In 1996, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez teamed up to make From Dusk Till Dawn, a horror-crime film about two bloodthirsty bandits running into a vampire den. Everyone dies, pretty much. Some of them turn into vampires on the way; then they die, too. Both Tarantino and Rodriguez are notorious for their bloody, gory storytelling, and Tarantino’s script coupled with Rodriguez’s directing made for a unique film, at the very least. The film starts with an intimate, tense conversation between a lawman and a convenience store owner; it turns into sudden, over-the-top violence, and then makes a left turn into pseudo-Aztec supernatural gore.
The film is neither man’s best work, but it attained a kind of cult following. The special effects are so horrible that they are endearing; and Tarantino’s performance as the madman Richie Gecko meshes well with George Clooney’s performance as Richie’s brother Seth. The rapport between the brothers carries the film, which is saturated with a sense of murderous cool that marks both Pulp Fiction and Once Upon A Time In Mexico. Rodriguez, now a well-established director in his own right, shares a lot of stylistic choices with Tarantino, but not all. He’s drawn to stories of Mexican identity and cultural expression, and he is apt to have more of a sense of humor than Tarantino. His Mariachi movies are both lyrical and comic, and wavers between the two with surprising ease.
Now he’s launching his own network, El Rey. And he is commemorating the event with a 10-part miniseries retelling of From Dusk Till Dawn, complete with the same characters, same shot-for-shot scenes, and an expanded supernatural mythology.
If only he would explain why.
True, the name of the network is the name of the near-mythical final destination for the Gecko brothers in the original film—and it’s engrossing, watching the series, to try to find all of the references to the original film. The series has far better production values, and a spare style that is reminiscent of other prestige crime shows—Breaking Bad for atmosphere and True Detective for storytelling techniques. Like the latter, the series jumps back and forth in time, and like the former, the show makes much of the empty space and arid landscape of its setting in Texas. And naturally, because it has 10 hours instead of 100 minutes, the series will be taking its time telling the story of From Dusk Till Dawn.
It’s hard not to feel that this is a terrible waste of time. The original film’s strengths are washed out in this version, which is instead mining it for televisual drama. Certainly his dedication to casting Latino actors is admirable—Wilmer Valderrama even has a part!—and the execution is near-flawless. It’s a very pretty series. But that disconnect between expectation and reality that the film played with so well is going to pack more of a punch for viewers who start watching something about a shootout at a liquor store in week one and find themselves in a vampiric bloodbath in week 10.
There is some foreshadowing—the cold open of the first episode is a mysterious voiceover accompanying arcane writing or illustrations and a shot of a woman in a pit, being strangle, devoured, and violated by writhing snakes. (One dives into her mouth, and keeps going. She expresses shock and fear. It is a simulacrum of oral rape.) And Richie’s madness takes on a supernatural form that makes him see succubi where others see 21-year-old girls.
But it’s a weak and infuriating “supernatural.” Both those devices—along with the inevitable appearance of Satanico Pandemonium, the vampire dancer played in the original film by a mostly naked Salma Hayek—serve as a front to objectify and brutalize women. And in the slow storytelling of the series, each woman’s blank terror is hard to avoid.
Perhaps that’s the point. It’s almost two decades later; perhaps Rodriguez has decided to retell this story, but with true horror where slick mythmaking sufficed in 1996. The biggest deviation from the original film is the addition of another character: Jesse Garcia’s Ranger Freddie Gonzalez, who swears to avenge his fallen mentor, Ranger McGraw, after he is killed by the brothers. That could add a twist. Perhaps at the end of this series, everyone will hold hands and sing and promise not to kill again.
But it seems unlikely.
Developed by: Robert Rodriguez
Starring: D.J. Cotrona, Zane Holtz, Jesse Garcia, Eiza González, Wilmer Valderrama
Debuts: Tuesday on El Rey at 9 p.m. Eastern
Pilot watched for review