From Dusk Till Dawn is a bargain 2 for the price of 1 film, one part crime thriller, the other horror flick. The premise is mouth-watering: two killers-on-the-run, the Gecko brothers (George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino, also a delusional rapist) kidnap a family (a grizzled Harvey Keitel and his teenaged son and daughter ) with the intention of making it across the mexican border to a trucker's strip joint which turns out to be literally infested with vampires.
This film should have been great. It seems that all the elements were there. Helmed by Robert Rodriguez (who show such directorial flair with Desperado, despite the cop-out ending) and written by Quentin Tarantino (hot from his legendary crime opus Pulp Fiction) and casting himself as the rapist alongside fellow Resevoir Dog, Keitel, as his captive ex-priest. Also throw in sex symbols George Clooney as the dominant criminal, Juliette Lewis as the daughter, and Salma Hayek as the stripper-cum-vampire-cum-internet-wet-dream. Aside from the fantastic cast, there are interesting characters - religious men at turning points in their spiritual lives. The black sheep of criminal and horror genres, being the rapist and the vampire respectively, are both thrown in the mix. So, what an exciting movie this promises to be. Unfortunately, it never quite works.
FDTD is clearly a self-confessed B movie celebrating all that is cultdom. It so wants to be a cult classic, you can almost hear Robert and Quentin remarking 'How cool was that'? and 'This kicks ass, man'! between takes. One of the biggest problems with it is a lack of any real horror; when the vampires finally emerge, all pale and scaly in their skinpy costumes, they are just freak show characters in already elaborate carnival. Horror should unsettle, it should rouse that fear inside of us and make us hesitate before we turn out the bedside lamp. FDTD has its tongue too firmly in its cheek to be taken seriously as a horror film, there are too many visual sight gags involing severed for this movie to be frightening. The tone is all important in the horror and this seems to be leaning towards a comedic tone, which is slightly confusing. Canned laughter would not have been out of place in certain scenes (ie - the bar's resident band of vampires substituting electric guitars for the torsoes of mangled victims, and carrying on playing). Comedy can sometimes work in a horror film, American Werewolf In London finds the right balance. Dog Soldiers and Shaun Of The Dead (which functions more as a comedy) seem to both respect the genre and have several genuinely scary moments.
However, there is much to like in this film. The film looks great, the set designs are splendid and they certainly did not skimp on imagination in the costume department, Salma Hayek's stripper blends the look of modern day eroticism with ancient Egyptian wear. Also, the Gecko brothers' tatoos and the way they wear them suggests a past involvement with a prison culture. This kind of attention to detail is admirable, but seems displaced in a movie that refuses to take itself seriously. The film may have been more effective if it kept the same tone running all the way through it; oddly, it appears darker and more dangerous during its 'crime genre' first half. During the second 'horror' segment it lets its hair down and asserts 'it's okay, guys. I'm just a movie'. -- this is its tonal shift, the sublime to the ridiculous.
Rodriguez and Tarantino are more adept when dealing with the crime story, the narrative is more dense, building a tense and intriguing relationship between the family and their violent captors. Harvey Keitel plays the single dad/ex-priest, who has lost his faith due to his wife dying in a terrible accident. Predictably, he regains his faith when later confronted by all manner of unholy beings. This old movie chesnut (ie- the once religious man having lost his faith, only to need it when a supernatural force of evil enters the fray), present in films such as The Prophecy and End Of Days, was handled with much more maturity in M.Night Shymalan's alien invasion horror flick Signs. When Keitel utters these lines, full of an intense anger toward God, they seem ingenuine and clunky. Perhaps it's the script, whatever it is, it comes over as forced. Another interesting narrative strand is the disturbing tension between Tarantino's clearly insane rapist and Juliette Lewis's daughter, all exposed midriff and pouting lips. This plot element is developed from the rapist's perspective, making it edgy and strangely erotic. This should have gone somewhere, there ought to have been a climax - the lunatic culmination of his unspent lust. This would have been more scary than anything served up. But it was mercilessly thrown away in the second half. Tarantino's (for once) interesting acting turn as this barmy rapist, Richard Gecko, was denied his place in the Hall Of Horrors and substituted with a mindless splatterfest of gory comedy.
It is strange that Tarantino canvassed real human agony at both being shot and betrayed in Resevoir Dogs, he lingered on Tim Roth's emotional turmoil to an almost embarrassing degree. Whereas in FDTD there is zero realism on the human emotional scale. When a key character is bitten, he or she turns into a vampire, this being emphasized by a sudden zoom shot. This happens again and again. There is no mortal anguish being expressed by any of the characters. One can't help but think that the successful writer/director team set out to make a dumb horror flick, replete with gore, boobs and big shiny guns. The idea was to confuse the audience in a good way, to lue us into one kind of movie and then move the goalposts, tell us we're now in an altogether different kind of movie. It was meant as a clever twist, an experimental manipulation of audience expectation. However, the movie we were lured into was a good one, the one we ended up with was a bad one.
On a positive note, the film does deserve 3 stars, if anything for the enthusiasm of all involved, which is definitely infectious. The lush production value is also ever-present and there aren't many expensive crime/vampire gorefests on the market. As a mindless pulp with no great sense of direction this works well. The SFX are also fun in a schlocky kind of way.
There is at least half a decent movie here, just set your expectations as low as Friday the 13th part IX: Jason Goes To Hell and you may be pleasantly distracted.