The Losers Who Clutch the Cross and Fight the Monsters

Part Four of Mbird’s Summer of Night: George Clooney & Quentin Tarantino step into the Cathedral of Satan.

Ian Olson / 9.7.23

And we’re back, folks, for the final installment of Mockingbird’s Summer of Night! We’re wrapping this series up with Trevor’s pick, 1996’s From Dusk Till Dawn, a film in which a pair of bank robbing brothers, played by George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino, hole up in a place more disreputable than which cannot be conceived, only to find that the staff at this hole-in-the-wall are bloodsucking minions of the Evil One!

Caleb: So our biggest overarching theme for this series was about capturing the vibe shift of late summer to early fall, and no movie could possibly help us shift gears harder or better than From Dusk Till Dawn. I mean, what a WILD tonal shift over an hour into the movie from a dusty and dialogue-heavy heist film to a blood-n-guts vampire exploitation flick. Talk about Dusk AND Dawn!

Ian: I agree, this movie captures that vibe in a way that perhaps only The Lost Boys does more. Maybe it isn’t a coincidence that vampires are in both! Blake, first of all: I am so glad you are back!

Blake: I bet Todd is, too. [Editor’s note: I very much am]

Ian: Let’s just say, no one really liked Blake GPT.

Blake: Well, I just need this on the record first thing: I don’t like Quentin Tarantino.

Ian: I really hope Mbird @’s Tarantino on Twitt — er, sorry, X — and he sees this…

Blake: Sure, a couple of his films are moderately entertaining, but the guy has always given me creep vibes. So, I was overjoyed to finally see a film where Tarantino could basically play himself and, yet, those who have bought into his cock and bull persona are still able to maintain the illusion that he isn’t the psychopath he plays in From Dusk Till Dawn. It’s low-key brilliant on his part. So I’ll give him kudos for that.

Ian: It was hidden in plain sight, all this time.

Blake: I have avoided this movie for 27 years for two reasons: vampires — which have been overdone, though not as saturated as zombies —

Ian: [sighs] He can’t help but work that in —

Blake: — and Tarantino. I think somewhere in my mind this was one of Tarantino’s films. Turns out it was the much superior Robert Rodriguez who knows he makes fun B-style films and doesn’t take them seriously (which isn’t the case for Tarantino). So watching this film ended up being a much more entertaining romp than I had expected. 

Ian: What about you, Trevor? I know this is another movie pregnant with nostalgia for you.

Trevor: I first saw From Dusk Till Dawn in July of 2005 while spending the night with my brother, a recent college grad, in Athens, Georgia. The movie was a blind rental; we knew nothing about it apart from vampires. If The Lost Boys embodied our adolescence and foray into horror then From Dusk Till Dawn signaled the end of that era for us. In August, my brother would get married and move to St. Louis for seminary. Video rental stores were closing too. Gone would be the days of summer sleepovers and late night horror movie marathons. And if The Lost Boys is a tale about preserving the past and holding onto our innocence, then From Dusk Till Dawn marks a final break from our purity.

Ian: So this movie as bookend of this series really has a double valence for you.

Trevor: Yes. Like the two ends of my youth, the movie is a double-sided feature. On Side A, you have a gritty, road trip, neo-noir thriller where Seth (George Clooney) styles himself a “professional thief.” Distinguishing himself from his animalistic brother, Richie (Quentin Tarantino), Seth obeys a law: he only uses violence as necessary, and he is only loyal to himself, his brother, and money. Throughout the film, Seth will fail to keep the law, showing its arbitrary nature. He is not Seth, but Cain, a fugitive of justice. As a foil to Seth, Jacob (Harvey Keitel) is a fugitive of God. A grieving widower, he is a former Baptist pastor. As he tells his daughter, Kate (Juliette Lewis), he believes in Jesus, but he does not love him for killing his wife in a horrific and mundane car accident. Taxed by the timeless question of why the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer, Jacob wrestles with God. He is both restless, roaming Texas in an RV, and desires rest, pleading for a bed.

Blake: Turns out that Tarantino (who did write the film) dug deep down in his soul for a fun little play on the classic debate of whether the icon or the faith that wields the icon is actually effective against the undead. He definitely falls down heavily on the side of the latter as Harvey Keitel’s lost pastor finds his faith in time to kick some vampire tail. (Keitel’s character is woefully underwritten, but Keitel can shine up any turd he is given). From Dusk Till Dawn is far from the only vampire flick to showcase it, but the weaponizing of the cross by Keitel by the end — in the form of a baton inserted into the trigger of a Winchester Model 1912 shotgun. The cross wards the vampire off, giving Keitel time to tip the muzzle and blow them away. I find this trope to be perhaps more blasphemous than anything found in Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ.

Ian: I’m glad you brought that up because this is something you and I return to periodically as we make our lifelong pilgrimage through a gospel-inflected love of horror. It’s bugged me for some that both the novel Salem’s Lot and its TV movie adaptation suggest that the crucifix is only useful against the forces of evil insofar as they focus faith against those forces; that is, that the crucifix’s ability to ward off the vampire is dependent upon the amount of faith you are pumping into it. Which is incredibly Pelagian! In the past, the symbol is inherently effective, regardless of how much or little faith the wielder possesses, which I think is truer to life, in terms of scary stuff, certainly, but also in terms of the sacramental life of the church. The Eucharist doesn’t communicate Christ to me in proportion to how much I believe I will find him mediated to me there. The beauty of these symbols is that they convey and work because of One they are consecrated to represent charge them with power.

Blake: And, further, the iconography of the crucifix is not a weapon for death, but a symbol of salvation, a light to ward away the darkness. Using it otherwise ends up sending a mixed and conflicted message. However, someone like Tarantino doesn’t comprehend the discontinuities involved in religious symbolism; instead he is just gunning for what is “cool.” I think that is ultimately my problem with Tarantino: he is too concerned with the cool and faking depth instead of slowing down to build layered meanings into his films. This is why the film works better as a Rodriguez joint, where nothing is meant to be taken seriously and is meant to merely be enjoyed.

Trevor: And see, flip to Side B, and the movie is a gonzo, horror-action exploitation flick. Descending into a den of debauchery, the characters enter through arched, church doors into a place where worship will be contested. In truth, it is a cathedral of Satan. But before that revelation, Jacob confesses the ugly truth that Seth, by eluding capture from the FBI and Texas police, has won. Toasting to each other’s families, the two fugitives form an unlikely alliance. After the owner invokes everyone to kneel before Satanico Pandemonium, a dancer festooned by a serpent, each character must choose who to worship. Seth converts by driving a stake into Richie, destroying his god of riches. Turning to restore the faith of Jacob, Seth acknowledges how Jacob could doubt the reality of holiness in light of the tragic death of his wife, but he implores the lapsed pastor to believe in God precisely because of the existence of the blood-sucking devils. Seth calls on the name of the Lord through the minister in order to slay some vamps.

Ian: If the Lord waited for someone other than losers and numbskulls for his purposes, he’d be waiting forever, right?

Trevor: And so glorious, gut-spraying mayhem floods our screens as Jacob blesses tap water, constructs crosses, and recites Scripture. His wrestling with God is over, and his final sacrifice is one of victory over Hell.

Caleb: I’ll go ahead and admit that my least favorite part of it is the vampire bar fight stuff. Rodriguez tries to ratchet up the stakes — believe it or not, no pun intended — but so much of his cornball action sequence falls flat, which is an absolute shame. Every other aspect of this is firing on all cylinders, especially Quentin Tarantino’s stellar script. I also cannot believe the miracle of this cast: George Clooney, Danny Trejo, Harvey Keitel, Salma Hayek, Tom Savini, Cheech Marin, Juliette Lewis, Fred Williamson, John Hawkes, etc — absolutely insane! And every set location is astounding — from the dusty motels of southern Texas to the ancient ziggurats of a primal Mexico.

While some of the goofy digital effects and gross lasciviousness keep me from revisiting this one too often, I found myself so compelled by the interplay between Clooney’s remorseless bank robber and Keitel’s apostate Baptist preacher. These guys understand each other. The world and (from their perspective) God have catastrophically failed them. It’s hardened them into incorrigible cynics. But thrust into a crisis — quite literally from hell — their real humanity and faith in the divine comes shining through, even when it leads to excruciating ends. You know: “just some mean, [mumble mumble] servants of God!”

Ian: Yeah, I can’t help but like that. I’m with Blake, where I know it isn’t profoundly explored, but all the same, it’s there. I feel like this very thing is why certain atheists are potentially closer to the Kingdom of God than some ostensible believers are, because when there is an ethical protest to your rejection of God, you’re saying “No” to something because of your “Yes” to something else. Point being, that if there really is something to those convictions about how things ought to be, about what is right and wrong, what is beautiful and what repulsive, then it’s entirely possible that in a moment of great trial, when everything seems to be on the line, that you may see that you’re actually on God’s side of the line in the sand. I’m not pretending that’s easy or inevitable. What I am saying is that there’s nothing easier than presuming that whatever you’re about is just so clearly what God is about and never spending a moment critically examining how far you fall from the ideals you announce are your own. And I think one thing God’s intrusions into the disorder of our world show is that the people who have the unflagging sense of, “This isn’t/I’m not right” are more likely to join in and be surprised that God will have even them when the time comes to fight the monsters.

Trevor: In the end, however, Seth’s conversion is false or ambiguous at best. He returns to worshiping money and abandons the orphaned daughter, Kate. “Go home,” he says, as if she has a home anymore. Shaking her head in disbelief and kicking the dirt, the movie ends in the barrenness of the desert with a feeling of, “Now what?” As the credits rolled while my brother and I watched From Dusk Till Dawn, I had a similar feeling of, “Now what?” Life was about to change for the two of us. As I packed my bags to “go home,” I realized I could not return.

Ian: You said it already: we are the lost boys. We enter into this world having already lost something. And we spend our lives looking for that something we never really had. Experiences like this, I’d say, point beyond themselves to how that lack is always already a part of us; that the thing we remember — that perhaps we even make up to give that feeling an object — hurts and yet hurts with a kind of beauty. Which isn’t to say this movie isn’t a marker of an era’s end: only that even the sadness of that ending testifies to an absence that preceded it. The pleasant things that indicate there is more than just exhaustion and pain are impermanent and their impermanence stings us with further pain.

And so we, too, reach an end with this series. Thanks for hanging out and taking in these movies with us, friends! We hope it was fun and that the summertime sadness was abated even a little through the gift of horror and an unlikely gospel. Spooky Season is upon us, so keep an eagle eye and you’re sure to see us celebrating the spectral soon!

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