Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Cult-TV Review: From Dusk Till Dawn (2014): Season One

Horror films had a very difficult time in the 1990s.  

The eighties, perhaps, exhausted the genre, and audiences were still getting Freddy, Jason and Chucky left-overs as the nineties began.

Before Wes Craven's Scream (1996) set off a new slasher craze, the genre seemed to be stuck in idle.

The X-Files (1993 - 2002) didn't help, either.  Chris Carter and his writers/directors proved that they could create scary, inventive material on a regular basis (and on Friday night, to boot!).  Why go out to pay for a scary movie when you could stay home and see something really great for free instead?

One fascinating film from this time period, mid-nineties, is From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), written by Quentin Tarantino and directed by Robert Rodriguez.  The film possesses a sleazy, unique vibe, and is one part crime drama, one part horror blood-bath. It's like no other film I can think of.

Basically, the movie follows the Gecko Bros. (played by George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino), two violent crooks who are wanted by the law, and attempt to flee to Mexico. They take a nice family, the Fullers, hostage, to get across the border.  They all end up, however, at an out-of-the way bar in the desert -- The Titty Twister -- that is home to the nastiest, filthiest vampires you’ve ever seen.

Suddenly, the scum of the Earth is the only hope for the family's survival.

What I admire about From Dusk Till Dawn is the way that it takes that sharp turn mid-way through, going from straight-up exploitation film to twisted, horror exploitation film. It’s a radical narrative shift, and one that I feel has thematic purpose and meaning.  

The first half of the film showcases psychological evil. Richie (Tarantino) is a pervert and a murderer. He's one sick bastard.  

But then the second half of the film demonstrates a different kind of evil; a sinister, monstrous, inhuman form of evil.  By comparison, Richie looks like the safest guy in the room, regardless of his proclivities.

All horror movies concern either the monster within human beings (think Psycho [1960]), or the monster from outside the tribe, who attacks it (think Alien [1979]).  From Dusk Till Dawn cleverly gives audiences one of each, and that’s a perfect opportunity for an exercise in contrasts.

The TV series version of From Dusk Till Dawn obviously can’t thrive on a surprise narrative u-turn, since the film itself is nearly twenty years old at this point.  But Robert Rodriguez has accomplished the near-impossible with the TV series.  He has maintained the sleazy, off-kilter vibe (which, frankly, I love, and is enhanced radically by what seems a low budget…), while simultaneously deepening all of the storylines and characters.  The vampires in the series have been given a mythological basis (in Meso-American myth and legend), and the characters have also been enriched and developed to a degree that is, frankly, remarkable.

Jacob Fuller, played in the series by Robert Patrick, now has a fleshed-out back-story (replete with flashbacks) that help better to explain his loss of faith and his relaitonships with his children.  

Seth (D.J. Cotrona) and Richie (Zane Holtz) have similarly -- and commendably -- been deepened.  

We see some of Seth’s experiences in jail, for instance, as well as a terrifying moment from his childhood involving his father (James Remar).

And Richie is no longer nerely a capricious sicko, but someone under the “spell” (literally, it seems) of a supernatural or dark force.  Now, as a director, Quentin Tarantino is beyond reproach in my opinion.  He's a personal favorite.  But as an actor, he leaves something to be desired.  I always felt that From Dusk Till Dawn suffers to some degree from his stunt casting.  By contrast, Zane Holtz brings a completely different -- and much deeper -- vibe to the character.  In the film, you could never quite get behind Tarantino’s murderer and would-be-child predator.  There are reasons, as the first season of the TV series continues, that you may find yourself drawn to Richie and his journey. We become acquainted not only with his violent streak and urges, but with his sense of intelligence.

In the act of deepening the characters and the story, Rodriguez has also added some new personalities.  

First among these additions is Ranger Freddy Gonzalez (Jessie Garcia), an agent of the law whom we consider a “good guy” as the series commences but who, throughout the first season, undergoes a literal and metaphorical dark descent.  We start out rooting for him, but by the last episodes, we're not so certain anymore.

Adding weight to his odyssey is Don Johnson in a recurring role as his partner.  The first episode of the series involves a store robbery by Richie and Seth, and pits them against these new characters, Freddy and Earl.  In the movie, this scene was five minutes in duration, tops.  In the TV sereis, it is 42 minutes, and a pressure-cooker in terms of intensity and slow-build suspense.  And Johnson, the TV veteran, steals the show.

Another new character, Carlos Madgrigal (Wilmer Valderrama), similarly adds depth to the series storylines. At first, the audience believes he is simply a criminal. Later, however, we begin to see who he is, and his developing personality reveals a side of Santanico Pandemonium (Eiza Gonzalez) that the movie never presented.  The only drawback is that he has had the same hair-cut for 500 years if we are to believe the flashbacks.

To describe From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series another way: it follows beat-for-beat the chronology of the film.  

But it spends more time on each of those beats, and shows a breadth-and-depth in storytelling that, frankly, I wasn’t expecting.  It mines each moment of a familiar story for new revelations, new twists. You may think you know how the story is going to turn out, but From Dusk Till Dawn is laced with surprises and twists that make the story new all over again.  The final chapters of the first season, about a descent into an underground labyrinth, may challenge your understanding of the characters, and also their place in the scheme of things.

I am not, generally, one to complain about special effects, but it seems that From Dusk Till Dawn relies a lot on CGI blood-letting.  That may be a hindrance for some viewers, but it didn’t bother me.  There’s a wicked, anarchic low-budget vibe about this series, and somehow, all the (incredibly excessive) blood floods contributes to that feeling of unease. The series regularly treads into bad taste, and has a sense of humor about itself and its imaginings.  I find that charming, I must admit.  It seems spiritually faithful to the film, at least.

Occasionally, a sour note is struck in terms of dialogue or performance, but more often than not, the series hits the marks it aims for.  One early episode features a pulse-pounding chase through a motel (The Dew Drop), and one spell of episodes is emotionally-wrenching because it involves a female hostage who is a Mom and wife, and yet still comes to a very nasty, very gory end.  The material in From Dusk Till Dawn, the film,  seems to be to vacillate wildly between exploitation poles, and in its own way, the series attempts to live up to that ideal.

I have read some criticisms of the acting too. But after the first season, I don’t see George Clooney, Tarantino, Juliette Lewis or Harvey Keitel in these familiar roles any more.  The series actors have put their own imprimatur on these characters in a way that develops them and makes them their own.  I was disappointed, however, that in one scene about acting, Cotrona’s Seth didn’t mention George Clooney when he was ticking off the names of great actors (like Marlon Brando).  That would have been the perfect way to pay tribute to the original film and its cast.

From Dusk Till Dawn is now in its second season, but I’ve just finished the first. This spell of episodes brings the story to the end, essentially, of the movie, and into new thematic and narrative terrain.  I’ll be fascinated to see the second season, and see how it plays on the success of the first.

I very much enjoy The Walking Dead and Penny Dreadful, two horror TV masterpieces. From Dusk Till Dawn is still young, and it features a completely different vibe from either of those titles. Those series seem more formal in comparison, somehow.  

From Dusk Till Dawn boasts this transgressive, nasty, gutter vibe that keeps it intriguing. So at this point, there’s no reason to imagine that the series will do anything but improve and deepen across many seasons.

1 comment:

  1. Hadn't see it for about 10 years, saw the cheap price on the Blue-ray and went for it. Still enjoyed it, great fun if you like the genre. Looked very good in blue-ray though not sure it especially benefits vs. sd since I can't compare. I may try the TV series sometime just wish Joss Weadon had done it ;).