Imagine, if you will, two movies plucked from opposite sides of the video store. The first is a moody thriller about a pair of thieves who pull off a bank job and hightail it to Mexico. The crooks are brothers: suave, handsome Seth Gecko (George Clooney) and his disturbed younger sibling, Richard (Quentin Tarantino), a pale geek whose short fuse keeps threatening to screw up their plans. For insurance, they take some hostages — a widowed former pastor named Jacob Fuller (Harvey Keitel) and his two kids, teenage Kate (Juliette Lewis) and her adopted Chinese brother, Scott (Ernest Liu). As the five head for the Mexican border in the Fullers’ mobile home, the crooks and captives form an uneasy unit, much as Humphrey Bogart and his convict cronies did with the family they terrorized in The Desperate Hours. Will Richard, a convicted sex offender, try to molest the pouty, vulnerable Kate? And will the battle of wills between Seth and Jacob, a man whose pained decency hides an iron resolve, simmer to a boil?
The second movie is a garish horror freak-out — one of those twisty-headed creep shows that regurgitate the plot of Night of the Living Dead, mostly as an excuse for a campy-gory onslaught of special effects. People morphing into lizard-headed vampires! Faces melting like candles! Bats! Bodies with bloody ligaments where the legs should be dragging themselves along the floor! Stakes driven through hearts! Arrows shot through eyeballs! Limbs flying! Bodies exploding! Supercalifragi-gross-out!
The deranged hook of From Dusk Till Dawn (Dimension, R), a collaboration between director Robert Rodriguez (Desperado) and screenwriter-costar Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction), is that it starts out as the first movie and turns, on a dime, into the second. Or rather, it begins as a movie and devolves into a pseudo-movie, a compendium of shoot-the-works horror cliches lifted from The Evil Dead, Re-Animator, the Nightmare on Elm Street series, Dead-Alive, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, and then fed through the music-video Cuisinart. Having consumed my share of grade-Z horror films, I enjoy a good spurting decapitation as much as the next person. But who’s kidding whom? The second half of From Dusk Till Dawn is the kind of random nightmare orgy that usually comes with a Roman numeral after the title. It’s only the high-powered talent involved that may convince you what you’re seeing is more imaginative than it is.
Rodriguez and Tarantino put on a good show — for a while. From Dusk Till Dawn opens with a sequence set at a roadside Texas convenience store; everyone in the place (crooks, clerk, redneck sheriff) is so much more voluble than they have any right to be that you get caught up in the sheer manic spillage of Tarantino’s wordplay. From there, the film roots us in edgy suspense. George Clooney (the dreamboat pediatrician from ER), a tattoo of black flame snaking up the side of his neck, glides into the role of an outlaw stud with such playful ease that he makes a sly joke out of how relaxed he is. And Tarantino, as the horny loser Richard, actually does a credible job of playing someone who’s scared to say what’s on his mind. It’s Harvey Keitel, though, who anchors From Dusk Till Dawn. Acting from beneath a grizzled beard and Southern-comfort drawl, he gives Jacob a quiet moral authority. When he argues with young Scott about what they should do as they approach the Mexican border (the father has more experience, the son has seen more TV crime shows), it’s the kind of urgent saturated-with-pop moment that Tarantino can bring alive like no one else.
In Mexico, the Gecko brothers are scheduled to meet their connection at the Titty Twister, a scrungy burlesque palace crammed with strippers, bikers, and pockmarked lowlifes. The deliriously obscene carny-barker spiel that Cheech Marin delivers on the front steps is pure, outrageous Tarantino. But the moment the action moves inside this overscale juke joint, you can feel Rodriguez’ raucous cartoon sensibility take over the movie. There are mano-a-mano brawls with bodies flying, a snake dance featuring the dazzling Salma Hayek (it climaxes in a ritual act of foot worship — an ongoing theme in Tarantino’s work), and, finally, the transformation of virtually everyone on screen into shrieking, bloodsucking beasties. True, the characters remain faintly visible amid the latex horror show. There’s even a token story development: Seth and Jacob have to put aside their differences to…like, defeat the vampires. Still, Rodriguez’ smash-and-grab editing pounds the movie into pulp fragments. As the ghoulies kept popping up, one after another, like exhibits in a demented Disney World ride, any dramatic stake I had in From Dusk Till Dawn quickly fell away. Rodriguez and Tarantino have taken the let-’em-eat-trash cynicism of modern corporate moviemaking and repackaged it as junk-conscious ”attitude.” In From Dusk Till Dawn, they put on such a show of cooking up popcorn that they make pandering to the audience seem hip.