The year 1996 was a rough year for me as a horror fan; on one hand I finally had my own VHS copies of the Nightmare On Elm Street and Friday the 13th series to wear out, but on the other hand I was only ten so my mother still insisted on seeing movies before me. I can still remember arguments about wanting to see Scream, Thinner and The Frighteners in theaters that year (I knew Bordello of Blood was a lost cause, so I didn’t even ask about that one). But the one that I really had my eye on was a movie about bank robbers and vampire strippers called From Dusk Till Dawn.
While I was a bit too young to have fully grasped Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs, I still knew enough about cinema to know that Tarantino was a name that generated excitement. Seeing him being involved in a horror movie somehow felt important to the genre I was excitedly exploring and becoming protective over. I was also old enough to know I needed to see the rest of whatever was happening with Salma Hayek and that snake. Needless to say, I lost the fight over seeing it in theaters quite quickly, but thanks to the always uncaring employees of my local Blockbuster I wouldn’t have to wait all that long.
One of the fun aspects of looking back on From Dusk Till Dawn is the difference in my own opinion of the film 20 years later. I remember being aggravated that it took so long to get to the boobs and vampires; especially with that final shot teasing that we had only seen the tip of the iceberg. When watching the film now, I often think that the opening half contains exactly what is missing from most horror; non-rushed character development. The fact is From Dusk Till Dawn completely changes genre halfway through the movie, we are all-in on the story in front of us before a horror element is even hinted at. I, for one, would gladly have watched a start to finish movie about the Gecko brothers on the lam with the dysfunctional Fuller family as their hostages; just imagine that Clooney-Keitel showdown over the ever creepy Tarantino after another 40 minutes of on screen tension!
Instead, this on the road crime film suddenly turns into a claustrophobic supernatural horror movie. I love that concept of changing directions halfway through, though it’s impossible to market such a movie without giving. I suppose that is the reason more movies don’t attempt it; the only other example that jumps out at me is Hostel, which gave us about 30-40 minutes of frat boys partying before introducing us to the quaint little murder rooms we know and love. It didn’t take long for my aggravation to turn into admiration; as my critical eye developed I realized that those opening sequences gave the audience a chance to get acquainted with the characters in the real world before dropping them into a situation to which no one can relate. We can feel the love between Seth (George Clooney) and Richie (Quentin Tarantino) and we look at the characters as brothers first and criminals second. The audience can equally get behind the misfortunate Fuller family, who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Faithless former preacher Jacob (Harvey Keitel) and his children, Kate (Juliette Lewis) and Scott (Ernest Liu), feel like a real family on the mend and that these events happening to them might just unify them if they can survive the night. Looking at them as individuals and not soon-to-be vampire food helps to smooth the transition once the gang gets to the bar turned coven Titty Twister.
While the opening half plays out very Tarantino-style, the second half is where director Robert Rodriguez makes his impact. The now famous Santanico Pandemonium (Hayek) dance with a python around her neck serves as the transition (pun intended) scene for the film as well as a turning point for the characters. As the strippers turn into bloodthirsty vampires and begin devouring the bar patrons, we’re treated to a variety of fun weapons like holy water balloons and a wooden drill spike along with a variety of colorful side characters. The blend of horror and humor works wonderfully as some genuinely frightening vampires are eviscerated inches away from the house band playing instruments made of fresh corpses. It’s that type of charm that has helped From Dusk Till Dawn achieve its cult status.
Perhaps the most impressive part of From Dusk Till Dawn is how well the visuals hold up twenty years later. Then again, with names like Robert Kurtzman, Tom Savini, and Greg Nicotero all involved, maybe it’s not such a surprise that that the practical effects still look awesome. Even the early CGI, mainly used to change the vampire faces, doesn’t look too out of place. Though I’ll forever wonder why exactly Sex Machine (Savini) turned into a giant rat-dog thing after being decapitated.
Twenty years and two forgettable sequels later, From Dusk Till Dawn has been resurrected into a successful and pretty fun television show that continues to build upon the series canon. In the midst of a decade that wasn’t kind to the vampire genre (Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Interview With The Vampire being the exceptions), From Dusk Till Dawn stands out as a one of a kind entry that still serves as the standard bearer for non-traditional vampire movies. Luckily, mom doesn’t have to screen my movies anymore, and even though From Dusk Till Dawn is among my favorite all time movies, I’m still pretty glad to have avoided whatever awkwardness that would have accompanied her presence for my first trip to the Titty Twister.