Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Celebrating 20 years of From Dusk Till Dawn

It's hard to believe it has been 20 years since Robert Rodriguez's classic vampire B-movie From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) was unleashed upon the world. The fact that it was a moderately successful January release is quit astounding. To celebrate the occasion, we thought we would take a look back at this now classic movie, which has since been adapted into its own TV show for Rodriguez's El Rey Network.

Long before Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez collaborated on the ambitious Grindhouse double feature in 2007, the two indie darlings of the 1990s began their long standing cinematic friendship with From Dusk Till Dawn.

Released on 19 January 1996, From Dusk Till Dawn was met with mostly positive critical acclaim. It currently sits at a 63% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is no small feat for a horror film released in January. Even the notoriously discerning film critic Roger Ebert awarded the film three out of four stars.

It opened at the number 1 spot with $10.2 million ($15.4 million today) and went on to gross a total of $25.8 million domestically ($39 million today). It is certainly a small profit for a film with a budget of $19 million, and while that may not be a spectacular gross, it is still solid for an R-rated horror film released in a month that typically sees slower box office returns.

As a genre experiment, From Dusk Till Dawn is fascinating in how it cleverly divides the unique aesthetics of both its auteurs into distinct halves. The first section is a tense heist drama that follows bank robbing brothers, Seth (George Clooney) and Richie Gecko (Tarantino), sneaking across the border to freedom after a crime spree, with an innocent family of hostages in tow. Forty-five minutes in, From Dusk Till Dawn changes course completely when our heroes find that the Mexican bar they have holed up in is a trap for vampires to lure and kill unsuspecting humans. There is no foreshadowing, no TV reports in the distance, not a word about blood sucking creatures – until the seductive Santánico Pandemonium (Salma Hayek), having performed her now iconic snake dance, whips her head back to reveal her true vampire form and takes a chunk out of Richie's neck, then bam... All hell swiftly breaks loose. A moment so iconic that you would be forgiven for thinking that she was a lead character in the film.

Miraculously, From Dusk Till Dawn manages to make these tone shifts inexplicably work, as the patchwork nature of the film strangely adds to the film's exploitation charm. At first, From Dusk Till Dawn feels like a strange love child of the works the directors were known for up to that point – with the Gecko brothers dressed in Reservoir Dogs (1992) tuxedos, but weaving around convenience store aisles shooting pistols like El Mariachi (1992). The opening scene is itself a microcosm of the way their two styles interact – John Hawkes and Michael Parks (playing Ranger Earl McGraw, a character he would reprise in future films by both filmmakers) start the movie with a chatty scene straight out of True Romance (1993), until bullets start flying and Rodriguez's love for over the top action takes hold. Clearly at the top of his game following the critical and commercial success of Pulp Fiction (1994), Tarantino's screenplay deftly lays the groundwork for the balls-out second half without the viewer even realising it. Seth's sense of responsibility for his clearly demented brother Richie, disgraced priest Jacob (Harvey Keitel) and his crisis of faith, and Juliette Lewis' rebellious Kate being charmed by the allure of criminal life. All contribute to the gradual bonding of this raggedy band of outlaws.

The second half, meanwhile, sees these characters thrown headlong into a balls to the wall take on classic Hammer horror film, and everyone – including Jacob's meek and mild children – suddenly turn into holy water throwing, crossbow shooting badasses. By the time the bloodsucking beasts arrive on the scene, all the stabbing and shooting becomes redemptive for Seth, Jacob, and crew. Sure, Jacob is a man of peace, but there is something dumbly earnest about his last stand, armed with a cross made out of a baseball bat and sawed-off shotgun. Clooney, in his first major film role since leaving ER, shows glimmers of the movie star he will become, even though he occasionally has trouble getting his mouth around Tarantino's self-consciously cool dialogue. Tarantino, meanwhile, arguably gives his best performance here. He is clearly no actor, but Richie's socially stunted, withdrawn nature fits well with Tarantino's inherent dorkiness.

While the film's marketing campaign did no favours in keeping the mid-film genre twist a secret (posters full of fangs and bats, vampires all over the trailer), From Dusk Till Dawn came out in that bright, shiny era of the video store, where you could pick up a random film without knowing much about it and be completely blown away. Without the hindrance of promotional materials or outside expectations, the uninitiated could revel in the vampiric bloodbath with gleeful screams of surprise.

It is exactly that kind of reaction that we all hope for in a film – that little endorphin rush of being surprised, of having something we genuinely didn't expect thrown in front of us. From Dusk Till Dawn's bait-and-switch twist, properly executed in the right environment, seems quaint now in an age of internet hype and websites dedicated to telling you what happens at the end of movies.

Not only did From Dusk Till Dawn spawn two 'direct to video' sequels and a video game, but it also gave birth to From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series on 11 March 2014. The first season of that show was essentially the original 108-minute film stretched out into 10 hour-long episodes, and was met with lukewarm critical reception. The second season benefited from being able to act as a true sequel to the film and delve into unexplored territory. A third season is set to premiere later this year so it is clear that the series has provided El Rey Network with a decent amount of success. Both seasons are available here in the UK on Netflix.

It is certainly a testament to the original film that we are here talking about it today. While The Faculty (1998), Sin City (2005) and Planet Terror (2007) are all fun films, many would argue that From Dusk Till Dawn Rodriguez is his most deliriously enjoyable film to date. It's that sense of fun that makes From Dusk Till Dawn a wonderful example of modern schlock, throwing everything two filmmakers at the top of their respective games love about B-movies into a filthy, energetic and surprising experience.

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