Dusk Till Dawn, spoken by the character Seth Gecko. Seth had a predilection for saying variations on that sentence, in other moments he says "Okay, hard drinkers, let's drink hard," and "Okay, vampire killers, let's kill some vampires."

That line first heard in Reservoir Dogs gets repeated in the fourth episode of the television series expansion on From Dusk Till Dawn, an episode directed by the film version's director, Robert Rodriguez, from a teleplay by his brother Marcel Rodriguez, who previously had writing credits on Robert's films Machete Kills and The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl.

Fans may remember that the ramblers Seth told to get ramblin' were the Fuller family, the Gecko brothers' newly captured hostages, and the rambling he required them to do was to leave the place where their paths crossed, the Dew Drop Inn, so they can hit the road to Mexico. This episode is built around the Geckos taking the Fullers hostage, barging into their motel room and holding father Jacob and his adopted son Scott at gunpoint.

While this is happening, Jacob's teenage daughter Kate is down at the pool, and has somehow managed to get on her smartphone every single detail on the vehicular manslaughter case that has been put together against her father in the drunk driving accident death of her mother, Jennifer. Flashbacks give us glimpses into the home life of the Fullers before Jennifer's death, and it certainly didn't seem like a simple and serene household. Jennifer credited Jacob for saving her life, from what isn't quite clear, but it might have something to do with the migraines she regularly suffered from.

At least, the children were told that Jennifer had migraines.

When Richie arrives at the pool, his mind swimming with visions from the "gift of sight" that he has somehow gotten from the Mayan god the Vision Serpent, he can tell that Kate is hurting, having doubts about her dad... and he knows that Jennifer did not have migraines. Richie is able to sweet talk Kate for a while, but soon freaks her out with his unnatural insight, so the nice stranger facade is abandoned and Kate is soon being held at gunpoint herself.

Concurrent to the Geckos taking the hostages they need to help get them across the border, Texas Ranger Freddie Gonzalez is hot on their trail, thinking back to the day when his partner and mentor Earl McGraw, a man who the Geckos killed, convinced him that being a Ranger was the right career for him. Gonzalez is also suffering from having visions of his own, possibly because the knife of ritual sacrifice that once belonged to Richie is now in his possession. He's haunted by the blood-spurting image of a man who was killed, shot through the neck, during that day on the job with McGraw.

Before the ramblers can get rambling out of the Dew Drop Inn, Gonzalez catches up to the Geckos, and he has armed backup to help his attempt to bring them to justice.

On the From Dusk Till Dawn '96 audio commentary, Rodriguez and screenwriter Quentin Tarantino discuss the fact that at one point they had worried that too much running time went by between action, so Tarantino scripted an elaborate action sequence set at the Dew Drop Inn... A sequence that was dropped and never filmed once they realized that it would be too disruptive and actually draw things out more rather than liven them up. But now that the concept is being expanded into the ten episode run of the series' first season, Rodriguez has a lot more time to work with and is finally able to shoot an action sequence at the Dew Drop Inn.

Given the lower budget of this episode compared to what the film had, its climactic action sequence probably isn't as impressive or exciting as the one Tarantino envisioned, but it is a fun one, providing plenty of gunfire, a quick chase, and some fisticuffs.

Despite Gonzalez's best efforts, the Geckos do make escape from the motel with their trio of new hostages named Fuller, hitting the road to Mexico in the family's RV as the TV show gets closer and closer to the main event. At this point I am very anxious to see how the show is going to handle things when the characters reach that certain bar in Mexico.

Episode 5: Self-Contained

Matt Morgan, who had previously worked as a cinematographer and a special effects artist, and Ian Sobel, former assistant to executive producer Carlos Coto, earned their first writing credits on the fifth episode of the From Dusk Till Dawn television series, with their teleplay being brought to the screen by director Joe Menendez, whose filmography includes episodes of kid-friendly shows like Imagination Movers and Big Time Rush. The subject matter Menendez had to work with on this show is a far cry from the work he did for Nickelodeon and Disney.

Coming at the halfway point of the series' ten episode run, 'Self-Contained' is a 44 minute expansion of the sequence in the 1996 film it's based on that dealt with criminal brothers Seth and Richie Gecko attempting to get across the border into Mexico while hiding in the RV of the Fuller family - father and former pastor Jacob and his two teenage children, Kate and Scott.

Trouble brews between the group inside the RV as it nears the border, thanks to the hallucinations Richie is continuing to have. He's visited, in his perception, by Mayan demi-goddess Santanico Pandemonium, who assures him he's "almost home".

I couldn't help but notice that Eiza González, the actress portraying Santanico Pandemonium (who was played by Salma Hayek in the original film and Ara Celi in the prequel, From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman's Daughter), has a tendency to stick her tongue out slightly before she begins speaking... Could this be her nod toward the character's serpentine qualities?

More troubling is the fact that Richie perceives Jacob and Scott to be demons. He wants to kill them, which would really mess up the border crossing. Fortunately, Seth gets his brother's gun away from him before bullets start flying.

Not only do Richie's visions make the situation more complicated in this episode than they were in the movie, but so does the addition of more characters. Texas Ranger Freddie Gonzalez is on the scene and knows the Geckos might be in that RV that's waiting to cross the border, and circumstances lead to the driver of the car in front of the RV getting knocked out and brought aboard the vehicle, so someone else has to drive the guy's car through the checkpoint. That someone else is a very nervous Scott.

Luckily for the Geckos, and unbeknownst to them, shapeshifting vampire Carlos, the head of the Culebras drug/human trafficking cartel, is also at the border crossing, continuing to do everything in his (supernatural) power to make sure their journey into Mexico goes as smoothly as possible.

Although Wilmer Valderrama does strong work in the role of Carlos, the guy's constant going back and forth across the border and shapeshifting into different people to manipulate events comes off as really cheeseball to me. Carlos being a monster (a change from the movie) is fine, but him always lurking on the edge of situations to make sure things go well for the Geckos on their way to where they're supposed to meet him is... well, I think it's lame.

In the midst of all of this, Jacob finally lets Kate and Scott know what really happened the night he was out driving with their mother Jennifer and had an accident that took his wife's life, a loss that has caused his current loss of faith. Authorities back in their home town are planning to charge Jacob with vehicular manslaughter, but thankfully his name is cleared for his children and the viewers (who are also shown flashbacks to the incident) before that not-quite-necessary element gets dragged on for too long.

The RV drives into Mexico, a completely arbitrary shootout ensues between border guards and Carlos's men, and in the final scene the characters reach the bar that Carlos arranged to be their rendezvous point. The rowdy strip club The Titty Twister. The moment we've all been waiting for has arrived!

Episode 6: Place of Dead Roads

The sixth episode of the From Dusk Till Dawn series begins with the criminal Gecko brothers and their hostages, Jacob Fuller and his teenage children Kate and Scott, pushing through the doors of the bar/strip club called the Titty Twister. Although the Fullers fulfilled what the Geckos required of them and helped the brothers cross the border into Mexico, Seth Gecko insists that they stay with them until their business partner meets them at this rowdy establishment that definitely does not match up to the Fuller family values. Possibly to make sure the Fullers don't send the authorities to the Titty Twister before the brothers can make their exit.

Carlos, the man they're supposed to meet, is the head of the Culebras cartel. In exchange for 30% of the 30 million dollars the Geckos scored from a bank robbery in Texas, Carlos is offering to escort them to the town of El Rey, a paradisiacal sanctuary for criminals on the run.

As soon as they enter the club, Richie Gecko feels like he's already in paradise. Seth, on the other hand, is instantly unnerved when he sees that the interior of the place is decorated with the same symbol that was on the handle of a knife Richie had, a knife that was used to commit sacrifices in Mayan rituals... A knife which ends up back in Richie's possession by the end of this episode.

Seth becomes even more disturbed when the bartender notifies him that the club is owned by Carlos. He would rather meet the kingpin on neutral territory. This is Carlos's turf.

When the characters enter the club, I'm instantly surprised to see that this show actually contains nudity. Some of the dancers are baring their breasts. To this point, the show, which aired on the newly launched El Rey channel, has contained curse words that are acceptable on basic cable and gore that would be fine on network television. Basically, its contents have been on the level of The Walking Dead. But could The Walking Dead show bare female breasts if they wanted to?

I was also disappointed that Danny Trejo didn't show up anywhere in the bar. He should be playing the bartender, since he did so in all three of the From Dusk Till Dawn movies, but even if he wasn't going to take on that role this time around, they should have at least got him in there for a cameo.

Someone who is in the bar is Jake Busey as Professor Aiden Tanner, the expert in Mesoamerican mythology who delivered a lot of exposition back in the third episode. Now that he's at the Titty Twister, Tanner is sporting a much different style... Leather clothes, a gun hidden beneath his codpiece that's designed to look like the male anatomy... As it turns out, Tanner is the character Tom Savini played in the original film. When he's out on the town, he goes by the name Sex Machine.

While the Geckos and Fullers are settling into their new surroundings, Texas Ranger Freddie Gonzalez is still on his mission to avenge his partner Earl McGraw, murdered by the Geckos in the first episode. Gonzalez has ignored the orders of his superiors and followed the Geckos into Mexico, and at the crossroads between Acuña and Tierra Negra, he gets directions from a very odd source. There are three severed heads stuck on pikes at the crossroads, and one of these heads begins speaking to Gonzalez, who suspects he has gone crazy. Regardless of how insane this scenario is, the information the head gives Gonzalez on where he can find the Culebras is good.

The Culebras, who are preparing for some kind of war that only the strong will survive, capture Gonzalez and make their best attempt to make sure he'll never catch up with the Geckos. Jesse Garcia is excellent in the role of Gonzalez, who is becoming an increasingly cooler and cooler character as the series goes on. The scenes where he's in the clutches of the Culberas are great... but not as great as the scene in which he escapes from them.

Violently defending Kate's honor also gets Seth into some hot water, but before he can get maimed and mutilated by the doorman and a gang of bikers, he's saved by a man named Narciso. A man who seems to be working against Carlos, and who tells Seth that El Rey is a myth. The arrival of a character like this is very intriguing and unexpected, and it will be interesting to see how he plays into what's to come.

Fans of the 1996 film this series is based on have a very good idea of what's to come, and it's so enticing to me that this episode sort of felt dull. Aside from the mysterious addition of Narciso and the action with Gonzalez, portions of 'Place of Dead Roads' sort of felt like the show was spinning its wheels, there are scenes I just wanted to get over with and characters kept pushing storylines I'm done with at this point. Let's get to the exciting stuff!

The show is getting there. Really what writer Álvaro Rodríguez (screenwriter of From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman's Daughter) and director Dwight Little (Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers) are doing here is getting everything set up for what will presumably be four episodes of nonstop action.

Gonzalez reaches the Titty Twister just in time for Carlos to take the stage and introduce a special performance. A featured dance by the mistress of the macabre. The lights go down, a spotlight is switched on, and onto the stage walks Santanico Pandemonium. The woman of Richie's hallucinations. The demi-goddess the Culebras worship. Unless the next episode manages to make her dance last 44 minutes, things are about to take a serious turn for the worse for everyone in this bar.

Episode 7: Pandemonium

Robert Rodriguez, director of the 1996 film From Dusk Till Dawn, directed four of the ten episodes that make up the first season of this series based on the film. Of course, the first of those was the pilot episode. For his last directorial contribution to the season, Rodriguez chose the episode that contains the moment in which, as described in Quentin Tarantino's screenplay for the movie, "all hell breaks loose".

This time around the writer was Diego Gutierrez, but the sequence that consists of all hell breaking loose provides the same sort of fun and excitement it did in the big screen version.

On the run from the law, bank robber Seth Gecko and his homicidal, vision-plagued brother Richie have made it across the border into Mexico with the aid of hostages Jacob Fuller and his teenage children Kate and Scott. They're waiting in the Titty Twister, a bar/strip club run by a man named Carlos, head of the Culebras cartel, to make a ten million dollar deal for Carlos to provide them sanctuary in a town called El Rey. Carlos arrives at the Titty Twister and takes the stage to introduce a featured performance by a very special dancer... And the dancer who steps into the spotlight is the same woman who Richie has been hallucinating for the entirety of the series, who he has imagined calling out to him to set her free. She is Santanico Pandemonium, and now that she and Richie are truly together in the flesh, she seems very interested in him.

Santanico Pandemonium picks Richie out of the crowd and goes to him, dancing for him on the Gecko/Fuller table, feeding him alcohol by sticking her foot in his mouth and pouring it down her leg. Richie is, as you can imagine, completely enrapt.

It's Richie's focus on Santanico that allows Texas lawman Freddie Gonzalez to sneak up on him and slam a knife into the hand Richie was shot in during the pilot episode.

Seeing the ensuing standoff between Gonzalez and the Geckos, disturbed by the danger Richie is in, Santanico goes through a monstrous transformation, taking on a fanged, snake-like appearance, then launches herself off the table, attacking Gonzalez.

The rest of the Titty Twister's employees, from the dancers to the bartender to the house band, follow suit, also becoming hideous, fanged creatures. The front doors are locked, a wooden bar placed in front of them to make sure they hold shut, while steels bars slide into place in front of the windows and doorways. The bar's clientele are trapped, and its workers begin to feast on the people like ravenous beasts. Throats are bitten out, heads and limbs ripped off, stomachs torn open. It's a very cool and horrific sequence, just like it was in the movie. It's typical of this show to draw things out longer than they lasted in the film, and while a lot of what has gotten expanded so far has been dramatic stuff, it also holds true for this attack sequence, which lasts for a good 8 minutes.

Only a handful of the bar's patrons manage to survive the attack - the Geckos, the Fullers, and Professor Aiden Tanner, an expert in Mesoamerican mythology whose interest in the Culebras blood cult led him here, where he blended in by taking on the guise of a biker called Sex Machine.

Richie surviving is a new wrinkle to the story, since he was the first victim of the vampires in the movie. Thanks to his connection with Santanico, there is now also a contention between the brothers that wasn't there in the feature. The Geckos have some issues to work out with each other.

The Titty Twister is a den of vampires, but the From Dusk Till Dawn vampires are unlike any bloodsuckers seen elsewhere. These things are definitely not the same species as Dracula. As Tanner says, "They're more snake than bat." For a moment, you may question whether they should even be categorized as vampires, there is so much snake to their appearance.

There's even a twist that further differentiates the TV show's take on the vamps from that of the films - Jacob shoves a cross into the face of one of the vampires, and it has absolutely no effect. The vampire swallows the cross like it's nothing. Scott cries out, "That's supposed to work! Why isn't it working?", echoing the thoughts of viewers familiar with the franchise. The vampires of the movie trilogy were very fearful of crosses, touching them would burn them, swallowing a cross would cause them to die (that's what killed Cheech Marin's vampire doorman character in the first film.)

But these creatures do feed on blood, and when they're staked in the heart, their bodies evaporate. So vampires they are. A type of vampire called Culebras.

Tanner is able to give the others a quick expository rundown on what they're dealing with here. The Culebras are descendants of Santanico Pandemonium, who was transformed into a bloodsucking demi-goddess by the Mayan god the Vision Serpent.

After the initial attack, legions of vampires retire deeper within the temple the bar was built upon to feed on the blood and guts the slaughter has provided. The lives of these vamps aren't all about gory ripping and tearing, a lot of them are quite civilized, eating their human at a dinner table. Tanner theorizes there's a hierarchy to their society, and it is revealed that Narciso, the guy who saved Seth from the doorman and some bikers in the previous episode and was trying to talk him out of his deal with Carlos, is another vampire who feels Carlos is incompetent and even looks down on Santanico, who is seeking to free the Culebras of their servitude to the Nine Lords of the Night.

Santanico and Carlos are starting a vampire revolution, and it's a very interesting element that could be the key to how the series will continue once this season, which is basically an "extended edition" of the first film, is over and the show moves on into completely original territory.

Weapons are gathered as the remaining humans prepare to continue fighting for survival throughout the night. As they face another onslaught of monsters, Rodriguez and Gutierrez appeal directly to me by having Kate Fuller dispatch a couple of the vampires with a chainsaw. It is my firm belief that the presence of a chainsaw in a horror or action scene immediately makes that scene a whole lot cooler. The "chainsaw = cooler" theory continues to hold true here, because it was awesome to see Kate saw a vampire in half.

'Pandemonium' is a great episode, packed with action that's interspersed with scenes of drama that take storylines into intriguing new directions. Rodriguez made an excellent choice in deciding to make this one his first season swan song.

Episode 8: La Conquista

The eighth episode in the ten episode run of the From Dusk Till Dawn series' first season was directed by a new promising new name on the genre scene, the 2013 Evil Dead reboot's director Fede Alvarez.

Working from a teleplay by Marcel Rodriguez, Alvarez takes the surviving characters of Seth Gecko, Jacob Fuller, Jacob's teenage daughter Kate, and Professor Aiden Tanner, a.k.a. Sex Machine, deeper and deeper into the labyrinthine tunnels of the Mayan temple below the Titty Twister bar/strip club.

They start out by climbing down into one of the industrial sized grinders that lie below trap doors in the floor of the club, which are used to grind up human corpses so the vampires that call this place home can get every bit of blood possible. This is a new addition to the establishment, the bar didn't have this feature in the From Dusk Till Dawn movies, and it is a wonderfully macabre one. The temple is described as one big "human juicer".

The characters seek not only to escape from the temple, but the Fullers are also looking for Jacob's son/Kate's brother Scott, who fell down a shaft into the depths of the structure.

Within the tunnels, they find a room that has been used to store decades of cargo the vampires have taken from the vehicles of their victims. Living in this room is a survivor of another night of slaughter at the club, a war veteran named Frost. Edrick Browne plays the updated version of this character, who was portrayed by Fred Williamson in the 1996 film that this series is based on.

Frost doesn't want to leave the storage room, but he does allow his visitors to have a "shopping spree" in it. They find and construct all sorts of things to defend themselves with. Tanner finds a katana, which is cool, but it was to my great disappointment that Seth didn't have the jackhammer stake the character had in the movie in his hands when he left this room.

This episode also uses flashbacks to delve deeper into the vampiric characters of Carlos, leader of the Culebras blood cult/cartel, and Mayan demi-goddess Santantico Pandemonium.

Seth's brother Richie was obsessed with Santanico before the brothers reached the Titty Twister. He had hallucinations of her, visions in which she asked him to set her free. Since meeting her in person and realizing that she's a monstrous bloodsucker, Richie has become resistant to her. As he dies of a gunshot wound delivered to him by vengeful Texas lawman Freddie Gonzalez, Richie continues to hold her off while she pleads for him to join her and help her get free of the gods she's been a slave to for hundreds of years.

The first episode began with a flashback to Santanico being tossed into a snake pit as an offering to the god called the Vision Serpent, an act which caused her transformation into the serpentine vampire she is now, the first of her kind. All of the other vampires in this story, called Culebras, are descendants of her... But before being thrown into the pit, Santanico was just a regular Mayan girl. Her transformation was a curse.

Somehow Richie can help her escape from her curse, she knows this because she dreamed of him. It's never made clear how Richie can help, though. Only that he'll have to pass some kind of trial.

Like all vampires, the bite of the Culebras can cause their victims to become vampires as well. Freddie Gonzalez was bitten by Santanico, and yet he has neither died nor become a Culebra. His body rejected the venom of the mother of all vampires, it came seeping back out through the bite wounds. How is that possible? It's another thing that's not quite clear, but as Gonzalez and Carlos face off, Carlos comments that his bloodline is ancient.

Carlos is pretty old himself. In his flashbacks, shown as he tells his story to Gonzalez, he was a Spanish conquistador claiming Mexico for his homeland back in the early 1500s. A greedy man, seeking gold, Carlos entered the Mayan temple and found Santanico dwelling within. He has been serving her for the last five hundred years.

Carlos tells Gonzalez that he loves Santanico, but Santanico disputes this to Richie, saying Carlos worships her, that's different than love, and he profits off of her enslavement. I fear those two are going to have a spat sometime soon.

Much of the flashback sequences have been digitally graded to look saturated in a shade of yellow that is absolutely hideous to look at. I can't blame Alvarez for this, because scenes in earlier episodes have had this yellow look as well. It was apparently a stylistic decision that was made for the series as a whole, and not one I agree with.

As the humans move further into the temple, the magic within starts messing with them, showing them visions of the worst things it can dredge up from their minds. Kate has a vision of her mother taking an overdose of drugs... I can't believe they're still doling out information on the situation with Jacob's late wife, they're really milking that storyline.

Despite some ugly imagery and some disappointment, 'La Conquista' is a very solid episode with some good character beats and really cool moments. Alvarez did a nice job in the world of Evil Dead, and continues to do promising work in horror with his contribution to From Dusk Till Dawn. It's a given that I'm going to keep watching this series, but I'm also going to be keeping my eye on Alvarez's career. I'm interested in seeing what he's going to do next.

Episode 9: Boxman 

Directed by Nick Copus, a television veteran who has worked on shows like Arrow, Nikita, Covert Affairs, and Supernatural, in addition to a 2009 adaptation of The Day of the Triffids, from a teleplay by Matt Morgan and Ian Sobel, the penultimate episode of the From Dusk Till Dawn series' first season is very different from every other episode of the series so far.

Sure, there are still scenes set at the Titty Twister bar/strip club and within the tunnels of the Mayan temple it's built on top of as a group of characters still fight to survive this vampire-filled nightmare their lives have become, but most of the episode is actually set inside the minds of brothers and professional thieves Seth and Richie Gecko.

Richie has now become a vampire, turned by the demi-goddess who is the source of all vampirism, Santanico Pandemonium. Yearning to be free of the gods that have kept her trapped in the temple for hundreds of years, Santanico has enlisted the help of Richie to release her.

To do so, Richie and a reluctant Seth must make their way through a "labyrinth of the mind", playing a game the gods have created from elements of their memories. Before being transformed into a snake-like vampire, Santanico was just a normal Mayan girl. When she was changed into the creature she is now, her human blood was locked away in a vault in the labyrinth. Her blood must be broken out of this vault and returned to her. Good thing she has a couple of experienced bank robbers on her side now.

The scenario Seth and Richie have to navigate through is a version of the solo robbery Seth attempted five years ago. The job that got him caught and imprisoned, and imprisonment that lasted until Richie broke him out during a transfer and the events of this series began to unfold.

The robbery takes place in the Parker Hotel in Houston, Texas, a front for the Houston syndicate's money laundering operation, owned by a man called Big Jim Thompson. This was a personal job for Seth, because Big Jim was the man who once ran the Geckos' criminal father Ray out of Houston. Seth was looking to relieve Big Jim of ten million dollars worth of uncut diamonds he kept in a safe. If the Geckos need to successfully pull off the robbery that Seth failed at, odds are Santanico's blood is going to be inside the safe that the diamonds were in.

The set-up is the same as the real situation, but this imaginary world is populated with characters who weren't really involved when Seth was going through it the first time. An enemy of his from prison is now a bodyguard, the desk clerk from the Dew Drop Inn the Geckos stopped during their run to Mexico is now working at the Parker Hotel, Pete the liquor store clerk from the first episode in there... and there are vampires. Including Richie himself, who learns he now has the ability to shapeshift.

A wrench is thrown into the works when Seth finds himself stuck in a room with his father, and the truth about Ray's demise is revealed to him. Ray died when Seth and Richie were young. He fell asleep while smoking a cigarette. At least, that's what Richie always told his brother...

The scenes set inside the mental labyrinth have a different look and tone than much of the rest of the series. Every episode has been set in the desert, in the labyrinth the streets are wet. The lighting is different, with whites and blues mixed in with the series' usual yellows and earth tones. It was actually somewhat relieving to me when that different lighting would show through.

An interesting and entertaining diversion from the norm, 'Boxman' (which is another word for safe cracker) provides an intriguing deeper look into the history of the Geckos. It also features guest appearances by a couple of great character actors; William Sadler (Die Hard 2) as Big Jim Thompson, and James Remar (The Warriors) as Ray Gecko. Sadler is even given a line in which he references his role as the Grim Reaper in Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey, saying that sooner or later everyone will "dance with the Reaper".

Episode 10: The Take

Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers director Dwight H. Little, who earlier in this first season of the From Dusk Till Dawn series, which is based on the 1996 film, directed an episode entitled 'Place of Dead Roads', returned to the helm for the season finale, working from a teleplay written by Carlos Coto.

An action-packed finale it is, featuring double crosses between both human and vampire characters, tragedy, and moments of drama that tug at the heartstrings.

Fuller patriarch and former pastor Jacob is still trapped in the depths of the vampire-infested Mayan temple with his teenage daughter Kate, trying to deal with the fact that his adopted son Scott has joined the legion of bloodsuckers. Actor Robert Patrick brought a lot of soul to his portrayal of Jacob, and the final moments with him are very touching.

Madison Davenport's Kate has been put through the wringer over the course of this series, and the actress, who was previously unknown to me, has proven to be capable of handling everything the writers threw at her.

As the Fullers reach the end of their journey through the maze-like tunnels of the temple, they are accompanied by Jesse Garcia's rogue Texas Ranger Freddie Gonzalez, someone who wasn't in the film that serves as this story's source material but has proven to be a standout member of a fascinating collection of characters. A vengeance-seeking, skull-cracking, vampire venom-resistant, descendant of an ancient tribe of warriors, Gonzalez has been an awesome, heroic figure to follow throughout these ten episodes.

At the core of 'The Take' is a prophecy fulfilled by the criminal Gecko brothers, Seth and Richie, who are played by D.J. Cotrona and Zane Holtz, a pair who have done strong work following up the performances of George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino in the original feature.

For the first half of the season, Richie was completely out of his mind, suffering from hallucinations and visions of the demi-goddess Santanico Pandemonium as she lured him to the temple she has been trapped in for hundreds of years, trusting that he and his brother could set her free. Now that Richie is himself again, although a vampirized version of himself at this point, and working with Santanico rather than imagining her, he's a much more likeable character, his interactions with his brother much more fun to watch.

Seth isn't sure about this whole "working with vampires" business, but if it helps his brother survive this ordeal, he's willing to team up with Santanico and her small army of stripper vampires in her fight against the vampires working against her, the traitorous Carlos and Narciso, a "yes man" to the Nine Lords of the Night, who wants to quell Santanico's revolution and keep things status quo.

Gunfire, physical altercations, and vampire stakings ensue.

From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series comes to a very different resolution than the film did, but a very satisfying one. By the time the end credits roll, everything that has transpired over the course of the ten episode run makes total sense, every piece of the puzzle has been slotted into place, and although there are threads left for the second season to pick up on, this first season feels like a perfectly completed story in itself.

Although it expanded on things greatly and took some characters and storylines in different directions, this first season stuck very closely to the events of the movie. As Robert Rodriguez, who directed the film and developed it into a series for his newly launched El Rey Network, described it, the series is like the novel version of the movie. It tells the same story, but there's a lot more to it. 'The Take' ends where the movie ends. For the second season, which has already been given the greenlight, the series will be working with its own entirely new story, and it will be very interesting to see what Rodriguez and his writers come up with.

It seems they can really do anything they want to on El Rey. The earlier episodes of From Dusk Till Dawn series had around the same amount of blood and swearing as The Walking Dead gets away with. Once the characters reached the Titty Twister, the strip club that was built atop the temple to draw in people for the vampires to feast on, I was surprised to see dancers with their breasts bared. In the last couple episodes, the characters started dropping F-bombs. Apparently the show doesn't have many content restrictions, they were just showing restraint early on.

From Dusk Till Dawn is one of my favorite movies, and I'm very happy with how this series turned out. It was simultaneously familiar and fresh, always entertaining and intriguing, and it kept me hooked. I marathoned my way through this first viewing of this first season, anxious to see what would happen next every time an episode ended. I remain anxious to see what happens next after the finale has drawn to a close. Bring on season two!

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