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From Dusk Till Dawn

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*Also starring: Harvey Keitel, Juliette Lewis, Cheech Marin, Salma Hayek, Ernest Liu, Danny Trejo, Fred Williamson, Kelly Preston



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Review by MrBrown
3 stars out of 4

A jarring hybrid of tense psychological drama and campy, B-grade exploitation horror, director Robert Rodriguez and screenwriter Quentin Tarantino's From Dusk till Dawn is bizarre, bloody... and a blast.

Roughly the first hour of the film is a riveting killers-on-the-lam psychodrama, with the treacherous Gecko brothers, the relatively level-headed Seth and paranoid, hotheaded sex offender Richard (George Clooney and Tarantino), fleeing the authorities following Richard's jailbreak of Seth and their subsequent killing spree. The two take former preacher Jacob Fuller (Harvey Keitel) and his daughter Kate and son Scott (Juliette Lewis and Ernest Liu) hostage, using the family's RV to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. Once in Mexico, the group hole up at the Titty Twister, a seedy stripper bar, where Seth and Richard intend to rendezvous with an associate.

Following a steamy table dance by one Santanica Pandemonium (Salma Hayek), From Dusk till Dawn abruptly shifts gears into a vampire thriller when all the dancers and a number of the bar patrons reveal themselves as bloodsuckers, with Santanica being the queen. From here on out, the film is a gleefully bloody homage to B-grade horror films of the past as the Gecko brothers and their hostages, with the aid of bar patrons Frost (Fred Williamson, doing a fun sendup of his image as a blaxploitation action icon) and Sex Machine (Tom Savini) fight for their lives.

Tarantino has gone on record that he and Rodriguez intend to "offend sensibilities" with this film, and based on the reaction of some of the audience members with whom I saw the film (first show, opening day, of course), they have succeeded. During the nearly hour-long bloodbath of a finale, a number of people walked out of the theatre. Seeing the film, it's easy to see how someone could be appalled by the carnage; however, it's done in such a pleasingly cartoonish manner that it can't be taken too seriously; one can't help but have fun with it. Rodriguez and Tarantino are well aware that for the second half, he's making a "balls-out exploitation flick" (albeit one with a top-flight cast), and the honest lack of pretensions is refreshing. The filmmakers set forth a modest goal and make no bones about it.

Tarantino especially also appears to have offended critics' sensibilities with the hybrid narrative, which has been the major criticism of the film (one person who had walked out, who had sat in front of me, appeared to have been a critic of some sort, for I could see him taking notes during the film). However, I feel that the leap from drama to horror is a justifiable one, and not just on the basis of audacity and cleverness and shock value--it works on a thematic level. For the first part of the film, we see the Fuller family being put through a metaphorical hell, and in the second half, it takes a tangible form in the Titty Twister, which, ironically, also entraps the creators of that hell, in effect, giving the Gecko brothers their ultimate comeuppance--a taste of their own medicine. Also, the vampires serve as Seth and Richard's true rendezvous; they come to the Titty Twister to meet with an associate, and the bloodthirsty monsters are "associates" on a deeper, spiritual level. The Gecko brothers in a sense are seeing a reflection of themselves, albeit an exaggeration akin to a reflection in a fun house mirror. I know I'm grasping at straws, trying to find a subtext in a film that by all intents and purposes is supposed to be a shallow trifle, but for those searching for a "logical" reason for the abrupt genre shift, it's there.

Rodriguez brings his usual expert craftsmanship to the numerous action set pieces, but his usual quick cut razzle-dazzle appears to be softened for this film; in fact, he borrows a thing or two from the handbook of Tarantino, such as the now-familiar "looking out from the trunk" shot. A clever touch was to include references to their previous works; the Big Kahuna Burger logo from Pulp Fiction is emblazoned on the fast food bags Seth carries, and a crotch cannon only seen in Desperado is actually put to use here. And in keeping with the spirit of B-grade exploitation flicks, the makeup effects are good but not all that convincing; in fact, they are kind of overdone, which adds to the air of excess and unpretentiousness.

Clooney reveals himself to be a bonafide screen presence with his intense portrayal of Seth. While level-headed as a whole, one can see the fire in his eyes, the dangerous killer ready to erupt should the need arise. He's captivating to watch. Tarantino is also quite effective here; his rather innocuous-looking exterior works for the truly psychotic Richard--it makes him that much more frightening when he explodes into violence. Keitel, despite a labored Southern accent, lends quiet dignity to his role, providing a cool relaxed anchor in reality when the story turns toward the fantastic. The same goes for Lewis, who, as in Cape Fear, perfectly captures adolescent awkwardness and insecurity and makes Kate's tranformation into, as Tarantino says, a "badass" entirely believable. Hayek is also memorable as the sexy Santanica, but her appearance is much too brief; and Cheech Marin is a scene-stealer in three different roles, especially as a sleazy guy by the name of, ahem, Chet Pussy. The only one not turning in a decent performance is newcomer Liu, who is adequate during the first half of the film but whose second-half emoting is quite amateurish. Rodriguez made a similar gamble casting young unknowns for his segment in Four Rooms; while it paid off incredibly well there, it does not here.

One's enjoyment of From Dusk till Dawn depends entirely on one's expectations going in. Those expecting a straight action/horror vehicle (which the ads are making it out to be) will be disappointed. However, anyone wanting to see an interesting marriage of two seemingly unlinkable genres and a fun tongue-in-cheek gorefest that both spoofs and celebrates the glories of B-grade exploitation vehicles are in for an entertaining treat.

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