Another Kind of Pulp Fiction
For the movies, the single most important individual of the ’90s is Quentin Tarantino. A few years ago, nobody had heard of him. But the success of the two features Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction have been not only an overwhelming influence on young directors, but their box office punch has given Tarantino himself extensive personal influence. This is good news for film fans, since Tarantino is such a huge fan himself, and has the talent and ability necessary to put what people want to see up on the screen.
One way he’s doing this is by working on his own film projects. A second is with his deal to distribute foreign films that he likes – genre films that don’t get released in America since all the urban grindhouses were closed down by home video. And the third way is by working with other young filmmakers with a similar viewpoint. Robert Rodriguez is one such individual. His 1992 feature El Mariachi, initially aimed at only a Mexican video release, showed such energy and creativity that it was picked up for distribution by Columbia. In 1995, he teamed with Tarantino for a sequel, Desperado, then quickly moved on to the semi-anthology Four Rooms. From Dusk Till Dawn, the latest product of the Rodriguez/Tarantino partnership, is their most outstanding collaboration yet.
Based on a 1990 script by Tarantino, the scenario once again dives headlong into a rich stew of the pulp elements both artists love so much: offbeat characters, fast action, snappy dialogue, unusual film techniques, and a bit of the old ultraviolence. All this is held together by a mesmerizing appreciation for a well told story. Tarantino’s love for great stories is the key to his success, most apparent in his biggest hit, Pulp Fiction. The whole thing unreels like a string of stories told by a neighborhood bartender, right down to the way he’d back up to cover parts of the story he’d missed. I predict someday Tarantino will make a movie consisting entirely of Harvey Keitel sitting in a diner telling stories.
This picture is really two films in one. The first half introduces Seth (George Clooney) and Ricky (Quentin T. himself, in his best performance to date) Gecko, a pair of crooked brothers on their way to Mexico after a violent bank hold-up (later, we see a grinning newscaster tallying the body count). At the Dew Drop Inn motel, they cross paths with a former minister (the aforementioned QT regular Keitel) and his two kids (Juliette Lewis and Ernest Liu), who are taking a vacation in their RV home. The brothers hijack the RV, using the family to get them across the border into Mexico. They head for a wild roadhouse called the Titty Twister, for a rendezvous with the people who’ll insure their cover.
Tarantino’s previous scripts are readily available, but this is the first one I’ve actually wanted to read. There are so many dangling details that it would be interesting to see how much was cut out to save running time (as it is, it takes a good hour to get to Mexico). Why is Keitel’s son Chinese (adopted? We never get a look at the picture of his late wife when Clooney looks through his wallet)? It’s implied that Clooney is a relatively honorable criminal, drawn into greater bloodshed due to his alliegiance to his psycho brother, but we never get a clear enough answer to develop an unquestioned sympathy for his character. There are a bunch more unanswered questions in the second half, but the little details are just part of the fun of a Tarantino picture.
If they’d stayed with the first movie, the action-packed confrontation that fills out the rest of the picture would’ve taken place between the two bank robbers, their associates, the kidnapped family, and various groups of lawmen. Instead, Tarantino decided to give his audience something totally unexpected (well, unexpected to anyone not clued in by the ads beforehand). As it turns out, the Titty Twister is much more sinister than it seems.
Ever since they made their film debuts, I’ve wondered whether the magic wrought by Rodriguez or Tarantino would work for a horror film. Perceived conservative interests have thrown horror movies into a decided slump for the last decade. The only horrors released theatrically have rarely gone beyond the safe & same old thing, with only those disguised as mystery thrillers serving up any kind of true scare material. Since Rodriguez and Tarantino are horror fans, too, they’ve been wise enough to steer clear of the obvious clichés. Since adding the supernatural will bring their story into the realm of the fantastic anyway, why not take it over the top. Way over the top.
We begin the second movie when our little group sets foot inside the Titty Twister, as disreputable an establishment as ever presented on film. The boys sit down to drink shots and bond a bit with their captives, and take in the topless entertainment. The show comes to a climax with the performance of the aptly named Satanico Pandemonium (played by the radiantly sexy Salma Hayek). There have been no frightened villagers nervously crossing themselves to tip us off, no thunderstorms or swirling mist. Just like the characters in the movie, when the trap is sprung, we’re already neck deep in nosferatu.
What follows is the most outrageously relentless nightmare gorefest since Peter Jackson’s Dead-Alive (aka: Braindead). Clooney, Keitel, and company are quickly joined by various surviving patrons in a energetic high-pitched battle against an army of undead creatures. So much blood, goo, and splatter is thrown around the screen, one wonders at the R rating (apparently, you can mutilate blatantly supernatural characters to your heart’s content and still not get tagged with an X – bravo to the MPAA for their insight). It’s a gore-met’s dream come true, as well as a loving tribute to George Romero, Sam Raimi, and all those others who’ve come before.
The supporting cast reflects the horror show tribute, with veterans like Tom Savini (an actor better known as the groundbreaking make-up f/x genius behind Dawn of the Dead, Friday the 13th, Maniac, and dozens of others), Fred Williamson (New York Ripper, Express to Terror), and John Saxon (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Planet of Blood) showing up to join the fun. Cheech Marin, who performed admirably in Desperado, is rewarded with three roles here. The versatile Lewis is surprisingly accurate portraying a normal teenager again, after the extremes reached for in most of her recent parts. Keitel is once again rock solid, but the greatest impression is made by Clooney, who demonstrates ample big-screen presence. If this role doesn’t make him a bonafide movie star, his next one will.
Rodriguez, who photographed and edited the film as well as directed, keeps everything moving at high speed. There seems to be no end to his visual bag of tricks, with some crazy new bit coming at you every minute. He was so keenly resourceful with the ultra-cheap El Mariachi, it makes for great fun to see him playing with a bigger bag of tricks. There are so many cool surprises that I don’t want to give any away. And, while so many horror flix are content to end with some tired gag, the final shot of From Dusk Till Dawn is not only clever and impressive, but brings many elements of the picture into finer focus as well.
I’m not sure whether From Dusk Till Dawn holds up as a movie that hangs together under exacting critical scrutiny – there are too many threads of it flapping wildly in the breeze in all directions. But it’s extremely refreshing when a film like this one comes along that wants to give an audience all the thrills, laughs, and surprises that it can stand. Isn’t that why people buy tickets?