The best part about having a puppy (or a child I suppose, though I bet most children don’t smell like popcorn) is that you get to introduce her to things that you love – pizza, pretzels, Doctor Who, John Carpenter – and to warn her about things she should avoid – vampire movies, mainly.
Not all vampire movies, of course. There are exceptions: Max Shreck, Lugosi of course, Hammer movies. Not so many recent ones, unfortunately: 30 DAYS OF NIGHT, LET THE RIGHT ONE IN. To be honest, I’d grown wary and weary of vampires. They’d moved away from the mesmerising, menacing threats I’d grown up with, metamorphosing into teen figures, soft-porn props and, well.. the sparkly ones. You know the ones. I swear to God, Sesame Street’s Count was more predatory than some of the bloodsuckers I’ve seen.
Before things got really bad, however, we had 1996’s FROM DUSK TILL DAWN. One of the earlier screenplays from Quentin Tarantino (who also co-starred), this fast-paced little movie, directed by Robert Rodriguez (MACHETE, PLANET TERROR) and starred George Clooney just before he became massively big. Clooney played cool criminal Seth Gecko, with Tarantino his younger, crazier brother Richie. On the run from the Texas Rangers, they’re hoping to make it across the border to a safehouse in El Rey, Mexico, and in doing so take a family (including ex-priest Harvey Keitel and nymphette daughter Juliette Lewis) and their RV hostage, cross the border and get to the stripper club The Titty Twister – open only From Dusk Till Dawn (get it?), because the staff are all vampires (even the house band!).
Bloody hijinks ensue, and few survive, but not before we pan back in the final shot to see that the club is actually the tip of an Aztec temple, the true home of the vampires, with the surrounding area littered with bikes and trucks from all their previous victims from over the decades…
The movie, also featuring the likes of Cheech Marin, Tom Savini, Selam Hayek and Danny Trejo (of course) wasn’t that successful initially (I remember enjoying it when it first came out, but re-watching it I can see, or at least hear, how clunky Tarantino’s dialogue can be), but gained a cult following that helped spawn a sequel and prequel (neither of which I’ve seen), and a video game (which I’ve never played). I did have the soundtrack, though, in fact was one of the first CDs I bought, with some decent numbers from Stevie Ray Vaughn and ZZ Top.
In the years since that first movie, the principals involved with it have moved onto bigger and better things (except for that Tarantino kid, who seems to have dropped off the map), most notably Rodriguez, who recently formed his own TV network, El Rey, targeting Latino audiences with English-speaking programs that feature Hispanic producers, celebrities and public figures. And the first original programming has been a 10-episode TV series based on FROM DUSK TILL DAWN.
Now initially when I heard about this, I assumed that ‘based on’ meant that it would be set in the environment of the movie but not touch on the original characters. Instead, this is actually a retelling of the movie, but offering more detailed backstories of the main characters, introducing new ones, and embellishing on the Meso-American mythology to make the vampires here more than just fanged haemovores. It’s a gamble, because judging from the first episode, every show must expand on ten or twelve minutes of film time. Can it be done?
FROM DUSK TILL DAWN: THE TV SERIES opens with a woman’s voiceover giving the usual spiel about how her race has existed from the dawn of time, staying hidden, yadda yadda Highlander crap yadda yadda we will rise again someday – or at least, from dusk till dawn. We then get a flashback to Aztec times, when a girl (the gorgeous-looking Eiza Gonzalez), whom we later learn is Satanico Pandemonium, the Head Vampire as played by Salma Hayek in the film, is caught by tribesmen and thrown into a pit filled with snakes, who proceed to bite her and, in one decent FX shot, one giant snake goes down her throat (tastefully we cut away before we learn if this is repeated with other orifices).
We then cut to present day, with two Texas Rangers, the older Earl McGraw (former Miami Vice guy Don Johnson, taking over Michael Parks’ role) and his protege Freddie Gonzalez (Jesse Garcia) as they examine crime scene photos of bodies with their eyes gouged out while talking about the proper use of holy water – which turns out to be a conversation not about vampires, but the imminent baptism of Freddie’s daughter, with Earl being her godfather. Stopping off at a liquor store, Earl takes a moment to pop into the restroom and remind his reflection he has only 237 days until retirement. Aww, man, don’t you know how dangerous that is? He returns to the counter guy Pete (Lane Garrison) just in time to get shot from behind by Richie, while Richie raises his gun towards Pete…
Now there’s a flashback (get used to them, it gets confusing if you blink or look away for a second) to Earl, and later Freddie and his family, as they have breakfast and talk about enjoying the time you have with your loved ones, and God damn, Don Johnson is really good in this role! Some Tarantinophiles might gripe that this role should have stayed with Michael Parks, who would go on to reprise it in KILL BILL VOL 1, PLANET TERROR and DEATH PROOF in Tarantino and Rodriguez’s shared cinematic universe, but Johnson sells it very well. We also get exposition about the Gecko Brothers, who had just robbed a bank, shot some Rangers and took a female bank worker hostage.
Now we cut to the Brothers themselves, the older, more controlled Seth (DJ Cotrona, GI JOE: RETALIATION) and the younger, more volatile Richie (Zane Holtz, HOLES). They’re still bank robbers, they’re still on the run, Seth is loyal but still wary of Richie’s paranoid delusions. While stopping off at the aforementioned liquor store, Richie unsuccessfully flirts with one of two younger local girls in the store, and the girl’s response that he has a screw loose doesn’t sit well with him, making him draw his gun on them and blow their cover – no, Richie, you’re not crazy, you’re as sane as Phil Spector.
The Rangers pull up, and we are back to the initial scene where Earl gets shot, thankfully not fatally however. He’s trapped inside, his partner’s outside and unable to get to his phone to call for backup, and Seth is inside calling for help from Don Carlos (Wilmer Valderrama, THAT 70’S SHOW), the criminal mastermind they were supposed to rendezvous with. But Carlos offers worse customer service than AT&T, and the Gecko Brothers are gonna have to make their own way South of the Border…
Anyone tuning in after the initial Aztec scene might be understandably misled into thinking that FROM DUSK TILL DAWN is gonna be another gritty crime thriller ala TRUE DETECTIVE, because there’s almost nothing supernatural about the events of the first episode (in fact, we don’t even get to see the family with the RV yet (the father of whom will be played by Robert Patrick, taking Harvey Keitel’s role from the movie). We do get some bloody scenes worthy of an HBO series, but so far it’s all gunshot wounds. I guess Rodriguez doesn’t want to shoot his vampiric bolts too early.
What we do get is an interesting variation to the familiar story. In the movie, Richie is simply an unstable paranoid who had hallucinations of Juliette Lewis asking him to eat her out (to be fair, many of us have shared similar delusions). In the TV show, Richie has hallucinations – or visions – but they’re of Santanico, seemingly enticing and fuelling his paranoia (and the TV’s Don Carlos seems to not only know Richie, but has an unseen boss who encourages Seth to listen to his brother). There is definitely something more going on. Whether or not this relative lack of supernatural shenanigans might put people off seeing past the first episode is another matter.
As for the actors, Don Johnson sets the bar terribly high, one that DJ Cotrona and Zane Holtz will have to struggle to fulfil, especially as neither seem to have much in the way of screen presence. The script offers a few nods to the movie dialogue (while sensibly dropping some of Quentin’s more embarrassing un-PC dialogue), and the show seeks to get established into the Tarantino Universe (so we finally get to see a Big Kahuna Burger restaurant).
I have a few more episodes to see before I give it a final verdict, but seeing as how it has already been renewed for a second season, it might improve. It’s available on Netflix, and the trailer is below:
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Plot: 4 out of 5 stars
Gore: 5 out of 10 skulls
Zombie Mayhem: 0 out of 5 brains
Reviewed by Deggsy. And Edna.