Weird Westerns: From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman's Daughter (2000)
A chaotic but terrific-looking sequel to the Robert Rodríguez/Quentin Tarantino horror film about a vampire strip club; this film, for some reason, features author Ambrose Bierce as a character.
By Max Sparber
Again, we see the phenomenon of a horror movie that decided to set a sequel in the Old West. In the case of "From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman's Daughter," the story is set in Mexico during the time of Pancho Villa, which allows them to use the author and humorist Ambrose Bierce as a character, as he went to Mexico and disappeared in 1913 after joining Villa's army as an observer.
This is one of the great historic disappearances, and. at first, it seems like the film is seeking to answer the question of what happened to him. Since the Dusk Till Dawn series is about a vampire-filled strip club built atop an Aztec ruin, presumably the answer would be "eaten by vampires," but, without spoiling too much, no, that's not the answer.
In fact, the film is the origin story of Santanico Pandemonium, a minor character in the original film who nonetheless seemed somehow important, in part because she has such an extraordinary name, and in part because she was played by Salma Hayek dancing with a snake. Bierce is merely along as a witness.
This is a shame for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because Bierce was one of the great wits of American writing, and this is never communicated in the rather confusing script by Álvaro Rodríguez, cousin to Robert Rodríguez, who directed the original "Dusk Till Dawn." Secondly, the role is played by the superb Michael Parks, but the role is neither written nor directed in a florid enough way to make effective use of the actor.
Ultimately, the film was bound to be a bit of a disappointment. The original was scripted by and costarred Quentin Tarantino and directed with typical panache by Rodríguez. It benefited from a "Psycho"-style fake out, in which the first half of the film was an extraordinarily tense crime film, pitting George Clooney and Harvey Keitel against each other and providing show-offy roles for Juliette Lewis, Tarantino, and three roles for Cheech Marin.
The original film also introduced Michael Parks as Texas Ranger Earl McGraw, a considerably more enjoyable role for the actor. McGraw was irascible, hard-nosed, squinty eyed, and non-nonsense, and Tarantino and Rodríguez liked him enough that they put him in three more movies, "Kill Bill," "Planet Terror," and "Death Proof."
The original "Dusk Till Dawn" turned into a horror movie halfway through, with the characters joining forces to battle vampires, and while these scene featured some entertaining special effects, it grew increasingly chaotic; it felt like neither Rodríguez nor Tarantino really knew how to tell a horror story at that time, and so just had people running around with monsters chasing them.
This film duplicates both the structure and the chaos, giving us a gang of murderous bastards led by Marco Leonardi, who is written as an amoral psychopath but directed as a smouldering bad boy. He is being chased by a hangman, played, weirdly, as a very mean Indiana Jones by Temuera Morrison; his daughter (Ara Celi) has run off with the desperado. They are joined by Jordana Spiro, underused but entertaining as a frontier psychopath, and a pair of evangelists, played by Rebecca Gayheart and Lennie Loftin.
It's already too many characters, even without Bierce, and more characters come in when they arrive at the strip club.
Here Sônia Braga waits as a vampire queen and Danny Trejo reprises his role as an extremely surly bartender. It's hard for us as the audience to keep track of all the character, and, more than that, the film loses track of them — Spiro seems like she's there for some sort of big payoff, but instead gets bit and disappears.
The film is competently directed by P. J. Pesce, but he doesn't have Robert Rodríguez's wild, frequently pulpy visual sensibilities. However, the film does retain Rodríguez's taste for Mexico's ultrabaroque sensibilities — the Aztec strip club sill looks like a haunted house had been built by raiding a Mexican botanica, and the film's desperadoes wear vaquero jackets and sombreros.
The film may, in the end, be a second-rate American horror film, but it looks like a first-rate Mexican cowboy film.