by Elizabeth EstenVampires have been prominent figures in the pop culture lexicon since the Universal horror films of the 1920’s and 30’s. As the years go by, vampires have changed considerably with the time, depending on the director, screenwriter and culture in which it was made. So what happens when the visual language of Robert Rodriguez and the snark of a Quentin Tarantino script come together? You get one of the oddest and most visually stunning vampire films of the past 20 years.
Seth Gecko (George Clooney) and his brother, Richie (Quentin Tarantino), are two bank robbers trying to get to Mexico, so they can reach their contact following a job gone wrong. After Richie kills the bank teller they were holding hostage, the Geckos capture the Fuller family, consisting of Jacob (Harvey Keitel), Kate (Juliette Lewis) and Scott (Ernest Liu), and force the family to escort them to Mexico. Eventually, the group reaches their rendezvous point and must wait until morning at a local bar. They soon find that the place is occupied by murderous vampires, and the group, with the help of a couple bikers, must fight until dawn if they have a chance to escape.
From Dusk Till Dawn is a very interesting film in many ways, but especially in its structure. It begins as a tense hostage story, with not an inkling of the supernatural elements on the way. This section of the film is very well directed, keeping the tension high, while also allowing us to get to know the character of the Gecko brothers. Seth leads with great confidence and almost feels obligated to watch over his meek younger brother. Seth is also very unpredictable. Despite saying he’ll only kill when it’s necessary, his temper often causes him to snap at the slightest bit of conflict.
Richie, on the other hand, is subservient to Seth and is much more damaged. He’s a serial sex offender who makes rash decisions without much thought. We get a glimpse of this behavior when he brutally rapes and murders a female hostage when left alone with her in the first act. Likely suffering from some sort of mental disorder, Richie seems destined to die, but you see that his actions are not based on a need to hurt people, only on a skewed view of females and how they should be treated. When the brothers take the Fuller family hostage, you fear not only for the whole family, but for what Richie may do to Kate if left unsupervised.
But it’s when the crew enters Mexico that the film becomes almost a different entity. About an hour into the film, they reach the “Titty Twister,” a bar in the middle of the desert where bikers and truckers go to drink and watch topless dancers. After a completely necessary (must be read with sarcasm) sexy dance routine from Salma Hayek’s character, the group discovers they are locked in a den of vampires and everything about the film’s manner completely changes. Drama and tension is replaced with hard action and much more prominent comedic elements. When Tom Savini appears as a character named Sex Machine with a gun attachment around his penis, you know things have taken a shift in another direction. These scenes in the bar largely contain vampire killings, dark comedy and our heroes’ retaliation. However, they also tie into a theme of morality that the film excellently plays with under the guise of a popcorn flick.The film’s recurring theme makes the audience question: “What sins are worse?” and “Can people who commit terrible crimes be redeemed for their actions?” Richie is slightly more sympathetic than he would otherwise be, thanks to the way the film slightly frames the underlying reason for his actions. Meanwhile, Seth is a bastard who has no issues with killing his hostages, but in trying to save the Fuller family from the vampire attacks, does he repent for all the bad he’s done and the torture he’s caused so many innocents? By the end, can he change his ways or would he rather continue his current lifestyle as a man on the run?
Another question Tarantino throws at you is: “Who are the true antagonists of the story?” The simple answer would be the vampires, but it isn’t quite so black and and white. The vampires may be killing thousands of people by luring them to a strip club, but that’s only because of their drive toward survival. Vampires, like all creatures, must eat to live, and it’s not like they’re seeking out woman and children. They only looking for bikers and truckers—people who thrive on their own and without many family connections. In contrast, the Gecko brothers are involved in the deaths of 16 people (including civilians), take an innocent family hostage and show no compassion for other people. They don’t do this out of a need to survive, but just because they can. The two of them are the antagonists for the first hour, but then the movie flips the script and makes the brothers, especially Seth, the people we root for. Seth really hasn’t become a changed man by the end, simply reverting back to his criminal ways and trying to live his life as before.
The thesis of the film can be found in the very first scene, in which a policeman (Michael Parks) walks into a liquor store he visits every day. During a discussion with the man behind the counter, Parks’s character dismisses microwavable meals as poison and almost immediately requests a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. The scene gets the message across crystal clear: pick your poison and embrace it. Whether it be killing bikers, robbing banks or even sexual assault, you pick your sin in life, and while you can redeem yourself from it, it’s not a requirement to have a happy existence.
On the surface, From Dusk Till Dawn is a fun popcorn flick in which you get to see Harvey Keitel shoot vampires with a cross gun. And while it’s enjoyable in that campy aspect, there is so much more to it if you look deeper.
4 out of 5 stars