From Dusk till Dawn
Tarantino undertook a bout of script doctoring during the mid-90s, but From Dusk till Dawn represents his sole outright gun-for-hire job from inception. And apart from feeling through-and-through like a scrappy Robert Rodriguez production, with “That’ll do” writ large across it (complete with a plum part for mate Quentin), it’s also an unusually scrappy screenplay, lacking his usual inventiveness and memorable dialogue, leaving instead merely a pervading air of unpleasantness.
Tarantino claimed “Not really” when asked if he wrote Richie Gecko for himself (“I wasn’t visualising anybody. I wrote an exploitation film. It’s a head-banging horror film for horror-film lovers!”) But it’s very easy to believe that Richie, treated to a whole scene in which he gets to exult in and suck off Salma Hayek’s toes, was designed with its screenwriter in mind (it’s also been said he was originally going to direct but elected not to so he could concentrate on the writing and playing Richie; how true that is, given Robert Kurtzman, who paid for the screenplay, was originally pegged to call the shots, is debatable).
Certainly, there’s no way he and Rodriguez didn’t indulge their peccadilloes, thick as thieves as they are. There’s also Quentin and serial killers: “The planet Earth couldn’t handle my serial killer movie” as it would “reveal my sickness far too much”. Well, we already have a movie where he plays a sicko who rapes and murders at the drop of a hat, hallucinating conversations and extrapolating from there onwards (he pulls off the role quite convincingly, to be fair both to him and criticisms of his acting, although effects guy Tom Savini as Sex Machine is definitely more proficient).
Making an intentional exploitationer is almost insulation against criticism in Tarantino’s book, hence Grindhouse. But in both cases, reviewers didn’t hold back. And rightly so. This is the dog-end of Tarantino, his penchant for the sordid and degrading unrelieved by more artful or creative influences. It comes across more like a Tarantino knock-off than the real deal, right down to the either tired/tiresome or OTT dialogue (Cheech Marin’s “pussy” speech is a virtual parody of the director’s obsessions). This culminates in the incredibly lazy “I don’t care about living or dying any more. I just want to send as many of these devils back to hell as I can”.
Consequently, Rodriguez is perfect to direct this kind of crapola, because he really doesn’t care about quality: the more slipshod and homemade, the better. There’s zero tension during the vampire section, the surprise attack turned around with ease, and any kind of obstacle (be it the turned Richie, or vampire Salma) likewise summarily dispatched. Compare it to Vamp (unsuspecting humans get turned at a vampire bar), and the results are infinitely inferior.
Which means that, relatively, the first half is superior. Indeed, the best scene is the first, featuring the kind of Tarantino trickery he’s famous for, as an encounter between Michael Parks’ Texas Ranger and John Hawkes’ liquor store clerk plays out with the Gecko brothers on the premises, unbeknownst to Parks or us. But anything goes in the name of exploitation, and it’s beyond me how you’re supposed to have fun with a movie (let alone “see it six times. I would”) where Richie commits the acts he does.
Horror movie section-wise, it turns silly quickly, unfortunately without being a whole lot of fun with it. Fred Williamson is easily the highlight, along with his Nam speech, but the special effects are entirely less than special, and the treatment of vampires is closer to zombies (tearing flesh and feeding).
From Dusk till Dawn is notable as Clooney’s first post-ER role, but like Batman & Robin and The Peacemaker (and to an extent the likeable-but-bland One Fine Day), he has the right ideas but misses the boat. Who wouldn’t want to work with Tarantino, play Batman, star in an action blockbuster for new-studio-on-the-block DreamWorks, make a romcom opposite Pfeiffer? In each case, the material or the right people aren’t there, so it’s no wonder he regrouped. Still, it stands as a curiously atypical role for him, a hard-edged criminal who isn’t defined as a sociopath only by reflection of how much of a psychopath his brother is (“a bastard, not a fucking bastard”). He can deliver “Everybody be cool. You – be cool”, and make it sound like choice dialogue, but mostly, you’re conscious how beholden he is to the actorly quirks and tics that have since defined him.
Of the rest, Harvey Keitel can’t salvage a lousy role as a preacher who has lost his faith, and Juliette Lewis survives unscathed on the basis that she isn’t being annoying in a Tarantino film (Natural Born Killers) or any other film (Strange Days) of that period for a change. The mid-90s had Tarantino dabbling, indulging his yen for acting (which thankfully peaked, or troughed, with his stage role in Wait Until Dark), beefing up others’ scripts, and even taking guest director gigs on TV (ER). He clearly had a blast making From Dusk till Dawn or he wouldn’t have reunited with Rodriguez for Grindhouse, but together, they’re an irredeemable dive too far into the kind of schlock he unselfconsciously adores. Schlock you just can’t self-consciously replicate. Even Natural Born Killers has more merit than this, and that’s really saying something.