Horror continues to be done superbly on television with Robert Rodriguez’ new series “From Dusk Till Dawn”. It’s currently airing on Rodriguez’ Spanish-themed cable network El Rey Tuesday nights at 9 PM Central. And you can find it on Netflix and Amazon Instant Video as well. No matter how you see it, you should be watching it, as it’s one of the best serialized horror shows on TV right now. And it actually improves upon the clever movie from which it’s been adapted.
You may remember the cult classic “From Dusk Till Dawn” from 1996. Rodriguez collaborated with Quentin Tarantino to tell the story of Seth and Richie Gecko, two criminals on the run to Mexico. The first hour of the film was a noir as the hoodlums kidnapped a preacher (Harvey Keitel) and his two teen kids for cover to cross the border. The second hour was a battle royale between their party and dozens of vampires at a dive bar called the 'Titty Twister'. (As that name indicates, the film had its tongue planted firmly in cheek.)
The TV series, however, is going for something deeper and even intellectual. Oh sure, it’s still a lot of fun with nasty people doing Nosferatu things to each other. But the show is expanding the story, getting to know the characters more, and infusing the plot with smarts and even some philosophy. This is not just another vampire tale. It's using its length to deepen the drama and keep us coming back for more.
Some criticized the two halves of the film for never entirely coalescing into a whole, but the series doesn’t have that problem. It keeps more of the noir and lessens the gore. It concentrates on the characters and explores how they got to where they are in their twisted lives. And the Gecko boys aren’t as despicable as they were in the film. They’re trigger-happy, yes, but in the series they actually don’t off everyone they come into contact with. They even let some potential victims go free.
That keeps us close to a rooting interest in the brothers, and the two little known actors playing them (D.J. Cotrona and Zane Holtz) actually improve upon their film counterparts (George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino). Sure, Clooney played ‘cock of the walk’ superbly as Seth, but he wasn’t nearly as vulnerable or likable as Cotrona plays him here. And Holtz takes Richie from the vicious nut job he was in the movie into something far more layered in the series. His Richie still has an itchy trigger finger but he’s more itching to find out why he’s having visions of demons. He's exceedingly vulnerable and unsure of things, and he needs some friends. And this go-round, he isn’t too proud to listen to others.
Rodriguez and his writers expand the players too. They’ve introduced a Texas Ranger character, played by Jesse Garcia, and he has a quietly heroic Demian Bichir quality to him. And they’ve added more to the history of the wayward preacher who’s the brothers’ main hostage. Robert Patrick plays him here and matches Keitel's quiet grit. Patrick has become a superb character actor and it's great to see him with such a substantial role week in and week out (http://imdb.to/1mtbOYF).
The writers also give a lot of juicy scenes to their third-tier characters too. The kidnapped bank teller that the Gecko boys take hostage could have been a cipher, just another victim, but the way she’s written, and played by Samantha Esteban, is incredibly moving. You really care what happens to her. And when she hesitates to touch and soothe a depressed Richie, but ultimately pets him like he's a lost puppy, it's poignant as well as palpable. There was nothing quite that nuanced in the film.
Most of the major plot points from the movie are here though, but they’re revised and expanded. That keeps things from getting too predictable even though we're in familiar terrain. The writers twist and turn the known and ratchet it up to surprising effect at almost every juncture. Don Johnson plays a doomed Ranger in the opening episode, and yet has numerous flashbacks that keep him in the mix. He's not only great in the part, he still looks as handsome as ever. And how wonderful that Rodriguez found a terrific role for him too.
Despite being a show with more miscreants than anything this side of “Breaking Bad” or “Sons of Anarchy”, even the vilest vamps still make us want to understand their world. Vilmer Valderrama plays one of the night creatures, and is eerily effective at playing a badass who makes our skin crawl. For those who remember him only from his hilarious turn on “That 70’s Show”, he's about a million miles from that on this series.
And when the violence explodes in the show, either from bloodsucking, fisticuffs, or shoot 'em up's, the action stays subtler than it did in the film. Perhaps that’s due to network standards and practices, but I suspect that Rodriguez is playing the long game here. If it’s too gory, viewers could potentially tune out. So by dialing back the blood and guts, and putting character front and center instead, he ensures we stay engaged and return for subsequent episodes.
Still, some of the killing here has that same wonderful pop that only Rodriguez can make both sublime and ridiculous. When the ranger turns the table on two vampire baddies in the sixth and best episode of the series so far (authored by Alvaro Rodriguez of “Machete” fame), he shoots one of them right in the eye. Then for good measure, he shoots out the other eyeball too. Scenes like that remind us of how Robert Rodriguez is really lampooning violence, just as he did in his best film “Sin City” (http://bit.ly/1mq3OoL). His style is balls-to-the-wall, but it makes you laugh out loud because he's making fun of machismo.
With a few episodes left this year, and a second season already slated for 2015, it will be fascinating to see where Rodriguez and his crew take the show. There is the promise of more Aztec lore and human sacrifice as introduced in earlier episodes. Richie seems to be developing a thing for the preacher’s daughter (the comely and earnest Madison Davenport). And Santanico Pandemonium, the high priestess of the undead, has already earned our sympathy when she was thrown into an Aztec snake pit in the series’ opening scene. If everyone else has so many layers, maybe she won't turn out to be a two-dimensional villain either.
A lot of fun and fighting awaits them all in that dive bar in the remaining shows, and for a man who likes to shoot green screen as much possible, Rodriguez has infused each and every episode with utterly sterling production values. There's brilliantly realized phantasmagorical make-up and special effects. The stunts and action sequences are more akin to a big Hollywood tent-pole production. And the music, as in all Rodriguez films, is worthy of a CD or MP3 purchase.
It's going to be a fun ride, and should encourage Rodriguez and his El Rey Network to invest in other terrific first-run shows. “From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series” has really raised the bar. And here's hoping the show continues its run at least till the dawn of 2018.