From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman’s Daughter (1999)

This third entry in the From Dusk Till Dawn franchise is a straight-up prequel, set about 80 years before the first film and taking place (we have to assume) at the same location.

From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman’s Daughter is a brazen little film. Quite shamelessly, it latches itself onto the mystery surrounding the death of American author and journalist Ambrose Bierce, who supposedly went missing in Mexico while travelling with revolutionary Pancho Villa. In fact, the film’s title is inspired by the name of one of Bierce’s stories, The Monk and the Hangman’s Daughter.

Ambrose Bierce is used as a character in the film. He is one of the protagonists and at the same time he witnesses many of the events as an interested and inebriated observer.

The fates of all the main players in this horror drama become intertwined in the little Mexican town of Purgatorio (nice touch…). A bandit by the name of Johnny Madrid is about to be hanged and a crowd has gathered to witness the event. A number of police officers are at hand, as well as the brutal hangman and his long-suffering daughter. Add to that four Americans: apart from Bierce they are a young wannabe renegade, and a missionary and his wife.
Through various twists and turns, they all end up at the Titty Twister, and I guess you all know where the story goes from here: trapped inside, our ill-matched group of visitors must fight for their survival, and for a way out.

Thus, From Dusk Till Dawn 3 is following a plot that is basically constructed as a straight parallel to the plot of the first film. Released only 6 months earlier, From Dusk Till Dawn 2: Texas Blood Money did the exact opposite: its premise was certainly reminiscent of the Tarantino-Rodriguez classic, but it tried to get far enough away from it so as to not seem like a simple re-hash. With only 6-months between the two releases, can we assume that they were developed simultaneously? Constructing one film as a straight parallel while trying something a bit different with the other?

The fact remains that Texas Blood Money failed to turn its quite interesting premise into a decent film. And while I commended the film for trying something different, I must say that The Hangman’s Daughter works much better as a film, in my opinion. While it does not live up to the quality and (of necessity) not to the novelty of the first film, The Hangman’s Daughter works perfectly well as a vampire horror film and is a much smoother, much more polished product than Texas Blood Money. I have no idea how the budgets compare, but of the two Texas Blood Money has the much cheaper look. While there was some interesting camera work in Texas Blood Money, The Hangman’s Daughter offers much more: beautifully composed shots, and various “visions” that look the part. Set design, props and costumes all look great and authentic, which is of great importance in a period piece. Nothing in The Hangman’s Daughter screams “B-movie” or “straight-to-video” – with the exception of some of the special effects. This is the one point were people who care about these things may take offence, because some of the special effects are atrociously bad. Others, however, are acceptable, and the scenes involving CG bats are not nearly as bad as those in Texas Blood Money. The bat scenes are less frequent in The Hangman’s Daughter, and then rarely in close-up or attack scenes (or, if they are, then the bats (or the camera) seem to “shake” more): all of this helps to a certain extent to cover up the limits in the CGI budget and quality; something which I wish they had taken into account when shooting Texas Blood Money. What the two films have in common is a reliance on good old-fashioned practical effects, which are employed in The Hangman’s Daughter to add some more gore to a few “splatter scenes”.

 

The cast is great, especially Michael Parks in the role of Ambrose Bierce. The second lead character, Johnny Madrid, is also cast perfectly: highly talented Italian actor Marco Leonardi not only has the looks and the charisma to capture the attention of female audience memebers, he also captures the spirit and the mood of the outlaw character of the classic Western film genre. Lennie Loftin also gives a very good performance as the missionary, while Rebecca Gayheart as his wife is not achieving much, as she is saddled with a rather 2-dimensional character.

Other characters that are somewhat pale (due to the script, not the acting) are the hangman, his daughter, and the wannabe renegade Reece. Still, Temuera Morrison’s performance and the raw, unbridled physicality he throws into the role give the hangman a presence on screen that he would not have otherwise; while Ara Celi gives a fittingly warm and subdued performance as the hangman’s daughter, filling out this somewhat limiting role as good as the script allows her two. The Reece role is lacking a real purpose; it is a great idea for a character that leads to nothing as the writers apparently did not know what to do with it after the first act.

Also included in the cast in minor roles are Danny Trejo in his recurring cameo, and Orlando Jones in a funny but unnecessary role. As his character is the only black guy in the film and is the first “outsider” character to die, one might assume that this is the writers’ way of making fun of Hollywood clichés.

As for the fanged characters, they generally do not amount to much, to be honest.

 

I hesitate to say that the cast in this film is more talented than the cast in Texas Blood Money, as that film had a lot of talented people in it as well. But in Texas Blood Money you never feel that the actors are actually enthusiastic about being there, and they are struggling with a thankless script. In The Hangman’s Daughter, however, everyone brings their A-game. Add to that the fact that the characters in The Hangman’s Daughter are much more competently written, while nearly all the key players in Texas Blood Money were barely introduced and were merely 2-dimensional. So the actors in The Hangman’s Daughter had a much better basis to work with.

This script is the product of the collaboration of Robert Rodriguez (director of the first film) and his cousin Álvaro. And although the story is little more than a re-imagining of the basic structural ideas of Tarantino’s and Kurtzman’s story for the first film, I believe that the two cousins have created a much better script than the trio that was involved in writing the story for Texas Blood Money (director Scott Spiegel, Boaz Yakin, and actor Duane Whitaker).

 

I like the way in which The Hangman’s Daughter consistently employs the Ambrose Bierce / Pancho Villa angle as a thin guiding thread, without ever allowing it to get in the way of the actual plot. It provides the story with some “colour” and pads out the background. The references, while not always elegant, never get clunky: as for Bierce, his short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is mentioned by a character in the film, while a thief finds the manuscript to The Monk and the Hangman’s Daughter in Bierce’s luggage. Pancho Villa is mentioned numerous times, and the area that Bierce wants to travel to in order to meet up with him is called Tierra Negra – a clear reference to the Battle of Tierra Blanca, which Pancho Villa fought in 1913 and which Bierce is said to have witnessed.

All this adds to the feeling of authenticity that is created by the achievements in props, costumes and set design.

 

As for negative things (apart from certain special effects, and apart from the fact that this is a bit of a re-hash of the first film), the film is at one point trying to mirror contemporary parental custody/loyalty disputes and that whole issue is handled in quite a clunky manner.

Apart from that, there are merely some minor plot holes, though far less than in Texas Blood Money. Most of them are not worth mentioning; but it is as convenient as it is unexplained that the hangman seems to run Purgatorio as some sort of quasi mayor / chief of police / chief of judiciary. Also, for a place that is inhabited and run by highly flammable vampires, there sure are an awful lot of torches and candles at the Titty Twister. 😉

 

If you like From Dusk Till Dawn, then The Hangman’s Daughter offers you a nice, tame re-hash of the plot. It is not the greatest of films, but in Hollywood’s long list of straight-to-video cash-grab prequels and sequels you will find few entries as solid as this. It is competently written, has some great visuals, and the actors are, for the most part, giving their A-game. If you do not mind an obvious touch of Zorro in your vampire film, then I can recommend The Hangman’s Daughter for your enjoyment. If, on the other hand, you take a general dislike to the Western genre, then maybe you should give this one a miss.

Although I did not hate Texas Blood Money (my feeling was rather one of disappointment), I very much prefer The Hangman’s Daughter. I must admit that I am surprised that the two films are separated by a mere 0.8 points on imdb. Rather than the current imdb rating of 4.8, I suggest 6.0 would be more accurate, perhaps even 6.5. In fact, if the original From Dusk Till Dawn did not exist, The Hangman’s Daughter might rank even higher in my esteem.

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