Turning a successful movie into a television show is a tricky matter, as the demands of two hours versus 12 or even 24, the limits of small screen production budgets and the necessity of a contained storyline against that of a long form work can all swiftly become fatal flaws; for every Fargo, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and M*A*S*H, there is a Clueless, Highlander and Casablanca (don’t know about the terrible 1983 television series? Keep it that way).
The latest hopeful is From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series, a reinvention from the creatively fertile mind of Robert Rodriguez, the one-man Austin, Texas production house, of the low-budget horror and crime mash-up he concocted with Quentin Tarantino in 1996 in the wake of the duo’s ascension with the likes of Desperado and Reservoir Dogs.
A pulpy hostage thriller overtaken by a fight against vampires, the movie gives way to a 10-part series that screens on SBS 2, Tuesdays at 8.30pm (watch episode 1 above). Here’s our comparison guide to the movie and the series:
Essentially they’re all present and correct: on the run bank robbers and brazen killers Seth and Richie Gecko, the RV-owning Fuller family – former minister and widower Jacob, his daughter Katie and adopted son Scott, who the Gecko boys kidnap to help them cross the Mexican border. Also featured is the suspect Carlos, with his links to an underworld that plainly means different things to different people, as well as the seductive Santanico Pandemonium, a representative of the undead with a taste for humans. Added to the ensemble mix is a young Texas Ranger, Freddie Gonzalez, pursuing the Geckos in the name of his veteran partner Earl McGraw. Given the breadth of the show, there’s also a larger supporting cast, with room for some of the offbeat bit players that Rodriguez, who wrote and directed some of the episodes as well as overseeing the project as executive producer, is so fond of. And, yes, there is still a character nicknamed “Sex Machine”.
And they have a lot more to do. As a female voice – presumably Santanico – declares before the very first scene, “Today we will rise and the world will be ours”; I’m fairly sure this is not a World Cup-related marketing slogan. The B-movie imperatives of the original film have been expanded – Carlos is no longer just a mocking voice promising what you want and then twisting your desire, he’s now part of a conspiracy that involves the ancient parallel world of the vampires. Richie’s visions of Santanico – check the way the pupils of her eyes change their orientation – draw him to her, and there are plans upon plans for what the undead need from the living where the answer is more than just ‘blood’. Freddie Gonzalez’s dogged pursuit also adds a new element, and a potential new ally down the track as all paths lead to the dodgy Titty Twister bar in Mexico.
It’s a given that the spin-off never has the same cast, so George Clooney (Seth), Quentin Tarantino (Richie), Harvey Keitel (Jacob), Juliette Lewis (Kate) and Salma Hayek (Santanico Pandemonium) are replaced by, respectively, D.J. Cotrona, Zane Holtz, Robert Patrick, Madison Davenport and Eisa Gonzalez. That’s a decrease in star wattage, but it’s not without certain merits – Tarantino has always been better at writing dialogue than delivering it, so his screw loose portrayal of Richie is replaced by Holtz’s altogether more menacing and genuinely disturbed portrayal. Cotrona has some of the roguish mannerisms essential to the Clooney charm down pat (watch how he angles his head when his character addresses another), while in the expanded role of Carlos, one time That '70s Show dope Wilmer Valderrama shows that he has thankfully matured into a decent actor.
Basically, there’s no shortage of it. Gunfights are common on either of the U.S.-Mexican border and there is still a highly uncomfortable stabbing that may make you wince. Basically, whenever Richie Gecko is on the screen, there’s a chance that everything could go haywire. The tone is set by the prologue, set in the distant past, where Aztec warriors throw a Spanish heiress into a grave filed with snakes. It really does not end well for her.
Two decades ago the presence of the supernatural, introduced with literally bloody abandon, in Tarantino’s script was a surprise twist, no-one associated the coolest screenwriter in Hollywood with what was then the province of direct-to-video movies. Since then the spectral and otherworldly has become a key part of popular culture, and as with shows such as True Blood, Rodriguez has set out to outline a power structure, hierarchy and rituals that can serve as narrative fuel for the entire season. The movie ended with a shot of the Titty Twister that revealed it sat atop an ancient Aztec temple, but with the series you essentially get to find out what’s actually inside it.
Rodriguez directed a handful of the episodes, including the opening one, and he’s on solid ground not only with familiar characters, but working to specifications that suit. His style is cleaner than in recent films, where his grindhouse aesthetic has gotten out of hand, turning sloppiness into a defining trait. There’s less of the cheesy special effects, too. Major bonus: no sign of any of Spy Kids cameos. The directors of the other episodes are primarily Hispanic, reflecting Rodriguez’s belief in promoting diversity behind the camera.
One of the – actually for some, the – standout moment of the movie was the dance performance by Salma Hayek’s barely dressed Santanico Pandemonium, which began on the stage of the Titty Twister and soon moved to the protagonist’s table. A suggestive serpent added carnal punctuation, with a bonus shout out to foot fetishists everywhere. Does the series’ Santanico Pandemonium offer a similar performance? You’ll have to wait and see.