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Plot: criminals and hostages end up in bar somewhere on the Mexican border….

There’s no contesting that the ‘90s were pretty dark and abysmal time for the horror genre. Much of it had devolved into thrillers, self-aware or otherwise, on the one hand and comedy on the other. Hollywood had attempted to revive the classic gothic with Frankenstein Unbound (1990), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) and Interview With the Vampire (1994) and Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) had resurrected (but not necessarily improved) the tired and tiring slasher for an entire new generation. Mexico always had been a steady haven for horror and earned its place in cult cinema history thanks to a handful of titles in the golden age. Who better to bring the Mexican spirit to America than the country’s promising export with the help from Hollywood’s hottest young new talent? From Dusk Till Dawn, or one of the best horror films of the ‘90s, may not reinvent the wheel but it puts a fresh spin on an old formula. What more could you possibly want? Occasionally the Hollywood machine gets something right.

What was From Dusk Till Dawn if not two friends getting together and throwing one hell of a kegger? These two friends just happened to be Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. As the legend goes, Tarantino had offered the script to special effects man Robert Kurtzman to direct but he declined. This prompted Tarantino to hand it to Rodriguez and he gladly accepted. Kurtzman in turn lend his talents to the effects with his Kurtzman, Nicotero & Berger EFX Group. The time was right. Rodriguez had just legitimized himself in the face of the Hollywood bigwigs, first by making El Mariachi (1992) by the skin of his teeth on a very modest budget of $7,000 and he had admirably evinced that he could handle a sizable budget with the remake Desperado (1995) the year before. Presumably something of a diversion in between serious projects Rodriguez and Tarantino threw this curveball in between Desperado (1995) and The Faculty (1998) as well as the 1970s crime epic valentine Pulp Fiction (1994) and the blaxploitation tribute Jackie Brown (1997), respectively. Not only was From Dusk Till Dawn Tarantino’s first paid writing gig (he also executive produced and acted to help his friend Rob out), it’s also somewhat of an anomaly in the filmographies of both as Tarantino and Rodriguez haven’t made a horror before or since. A decade later both would reunite for Grindhouse (2007) but that was more of a valentine to ‘60s/’70s drive-in exploitation rather than a straight-up horror. Eli Roth has done more for exploitation horror than Rodriguez or Tarantino ever did. All quabbles and reservations aside, the spirit of Juan López Moctezuma proudly lives on in From Dusk Till Dawn.

After robbing a bank in Kansas and escaping jail, Seth Gecko (George Clooney) and his slightly psychotic and deeply unwell brother Richard (Quentin Tarantino) hold up Benny's World of Liquor where they add store clerk Pete Bottoms (John Hawkes) and Texas Ranger Earl McGraw (Michael Parks) to their ever-growing list of casualties. The two are pursued by FBI Agent Stanley Chase (John Saxon) and after leaving the liquor store in flaming ruin the two head to the Mexican border with their hostage bank teller Gloria Hill (Brenda Hillhouse) in tow. They pull in at the Dew Drop Motel in Texas where they bump into the Fuller family. Jacob (Harvey Keitel) has taken his adopted son Scott (Ernest Liu) and daughter Kate (Juliette Lewis) on a vacation. Jacob is a minister in the midst of a crisis of faith after the death of his wife. Seth and Richie commandeer Jacob's RV to smuggle them across the border at gunpoint and order to take them to their rendez-vous. The minister is to take them to the Titty Twister bar where the brothers will meet their contact Carlos (Cheech Marin) at dawn providing them shelter at El Rey. Carlos figures that a bar doubling as a stripclub/brothel will offer all the necessary entertainment.

The Titty Twister proudly exclaims to be open from “dusk till dawn” and if Chet Pussy (Cheech Marin) is to be believed they have every kind of girl for every kind of customer. The intrepid gang first meet resistance from bartender Razor Charlie (Danny Trejo) who insists that they don’t fit their strict “bikers and truckers only” policy. Jacob is able to negotiate their entry on a technicality. Before long they are introduced to the bar’s main attraction, the devilishly beautiful Satánico Pandemónium (Salma Hayek) whose dance of seduction instantly beguiles and enslaves Richie. When the bar employees reveal themselves to be a reptilian breed of vampires known as culebra the group find allies in tough bikers Sex Machine (Tom Savini) and Frost (Fred Williamson). They are able to hold their own against the first wave, but the things have a nasty habit of resurrecting their previously claimed human victims. As the vampires re-emerge and start to claw down the group must stay alive to reach the liberating rays of daylight.

George Clooney had played a guest role on the CBS hospital sitcom E/R (1984) and just finished his 6-year run as Doug Ross on the NBC medical drama ER (1994-2009). About ten years before Clooney had been in the horror spoofs Return to Horror High (1987) and Return of the Killer Tomatoes! (1988). Juliette Lewis was the prerequisite Hollywood alternative chick. Her star was rising due to her roles in Cape Fear (1991), Natural Born Killers (1994), The Basketball Diaries (1995), and Strange Days (1995). Harvey Keitel was and is a living legend and has played many iconic roles. Keitel has worked with Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Jane Campion, and Abel Ferrara appearing in, among many others, Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), the comedy Mother, Jugs & Speed (1976), Reservoir Dogs (1992), Pulp Fiction (1994), Bad Lieutenant (1992), and The Piano (1993). To top things off, the all-star cast is anchored by pulp cinema pillars Fred Williamson, John Saxon and Tom Savini and Rodriguez regulars Cheech Marin and Danny Trejo. This being a Tarantino script every line Clooney (and every other main character, Fullers excepted) utters is filled with rapid-fire expletives and random profanity. And then there’s her, Salma Hayek.

Salma Hayek as Satánico Pandemónium

No coverage of From Dusk Till Dawn is complete without mentioning, obligatory or otherwise, Salma Hayek. Are we terribly dating ourselves by calling Salma a hot tamale? Hayek’s electrifying performance was a sure-shot to international superstardom, if her sizzling role as the love interest in Desperado (1995) hadn’t done so already. Only Laura Cerón from ER (1994-2009) came close to matching la Hayek. In these times before Eva Longoria, Ana Ortiz, and Selena Gomez; Hayek was Mexico’s biggest export.

What other way to describe Salma other than the best of Bella Cortez, Tina Romero, and Maribel Guardia, combined? Rodriguez obviously was keenly aware of the fact and has Hayek writhing and slithering around suggestively in nothing but a tiny burgundy bikini and feathery headdress while handling a large Albino Burmese Python Reticulus. Tarantino on the other hand uses the opportunity to indulge his well-known foot fetish. First, by ogling Lewis and getting down and dirty with Hayek. If Salma’s scorching dance routine doesn’t get your pulse racing you’re either dead, barren or both. In age-old Hollywood tradition the extras get topless but the main attraction doesn’t. Hayek has a scant few lines but delivers each and every of them with wide-eyed, lipsmacking glee. It makes you long for Ukrainian belly dancer Diana Bastet to re-enact (and expand) the Satánico Pandemónium routine with costume and all. Salma’s delectable shapes and forms turned heads a quarter century ago and continue to do so to this day. In a now legendary 2021 Red Table Talk interview the 55-year-old candidly admitted hers only gotten more sumptuous and bigger with age. As a woman of such enormously gigantic proportions, the price of beauty comes with all the expected physical ailments.

Regardless of how you might feel about Tarantino and his post-modern witticisms From Dusk Till Dawn remains a formidable genre exercise on its own merit. Whether it’s the heist/action of the first hour or the suvival/vampire horror of the last 48 minutes the shift remains as brilliantly executed, seamless in transition and unexpected as when it first premiered. For cult cinema lovers there’s a lot to see if you know where to look. Judging from Hayek’s sultry dance Rodriguez apparently has seen Black Eva (1976). The batscene was clearly inspired by Hammer’s The Kiss Of the Vampire (1963). Once the surviving vampire killers emerge they bear some semblance to those of Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter (1974). The vampires are modeled after the Deadites from Army Of Darkness (1992). Frost’s slaying and ultimate demise echoes one of the earlier Derek enemy kills in Bad Taste (1987).

Sex Machine transforms into a grotesque behemoth rat-vampire monstrosity similar to the rat-monkey in Peter Jackson’s Braindead (1992). Hayek’s transformation into her reptile culebra form pre-dates Mallika Sherawat’s in Hisss (2010) by almost fifteen years and neither for that matter does she vocalize only in hisses and moans. Chet Pussy’s often sampled and legendary pussy monologue remains priceless as ever, as does Chango beer and Sleaze tequila. Equally funny is when during the Titty Twister massacre Tito & Tarantula continue to play music on a severed torso and various body parts. The vampires’ demise by daylight is eerily similar to that of the Gremlins in Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990) or the shambling corpses in A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), you be the judge. Oh yeah, and where else are you going to see a dive bar/brothel built on a Aztec pyramid/temple consecrated to snake god Quetzalcóatl or Coatlicue? Nowhere, that’s where. It also helps that it’s exceptionally gory. It’s a wonder that Hollywood and the censors allowed it.

It wouldn’t be too far off to call From Dusk Till Dawn the Bad Taste (1987) or Evil Dead II (1987) of the nineties. Is it as crazy as some of Mexico’s best horror of yore? Hell, no but for a mainstream Hollywood production it’s more than a little quirky and even mildly insane. People with no cinematic literacy or knowledge still delude themselves into thinking Tarantino is some prodigious genius that reinvents cinema on the regular. Nothing could be further from the truth. There’s no denying Tarantino’s visual mastery, vast knowledge, witty writing and technical craft but every single thing he has ever done is taking the exploitation genre of his preference, and blowing it up with all the bells and whistles that come with a massive Hollywood budget. As these things tend to go From Dusk Till Dawn spawned a pair of direct-to-video follow-ups in the form of the unnecessary sequel From Dusk Till Dawn 2: Texas Blood Money (1999), the prequel From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman's Daughter (1999) as well as the series From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series (2014-2016). That most, if not all, couldn’t hold a candle to the original was, sadly, expected but at least they built and expanded upon the mythology and characters it established. As of this writing, it hasn’t been tarnished by a modern-day remake/reimagining – hopefully it will remain that way too.

Plot: terminally ill adventurer attempts to catch snake to attain immortality.

Hisss is one of those beautiful trainwrecks that can only happen (and will continue to do so) when producer and director don’t see eye to eye on the fundamentals. The Asian snake goddess myth continues to fascinate Westerners. Hisss was an attempt by an American director to adapt it for a Hollywood audience. In Bollywood Rajkumar Kohli set the standard with his Nagin (1976) that starred both Reena Roy and Rekha. In Hong Kong Tsui Hark adapted the legend for his deeply oneiric The Green Snake (1993) with Joey Wong and Maggie Cheung as the snakes. Despite favorable domestic box office returns Hisss (which initially was going to be called Nagin: the Snake Goddess before producer Govind Menon re-cut it) was widely considered a failure. We’re on the fence about Hisss. On the one hand the critiques aren’t entirely unfounded and it could have been far stronger under better circumstances. On the other hand, Hisss could have been far worse too. For a Bollywood production Hisss is suspiciously bereft of the usual trappings that come with such a description and there’s no way a Hollywood audience is going to fall for an English-language Hindi movie full of people they don’t know. Thankfully Hisss hasn’t damaged Mallika Sherawat’s domestic career too much and she was able to walk away from it relatively unscathed. Hell, Mallika even went as far as to pose with snakes on the 2010 Cannes Film Festival to promote Hisss.

The director of Hisss is Jennifer Chambers Lynch, daughter of David, who can’t seem to catch a break no matter what she does. Chambers worked as a production assistant on her father’s Blue Velvet (1986) and from there moved on to direct the New Model Army music video 'Living in the Rose'. Her directorial debut Boxing Helena (1993) was critically panned and infamously savaged by the National Organization of Women who launched a campaign against it. Following the release Chambers underwent three spinal surgeries due to a car accident that had occured earlier. For the next 15 years she withdrew from much of public life in order to raise her newborn daughter. Her second film would arrive in the new millennium in the form of Surveillance (2008). Her comeback effort won the top prize at the Sitges Film Festival in Spain and Chambers was the first woman to receive the Best Director award at the New York City Horror Film Festival.

In 2010 Chambers traveled to India for the Govind Menon production Hisss, a project was envisioned as Mallika Sherawat’s overdue Hollywood debut. Menon had worked with Sherawat earlier on Bachke Rehna Re Baba (2005), Kis Kis Ki Kismat (2004), and Khwahish (2003). Producer Ratan Jain had done the same on the comedy Maan Gaye Mughall-E-Azam (2008). Apparently Chambers and Menon had a falling with Chambers leaving once shooting had wrapped. She had envisioned Hisss as a romance but producer Menon edited it as a horror movie, cutting out the romantic scenes as well as any and all of the obligatory songs. Understandably Chambers has since disavowed Hisss while Sherawat remains Bollywood celebrity. After the Hisss debacle Chambers directed the flawed thriller Chained (2012), the Sierra Swan music video for 'Emotional' in 2014, and has since returned to directing for television.

Aging adventurer George States (Jeff Doucette) is dying from brain cancer and has come to Kerala, India in desperate search of a last panacea. He believes that if he can extract blood from the sacred nagmani stones of the Nāga that his debilitating affliction will be cured. He and his entourage have come to Sahyadri, the rainforest of the Western Ghats, to find such stones. States’ plan is simple: capture a Nag and keep it in captivity to lure a Nagin to come to her imprisoned mate’s rescue. States and his local henchmen succeed in their plan and await for the Nagin to come. The Nagin assumes the form of a beautiful woman (Mallika Sherawat) and travels to the town of Nainchi. There she’s mesmerized by snake charmer Dinesh (Mahmoud Babai, as Mahmood Babai) and makes her acquaintance with police officer Vinkram Gupta (Irrfan Khan). Gupta has his own problems. His loving wife Maya (Divya Dutta) is barren and their lack of offspring strains their relationship. Nagin helps a few local women by getting rid of the town’s undesirable elements. Vinkram is ordered to investigate the sudden spate of mysterious murders, unaware that they are committed by the beautiful mute woman he met earlier. Nagin does find her captured mate in States’ hideout and once reunited the two copulate. Around the same time that Gupta figures out the murder case George tries to obtain the sacred nagmani from the Nāga and is killed for his trouble. Vinkram returns home to find his wife Maya giving birth to a baby while the Nagin, now in the safety of her jungle home, breeds her own spawn.

Since debuting inauspiciously in 2002 the repertoire of Mallika Sherawat has been all over the cinematic map in both the literal and the figurative sense. First Sherawat has starred (probably more than any other Hindi actress of her generation) in remake after remake of popular foreign imports. In 2003 she starred in Khwahish (2003), a remake of Love Story (1970). She followed that with Murder (2004), Bachke Rehna Re Baba (2005), and Ugly Aur Pagli (2008), Bollywood remakes of Unfaithful (2002), Heartbreakers (2001), and South Korean drama My Sassy Girl (2001), respectively. Then Sherawat appeared in Dasavatharam (2008) as well as the Bruno Mars music video ‘Whatta Man’ in 2012. Unlike Priyanka Chopra (who parlayed her liaison with Nick Jonas into a steady Hollywood – and music career) Mallika’s failed American television debut came with a a guest role in the series Hawaii Five-0 (2010) in 2014, but was not enough to leave any kind of lasting impression.

On two seperate occassions Sherawat has tried her hand at Asian productions. Once in Hong Kong with The Myth (2005) where she starred alongside Jackie Chan and then again more than a decade later in the Mainland China action-adventure Time Raiders (2016). Right in the middle of all that lies the ill-fated Hisss, a remake of the Rajkumar Kohli vintage Nagin (1976) where Sherawat inherited the role of the seductive snake spirit that Filmfare award nominee Reena Roy played so formidably in the earlier version. Lest we be remiss to mention, Nagin (1976) was a Hindi remake of the François Truffaut classic The Bride Wore Black (1968). Sherawat is known for her women’s rights activism, a long-time Bollywood sex symbol, and is one of the most popular celebrities in her part of the world. Be that as it may, this Mallika (no, not that one) apparently can’t seem to catch a break…

Largely a preamble to see Mallika Sherawat skulk and writhe around Hisss could just as easy have been made in America. If this was ever to get an American remake (the chances of which are very slim, not to say nil) Diane Guerrero, Gina Rodriguez, Vela Lovell, Jackie Cruz, or Antoinette Kalaj would be ideal for the part. The special effects are good enough and even though Hisss has some slight resemblances to The Loreley’s Grasp (1973) in terms of imagery, these are merely superficial. Hisss is thoroughly Asian. It’s closest cousin is Tsui Hark’s wuxia fantasy The Green Snake (1993) that uses the Chinese folk tale Madame White Snake as its basis. Chambers doesn’t have the painter’s brush and eye for scene composition that Hark had in his prime. A lot of the time Hisss sort of feels like a Hindi take on Anaconda (1997), whether or not that is a good thing is up to the viewer. Mallika is obviously a better actress than Jennifer Lopez ever was. For one it’s leagues better than Cheung Kwok-Kuen’s Mainland China monster romp Snake Curse (2004), but anything is. Bereft of the usual extended singing and dancing routines Hisss is only (a comparatively anemic) 90 minutes long and thus relatively short by Bollywood standards. That Hisss is neither here nor there is ultimately its undoing. For a Bollywood audience this is probably not the epic it ought to have been, and for Western general audiences it’s probably too confusing as to what exactly the point is.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with Hisss as such. Even if it, at just under an economic 100 minutes, often feels longer than it actually is. It’s fairly evident from the onset that it was subject to some rather extreme cutting. There’s a single dance routine at the very beginning which very much sets Hisss up as the romance it was envisioned as. Once the musical interlude has passed Hisss changes into a fairly standard, at least by Western standards, monster movie. The sudden tonal shifts are quite jarring and often clash with each other. Just how much of the Chambers-shot material was cut by executive meddling is unclear but Hisss would’ve benefitted tremendously from having lengthier transitions between the character - and horror scenes. Since director and producer no longer appear to be on speaking terms the hopes of a director’s cut are slim at this point. The special effects work of Robert Kurtzman and his Indian team is good enough. Mallika did most of her own stunts and Hisss is a convenient excuse to see her slithering around seductively. Sherawat doesn’t utter a single line of dialogue for the entirety of the movie and communicates primarily in moans and hisses. As a contemporary retelling of the Southeast Asian Nāga myth there have been worse examples. Which doesn’t make Hisss good or anything, although it certainly didn’t deserve the bad rep it has gotten in both Hollywood and Bollywood.