From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) is far from the best of Robert Rodriguez’s films, coming out a full five years before he really hit his creative stride with Spy Kids (2001). The film is very much a movie made by a man trying to figure out what fits his style as a director, oscillating between the relative seriousness and the inherent cheesiness that Rodriguez would later learn to wholeheartedly embrace. From Dusk Till Dawn—despite some shortcomings—is nevertheless an entertaining preview of things to come, and the first time Rodriguez really flirted with the kind of gory schlock that later cropped up fully-formed in Planet Terror (2007) and Machete (2009). The film is also of interest to Quentin Tarantino fans, since—with Rodriguez working from a Tarantino script—the From Dusk Till Dawn marks the most intensive collaboration between these two friends in a long filmography of occasional cinematic fraternization, and the opportunity to witness an admittedly odd Tarantino script directed by a true, assured stylist (and no, Tony Scott doesn’t count).
The film works on a sort of gimmick, starting off as the kind of crime thriller Tarantino was known for at that time, complete with his usual snappy dialogue, though thankfully devoid of any asides about Royales with cheese. The gimmick—if it can really be considered one—is that the film, right around the half-way mark, suddenly and unexpectedly (to the degree it can be unexpected, since it was all over the film’s trailers and, well, in this review) turns into a full-blown horror movie, though one that leans less on atmosphere and more on action.
The film opens with Richard Gecko (Tarantino) having just busted his brother Seth (George Clooney) out of jail. The two are attempting to escape to Mexico, but with a trail of dead bodies in their wake and the entirety of Texas law enforcement after them it won’t be easy. At a cheap roadside motel, the two brothers happen upon Jacob (Harvey Keitel)—a former preacher having a bout of lost faith—and his two adopted kids, Kate (Julliette Lewis) and Scott (occasional TV actor Ernest Liu). Taking the family hostage and using their Winnebago to sneak across the border, the group ends up in a dive bar full of truckers and bikers, only to find out it becomes infested with vampires when the sun goes down.
Here, the movie’s mostly about vampire killing, and while some of it can be a bit clunky, it never takes itself too seriously, going mostly for the kind of splattery horror comedy that would make Peter Jackson proud. It helps that Rodriguez and Tarantino aren’t trying to reinvent the genre. Despite their grotesque looks (they’re closer to Max Schreck than Bela Lugosi), these are very much movie vampires (right down to a Peter Cushing reference). This, however, doesn’t keep the film from playing with conventions. We get characters who off these monsters with holy-water-filled Super Soakers, or with a pencil through the heart. Some of the effects are a bit on the cheesy side, but it suits the film’s attitude—as well as the kind of fun trash Rodriguez revels in. Plus, it’s kind of nice to see a film that relies more on animatronics and make-up work before the world of cinema got besieged by CGI.
The film is full of the usual Rodriguez regulars, from Danny Trejo, to Salma Hayek, to Cheech Marin in three roles (with his second appearance almost making the movie on its own). Even Michael Parks as Texas Ranger Earl McGraw makes his first appearance, a character that not only shows back up in Planet Terror, but in both of Tarantino’s Kill Bill films and his Death Proof (2007). Tarantino himself even gives a good performance, which may or may not have anything to do with the fact that his character is a sleazy creep. But what really makes the film work is George Clooney at his coolest, just a few years before he really cemented himself as the movie star of his generation—not to mention this is one of the final times you could ever dream of seeing Harvey Keitel billed above him. Even while being a murderer and thief, he’s still kind of likable. While a good chunk of those involved have gone on to make better movies, From Dusk Till Dawn remains a solid piece of stylish entertainment from Robert Rodriguez.