By Stacey Richter
SEVERED LIMBS, EXPLODING heads, blood-splattered walls--they're not for everyone. If you happen to have a low tolerance for gore, I suggest you avoid From Dusk Till Dawn, a vampire/gangster/nudie hybrid from director Robert Rodriguez (who made El Mariachi and Desperado) and writer Quentin Tarantino. But if your aesthetic sensibility is a little more aggressive, or if you've been toughened by regular exposure to chainsaw flicks and Roadrunner and Coyote cartoons, you'll probably find much of the carnage in From Dusk Till Dawn is a playful, slightly off-kilter parody of film violence. This is goofy, fun entertainment, at least as long as it doesn't make you sick.
Quentin Tarantino and George Clooney (of ER fame) play bad-guy brothers on the run from the Law. One brother has busted the other out of jail and they're the target of an intensive manhunt. Tarantino isn't much of an actor--his voice is untrained and you can see him leaving the moment to plan ahead--but, mercifully, his role is small and he plays a psychotic, so it's easy to hate him. George Clooney is better, but he still gives off the groomed, controlled air of a Hollywood actor going through his paces. (For contrast, you can watch Sean Penn totally embody a criminal in Dead Man Walking.) The strange thing is, this level of artificiality actually works for the movie. The plot is so over-the-top, so blatantly made-up, that the medium acting, so-so special effects and fake-looking set-design all converge to make a film that borders, but never wholly veers, into camp.
What happens is this: The two brothers hijack a minister (Harvey Keitel) and his family (including his budding daughter, played by Juliette Lewis) and force them on a detour to Mexico. There, the criminals are supposed to meet up with their protectors at a remote bar called the Tittie Twister. So far, the movie is the regular tough-guy gangster type, but at the bar, all the patrons abruptly turn into vampires. This is just so ridiculous it's thrilling. Movies almost always pick a genre and stick to it; the fact that one dares to hop around between types is freeing, in a silly, playful way. When the vampires emerge and start sucking, the fakeness of the movies is suddenly exposed. Let's face it, in real life there really is crime, but only in movies can we find the undead.
Once From Dusk Till Dawn starts in with the vampires, it begins to flirt heavily with satire and camp. At times, like when Fred Williamson gives a stirring speech about the horrors of 'Nam, it veers all the way into parody. (It's a little like stuffing bits of Dracula: Dead And Loving It into a "serious" thriller, like Natural Born Killers.) For his screenplay, Tarantino borrows an irreverent array of standard plot and character devices from seventies' horror and action flicks--especially the kind of dialogue that aims to give a flimsy moral covering to violent action. While fighting vampires, one brother asks the minister, "What do you want to be: a faithless preacher, or a mean motherfuckin' servant for God?" The minister, who's been doubting his faith, chooses to be a mean motherfucker for God, and the killing begins.
At its best, From Dusk Till Dawn has the feel of a show being put on by a gang of smart, mischievous kids. The most enjoyable moments come when the 10-year-old-kid, free-form theory of storytelling kicks into action: and then, they get in a fight...and then, everyone turns into vampires! At other times though, From Dusk Till Dawn slips un-selfconsciously back into the unsatisfying conventions of bloody movies. Though Tarantino is known for writing unexpected dialogue, there's no surplus of witty banter to keep things moving here. From Dusk Till Dawn is exhilarating at the moments it crosses the boundary from one genre to another, but once entrenched in the gangster or vampire conventions, it tends to fall flat.
This movie really isn't for everyone. Probably the more TV you've soaked up in your lifetime, the more likely it is you'll enjoy the barrage of blood and media references. When you get right down to it, this movie isn't really about gangsters and vampires at all--it's about other movies.
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