FROM DUSK TILL DAWN (1996)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence and Gore, Language and Nudity

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Directed by: Robert Rodriguez

Written by: Quentin Tarantino

Starring: George Clooney, Quentin Tarantino, Harvey Keitel, Juliette Lewis, Ernest Liu, Salma Hayek, Cheech Marin, Danny Trejo, Tom Savini & Fred Williamson

FROM DUSK TILL DAWN is damn near impossible to classify into one genre. Robert Rodriguez delivers action-packed moments with adrenaline-pumping vigor that call back to the finer scenes of his Mexico trilogy. Quentin Tarantino’s snazzy dialogue supplies a ton of laughs and memorable lines that find myself quoting on a weekly basis. This crime-thriller’s first half is tense as a hostage situation becomes a bit of an oddball bonding experience. This horror-comedy’s second half delivers gore-soaked mayhem and the ugliest vampires you’ve ever seen. FROM DUSK TILL DAWN may not be the best vampire film ever made, but it’s definitely my favorite vampire movie!

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Seth (George Clooney) and Richie Gecko (Quentin Tarantino) are fugitive brothers heading for Mexico. In an effort to avoid the cops, the screwed-up siblings take an RV-driving family hostage. Ex-pastor Jacob Fuller (Harvey Keitel), his daughter Katherine (Juliette Lewis) and son Scott (Ernest Liu) reluctantly cooperate with the Gecko brothers and wait for a morning rendezvous at secluded strip club “The Titty Twister.” What appears to be a tense hostage situation winds down with alcohol and then transforms into a gory fight for survival as the Titty Twister staff reveal themselves to be hungry vampires who feed on bikers and truckers. With hundreds of bloodthirsty monsters craving a snack, the Gecko brothers, the Fuller family and a few other survivors barricade themselves inside the strip club and try to live through the night!

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FROM DUSK TILL DAWN is a great party movie. The first half plays like a tense crime-thriller and the second half is a crazy horror-comedy, but the sense of fun remains constant through the entire running time. The film unloads its full bloody potential as soon as the vampire strippers pop up midway through, but that doesn’t lessen the first half by any stretch of the imagination. If nothing else, DUSK’s first half devotes time to developing the colorful characters before they are thrown into a fanged fray. This makes certain deaths more satisfying or sad, because we’ve come to either despise or love these people for the scumbags/badasses they are.

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George Clooney is clearly having a blast in his first major Hollywood role as the charismatic, dangerous Seth Gecko. Clooney’s presence helps sell big goofy fun mixed with 100% cool confidence. Acting alongside him is a creepy Quentin Tarantino in a very disturbing role, which is further amplified by the fact that he also wrote the screenplay and was totally cool with acting like a perverted lunatic…as long as he got to touch some feet. Tarantino gets both laughs and cringes in equal measure as unhinged psycho sibling Richie. Harvey Keitel is great as a ex-pastor who finds his faith tested in a way he never imagined and Juliette Lewis makes the most of her role as his rebellious daughter. Meanwhile, Ernest Liu doesn’t really do much as Keitel’s inexplicably Chinese son (never explained, but I assume he’s adopted).

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The supporting characters don’t show up until the crew step through the Titty Twister doors. Tom Savini is more than memorable as the aptly named Sex Machine, equipped with an unforgettable weapon. Former football player/martial artist/Blaxploitation star Fred Williamson is absolutely badass as Frost, a Vietnam vet who’s more than prepared to take on a few vampires. Speaking of which, the vamps themselves feature some recognizable faces. Danny Trejo does his usual thing as a scowling bartender. Selma Hayek is sexy as hell as show-stopping stripper Santanico Pandemonium. Cheech Marin shows up in three different roles (one of which is a vampire bouncer who’s not above some cheesy puns).

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The script is not without a few inconsistencies (Keitel’s priest’s so-so struggle with faith and varying amounts of screen time in the vampire transformations), but the sense of gory entertainment and high energy pretty much make up for the narrative problems. The practical effects are outstanding, while most of the CGI (mainly bats and melting bodies) is intentionally cheesy and kept to a minimum. The kills range in creativity, with truly inventive weapons being used and cool vampire demises. Hearts are ripped out, tables are used as improvised stakes, holy water comes into play, etc. DUSK’s vampires are among the ugliest that I’ve seen, resembling snakes, rats, and bats.

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FROM DUSK TILL DAWN may not be the smartest vampire story (LET THE RIGHT ONE IN probably takes that title) or the most technically well-made bloodsucker flick, but it remains my favorite vampire movie for its sarcastic sense of humor, colorful characters, insane gory fun, and sheer entertainment. When I see this film airing on TV, I always find myself watching it to the end like an unwritten personal rule. It’s a bloody blast from start to finish and cannot be clearly lumped thrown into one genre. Look at that director/writer team! Look at that premise! Look at the cast! Look at those effects! What’s not to love?

Grade: A-

TUSK (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 42 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for some Disturbing Violence/Gore, Language and Sexual Content

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Directed by: Kevin Smith

Written by: Kevin Smith

Starring: Justin Long, Michael Parks, Genesis Rodriguez, Haley Joel Osment & Johnny Depp

TUSK was created in a wholly unusual way. On SModcast episode 259, Kevin Smith and his co-host were discussing a strange ad that eventually morphed into a story involving a madman and a walrus suit. At the end of the episode, Smith issued a call to arms for his fans and asked them to vote on Twitter through hashtags if he should make a feature based on the story. A majority of his fans answered #WalrusYes and about a year later, TUSK is upon us! How does the film stack up as a whole though? I really loved RED STATE and thought it was Kevin’s best film to date with powerful punch being thrown at certain issues, but also maintained an interesting story. TUSK never bored me and there will be people who absolutely dig this film, but I kind of hated it for many reasons.

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Wallace is an irreverent podcaster making his living on exploiting strange people on his episodes. Arriving at Canada for an interview that quickly goes south, this moustached podcast host finds a weird ad posted in a bathroom. This piece of paper offers a free room and plenty of stories for menial household duties. Wallace takes immediate interest and travels to the middle of nowhere to interview this reclusive old man. Turns out that the poster of the ad has a more sinister agenda in mind and wants to turn Wallace into a walrus. Needless to say that circumstances are dire. Wallace’s friends desperately search for him with the help of a quirky French-Canadian detective.

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There’s probably a really solid film within TUSK, but the main narrative complaint I have is the film sporadically throws flashbacks at the viewer every 10 minutes or so. Some of these have a purpose and others are a complete waste of time. However, it lends to the underling sense that Kevin Smith was making this screenplay up as he went along. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out this was the rough draft of the story, because it needs some fine-tuning. Things might have improved greatly if Smith also showed everything in chronological order. Flashbacks with Wallace (including a forced one in the final minutes) would have worked better if they were in the opening act. Therefore, references to them in the end of the movie would have actual staying power, instead of being almost instantly forgotten in the matter of an hour or so.

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Scenes being placed where they chronologically belong (in the opening act), could have possibly benefitted making the characters likable. Wallace comes off as the biggest asshole in the world, but Kevin Smith attempts to get the viewer to feel a bit of sympathy for him. However, he does this by placing a few random flashbacks (damn the weird order of scenes in this movie and my continued harping on it) right by the moment we’re supposed to feel bad for Wallace’s horrible predicament. It’s a technique that feels overly manipulative and could have been easily corrected. Haley Joel Osment and Genesis Rodriguez aren’t given a whole hell of a lot to do here. Also (if you don’t know about the movie’s worst kept secret cameo then SPOILER), Johnny Depp’s presence was wholly unnecessary and merely amounted to him doing his funny face shtick (ala Jack Sparrow, Mad Hatter, Tonto, etc.). One extended scene between him and Michael Parks was painfully bad. None of the jokes really work in this movie.

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Most of the payoff hinges on the inevitable appearance of the Wallace walrus (seen frequently after about 45 minutes in or so), but the reveal doesn’t satisfy either. I felt the look was too comical and silly, also unlike any of the freaky medical drawings glimpsed early on. The conclusion is stupid enough to work in such a ridiculous story, but Smith botches it in a rushed and frenetic execution. However, not everything about TUSK is awful. Michael Parks (the best actor in RED STATE) is clearly having a blast as the utterly insane Howard Howe. I loved most of his delivery, except for that aforementioned scene with Depp. Also, the setting of the Howard’s isolated house is appropriately creepy and offers decent suspense in his first encounter with Wallace.

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The difficult thing about making an intentionally cheesy or campy film is that if the filmmaker is winking too much at the audience then the joke becomes less funny. TRICK ‘R TREAT and CABIN IN THE WOODS balanced an equal amount of silly humor with a straight-faced delivery, therefore making the story work. TUSK feels like Kevin Smith is making it up on the spot and constantly grinning at the camera. The sporadic flashbacks feel like they were added in on the spot during the writing process of the first draft and putting these in the chronological order would have gotten me to enjoy it far more than I did. TUSK feels sloppy, forced, and unfocused in many areas. There are a few redeeming factors (the setting, a kernel of a really creative story, and Michael Parks going wild), but I left the film disappointed.

Grade: D

WE ARE WHAT WE ARE (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Disturbing Violence, Bloody Images, some Sexuality, Nudity and Language

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Directed by: Jim Mickle

Written by: Nick Damici & Jim Mickle

Starring: Bill Sage, Ambyr Childers, Julia Garner, Wyatt Russell, Nick Damici, Kelly McGillis & Michael Parks

With MULBERRY STREET and STAKE LAND, director/writer Jim Mickle and writer/actor Nick Damici have proven themselves to be intriguing new talents in the world of horror. When it was announced that they had completed a remake of WE ARE WHAT WE ARE, many people were skeptical. The original Mexican horror-drama was considered by a ton of critics to be the equivalent of LET THE RIGHT ONE IN for the cannibal subgenre. I was one of the few that really wasn’t impressed by the original film and thought there was a lot of room for improvement. However, Mickle and Damici have created a film that is barely a remake of the foreign Mexi-Cannibal film. It’s the same canvas, but a different painting. In this sense, the duo have delivered their own twisted original story with the same basic concept and it’s a near-masterpiece!

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The Parker family live in a small town community where a vicious storm has hit. Roads are flooded, winds are vicious, and the river is overflowing. When the mother of the family unexpectedly passes away in an accident, the Parkers are left in despair. The eldest daughter, Iris, assumes the responsibility of putting meat on the table. The family doesn’t eat typical meat though (if you get my gist) and the ancient customs by which they live are putting a strain on both Iris and her teenage sister, Rose. Their intimidating father watching over both of them (and their younger brother as well), making sure that the traditions are being followed. A tension begins to boil between the father and children. Meanwhile, the town doctor (Michael Parks from RED STATE) is investigating human remains that have washed down river from the Parker’s home…

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The pacing of WE ARE WHAT WE ARE is deliberate, patiently building up quiet suspense between certain characters and getting the viewer to invest in every one of them. This may discourage those who want a jump-scare filled romp and I’ve seen many people say that this is “barely a horror film.” I kind of see where they’re coming from, but I felt this was a huge advantage to the story, rather than a detriment. The set-up is horrific and the way it plays out is almost like a drama, it’s just a pretty gory and disturbing story of a broken family. I enjoyed that take on it.

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The characters were all well-developed and the way that the tension slowly escalates for the first hour and then goes downright batshit insane in the last 45 minutes was refreshing. Too often, we see so-called horror films that want to rush right into the scares (something that WE ARE WHAT WE ARE doesn’t deliver in forms of cheap music stings and fake-outs). This is a movie that tells a smart and engaging (albeit twisted) story. Mickle and Damici seem to really not care about entertaining the viewer or appealing to the masses. They just wanted to show their own spin on this concept. Even if someone doesn’t appreciate that, they should at least see where they’re coming from.

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A dark atmosphere hangs over the film, which adds a lot of the tension too. We never see the sun shine at all. It’s always either cloudy or pouring rain. It sort of adds a bit of despair to the tale, just in setting it in a period of gloomy days and stormy nights. We do see a couple of brief flashbacks to how the origin of this bloody tradition that the Parkers carry out. This may seem like a mistake when it starts, but these sequences were actually very well done and didn’t feel cheap in the slightest. We only see two of them and they are both shown in the first 30 minutes of the film. We only needed a couple for the point to be made.

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Even though it’s damn near perfect in most respects (including excellent directing, writing, and acting), WE ARE WHAT WE ARE falls victim to a few horror movie clichés in the final 30 minutes (such as a person not being as unconscious as they seemed or another person not locking the car door when they clearly should have). These are nitpicks, but it was noticeable enough to briefly make me chuckle or roll my eyes a few times. With these slight problems in mind, WE ARE WHAT WE ARE demonstrates a tremendous growth for a team of filmmakers whose talent has literally blossomed in front of many viewer’s eyes (with the very cool MULBERRY STREET, great STAKE LAND, and now this awesome piece of work). WE ARE WHAT WE ARE is a barely a remake of the Mexican film that inspired it, but it far outdoes that so-so flick in every single respect. This is an awesome movie and it comes very much recommended for fans of slow-burn horror!

Grade: A

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