(Every month, we at The Spool select a Filmmaker of the Month, honoring the life and works of influential auteurs with a singular voice, for good or ill. Given that July sees the release of Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, the ninth film from Quentin Tarantino, we’re exploring the filmography of one of 20th-century cinema’s most breathlessly referential directors. Read the rest of our Filmmaker of the Month coverage of Tarantino here.)
There’s a strange sense of disorientation associated with watching From Dusk Till Dawn, Robert Rodriguez’s 1996 foray into the horror genre. Written by Quentin Tarantino, the film begins as a crime drama about a pair of murderous brothers on the lam who abduct a family and force them across the border into Mexico. Then, approximately halfway through the film, the narrative morphs into an all-out horror action film as the characters try to survive the night by fending off an escalating series of vampire attacks in a biker bar called ‘The Titty Twister.’
The experience of watching the film is akin to witnessing the collision of two distinct but complementary films mashed together. That’s because, in some ways, it’s exactly what it is. While auteur theory would traditionally assign the brunt of the creative responsibility to Rodriguez because he is the director, From Dusk Till Dawn is undeniably also a Tarantino joint. It is less of a collaboration between screenwriter and filmmaker than the synthesis of two distinct personalities.
From Dusk Till Dawn has a notorious history. As Tarantino’s first paid scripting gig, he was paid a paltry $1500 by Robert Kurtzman to expand his story in order to showcase Kurtzman’s special effects company, KNB. The money enabled Tarantino to quit his job and focus on his feature directorial debut, 1992’s Reservoir Dogs, for which KNB did makeup effects for free. As we now know, that film went on to launch Tarantino’s career.
Watching From Dusk Till Dawn can induce a strange time-loop effect. Both the dialogue and the scenario lack the polish that is evident in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, two films that were released four and two years earlier. This discontinuity makes sense: Dusk was commissioned before Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, but it didn’t go into production until long afterwards. As a result Dusk is the historically relevant film where Tarantino can be seen cutting his teeth.
The film plays like the work of an immature (read: novice) screenwriter who is still perfecting his craft and figuring out his creative, artistic impulses.
From Dusk Till Dawn bears a number of prototypical Tarantino elements, including preliminary efforts at his trademark erudite dialogue and freewheeling monologues; his propensity for unexpected violence, creative profanity, and casual misogyny; his willingness to indulge in tangents and subplots that can lend his films a sense of lackadaisical or unhurried pacing. And, of course, it includes two distinct visual cues to his toe fetish, and his love of disreputable male protagonists with whom the audience is meant to sympathize and possibly even fall in love with.
This is particularly true of the Gecko brothers, Dusk’s quote/unquote protagonists. It’s not difficult to see the pair of criminal brothers as prototypes for Jules and Vincent in Pulp Fiction: an unlikely male duo who are prone to violence, fond of quips and diatribes, and prone to shoot first and ask questions later (see also: the leads of both of Tarantino’s other non-directorial screenplays, Tony Scott’s True Romance and Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers). That the Geckos are less memorable than their hitmen successors (or, given the wonky timeline, is it predecessors?) arguably has less to do with Tarantino’s writing, and more to do with the performers inhabiting them.
The single biggest issue with the Geckos is that neither actor playing them is able to elevate the stock character on the page into a fully realized character onscreen. George Clooney’s Seth is the defacto lead: the criminal with the secret heart of gold who is charged with keeping his troublemaking brother out of trouble. While Clooney clearly has the charisma required to lead a feature film, he is a poor fit for Tarantino’s script. In fact, his performance is nearly identical to the one he would deliver a year later in Batman Forever, despite the fact that the two characters are worlds apart.
Tarantino reportedly passed on the opportunity to direct the film in order to prepare for his role as the younger Gecko brother, Richard. By this time Tarantino had made a habit of appearing in cameos his films and the films of his friends (he does not, however, appear in either True Romance or Natural Born Killers). Tarantino ‘the actor’ tends to be attracted to greasy, perverted jerk roles so his decision to take on a supporting role as the more impulsive, unlikeable Gecko brother is in keeping with his brand. Despite clearly relishing the opportunity to play a murderous rapist, though, Tarantino is hardly exceptional in an underwritten role: Richard is less of a character and more of a narrative instigator/foil.
This is one of the more egregious issues with the film: the characters are shallow stereotypes and any attempts at character development are immediately set aside the minute that the group enters the Titty Twister. There’s a reason why exploitation icon Fred Williamson, makeup artist extraordinaire Tom Savini and buxom beauty Salma Hayek stand out in people’s minds; they comprise the most memorable parts of the film’s louder, more action-oriented second half.
This disjunction between halves is polarizing. For some, the left turn into action/horror is what sets the film apart from others of its ilk. For others, it is pointedly a single film split between two different creators. Love it or hate it, Dusk certainly embodies the qualities of each of its creators: the first half is an early prototype Tarantino film, filled with memorable dialogue, violent character beats and intimate tight quarters. The second half is clearly a Rodriguez joint, filled with sex appeal, guns and gooey FX.
At its core, From Dusk Till Dawn is a fun and slightly frivolous horror/action hybrid. Zeroing in on Tarantino’s creative input, the film is a blueprint of his early screenwriting skills, his acting interests and hints at his future collaboration with Rodriguez, Grindhouse, a little more than a decade later. In fact, it is in Grindhouse that the ideas the pair play with in Dusk come to fruition.
Of course, by this time, Tarantino would no longer be content to simply write the screenplay and act; he would need to direct, as well.