Back when writer-director Quentin Tarantino was riding high on the double-whammy success of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, he teamed up with Desperado director Robert Rodriguez for a Tex-Mex B-movie that was half fugitive gangster film and half bonkers vampire horror. From Dusk till Dawn (hereafter FDtD) wasn't a huge success upon release in 1996 (making $25m from a $20m budget); but it gained a cult following on video, only to sour the goodwill with two atrocious straight-to-video follow-ups. On that note, it seemed evident FDtD was a one-off cult gem to be savoured by fans of either director. I count myself as being amongst the movie's vocal fans, so didn't want this unlikely TV remake to crash-and-burn. And it didn't, although it certainly confused me...
There are some issues that registered about this television retooling. The first was in predicting how the ten-part season will be structured, as the entire 45-minute premiere only covered the opening 8-minutes of the film. If you recall, the opening sequence involved criminal siblings Seth (D.J Cotrona) and Richie (Zane Holtz) Gecko becoming embroiled in a liquor store shoot-out with good ol' boy Sheriff McGraw (Don Johnson), two female hostages, and a twitchy cashier called Pete... but you may be surprised to discover that opening covers the entirety of this first episode.
I can only assume that the following nine episodes will chop the original film's storyline into similar chunks, then elongate each one to fill an hour (with adverts). However, I'm also hopeful Rodriguez will avoid that and take the story in a few different directions before the somewhat inevitable finale in the vampire-infested Titty Twister strip club and bar.
It's hard to imagine the natural audience for this TV series being unaware of the 1996 inspiration, however, which means this premiere will be an odd viewing experience for most. It's not every day a film director gets to remake his own work, in a different medium, only this time with full control over the script. And to be fair, some of the changes intended to flesh-out characters and prolong what was a short and snappy sequence in the film, work quite well. I enjoyed the Apocalypto-esque teaser where we saw the creation of lead vampiress Santanico Pandemonium (Eiza Gonzalez in Salma Hayek's role), who was thrown into a pit full of snaked to be turned into a creature of the night. It was also fun to see the very minor character of mumbling Sheriff McGraw get a back-story and a plucky young deputy in Freddie Gonzalez (Jesse Garcia), whose presence was the biggest change to the film's narrative. It also appears he'll be the hero of the piece, having sworn to avenge his boss's murder by the end.
It was also intriguing to see that Richie's daydreams and sexual fantasies appear to be of supernatural origin in this TV series, and not just an internal sign of his twisted mind. He's already seeing glimpses of hideous beasts attacking him, and the aforementioned Santanico occasionally appears to whisper cryptic messages into his ear. The Gecko brother's boss Don Carlos (Wilmer Valderrama) also appears to be aware of Richie's supernatural sight, so it's reasonable to assume they were selected for this job because they stand the best chance of getting over a US-Mexican border crawling with vampires?
My biggest concern about FDtD was the recasting that has to take place. D.J Cotrona is no George Clooney, but he does a decent approximation of his line deliveries and is similarly handsome. Zane Holtz is a much better actor than Quentin Tarantino (of course) and definitely more plausible as Seth's brother, but his version of Richie Gecko is less skin-crawling and outright weird. But at least it's a big change from the film in having the Gecko brothers feel more equal, with Richie less of a burden for big brother Seth. I can't comment on the other new faces yet to join the stoiry, but I'm certainly interested to see Robert Patrick's (T2, The Unit) take on Harvey Keitel's family man preacher.
Thanks to having Rodriguez behind the camera (and more involved in this project than other big-name directors usually are on TV), it was a relief FDtD didn't feel cheap. This opener was small-scale and intimate because of the focus on the liquor store crisis, but it looked like money had been spent (or managed very effectively, given Rodriguez's skill with a shoestring budget). Who knows if I'll feel the same when the TV series has to start dishing up grand violence, ugly monsters and blood-letting vampires, but given how much things have changed in the entertainment world since FDtD was released, I can't imagine its spectacle looking worse than what the original gave us nearly 20-years ago. Some of the movie's CGI and animatronics looked ropey even back in the mid-'90s, let's be frank.
Overall, it remains a little absurd to see a cult item like FDtD revived in a completely different medium, and there are certainly some issues with the whole endeavour. The film told a very simply story quicker and had a fantastic genre-switching twist towards the end, but none of that's possible in this new form. The best it can hope for is to retell an old story while improving and expand on the plot and characters, instead of merely embellish and prolong something that's going to struggle to surprise anyone.
11 & 12 March 2014 | The El Ray Network & Netflix UK