When Quentin Tarantino was still working as a video store clerk, Robert Kurtzman - not the creator of The Walking Dead, but one of the three founders of KNB EFX, who have created makeup and prosthetic effects for everything from The Chronicles of Narnia to Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III to Dirk Diggler's penis - hired the then-fledgling filmmaker to write a script based on an idea he had for a movie that would blend an action thriller with a horror movie. The idea was to make a movie that would serve as a showcase for KNB's effects; Tarantino was paid a small amount, and KNB later repaid the favor by providing makeup effects for Reservoir Dogs, including the infamous ear scene. Several years later, when Quentin Tarantino the video store clerk had become Quentin Tarantino the internationally celebrated director of Pulp Fiction, he shared the unproduced script for From Dusk Till Dawn with Robert Rodriguez, who expressed interest in directing it. Suddenly, a funny, gory little horror movie became a sort-of follow-up to perhaps the most influential movie of the decade, with an all-star cast and a director who, after El Mariachi and Desperado, was something of a big deal himself.
I mention all of this because, to best appreciate From Dusk Till Dawn, it helps to put it in perspective. When the movie was released in early 1996, the prospect of a Tarantino-scripted movie was a big enough deal that the making of this little B-movie was documented in a full-length feature documentary, Full Tilt Boogie, which premiered about a year later. But Tarantino had also already experienced something of a backlash thanks to his pop cultural ubiquity and the impossible expectations created by his first two features. The month before From Dusk Till Dawn was released, the anthology film Four Rooms, featuring segments by Rodriguez (whose "The Misbehavers," is by far the best in the movie) and Tarantino (whose "The Man from Hollywood" was uncharacteristically stilted), opened to awful reviews and quickly disappeared from theaters. From Dusk Till Dawn did okay at the box office, but critics mostly responded with a shrug, suggesting that this kind of B-movie schlock was beneath a writer who had demonstrated the kind of originality and wit that Tarantino had with Pulp Fiction. This, of course, was before we knew how thoroughly Tarantino's aesthetic was informed by grindhouse and B-movie fare, and some critics and cinephiles thought he might grow into a more entertaining Godard. These are the same ones that can be counted on, every time a new Tarantino movie is released, to loudly bemoan the fact that he has yet to make a movie as "mature" as Jackie Brown (an excellent movie, but still).
However, once that zeitgeist-fueled moment when a movie is released and its immediate fate is determined passes, it's easier to evaluate the movie for what it is, rather than what it was expected/wished to be. And what you're left with, with From Dusk Till Dawn, is what it was originally conceived as - a showcase for a variety of gooey makeup effects - and it's just about the best possible version of that movie. One can bemoan the fact that George Clooney and Harvey Keitel are slumming it in a vampire movie, or one can get a kick out of watching freaking George Clooney and Harvey Keitel fighting vampires in roles that normally would have gone to, say, Robert Davi and Michael Ironside (actually, that movie sounds pretty great too). While From Dusk Till Dawn's mash-up of genres is very novel - I've known a few people who saw the movie without knowing the premise, and I envy them - it's not nearly as radical a reinvention of genre tropes as Pulp Fiction. What it is is a very solid A-list production of an awesome B-movie premise. Whether that is a disappointment or a must-see depends entirely on your interest in seeing Cheech Marin's eyes explode. Personally, I'm very interested.
I'm probably underselling From Dusk Till Dawn, as there's quite a lot about it that's good, and not just "good for a B-horror movie." From the excellent opening robbery sequence, Tarantino's script is unpredictable and handles a number of what could have been jarring tonal shifts with ease. The movie is peppered with references to horror movies and filmmakers, but none more so than John Carpenter, and Tarantino shares Carpenter's knack for investing what could be stock characters with character and humanity. It helps that the cast is very strong, particularly Harvey Keitel, who quietly gives one of his best performances as a recently widowed minister who has lost his faith. And this is easily Rodriguez's best movie; it's tight and focused in a way that most of his movies struggle to achieve, even as the vampire-filled second half allows him to go crazy with all manner of over-the-top camera setups and great gross-out effects. I'll always have a soft spot for this movie, too, for pointing me as a kid towards movies, like Re-Animator and Dead Alive, that Rodriguez and Tarantino would name-drop in interviews as influences; like those movies, From Dusk Till Dawn works because it's knowing but not self-parody, as it's clearly fueled by love for the genre. The filmmakers would team up a decade later for Grindhouse, an even better valentine to B-horror (there are days when I consider Death Proof Tarantino's finest work) that bombed much harder at the box office. Unfortunately, it seems there isn't a big audience for A-list splatter movies, but at least our small, strange demographic gets to reap the benefits.
U.S. Release Date: January 19, 1996
What critics said at the time:
"Mr. Rodriguez demonstrates his talents more clearly than ever -- he's visually inventive, quick-witted and a fabulous editor -- while still hampering himself with sophomoric material. The latter part of 'From Dusk Till Dawn' is so relentless that it's as if a spigot has been turned on and then broken. Though some of the tricks are entertainingly staged, the film loses its clever edge when its action heats up so gruesomely and exploitatively that there's no time for talk." - Janet Maslin, New York Times
"Keitel is terrific as the preacher with the slipshod faith, Clooney is nicely menacing, and Marin turns in some of his most raunchy, hilarious work to date. Even Tarantino the Actor acquits himself admirably: Younger Gekko Richard is a perverse sex killer whose resultant carnage is glimpsed almost subliminally in a genuinely creepy motel room scene. Fans of Merchant-Ivory will do well to steer clear of Rodriguez's newest opus, but both action and horror film fans have cause for celebration after what seems like a particularly long splatter-drought. This is horror with a wink and a nod to drive-in theatres and sweaty back seats. This is how it's done." - Marc Savlov, Austin Chronicle