Dark tales from the living dead

FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, Robert Rodriguez (18) MY LIFE AND TIMES WITH ANTONIN ARTAUD, Gerard Mordillat (nc)
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The Independent Culture
Any respectably raucous 11-year-old boy would think that From Dusk till Dawn was the greatest film ever made: gun-fights, explosions, vampires and more bare breasts than you could shake a copy of the National Geographic at. Unfortunately, no 11-year-old boy, however raucous, can be admitted to the movie. That's a pity - they'd probably be the only ones capable of overlooking the fact that its scope and imagination makes Mighty Morphin Power Rangers look like the work of Fellini.

The film is reputed to be the first thing that Quentin Tarantino committed to paper. You can well believe it - as a piece of writing, its sense of pacing and narrative cohesion suggest that in time he would mature enough to dash off a shopping list for his mum or a note to the milkman. But it gets worse. He acts.

He plays Richard Gecko, one of the casually psychotic Gecko brothers, a pair of armed robbers on the run after torching a convenience store. He's the vicious, amoral one. His brother Seth (George Clooney) is of a more sensitive disposition. We know this because he gives his sibling a stern ticking off for doing something naughty, like raping and butchering a woman. Together with their hostages - a preacher (Harvey Keitel) and his daughter (Juliette Lewis) and son (Ernest Liu) - they head for the Mexican border and stop in at a rowdy bar whose staff and clientele suddenly reveal themselves, in the way of these things, to be vampires. With barely a chance to whip out the crucifixes and garlic, the five hapless visitors find themselves battling the hideous encroaching envoys of the undead - a bit like Walthamstow on a Friday night.

The shift in tone that marks the film's second half is audacious, but like most of the director Robert Rodriguez's pacing and staging, it's bungled by a pervading air of self- satisfaction. A film can be elevated by schizophrenia - think of the subtle tweaks that made Something Wild so deep and dark. But From Dusk till Dawn is altogether too pleased with itself to seduce you, and it has a terrible drudgery about it - like the undead, it just keeps on rolling every time you think it's ground to a halt. While it's dolled up like a B-movie, it fails to adhere to that form's basic dictates: brevity and fun. It gives the illusion of being a reckless, tongue-in-cheek homage (to George Romero, Sam Peckinpah and Hammer Films), yet it doesn't have fresh blood coursing through its veins like Near Dark or Vamp.

Its goofiness conceals objectionable undertones that have surfaced before in Tarantino's work. There's a sexist, motormouthed rant by the bar MC that feels hand-crafted specifically for recital by drunken undergraduates, and a leering prowl around Juliette Lewis's body, which her later transformation into a butt-kicking ninja fails to remedy. It's disheartening that Rodriguez and Tarantino can't even produce a parodic work of levity and simple-minded abandon without giving their misogynistic tendencies oxygen. Fangs for nothing, guys.

They should have roped in Sami Frey as the leader of the vampires - he would have given the movie a lovely eerie edge, and a wicked sense of mischief. In My Life and Times with Antonin Artaud, he plays the unhinged theatrical guru in the years following his release from a mental asylum. Gerard Mordillat's portrait of the friendship between Artaud and a young, self-regarding poet (Marc Barbe) is surprisingly warm and loving, mostly due to some neat dashes of irony and self-deprecation. But it's willing to brave confrontation; one long, loud scene chronicling Artaud's fearsome working methods has you grinding your teeth. Most of all, there's trembling frailty and sudden, spurting pride and defiance in Frey's portrayal of this Bohemian bloodsucker, this Bela Lugosi in a beret.

'From Dusk till Dawn' is on general release from Friday; 'My Life and Times with Antonin Artaud' is showing at the ICA, London SW1 (0171-930 3647) from Fri to 13 June