Friday, July 22, 2011

From Dusk Till Dawn 2: Texas Blood Money

From Dusk Till Dawn 2: Texas Blood Money (1999)
Dir. Scott Spiegel
Starring Robert Patrick. Bo Hopkins, Duane Whitaker, Muse Watson, Raymond Cruz with Bruce Campbell and Danny Trejo

Everyone likes FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, right? Of course they do. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable piece of trash; a kinetic, freewheeling, sleazy B-movie from back before Robert Rodriguez discovered irony. It even sports a making-of documentary which is almost as entertaining as the film itself, 1997’s FULL TILT BOOGIE which is up there with HEARTS OF DARKNESS in my pantheon of great filmmaking documentaries. But I was never sure the concept (“There are Vampires at this bar you can go to in Mexico”) was really strong enough to turn into a compelling series, so I never bothered with the straight-to-video sequels, despite the lure of both Robert Patrick and Bruce Campbell.

That is, until now. Now I have bothered with them. Or one, anyway. And I’m glad I did, because this turkey is thoroughly entertaining and even a little good. At the very least, it’s trying really hard to show you the craziest possible time with the resources available, so you can’t fault its enthusiasm.

Like the original DUSK TILL DAWN, this one starts out by hinting it’s going to be a different movie than you know it actually is. As a sequel, it gamely ups the ante by doing this twice. First we get Bruce Campbell and Tiffani Amber-Thiessen as sleazy lawyers who get eaten by bats. Then we find out that was (I guess?) just something Robert Patrick was watching on TV. Fair enough, we got our Bruce Campbell cameo, now on to the real red herring. We get introduced to Mr. Patrick’s character Buck as he’s finding out his friend and partner-in-crime Luther (Duane Whittaker, also co-writer) has escaped from prison. Sheriff Bo Hopkins (and his deputy James Parks, more on him later) have a feeling Luther’s going to try and hook up with his old partner and make a run for it, even though Patrick insists (somewhat convincingly, too – he had me fooled) he’s gone clean. Fortunately for all of us, you should never trust Robert Patrick, and the sheriff is hardly out the door before he’s off putting together a team for a Mexican bank robbery.

So you got your men-on-a-mission angle, your heist angle, your escaped fugitive angle, and (as if you had to ask) your one-last-job-and-then-I’m-going-clean-for-real angle. But it being a DUSK TILL DAWN sequel, you know that none of that is going to matter because it’s going to turn into a vampire movie halfway through. Sure enough, poor Luther is hardly across the border into Mexico before his car hits a giant bat and breaks down. As luck would have it, he seeks assistance at a familiar strip bar, where Danny Trejo’s bartender character Razor Eddie (Mexico’s Woody Harrelson, I bet) offers to give him a lift. Trejo actually gets a decent bit of screen time in this, and he makes the most of it with his trademark cocktail of stone-faced charisma and menace (that’s a metaphorical cocktail. We don’t get to find out what his trademark cocktail at work is, so I’m going to just assume it’s a Mint Julep. Feels right).

Funny thing is, ol Razor Eddie seems kind of like a nice guy right up until he hears that Luther hit a bat. I honestly think he was legitimately offering a ride out of the goodness of his heart until the inevitable collision between the two uneasily symbiotic cultures of vampires and ex-pat American banditos turned everything ugly (see, CRASH? We all already knew everything you’re rambling on about because we all watched this DTV sequel to a 90’s vampire western. You don’t remember when we watched that? I dunno, man, maybe you passed out already, but yeah, the rest of us all watched it).

This is the first scene which surprised me with its unexpected greatness, because Luther isn’t exactly an idiot but also can’t quite figure out what’s going on. He can tell the encounter has suddenly turned hostile but can’t possibly understand why. His confusion and mistaken belief that he’s still talking with a minor character in a heist movie creates a different layer of tension than you’d expect for this kind of scenario. It’s still a cheesy DTV horror sequel, but it’s got a little something extra.  

Of course, Luther ends up turning vampire, and heads back to the hotel where his colleagues are waiting (sadly, Trejo just turns into a bat and flies away. They could get Robert Patrick but couldn’t afford Danny Trejo for more than two scenes?). And here again the movie has a neat little twist, but there’s no way to describe it to you without spoiling it, so please direct your attention to the

SPOILER WARNING before proceeding.
So what happens is, Luther comes back to the hotel where he finds team member Jesus (Raymond Cruz) engaged in extremely unconvincing awkward sex with a very cute gal who spends 90% of her screen time here extremely convincingly naked. Jesus ends up bit too, and now it seems like we’re going to get into the standard vampire siege story in this run-down motel. But here’s where things get awesome. Luther and Jesus don’t try to kill everyone – they go about the robbery as originally intended, except now they’re vampires! So it is a heist/siege movie after all, but with an ever-increasing ratio of vampires to humans. They tricked me into thinking they were planning on tricking me into thinking this would be an abrupt genre shift like the first one, and then turned my expectations of having my expectations turned on their head on their head. That’s just the kind of absurd overthinking which makes this one fun, and you can see it constantly on display in the direction and style of the film.

Director Scott Spiegel, it turns out, is more closely related filmatically to Sam Raimi than Robert Rodriguez (Wikipedia says he went to the same high school as Raimi and Campbell, I guess that explains it, there’s something in the water there) and this film plays almost like a parody of EVIL DEAD’s inventively goofy visuals. I count no less than 15 outrageously unnecessary point-of-view shots in this thing, including but not limited to:

POV from Tiffani-Amber Theissen, observing a bat between her boobs
POV from a cooler, opened to take beer out
POV from a water dish, as a dog drinks
POV from a rotating fan, going back and forth
POV from the hood of a car with bull horns on the front
POV from an actual bull
POV from a bat, flying around
POV from a TV of the people watching it
POV from a guy doing push-ups (up and down – hoping they’d bring this back during the sex scene, but no dice)
POV of map, looking at the ceiling
POV from a bag, as things are put into it
POV from the dial on a safe, spinning around
POV from inside a vampire’s mouth (twice)
POV from inside a skull (regular)
POV from inside a skull (on fire)

                                         A whole fucking lot of the movie looks like this.

And those are just the ones I remember, two weeks later. Spiegel is no Raimi, and most of the rest of the film is shot about as cheap and ugly as you might expect from a 1999 DTV horror sequel. There’s a few other attempts at creative visual shots (one which works shoots Robert Patrick through the spiral telephone cord, --remember those?—which turns the shot into an abstract spiral going towards his face) but nothing that would really be worth reporting on were it not for the escalating craziness of the POV stuff. But the POV shots are so numerous and so egregiously unnecessary that they’ll either make the whole film worthwhile or they’ll cause you to turn it off in a blind fury by minute 20. At the very least, they make this one memorably unique, and how many of its peers can say that?

Besides the funny expectation-doublecrossing premise and the suitably manic style, the film also has a surprisingly effective cast of mostly unknowns. Duane Whittaker, Muse Watson, and Raymond Cruz all have done tons of tiny roles in other films, but here they actually get to be front and center and make the most of it. They chew through the scenery like gypsy moths, adding flavor and weight to their roles without forgetting to have a little fun. Raymond Cruz is especially dynamite as Jesus, who can be forgiven the stereotypical nature of his character by the intensity which he brings it. He’s way over the top but absolutely dedicated to seeming like a macho psychopath constantly ready to snap. The fact that the characters seem serious enough to pay attention to makes the film’s jokier bits work way better. Finding Jesus preparing his dog “Jaws 2” (really) for a dogfight, Buck comments, “You’re pumping steroids into a pooch? Damn Jesus, that’s immoral.” And Jesus responds by looking him square in the eyes and intoning without even a hint of a smile, “This ain’t the fuckin’ Olympics, Buck.” He’s great as a human, and even better as a vampire where he gets to bring a smirking menace to the role, as if he’s just barely bothering to conceal his contempt for anyone who thinks they can stop him. There’s a unique bravado to his role which really ought to have led to some bigger and better parts.

Unfortunately, the fifth guy was obviously someone’s friend or something and gives a truly awful performance in an ill-defined character who seems set up to have an arc which never happens. So that’s a shame.

But other than that, this is a small but worthwhile pleasure. My one beef is the subtitle. Although the film does start in Texas, all the action and the blood money (Oh my god, I just realized that’s a vampire pun. Maybe this movie is too smart for me) are down in Mexico, which is played here somewhat believably by South Africa. So I don’t know how that one slipped past them, but that title is factually inaccurate. Why not just call it Mexico Blood Money? Why we gotta drag Texas into this? Is Texas really that much more marketable? Are they trying to suggest this is a chainsaw massacre sequel of some kind?

I’d have happily traded the map POV shot for a subtitle that makes a lick of god damn sense. Not the oscillating fan POV shot, though – that’s one for the ages.  

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