Problematic Faves: From Dusk Till Dawn

Contributed by
Nov 9, 2017

Being a woman who loves pop culture is an often-fraught life where you are constantly confronted with stories, themes and depictions reminding you of how much damage the patriarchy causes. It’s especially insidious in these past few weeks of what shall forever be known as the post-Harvey Weinstein age. After the infamous producer was exposed as one of Hollywood’s most prolific predators, a heavy shadow was cast over the many films he had a hand in bringing to the screen.

It’s one thing to separate the art from the artist; it’s quite another when the art itself seems so reflective of those nasty attitudes that have made the entertainment world so unavoidably toxic. Every pop culture loving woman has had that moment of loving a film, TV show, book or other medium, and struggled to deal with those problematic elements that make consuming it without a second thought that much harder.

That’s been on my mind a lot since the Weinstein news, in particular relation to one of my all-time favorite films that Miramax helped to distribute, Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn. In many ways, it's got everything I could ask for in a movie: Achingly cool atmosphere, a kick-ass soundtrack, riveting performances, a fascinating female lead, and one of the funniest genre U-turns in modern film. Every viewing of the film is a rip-roaring good time, best shared with friends and a few beers, as a tense thriller involving two criminal brothers crossing the border with a kidnapped family to Mexico suddenly becomes a frenzied grindhouse horror featuring a hoard of vampire strippers. Yet amidst all that fun is a movie with blatantly obvious faults and a story dominated by the male gaze so heavily that even the most hardened feminist theorist would be surprised by the tenacity of it.

Watching From Dusk Till Dawn, which spawned two sequels and a TV series, it’s impossible to avoid how much of this movie is the manifestation of its screenwriter’s id. When your screenwriter is Quentin Tarantino – who plays the more psychotic half of the Gecko Brothers duo – that shouldn’t be much of a surprise. The film’s got all his trademarks – the razor-sharp and immensely quotable dialogue, the cooler-than-cool soundtrack, the homages to genre thrillers of the past – which is partly what makes the film so easy to enjoy. He may be one of the true hot button auteurs of his era but he sure knows how to have a good time. That’s great for most of the movie, such as the opening scene where the tension is amped up to near unbearable levels, but then you get to the moments of such shameless self-insert fantasy for Tarantino and it gets tougher to stomach. Everyone knows about Tarantino’s foot fetish – it’s hardly the biggest secret in Hollywood – but watching him act out a scene where Salma Hayek shoves her foot into his mouth and pours champagne down her leg for him to drink, a scene he wrote for himself, certainly raises a lot of questions about separating art from the artist.

Once the bar where the brothers and their hostages reveals itself to be a hub for every vampire in Mexico, the real fun starts. There’s a huge amount of giddy fun to be had in scenes where George Clooney at his hottest goes all Van Helsing on a mass of ravenous vampires. Rodriguez and Tarantino crafted a movie that deliberately evokes the era of late-night drive-in B-movies, where the blood flows free and the nudity is plentiful, and watching From Dusk Till Dawn with that in mind does ease the process, but even the most knowledgeable genre geek may have trouble watching near-naked Mexican women, always framed in a manner where their breasts are a focal point, be killed off in hoards.

The movie wants to have its cake and eat it – they’re monstrous creations with bat-like faces but near perfect human bodies from the neck down. It’s Barbara Creed’s theory of the monstrous feminine to its natural conclusion, as these sinister seductresses walk the line between being super scary and extremely arousing. There’s pleasure to be found there if you’re not a straight dude and you’re into that kind of thing (trust us, we don’t judge), although it’s clear who this film’s target demographic was.

Due to its intriguing structure – tense heist thriller in the first half, manic vampire grindhouse in the second – the film has little time to breathe and explore some of its more complicated themes. The character of Richie Gecko, played by Tarantino, is a sadistic psychopath who has delusions that seem to encourage him to commit the most heinous of crimes. In the moment where we see minute flashes of the bloodbath he’s created with a hostage in a hotel room, we hear him try to justify to his brother Seth why he did what he did, and it’s a powerful moment but the film doesn’t commit to exploring that in the way it needs. Richie is a rapist and murderer, who at one point imagines the Juliette Lewis character, a teenage girl, asking him to do down on her, and that opens up a lot of questions that go unanswered. Perhaps if the film had no vampire-filled second half, there would have been an opportunity for Tarantino and Rodriguez to dig deeper into Richie, but when your film is more interested in aesthetics than character, the possibilities become merely missed potential.

Viewing the film, even as someone who really loves it and has seen it more times than she cares to remember, is a constant reminder of missed potential. You desperately want to know more about Salma Hayek’s queen vampire Santanico Pandemonium, or at least see her play a bigger role in the story than satisfy Tarantino's fantasy then get killed off with a pithy one-liner. You want to see more of this fascinating ecosystem where the vampires, who seem to live in a woman-dominated hierarchy, prey upon the petty weaknesses of horny men. You think about the fascinating arc of Juliette Lewis's character - a sardonic young woman of faith whose belief has been rattled by her mother's death finds unknown strength in tough circumstances and loses everything in the most horrific manner possible – and wish she’d been given more to do. In fairness to Rodriguez, he clearly felt that himself, and the saga that has followed the original cult hit expanded on that potential. The third movie in the trilogy is actually a prequel that gives Santanico a fascinating back-story.

From Dusk Till Dawn has had surprising longevity for a modestly successful action-horror that split critical opinion upon its release. It's given a story chock full of possibilities an opportunity to expand in new ways. The TV series, which can be viewed on the El Rey network, gives the story's Aztec mythology more prominence and greater focus on characters like Santanico. It’s the kind of second life I sort of wish all my favorite films could have - although it’s especially exciting for From Dusk Till Dawn because it means there’s more to offer than one film that I love, yet still wish had made other decisions.