*This review contains major spoilers! Though I usually refrain from including spoilers in my reviews, anyone who has seen From Dusk ‘Till Dawn will tell you it’s a difficult film to talk about without divulging its plot twist. But, seeing as this is a film originally released in 1996, I’m pretty sure anyone interested in reading this is already in the know, anyway. And now, the review*
From Dusk ‘Till Dawn is the kind of movie that was designed to be a cult classic. This joint effort by writer Quentin Tarantino and director Robert Rodriguez retains many of both filmmaker’s trademarks, and includes a mid-movie tonal shift that seems to happen just for the hell of it. While Rodriguez and Tarantino are no strangers to making cult films, most of their filmographies are easy to love for any fan of cinema. From Dusk ‘Till Dawn, however, feels like it was tailor made for the niche, to the point that it may prove more polarizing to many fans who might otherwise appreciate both filmmaker’s outputs. I myself have flip-flopping feelings over the film’s complete gearshift at the halfway point.
So what is this big tonal shift that happens during the movie that I keep bringing up? It’s that the movie’s first half is a dialogue-heavy, character-based crime thriller, but then abruptly transforms into a vampire-themed B-movie in which blood and gore take center stage.
On one hand, you definitely have to admire Rodriguez and Tarantino for making so big of a gamble as to entirely change the film’s genre midway through. Unfortunately, unless you really dig B-movies, the film’s second half may completely lose your interest.
From Dusk ‘Till Dawn tells the story of the Gecko brothers, two criminals who are on the run from the law after a successful bank robbery: Seth (George Clooney) is the level-headed professional, and has recently been busted out of jail by his younger brother, Richie (Tarantino). Contrary to Seth, Richie is a violent psychopath, and his unhinged mentality makes him a far sloppier criminal than his reserved older brother.
While on the run, the Geckos encounter the Fuller family: Jacob Fuller (Harvey Keitel), a widowed pastor questioning his faith, and his two children; Katherine (Juliette Lewis) and Scott (Ernest Liu). The Geckos take the Fuller family hostage as they make their way to the border. It’s these parts of the film that contain most of From Dusk ‘Till Dawn’s best moments, with the banters between the Geckos and Fullers (particularly the dialogue exchanges with Seth and Jacob) showcasing Tarantino’s writing abilities.
Once they arrive in Mexico, the party makes their way to a strip club, where the Geckos are to meet their contact at dawn. However, things go awry when the bar employees reveal themselves as vampires who feast on unsuspecting patrons at night. Trapped in the club amidst an army of vampires, the Geckos and Fullers set aside their differences and, together with a biker named Sex Machine (Tom Savini) and a Vietnam vet named Frost (Fred Williamson) – who also just so happened to be in the bar at the time – have to survive the night and slay the undead army.
The complete change in genre is admittedly a hoot, with the film suddenly deciding it’s about vampires at the drop of a hat. It’s easy to see why From Dusk ‘Till Dawn has earned its cult status. But at the same time, the crime thriller half of the movie seems to be building towards something special, while the vampire half seems to just make due.
Yes, there’s a lot of B-movie violence and gore to be had, which is fun in its own right. But it’s a shame the quality of the movie seems to dip at this point, with the entire vampire half being mostly comprised of intentionally cheesy action. If this were Mad Max/Mission: Impossible/Indiana Jones levels of action, it would be easier for this second half to stand on its own two feet. But cheesy, B-movie action is a much harder sell, and I’m afraid From Dusk ‘Till Dawn is one of those movies that may have some audiences asking themselves if paying homage to B-movies gives a film a pass, or if it just makes it a B-movie itself.
That’s not to say that things are flat-out bad, if you’re a fan of this kind of thing, you’re in for a treat. But if you’re not, you may lament that the writing and character moments from the earlier half of the movie couldn’t find their way into the latter half (though Jacob eventually gets some moments to shine. Being a pastor, he should be at an advantage when up against vampires, but his increasingly shaky faith leaves this in question).
Perhaps if the film had a specific villain, it could have given the characters someone else to interact with amidst all the chaos, leading to more Tarantino dialogue and character growth. Instead, slaughtering vampires by the dozen takes center stage, which isn’t a bad thing in of itself, but it just doesn’t feel as well made as the events of the film’s first half. As respectably daring of a move as it was to change genres midway through the film, it can feel like the second half of From Dusk ‘Till Dawn simply threw its hands in the air and went the easy route.
I don’t want to write off From Dusk ‘Till Dawn completely, as it can be a fun movie and, again, its risk-taking is admirable. But I find myself flip-flopping whether or not I like the movie. I guess I appreciate it, to an extent. But when you know that Rodriguez and Tarantino can both do so much more, it can be a hard pill to swallow knowing this joint venture between the two feels like its settles on being a B-movie tribute, and not something more (especially knowing that Tarantino would later transform a cheesy movie homage into something truly great with Kill Bill). When my own feelings towards a movie feel like they could be determined by a coin flip, I guess that means it’s a little difficult for me to recommend it on the whole. But for that very specific audience who doesn’t mind indulging in a little B-movie goodness, then From Dusk ‘Till Dawn’s abrupt tonal shift won’t be a deterrent at all.