Friday, August 8, 2014

From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman's Daughter

A vampiric history lesson.

Shot back-to-back in South Africa with Scott Spiegel's From Dusk Till Dawn 2: Texas Blood Money, From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman's Daughter is a prequel to the original From Dusk Till Dawn, one which takes the interesting approach of tying a real historical figure into its story.

Michael Parks, who played ill-fated Texas Ranger Earl McGraw in the opening sequence of the first film, takes the lead of the third as a completely different character - American author Ambrose Bierce, who disappeared in Mexico at the age of seventy-one. Bierce had served in the military and fought in the Civil War for several years. A 1913 tour of the battlefields he had fought on around fifty years earlier led him to crossing the border into Mexico, a country that was experiencing its own Civil War at the time, the Mexican Revolution. He joined the army of famed revolutionary general Pancho Villa as an observer, and the last time anyone ever heard from him was a letter to a friend written on December 26, 1913.

Written by Robert Rodriguez's cousin Álvaro Rodríguez from a story he and Robert came up with together and directed by P.J. Pesce, who works primarily in television but would go on to direct other direct-to-video sequels Sniper 3, Lost Boys: The Tribe, and Smokin' Aces 2: Assassins' Ball, From Dusk Till Dawn 3 begins in a desert village in Mexico as Ambrose Bierce is on his way to join up with Pancho Villa.

It's a big day in this little village, as outlaw Johnny Madrid is soon to be hanged in the town square. As a stagecoach with a tongueless driver and a blind man riding shotgun prepares to take Bierce and fellow travelers, Christian missionary newlyweds John and Mary Newlie, across the badlands in the direction of Tierra Negra, a crowd begins to gather, ready to watch the hanging.

Madrid is led to the gallows where the hangman awaits, seeming way too eager to carry out this killing. When Madrid has a negative response to the hangman's taunts, the executioner delays the hanging long enough to dole out a beating with a whip. Mid-beating, the hangman spots his daughter Esmeralda in the crowd and orders her to go home. When she refuses, he has her brought up onto the gallows for a whipping of her own.

Once the hangman has beaten the pair to his satisfaction, he gets the show on the road and gets the noose around Madrid's neck. He pulls the lever that activates the trap door Madrid stands on. It drops out from under him... But before the rope can snap the outlaw's neck, the scrawny, filthy young man who has been hanging out around the village for the last couple days pulls off an expert sniper shot and shoots the rope in half.

When Madrid's boots hit the ground, blades pop out from the tips, blades which come in handy as he runs and kicks his way to freedom. He steals a horse, and while making his escape from this town, grabs the hangman's daughter and takes her hostage... That stops the authorities from shooting at him, but it doesn't stop the hangman from continuing to fire shots. He'd rather see Esmeralda dead than with Madrid.

While the hangman leads a group out into the desert on Madrid's trail, Madrid takes back control of his old gang from a traitorous cohort and is soon joined by Reece, the filthy young man who saved his life... who turns out to be a filthy young woman.

Reece wants to be an outlaw, she wants to get into the life by being Madrid's apprentice, and she tries to prove her dedication by tipping him off to the fact that the stagecoach headed Tierra Negra way might be loaded with gold - she overheard Bierce say he was taking something of great value to Pancho Villa.

Madrid and his gang, with Esmeralda in tow, catch up with the stagecoach, their highway robbery interrupting the debates the missionary passengers and the atheistic Bierce have been having about the merits of religion. The outlaws kill the coach's driver and shotgun rider, then ransack Bierce and the Newlie's belongings looking for anything worth stealing. They find nothing. As it turns out, the thing of value that Bierce is bringing to Pancho Villa is his own life.

As portrayed by Marco Leonardi, Johnny Madrid is at turns fun to watch and unnerving. He's a  man of layers and contradictions. He has a code of honor, but is willing to kill anyone who gets in his way. He thinks nothing of killing the stagecoach driver and his partner, guys who were just doing their job and trying to keep their passengers safe, but chooses to let Ambrose Bierce live because of his noble intentions. The fact that Reece saved his life means nothing when she gives an insulting description of his lifestyle, he leaves her hanging by the neck in a cemetery. Madrid is also deeply smitten with Esmeralda. By the time he has gotten back to his gang's hideout, he is obviously looking for her to be a love interest rather than a hostage... and she is receptive to the idea.

After the failed robbery, Bierce and the Newlies take the stagecoach as far as they can go into the desert, but it eventually becomes bogged down in the sand, forcing them to get out and walk. Eventually, they come to a building in the middle of nowhere. A bar/inn/brothel called La Tetilla del Diablo. The place that will eventually become The Titty Twister, as seen in the other two movies.

The unlucky trio are the first to arrive at the establishment on this night, and they're greeted and served by bartender Razor Charlie, Danny Trejo reprising his role from the first film, not to be confused with Razor Eddie, the bartender he played in part 2.

When John and Mary Newlie are taken to the room they'll be spending the night in, and when Madrid's men show up later to partake in the brothel part of the place's services, we're given a look at more of the building's interior than we had seen in the other movies. As the film goes on, more and more of it is revealed.

More aspects of John Newlie's character are also revealed. Despite his Christian missionary facade, he's in truth a very unscrupulous man who is only with Mary because of the money she inherited from her father. While Mary sleeps, John even has a tryst with the madam (Brazilian actress Sonia Braga as Quixtla) and gets rip-roaring drunk.

Strange things begin to occur at La Tetilla del Diablo as the night goes on and the place fills up with patrons. Large bats fly around in the rooms. When Madrid and Esmeralda arrive, Quixtla seems to instantly know more about Esmeralda than she possibly could. She licks the blood from her whip wounds as the girl becomes entranced by her. Madrid catches the stable boy sucking blood from his horse, having undergone a monstrous transformation.

Noticing that Madrid's men are in the bar, John Newlie lets his true nature come out completely, getting brutal revenge on one of them for the treatment he and his wife were given, delivering a beating that ends with him slamming a knife through the man's mouth, impaling his head to the bar.

The women of La Tetilla del Diablo have a very peculiar reaction to the spilling of blood. They appear to lust for it. Indeed, they start licking it up, as does Razor Charlie.

The hangman and his fellow manhunters arrive at the bar, with Reece in their custody, just in time for all hell to break loose. The shootout that ensues between Madrid and the lawmen ends when Quixtla confronts the hangman with the revelation that she is Esmeralda's mother. The hangman had always told his daughter that her mother had died in childbirth... in reality, her mother is a vampire prostitute. It doesn't excuse the way the hangman has treated Esmeralda, but the fact that she's half vampire does explain why he's so rough on her.

After the hangman shoots Quixtla to the ground, Razor Charlie notifies him that he's "just in time for dinner" and pulls a lever that causes the doors to close and multiple metal bars to slide into place in front of it, firmly locking it. The Titty Twister had a more hi-tech way of locking their door in 1913 than they did in 1996, when a stripper merely slid one wooden bar across the front of it. That doesn't seem quite right.

Regardless, the locking of the door kicks off a vampire feeding frenzy, as the bloodsucking employees of La Tetilla del Diablo begin tearing into the clientele 62 minutes into the film's 93 minute running time.

To escape from the massacre, a group of people - Ambrose Bierce, John Newlie, Johnny Madrid, one of Madrid's men, Esmeralda, Reece, and the hangman - escape through a doorway and down a flight of stairs that takes them into a labyrinth of tunnels.

In Texas Blood Money, the vampires had simply been your standard fanged vamps with the ability to turn into bats. The Hangman's Daughter returns to them some of the uniqueness they had displayed in the original film. Some of them take on snake-like qualities when their features transform into their true monster visage. When the hangman splits one's head in half with a whip, a cobra-like head rises from the stump to replace it. Tentacles tipped with mouths full of sharp teeth burst from another vampire's stomach.

This film also makes it apparent that the vampires share some kind of collective intelligence that is passed on immediately through their infectious bites. After a brush salesman who made his first visit to La Tetilla del Diablo on this night is vampirized, he cries out "She has arrived!" when tasting some of Esmeralda's blood that Quixtla regurgitates to share with her vampire pals. He just became a vampire, and yet it's as if he has years of knowledge about the wait for Esmeralda to return to them.

The characters' journey through the tunnels leads them exactly where the vampires want them, to be part of a ritual. The Old One, an ancient vampire who has been hibernating in a tomb, Esmeralda's grandmother, has been awoken to oversee the sacrifice of the remaining humans and the anointing of Esmeralda as the new vampire queen under the name Santanico Pandemonium. The same character Salma Hayek played in the first film, here played by Ara Celi. The Hangman's Daughter is her origin story.

We know that Esmeralda/Santanico Pandemonium is going to remain at this place for the next eighty-three years, but the rest of the survivors do their best to make sure they don't get stuck there as well.

From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman's Daughter is much more the type of film I had expected to get as a follow-up to From Dusk Till Dawn than Texas Blood Money had been. It's essentially structured like the original film, taking its time getting its characters to the Titty Twister/La Tetilla del Diablo, but once it gets there it delves deeper into the workings of the vampire society and shows us more of the ancient temple masquerading as a bar. That's exactly what I wanted from further installments of the FDTD franchise, and this prequel fully delivers, while at the same time being a type of movie that there aren't nearly enough of - an amalgamation of horror and Western. I love when horror is blended with Western aesthetics, and cowboys and vampires make for a wonderful mix.

P.J. Pesce did a solid job directing the film, proving very capable at handling both the Western and horror styles.

The cast is excellent, led by the always fantastic Michael Parks. Temuera Morrison's hangman is never quite likeable but he sure is good at killing vampires. Lennie Loftin and Rebecca Gayheart do great work as the Newlies, and Jordana Spiro makes a strong impression as Reece, as does Orlando Jones in the small role of the brush salesman.

Although I enjoy it, I can understand the poor reception Texas Blood Money received. I feel The Hangman's Daughter, however, is severely underrated, possibly because people just didn't give it a chance after the second film didn't quite deliver what they were looking for. It's not as awesome as the first trip into the den of the Mexican vampires, but it is a great return to that world that's definitely worth checking out if you liked visiting it the first time around.

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