I remember stumbling onto this flick a few years ago, I knew it was a team-up of two filmmakers I was already a fan of, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, with Rodriguez directing QT’s script.
It’s a pretty spacey movie to watch for the first time because it’s almost like two very different movies bolted together.
The first half focuses on fugitive criminals the Gecko brothers. Older brother, the suave and professional Seth (George Clooney) has been busted out by his unhinged younger sibling Richie (Tarantino). They flee for Mexico where they are due to meet a contact who will help them set up their new life South of the border.
To aid them in getting across the border they kidnap ex-preacher Jacob (Harvey Keitel) and his two children, Kate and Scott (Juliette Lewis and Ernest Liu) in order to use their camper van. Seth promises Jacob so long as he does what he says and doesn’t cause problems he will safeguard Kate from Richie, who is attracted to her and who believes she is also interested.
They arrive at the bar to meet their contact, the Titty Twister, a dive catering for bikers and truckers and populated by shady types and prostitutes and dancers.
Seth argues with the staff, but Jacob calms the water and urges Seth to follow his own advice and “be cool”. The headline act of the bar, Santanico Pandemonium (Salma Hayek) performs and all seems good, but the brothers are attacked and while appearing victorious Richie is injured.
The sight of Richie’s brother causes Santanico to attack and the staff of the bar are revealed to be vampires who massacre the customers. Most of the patrons are quickly picked off, but Seth, Jacob, Kate and Scott survive, along with two other customers, hulking trucker Frost (Fred Williamson), a ‘Nam vet and biker Sex Machine (Tom Savini).
They must fend off the gathering vampires, armed with whatever they can find in the bar and what they remember from old horror movies. Who will make it to the dawn when sunlight and relief will arrive?
The reason it feels like two movies is that the opening part feels like a rather twisted crime thriller, and a rather unpleasant one at that, due to Tarantino’s performance as Richie, who we’re told is a convicted sex offender and who is distinctly menacing and unsavoury. There are some nice touches and Tarantino’s script is pretty good, with Clooney in particular getting some great lines.
There is black humour in the opening stages, but things get lighter once they cross into Mexico, with the Titty Twister being introduced by a barker outside who espouses the wares on offer at the bar/brothel and is played with over the top relish and bawdy humour by Cheech Marin, in one of his three roles in this film.
The bar is one of the best drinking establishments in cinema history, a dingy dive with blaring music, brawling customers and scantily clad dancing girls all around. If it wasn’t for the vampires it would be a pretty cool place to go for a drink.
Following Salma Hayek’s extremely sexy dance routine the movie then explodes into this gleefully stupid horror-comedy, complete with OTT, splattery effects and one-liners. The second half is much lighter, possibly because the monsters in this section are so alien to real life, whereas the monster of the opening stages, Richie, is slightly too close to the real world.
While Santanico and the rest of the bar might be vampires it’s really more of a zombie movie really, with the small group of survivors having to fight off wave after wave of attack and people turning when they’ve been bit. The cartoony violence and exploding nasties are definitely more of a zombie convention as well.
With all this vampire killing and ridiculous action going on the characters are likely to get lost, but while few are detailed, rounded studies of the human condition Tarantino’s script does expand them a little more than your average B-movie, and the cast are superior to the average horror players too.
The star of the show is George Clooney, who at the time the film was released (1996) was still mainly known as the ER guy. He’s on great form here as the tattooed, swaggering Seth who’s this extremely suave, ruthless criminal. In an early scene he explains the rules to a hostage in such a calm, cold blooded way you know straight away that we’re dealing with a badass. Even as things start to get weird he’s a tough, level headed leader who rallies the others to fight off the undead.
But despite how collected he is there are suggestions that he has the same temper that afflicts his brother, only with more control and without Richie’s more unpleasant desires. After Richie brutally assaults and slays someone while Seth is absent there’s a real sense of disgust and revulsion from the older Gecko, but his love and responsibility for his brother means he can not abandon him, even if his behaviour sickens him and insults his vision of himself as a professional.
It’s in his interactions with his hostages that Seth reveals more of himself, and seems almost eager to get them onside, chatting with them and buying them drinks, treating Scott like a kind of younger brother and encouraging Kate to rebel by drinking whisky. The only character he really butts heads with, aside from Richie, is Jacob.
Keitel is great in this role as the preacher who has suffered a crisis of faith and is attempting to look after his two children and decide what to do with his life now. He might be reluctant to drink or curse, but this is no goody-two-shoes and Keitel ensures that there’s a kind of grit to the character, who stands up to his abductors and who steps up when the undead start attacking.
Clooney and Keitel play off each other well, and there’s a sense that the fact Jacob won’t back down earns him Seth’s respect. There’s a wonderfully funny moment where Seth tries to fire Jacob up for the fight by goading him, asking the question:
“What are you, Jacob? A faithless preacher? Or a mean motherf**kin’ servant of God?”
To which Jacob responds, but censoring the language of the question.
The rest of the cast do well, especially Lewis and Tarantino. Tarantino is not the best actor normally, but he works here and really brings edge and an aura of unpleasantness to his character, while Lewis is on fine form as the plucky Kate, a young girl beginning to want to spread her wings and shows that she’s quite a tough cookie, there’s also a nice touch where Kate looks rather put out as the male patrons of the bar are captivated by Salma Hayek’s dance.
It’s not Hayek’s most challenging role, but it’s extremely memorable and her dance is, for my money, one of the sexiest scenes in movie history.
The film feels like a mix of the two filmmakers work and both manage to include some of their trademarks, with several Rodriguez regulars cropping up (Savini, Hayek, Cheech and Danny Trejo) and the usual mix of weird, outlandish supporting characters, with the stand out here being Savini’s Sex Machine, the whip wielding biker who also boasts one of the daftest/coolest weapons I’ve seen:
There are a few Tarantino touches as well, not just in terms of the way characters talk but this is the first appearance of Michael Parks as Earl McGraw, the Texas Ranger who would go on to appear in Grindhouse and Kill Bill.
All in all this is quite a fun, goofy film loaded with over-the-top flourishes and gore but grounded by a few great performances and some great dialogue. It might not be either filmmaker’s best work but it’s a whole lot of fun, and they’ve both done worse.
Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.