by Steve Habrat
It has been four long years since JJ Abrams ventured into the Star Trek universe and left both die hard Trekkies and casual moviegoers hungry for more deep space adventures from the brash Captain James T. Kirk and the brilliant Mr. Spock. For some, that lengthy wait felt almost like a lifetime. In between 2009s Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness, Abrams buddied up with director Steven Spielberg on the set of their 2011 alien-in-suburbia throwback Super 8, and it seems that this friendship has really inspired Abrams and his approach to science-fiction blockbusters. Almost every single frame of rollicking action in Star Trek Into Darkness is alive and bursting with Spielberg’s spirit for adventure, something that will absolutely delight anyone who is a fan of Spielberg’s breezy approach to summer diversions. Yet you don’t necessarily have to be big on Spielberg to adore the second installment in this rebooted franchise. We may only be three weeks into the summer movie season, but after taking this bad boy in, I think we may have an early contender for best blockbuster of the year. Featuring two times the action, two times the thrills, two times the emotion, two times the fun, and two times the laughs, Star Trek Into Darkness finds Abrams burning with sugary creativity and bubbly enthusiasm to deepen the relationships between his wonderfully reinvented characters.
Star Trek Into Darkness begins on the primitive planet of Nibiru, with the crew of the USS Enterprise on an undercover mission to monitor a volcano that is on the verge of erupting and wiping out the planet’s natives. The crew has been warned that they are not to reveal their presence natives, but after a dangerous attempt to stop the volcano from erupting, Captain James T. Kirk (played by Chris Pine) breaks orders to save Spock’s (played by Zachary Quinto) life. Back on earth, Kirk and Spock are reprimanded by Admiral Pike (played by Bruce Greenwood), who reassumes command of the Enterprise, relieves Kirk of his command, and reassigns Spock. Meanwhile, in London, a Starfleet archives is attacked and destroyed by a shadowy Starfleet agent named John Harrison (played by Benedict Cumberbatch). Kirk and Spock are called in to attend an emergency meeting at Starfleet headquarters to discuss how to respond to the attack. The meeting is interrupted by another attack that kills several high-ranking members of Starfleet including Admiral Pike. With Pike dead, the USS Enterprise is given back to Kirk and Spock, who quickly hatch a plan to go after Harrison, who has fled to the hostile Klingon planet Qo’noS.
Much like Abrams’ first Star Trek film, the second installment is loaded with nifty little plot twists that should not be spoiled by a review. Just know that if you are a major Star Trek fan, there a more than a few surprises that will almost make your head explode. With all of the characters fleshed out in the first film, Abrams can strictly focus on the nonstop action that practically blasts the audience into the neighboring theater. The film begins with an Indiana Jones-style chase between the terrified Kirk and “Bones” McCoy (played by Karl Urban) and a yelping tribe from Nibiru, who launch spears out of the screen in glorious 3D. In case there wasn’t enough to marvel at in this particular set piece, Abrams flips to the glowing action that is taking place within the swirling volcano. From there on out, there is a city-shaking attack on Starfleet, a wicked shootout between Klingons and a handful of crewmembers of the Enterprise, a nerve-frying space jump through a spinning field of spaceship debris, and a breathtaking fistfight on the streets of San Francisco. If that isn’t enough to hold your attention, you’ll certain find yourself unable to stop scanning the inside of the seriously amazing USS Enterprise or grinning over the wild crew members that operate it. Surprisingly, the film was converted into 3D in postproduction, but it is totally worth spending the extra cash to check it out in immersive 3D.
While the action will certainly have you drooling, Star Trek Into Darkness really comes to life through Pine and Qunito. It really is a treat to see these guys hilariously bickering it out every step of the way. They argue in a disciplinary meeting, during the opening chase, and even while they are trying to infiltrate Qo’noS. Pine continues to be reckless and cocky all while he flirts with one girl after another. The early scenes between Pine and Greenwood’s fatherly Admiral Pike were especially touching and shattering when Pike meets a nasty laser blast. Quinto continues to bring the laughs as the rigid and emotionless Spock, a stickler for the rules if there ever was one. Here, Spock’s emotional detachment is put to the test and it truly does strike a chord. Yet the real magic happens when Pine and Quinto are together, with their egos clashing and banging around the iPod walls of the Enterprise. Their friendship is really put to the test when the confront Cumberbatch’s Harrison. While it is best not to reveal much about John Harrison, just know that Cumberbatch nearly steals the entire movie away from Pine and Quinto. He is one hell of a commanding villain.
If you were worried that the rest of the Enterprise crew had flew the coop, never fear, as they are all back where they belong. The sexy Zoe Saldana is back as Nyota Uhara, who has developed a relationship with Spock that goes far beyond the Enterprise. Karl Urban continues to bring the pessimism as Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, who is constantly getting under Kirk’s skin with some of the worst metaphors you can think of. Simon Pegg continues to delight as the hilarious engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott, who hams it up through an exaggerated Scottish accent. John Cho brings a quiet intensity to the role of Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu and Anton Yelchin is cartoonishly frantic as Ensign Pavel Chekov. We don’t get nearly as much of them as we did in the first film, which is a bit disappointing but understandable considering everything that is going on within the story. And we can’t forget the outstanding newcomers Peter Weller and Alice Eve, who are here as the ruthless Starfleet Admiral Alexander Marcus and the beautiful weapons expert Dr. Carol Marcus.
As far as summer movies are concerned, Star Trek Into Darkness is about as strong as they come. While there is an abundance of action and explosions to keep those with a severe case of ADHD hooked, there is still plenty of humanity to this story. We genuinely care about these characters and after a while they almost start feeling like close friends. They are especially irresistible when Abrams shakes the Enterprise and lets all these drastically different walks of life mix. Overall, Star Trek Into Darkness is a massive step up for the sleek and sexy franchise and at just over two hours, Abrams still leaves you wanting more of absolutely everything. Just like the first outing, it simultaneously pleases Trekkies and those just looking to be dazzled on a Friday night. You know what? Just stop reading this review right now and go see it. Just don’t be surprised if you want to see it again the second its all over.
by Steve Habrat
Before JJ Abrams’ sleek 2009 reboot, the Star Trek franchise was basically old hat and met with eye rolls or bored sighs from anyone who wasn’t a fanatic. Every so often, a new Trek movie would trickle quietly into theaters and it would basically only appeal to your Trekkie uncle or that weird kid up the street, but everyone else ignored it. It was a very closed-off franchise that seemed to be fading away as the years passed. Then something remarkable happened. In May of 2009, Lost creator JJ Abrams sparked the franchise back to life and introduced the crew of the USS Enterprise to a whole new generation of action-hungry moviegoers. Believe me when I say that you don’t have to be a Trekkie to absolutely adore Abrams’ Star Trek, a splashy, sexy, and clever re-envisioning of the classic television show. Right from the get-go, Abrams makes it clear that this is not your father’s Star Trek, and he catapults the viewer into a world of candy-colored action, shiny spaceships that look like they were designed by Steve Jobs, devilish humor, and fresh-faced youngsters looking to make a name for themselves in Hollywood. It would be just what the doctored ordered for a franchise on life support and it would go on to be one of the strongest films of the 2009 summer movie season.
Star Trek begins in 2233, with Federation starship USS Kelvin investigating a mysterious lightning storm in space. Out of the lightning storm emerges the Romulan ship Narada, which proceeds to attack the USS Kelvin. The Narada’s captain, Nero (played by Eric Bana), demands that the USS Kelvin captain board the Narada so that he can be questioned about the current stardate and about a man named Ambassador Spock. After Nero kills the captain for not answering his questions, he then orders his crew to destroy the USS Kelvin, which is now captained by first officer George Kirk (played by Chris Hemsworth). George orders that the ship’s crew, which includes his pregnant wife, Winona (played by Jennifer Morrison), quickly evacuate the ship before it is destroyed. During the evacuation, George’s wife gives birth to a boy they name James. Many years later, we are introduced to the brilliant young Vulcan Spock (played by Zachary Quinto) and reckless James T. Kirk (played by Chris Pine) as they both enlist in the Starfleet Academy and form a nasty rivalry. Kirk and Spock are forced to put their rivalry on hold and join forced after Spock’s home planet is attacked and destroyed by the mysterious Narada. As the young crew of the USS Enterprise races to understand this deadly enemy, they are forced to put their egos aside once they realize the Narada’s next target is Earth.
Abrams’ Star Trek is absolutely loaded with enough backstory to fuel half a dozen origin stories. There is plenty of character development, especially in Kirk and Spock, but there is also tons of talk of time travel, red matter, supernovas, and more. While the storyline is certainly absorbing and full of surprises which won’t be revealed here, what will truly hold you are the introductions to characters you have certainly heard about from your dad or through pop culture chatter. We are treated to smile-inducing introductions of the cynical doctor Leonard McCoy (played by Karl Urban), spiky Nyota Uhura (played by Zoe Saldana), fast-talking Scottish engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott (played by Simon Pegg), senior helmsman Hikaru Sulu (played by John Cho), and Russian navigator Pavel Chekov (played by Anton Yelchin). Each one of these characters is given more than enough time to shine, especially Pegg’s motor mouthed Scotty, who nabs most of the film’s laughs. My personal favorite moment is Kirk’s first encounter with McCoy, who pokes Kirk with a number of syringes that contain various illnesses so that he can sneak him aboard the USS Enterprise. It’s a moment of absolutely brilliance.
Then we have Pine’s daredevil Kirk and Quinto’s relentlessly serious Spock, both who play a game of tug of war with the film. Pine excels as the slacker Kirk, who refuses to see his full potential. He stumbles around drunk in futuristic bars and nightclubs, chasing around the repulsed Uhura and getting into fistfights with a number of Starfleet students. He’s absolutely irresistible as he sneers through bloody lips and taunts through black eyes, but his performance really takes hold when he finally looks inside himself and realizes his true potential. Quinto is the polar opposite as Spock, a brainy but cold Vulcan who is constantly conflicted over the fact that he is half-human. When you aren’t marveling at Kirk’s transformation, you’ll be glued to Spock’s realization that he needs to simply relax and trust those around him. And we can’t forget the superb villain Nero, brilliantly tackled by a surprisingly intense Eric Bana. Nero may not be a household villain, but he certainly makes you remember him as he spits threats at the USS Enterprise and demands that his crew “FIRE EVERYTHING!” With so much happening in the story, Bana’s screen time is limited, but he certainly hits a home run when he can.
Considering that Star Trek is a summer movie, Abrams constructs numerous action sequences that will have you gasping. The USS Kelvin’s encounter with Nero is appropriately tense and the evacuation is big, busy, shaky, and emotional even though the movie has only been going for maybe ten minutes. A nail-biting space jump onto a massive drill is fierce, only to be followed up by a white-knuckle fistfight that will have you on the edge of your seat. Just when you don’t think it can’t get any cooler, Sulu whips out a sword and Abrams blows an entire planet to smithereens. And how can I forget Kirk’s marooning on snowy Delta Vega, where he flees the jaws of some seriously nasty creatures hungry for some human flesh and comes face to face with a man that even non-Trekkies will be able to identify? For all the adrenaline rushes that pepper the bulk of the film, the climax is both expectedly epic and surprisingly intimate. Don’t worry, folks, there is no shortage of shootouts, narrow rescues, and bone-crunching fistfights that will have you cheering right along.
What has really turned Abrams’ lens-flared vision of Star Trek into such a winner is the fact that he has found a way to evenly balance fan expectations with an accessibility that was lacking in previous Star Trek efforts. You really don’t have to be a fan to appreciate or enjoy the film. The shiny visuals will have teens ignoring their smartphones while the storyline will have the Trekk fans chatting for hours upon hours. It truly is a balanced and fizzy concoction from a director who understands how to reach a wide audience. Overall, Abrams manages to rescue the Star Trek franchise from the black hole that it was threatening to consume it, punch up the action and adventure, give fresh life to aging characters, polish the outside of the rusty USS Enterprise, and then leave the viewer wanting a whole lot more. There is no doubt in my mind that moviegoers will follow Abram and this new crew where no man has gone before.
Star Trek is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Hot off the success of his iconic 1954 monster movie Creature from the Black Lagoon and it’s middle-of-the-road sequel Revenge of the Creature, director Jack Arnold then turned to the wildly popular science fiction subgenre of giant creature features. It may surprise you that Arnold’s 1955 arachnid outing Tarantula is one of the best creature features that may ever have the pleasure of creep across your television. Boasting special effects that would stomp some CGI effects of today, unusually strong character development for a B-movie of this breed, a unexpectedly human plot, and some truly frightening images that will have anyone who suffers from arachnophobia hyperventilating, Tarantula is a smart and surprisingly consistent creature feature that is must-see viewing for anyone who claims to be a fan of 50s science fiction efforts. To make things more fascinating, Arnold and screenwriters Robert M. Fresco and Martin Berkeley decide to turn their backs on the atom bomb willies of the Eisenhower era and instead focus on well-meaning science spinning wildly out of control. It is a nice change of pace and it allows Tarantula to stand out from the scores of giant bugs that were prowling the American countryside in the wake of the bomb. Get ready for your skin to crawl because it surely will while you take this puppy in.
Tarantula begins with the horribly deformed research scientist Eric Jacobs (played by Eddie Parker) wandering out into the Arizona desert and dropping dead. After local authorities find his body, a doctor by the name of Dr. Matt Hastings (played by John Agar) is called in to examine the disfigured corpse. Matt is baffled by the appearance of the corpse, but Matt believes that Jacobs may have been suffering from acromegaly. Matt also discovers that Jacobs was actually a colleague of Professor Gerald Deemer (played by Leo G. Carroll), a scientist that has locked himself away in a secluded mansion in the desert and has been working on creating a food nutrient that could feed the world’s rapidly growing population. It turns out that Deemer has been testing the nutrient on a variety of animals including a tarantula, which is ten times its normal size. While engulfed in his work, another colleague, Paul Lund (played also by Eddie Parker), who is suffering from the same disfigurement as Jacobs suddenly attacks Deemer. As the two men fight, they accidentally unleash the tarantula that wanders out into the desert. To make things worse, Lund injects Deemer with the nutrient, which rapidly begins to disfigure him too. As Deemer races to find a cure with his beautiful new assistant, Dr. Stephanie “Steve” Clayton (played by Mara Corday), Matt and Sheriff Jack Andrews (played by Nestor Paiva) are called to investigate bizarre skeletal remains that have been found at a local ranch. It doesn’t take long for Matt, Steve, and Sheriff Andrews to figure out that there is a giant tarantula prowling the desert.
Unlike most of the throwaway B-movies of this era, Tarantula takes its good old time crawling up to the action. For a while, you may even start to think that this movie isn’t even really about a giant tarantula attacking and destroying a small American town, but a scientist suffering from horrific mutations. Arnold spends quite a bit of time getting to know the characters, all of which are likeable enough even if they are a bunch of walking 50s clichés. When the giant abomination of science wanders out of the lab and starts creeping around the desert, Arnold generates some seriously effective suspense. He teases us with the beast’s massive legs appearing over jagged rock formations and he sends shivers as the spider’s silhouette slowly prowls the hills behind characters. There is even a wicked moment with the spider descending upon Professor Deemer’s mansion and then watching the oblivious Steve as she gets ready for bed. We only see the spider’s eyes through her window and then, in the blink of an eye, the mutant arachnid begins tearing the mansion to shreds. Arnold pulls back on the action to reveal an impressive outside shot of the spider’s silhouette reducing the mansion to splinters as Steve runs to Matt’s open arms. Tarantula’s suspense and action sequences really are top of the line for a low-budget 1955 effort.
Even though the characters are a bit clichéd and familiar for the 1950s, they are still played by the actors and actresses who are totally committed to their roles. Agar is the typical all-American hero who woos the girl and saves her from the clicking fangs of death. The poster hilariously advertised Agar holding a machine gun and firing it at the tarantula but there is never a moment like that in the film. Carroll’s Deemer is a tragic figure that is slowly succumbing to madness in his desperation to find a cure for himself. After a while, he starts to resemble the Hunchback of Notre Dame mixed with the Frankenstein monster, which is certainly a nightmarish combination. Corday is your typical damsel in distress, a pretty face who shrieks in terror when she comes face to face with the towering tarantula, however, her character is given a layer of intelligence, which is certainly a smart move on Arnold and the screenwriter’s part. Paiva is appropriately skeptical and spooked as Sherriff Andrews, who has to scramble his police force to fight back against the unstoppable monster. Film buffs should also keep their eyes peeled for a brief cameo by a very young Clint Eastwood, who shows up as a jet fighter pilot during the fiery climax of the film.
Perhaps the biggest flaw to be found in Tarantula is the rushed climax that features the tarantula barreling towards a small Arizona town. As the spider makes its way forward, jet fighters drop rockets and canisters of napalm down on the savage beast, all while the town’s citizens cheer on in support. It looks awesome but it seems cut short with “The End” plastered on the screen before we even have time to catch our breath. Mind you, there is plenty to marvel at during the final showdown, the neatest moment coming in a subtle tribute to Godzilla, which is up to you to find, but you are left wanting a bit more closure from the characters. Overall, even if it may not be dealing directly with radiation and nuclear weapons, Tarantula still cleverly captures a nation’s fears of science going horribly wrong. It may be B-movie material, but it is far from the construction paper and rubber mask approach that many of these films received. It is apparent that the filmmakers really took their time and created something they could be proud of. Tarantula is a true creature feature classic that will thrill and chill for many years to come.
Tarantula is available on DVD.
by Steve Habrat
It has been nearly five long years since we heard from the flamboyant Australian director Baz Luhrmann, the man behind such eye-popping spectacles like the contemporary kids-with-guns retelling of William Shakespeare’s Romero + Juliet, the gonzo jukebox musical Moulin Rogue!, and the historical romance Australia. Well, folks, Mr. Luhrmann has returned to a theater near you in grand fashion with the 3D epic The Great Gatsby, a heavily anticipated big budget sugar rush that is based on the classic 1925 novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Hype around The Great Gatsby has been building since last fall, when the shimmering and sparkling trailers crashed into theaters and promised a Christmas release for the Leonardo DiCaprio period piece. At the last second, Warner Bros. pulled the plug on the Christmas release date and pushed the film back to summer 2013 and honestly, the summer movie season is a much better fit for this slick and hip adaptation. With absolutely nothing held back, Luhrmann gives The Great Gatsby a hip-hop makeover, showers it in confetti, fires off a seemingly never-ending amount of fireworks behind it, hands it a Four Loko, and then tosses it to an audience of teenagers raised on MTV, Jay-Z, and smartphones. The result is a gyrating eye-candy romance that will absolutely appall your English teacher and have your girlfriend swooning. It is style over substance every single step of the way, allowing it to feel right at home in a sea of fizzy summer blockbusters.
The Great Gatsby tells the story of Yale graduate Nick Carraway (played by Toby Maguire), an aspiring stockbroker and writer who rents a home in West Egg, Long Island, during the summer of 1922. After settling in to his new home, Nick reconnects with his wealthy and beautiful cousin Daisy (played by Carey Mulligan) and her cigar-chomping husband Tom (played by Joel Edgerton), who attended Yale with Nick. Daisy and Tom quickly begin trying to set Nick up with vampy party-girl golfer Jordan Baker (played by Elizabeth Debicki), who seems to only show minor interest in Nick. Life seems to be going great for the young and naïve Nick, but he finds himself strangely drawn to his wealthy next-door neighbor Jay Gatsby (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), an enigmatic recluse who throws massive parties for the New York City elite yet remains unseen by his drunken guests. One day, Nick receives a personal invitation to one of Gatsby’s wild blowouts, something that is highly unusual for Mr. Gatsby. While wandering through the party, Nick comes face to face with Gatsby and the two form a fast friendship. As the two men bond, Gatsby reveals to Nick that he is in love with Daisy, who he met five years earlier and shared a brief but intense romance. Nick agrees to aid Gatsby in reconnecting with Daisy but in the process, he begins to uncover all the mystery that surrounds Jay Gatsby.
For the first hour of The Great Gatsby, Luhrmann brings new meaning to the phrase “go big or go home.” He zooms between the East and West Egg like a ten-year-old boy who had way too many Snickers candy bars and Pepsi. When he gets bored doing this, he sends his camera flying into a rapidly growing New York City, dancing from skyscraper to skyscraper while Maguire looks up, down, and all around in astonishment. Then there are the party scenes, which are sure to get your heads bobbing and feet tapping. A non-stop stream of confetti is spit out at the audience while hundreds of extras shimmy, shake, and stumble to blaring hip-hop provided by Jay-Z and Kanye West. It is all shown to you in glorious 3D, which will have you fighting the urge to leap from your seat and join the fun. Somewhere in between the spraying champagne and fireworks, there are a few attempts to develop these characters that we are supposed to be invested in, but Luhrmann seems way too wrapped up in throwing the party of the year to pay much attention to them. When it finally winds down, he decides to get serious in extended montages of Gatsby, Nick, and Daisy loosing themselves in an endless summer of high price indulgence. It’s visually intoxicating and it certainly looks romantic, but it is also incredibly exhausting.
While the visuals will have you drooling, don’t forget to stop and admire the fine performances from the powerhouse cast. The style threatens to overshadow each and every one of them but they certainly hold their own when facing a mountain of CGI. DiCaprio owns the picture the second he emerges from the glittery shadows and early on, he hams it up in skinny pink suits that looks like they were provided by Gucci. His Gatsby is almost a caricature of the 1920s gentleman; grinning while referring to nearly every single person he meets as “old sport.” You could make a drinking game out of how many times he says “old sport,” although I doubt many people would be still standing by the end. As far as his burning passion is concerned, there certainly is fire in those eyes for Daisy. He attempts to impress her by dazzling her with wealth and promises of doing everything in the world together. When he needs to be tragic, he can certainly switch it on, especially in the last act of the movie. You never doubt that DiCaprio is thrilled to be reunited with his Romero + Juliet director and it is clear he is putting in 110%. A job well done, Mr. DiCaprio!
Then there is Mr. Maguire, who narrates through a raspy and fatigued tone that sounds like he was up all night chugging a bottle of whiskey with Gatsby (Someone grab him an Advil!). He is good with the role he is given but he never holds our attention like DiCaprio does. He simply sits on the sidelines, making observations about all the wild party animals around him. Mulligan is a breathy sunbeam as Daisy, who is caught between two warring millionaires pulling her in two separate directions. Mulligan is naturally talented, but her character never receives the development that it truly deserves which is an absolute waste. Edgerton gives DiCaprio a run for his money as the scowling Tom, who is constantly chomping down on a fat stogie and chasing every pretty girl he lays eyes on. He shares a war of words and wealth with DiCaprio in one of the film’s most intense sequences. Debicki is slinky and sexy as the gossiping golfer Jordan, who loves a big party because they are more intimate than a smaller gathering. Also keep an eye out for small but sharp appearances from Jason Clarke as gas station attendant George Wilson, who becomes a ball of fury in the last act of the film, and Ilsa Fisher as his unfaith sexpot wife, Myrtle, who jets off with Tom to seedy hotel rooms in New York City.
The real problem with Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby is that it is all about panache. There is obsessive detail in the sets, the CGI is mindblowing, and the musical playlist will have audience members rushing home to purchase the soundtrack off iTunes, but this compromises substance. Sure, the idea of love lost and love found again is enticing but it just becomes a whiskey-fueled game of tug of war that conveniently ends with tragedy. To make it worse, it feels tacked on with a heavy sigh from the filmmakers, who clearly would rather be hanging out with scantily clad flappers lip-synching to Beyoncé. But, what else would you expect from someone like Luhrmann? Overall, it may be the nightmare of English teachers everywhere and it definitely rings hollow, but The Great Gatsby is a giddy parade of excess led by a cast and crew clearly having the time of their lives, all while Warner Bros. flits the bill. You’ll certainly get your money’s worth of visuals, but you won’t be moved in the slightest.
by Steve Habrat
In 1956, cheeseball writer/producer/director Edward D. Wood Jr. began work on a small science fiction horror film that would become famous among horror fans and cinema buffs for being absolutely terrible. That film would be Plan 9 from Outer Space, which would go on to be released in 1959 and become the most famous film of Wood’s outlandish career. Plan 9 from Outer Space is a glob of bumbling acting, some of the worst dialogue your ears may ever hear, felt costumes that look like they were made in a twelve-year-old boy’s garage, generous amounts of stock footage, flaying saucers made of spray painted plates, and sets made from construction paper, glitter, and super glue. It’s hilariously awful. It’s also probably one of the most enthusiastically made motion pictures you may ever see. Plan 9 from Outer Space is the work of a goofball, that I will not deny, yet there is something to be said about this sloppy B-movie that burst forth from the Atomic Age. It’s not particularly smart or skilled and it is made by a bunch of amateurs, but Plan 9 from Outer Space actually works in a so-bad-it’s-sort-of-good kind of way. It also works its way into your heart because Wood stands tall by his picture from beginning to end, telling this absurd story about saucer men, UFOs, and the living dead without ever cracking a smile, even if we are in tears the entire time. You really have to hand it to this guy. Plus, to be honest, he does deliver a resurrection scene that is just way too cool to be in a movie like this.
Plan 9 from Outer Space begins with an unnamed old man (played by Bela Lugosi) grieving the death of his wife (played by Vampira). After the funeral, two gravediggers begin working on filling in the woman’s grave but are spooked after they hear several strange noises. Just as they are about to flee the graveyard, the gravediggers are attacked and killed by the resurrected corpse of the woman. A few days after the attack, the grief-stricken old man is killed in a freak automobile accident. While burying the old man, the mourners stumble upon the bodies of the two gravediggers. A team of police officers led by Inspector Dan Clay (played by Tor Johnson) show up at the graveyard to investigate the bodies, but soon after their arrival, Inspector Clay is attacked and killed by the resurrected woman. Meanwhile, airplane pilot Jeff Trent (played by Gregory Walcott) and his co-pilot are in midflight when they suddenly spot what they believe is a flying saucer. The two men report their sightings but the government swears them to secrecy. One evening while sitting on their back porch, Jeff breaks down and tells his wife, Paula (played by Mona McKinnon), what he witnessed in the skies, but his story is interrupted by strange lights and a strong wind that knocks them both to the ground. As the days pass, more and more reports come in about strange sightings in the sky and eerie activity in the local graveyard, which forces the government to begin an investigation. As the investigation deepens, the government realizes that the events in the cemetery and the UFO sightings may be linked.
Honestly, it is extremely difficult to try to summarize Plan 9 from Outer Space for someone. The plot is extremely convoluted and disjointed to the point where it isn’t even worth trying to really pay much attention to it. Basically, aliens are raising the dead to get the attention of the humans so that the aliens can warn the humans not to develop a weapon that would destroy the entire universe (go ahead, you can giggle). Plot aside, the real reason to watch Plan 9 from Outer Space is to catch all the goofs that Wood makes along the way. Every shot in the entire film is static, with actors shuffling and bumping their way through cramped sets that look like they were filmed in someone’s basement. To make the film seem bigger, Wood cuts the wooden scenes he filmed with about twenty minutes of stock footage of soldiers firing rockets, airplanes flying through the air, traffic in Los Angeles, and unused footage of star Bela Lugosi, who had passed before Wood decided to make Plan 9 from Outer Space. Then we have Wood’s makeshift graveyard, complete with crumbling cardboard headstones and black tarps doubling for crusty ground. He pumps in some fog, drops a black backdrop down, and single handed manages to construct a few semi-atmospheric shots of Johnson, Vampira, and Tom Mason, a chiropractor who stands in for Lugosi with a Dracula cape over his face, wandering around looking for victims. The graveyard scenes really make this movie, but that isn’t saying much.
When you’re not cringing over the DIY set design, you’ll be doubled over laughing at some of the absolute worst acting you will ever see. If the acting isn’t getting you (believe me, folks, it will), wait until you hear some of the dialogue that Wood hands them. The stock footage of Lugosi is pretty breathtaking, that I must admit, and Vampira is campy fun as she shuffles stiffly around the graveyard with wild eyes and outstretched arms, but nearly everyone else is absolutely horrible. Walcott is trying so hard to be believable as the brave hero who stands up to the martians, but you will just laugh him off rather than root for him. Tor Johnson, a former Swedish wrestler, is asked to play the no-nonsense Inspector Clay and he fails miserably. You won’t be surprised that he excels at playing a mouth-breath ghoul though. McKinnon is simply asked to shriek in horror at Mason, who only reveals his eyes to his victims. Dudley Manlove and Joanna Lee shows up as Eros and Tanna, the two aliens who shout classic lines of dialogue like “you see? You see? Your stupid minds! Stupid! Stupid!” Also on board here is Criswell, the narrator who first tells us that the events we are about to see are set in the future and then completely contradicts himself by saying that this story took place in the past. Riiiiiight…
Even at a brief seventy-nine minutes, you could honestly fill a book with everything that is wrong with Plan 9 from Outer Space. Nearly every single scene has some sort of flub, yet that is precisely why the film is so much fun. You’re watching it to make fun of it and laugh your head off right in its face. Given that the film was created out of the radioactive paranoia of nuclear war, Wood certainly doesn’t shy away from slipping in a few comments of his own about the bomb, even if they do get tangled up in a unintentionally hilarious showdown between aliens and humans. They don’t particularly stand out from the countless other Cold War science fiction drive-in movies but they certainly are here, if you can believe it. The film is also worth checking out for Tor Johnson’s resurrection sequence, which is dramatically lit and, shockingly, shot with some sort of artistic vision. It is a brief moment of brilliance and it certainly is cool. Overall, if you’re even slightly interested in science fiction and horror, then Plan 9 from Outer Space is certainly worth checking out on a hot summer night with a cold beer in your hand. It may be the furthest thing from high art, but this is the work of a determined man who completely believed in his own ridiculous vision. Our hats are off to you, Wood.
Plan 9 from Outer Space is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
In 1985, Italian horror gurus Lamberto Bava and Dario Argento decided to collaborate on a little cult horror film known as Demons, a funky, funny, and freaky European hybrid of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead. While it may be flawed, Demons is still an absolutely awesome roller coaster ride through a funhouse of violence, action, green blood, Fu Manchu pimps, and macho heroes. It’s the ultimate horror party set to a heavy metal soundtrack that will have you head banging for days after viewing it. In 1986, Bava and Argento would reunite for Demons 2, a sporadically fun but largely unremarkable follow-up party that would attempt to go much bigger than the predecessor. Well, folks, it seems that bigger isn’t always better. Demons 2 is essentially the same film as Demons and outside of a location change, there is very little that feels fresh or exciting. Sure, Demons 2 is atmospheric enough, the early scenes within the walled-off ruins will keep you tense, and when the action kicks in, it is greeted by a big slice of cheese, but the film hits way too many lulls to really hold our interest. To make things worse, Demons 2 has one of the most anti-climatic endings that you may ever see. It doesn’t even really have an ending. Everything just sort of stops and the viewer is left scratching their head and saying, “that’s it?!”
Demons 2 picks up several years after the events of the first film, with the infected area of the city walled-off and left abandoned by the government. It appears that the rampaging ghouls have died off and rotted away with the dilapidated buildings. Outside the wall, life has gone on and the horrifying events that occurred are beginning to fade from memory. A local television station decides to run a late night documentary about the incident and in an attempt to gather some information, the station sends a group of amateur journalists over the wall to investigate the ruins. It doesn’t take long for the crew to stumble upon the body of a dead demon, which they inadvertently bring back from the dead. Meanwhile, the residents of a local high-rise apartment complex are glued to the drama playing out on their television screens. Among the residents watching is sixteen-year-old Sally (played by Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni), who is currently throwing herself a rocking birthday bash. While watching the documentary, Sally becomes possessed by the demon and she proceeds to then tear through her party guests, infecting each and every one of them. As the teenage demons spill into the rest of the high-rise and infect even more residents, it is up to young couple George (played by David Edwin Knight) and Hannah (played by Nancy Brilli) to band together with juiced-up gym trainer Hank (played by Bobby Rhodes) to fend off the ghouls.
While it may not offer much in the plot department, you’re watching Demons 2 for the gooey gore and sweaty action. If you’re looking for deep explanation or clarity, don’t hold your breath. One of the moments that reigned supreme in the original Demons was an especially striking transformation scene complete with teeth dropping out of one character’s mouth only to be replaced by crooked fangs. The terrible transformation didn’t stop there. There were the discolored veins, green slime pouring from the mouth, and glowing yellow eyes. Bava and Argento seem to understand that the transformation was the highlight moment of the original film and the duo deliver even more graphic transformation sequences here. The make up and effects on the demons are breathtaking and they really hold up for a film that was released in 1986. Bava and Argento also decided to include a pint sized demon creature that crawls out of the body of a small child. There is a fun chase between Hannah and the little critter, but this Venus flytrap-looking creature is far from terrifying. Dare I say that he is actually kind of cute? I think cute is the proper description, especially when he starts squeaking like a baby.
One of the biggest problems with Demons 2 is the sluggish first twenty minutes of the film, where Bava and Argento introduce us to a handful of bland characters that will undoubtedly become demon chow. Knight’s George is the typical macho hero with very little personality and Brilli’s Hannah is the typical shrieking chick who constantly needs to be saved. The only reason we really care about Hannah is because she is pregnant and we live in fear that one of the ghouls will get ahold of her. Cataldi-Tassoni is pretty good as the demonic Sally but she is incredibly annoying as plain old party Sally. As a normal human, she throws hissy fit after hissy fit but when she transforms into a satanic cannibal, things really get fun. Hilariously, Bobby Rhodes, the Fu Manchu pimp from the original Demons, shows up again as a roid-raging gym instructor who will stop at nothing to cut down the demonic menace. Fear not, folks, he is just as intense as he was in the first film. Horror fans should also keep their eyes peeled for Argento’s young daughter, Asia, who at first is glued to the midnight documentary. Near the end of the film, she comes face to face with a pack of snarling beasts looking to tear her limb from limb.
While the make-up effects are great and the gore is top notch, Demons 2 takes way too long to find its groove. While the early scenes of all the high-rise residents will most certainly bore you to tears, the action taking place inside the walled-off ruins will certainly send chills. When the action in the high-rise kicks in, there are plenty of cool shoots of yellow-eyed demons sprinting up and down the stairs like marathon runners. The showdown between the bodybuilders and the demons in a parking garage is absolutely outrageous, but would you expect anything less from a sequence like this? The biggest problem with the film is the anti-climatic ending, which doesn’t even feel like it should really be the ending. You’d swear that the film had at least another fifteen minutes to go. Another disappointment is the absence of the heavy metal score, which has been replaced by a much more conventional horror score that would have sounded right at home in one of Lucio Fulci’s efforts. Overall, Demons 2 has plenty of satisfying action in the middle of the film, but the beginning is a chore to get through and the climax just falls to pieces. Furthermore, it would have been nice to get a bit more explanation about the demons but this just isn’t that type of movie. Demons 2 is only for those people who love the first film and even those individuals will be disappointed.
Demons 2 is available on DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Last May, Marvel kicked the summer movie season off with the hugely satisfying superhero spectacular The Avengers. Not only was The Avengers massively successful, but it also raised the bar for both Marvel and the superhero genre in general. When the lights came up in the theater, you knew that it would be extremely difficult for the comic book juggernaut to top themselves after the blast of awesome they had just delivered. Speed ahead one year and we have Iron Man 3, which lets us know that Marvel has absolutely no intentions of slowing down and giving their heroes a little bit of a breather (Thor is back for seconds this Thanksgiving and Captain America swoops in next spring). For the past few months, there has been quite a bit of hype surrounding the new entry in the Iron Man franchise and the film has already opened to staggering numbers overseas. So the question on everyone’s mind is, is it as good or better than The Avengers? Well, Iron Man 3 certainly isn’t better than The Avengers or the original Iron Man, for that matter. It is, however, a little bit better than the lackluster Iron Man 2, which is a huge relief. With a new director behind the camera and a script crammed with twist after twist, Iron Man 3 reassures us that there is still some life in a franchise that was starting to show signs of rust on its second run. This is a well-oiled superhero epic that finds ever-game star Robert Downey Jr. having the time of his life as he goes up against two of the ghastliest foes he has faced so far.
Picking up several months after the events of The Avengers, the brash industrialist Tony Stark (played by Robert Downey Jr.) is suffering severe anxiety attacks over what he witnessed in New York City. He is having a hard time getting a little shuteye and when he does manage to drift off, he suffers from horrible nightmares. In his spare time, Tony retreats to his workshop and builds new Iron Man suits that he proceeds to store away in an underground vault for a rainy day. Meanwhile, the United States has suffered a series of bombing attacks orchestrated by a mysterious cult-like terrorist known only as the Mandarin (played by Ben Kingsley). After one of the Mandarin’s attacks injures one of Tony’s closest friends, Tony decides to issue a televised threat to the mumbling terrorist. The Mandarin quickly responds by destroying Tony’s luxurious home and several of his Iron Man suits. To make matters worse, Stark Industries CEO Pepper Potts (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) finds herself approached by Aldrich Killian (played by Guy Pearce), a bitter but brilliant scientist from Tony’s past who appears to be working hand-in-hand with the Mandarin’s terrorist organization. With the Mandarin’s attacks growing deadlier by the day, Tony has to enlist the help of Colonel James Rhodes (played by Don Cheadle) to help him get back in the fight.
Perhaps the biggest problem that plagued Iron Man 2 was the fact that the film seemed to exist solely to prepare audiences for The Avengers. It spent so much time prepping the Iron Man character for the ultimate meeting of do-gooders that it almost seemed to forget that it was also supposed to be a stand-alone film. It never felt like a strictly solo outing for Tony Stark. Thankfully, Iron Man 3 boots all the S.H.I.E.L.D agents out on their butts and even shoos Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow away from the action. Granted, there are a number of references to The Avengers and the three other team members are mention throughout, but Iron Man 3 seems refreshed by the idea that it isn’t just a lavish set-up. Free of these ties, the wave of trailers sent out by Marvel seemed to promise a darker entry for Mr. Stark and while there is plenty of sinister activity going on in Iron Man 3, the edgier moments are always complimented by a scene of slapstick comedy. This is especially apparent in the earlier moments of the film, where Tony fumbles and bumbles around with a new suit of armor that attaches itself to him in pieces. Here and there he complains about his anxiety and insomnia, but it never fully ventures into Tony’s heart of darkness, which is incredibly frustrating. Director Shane Black pushes the darkness even harder when he introduces the Mandarin, who appears in terrifying televised appearances that disrupt your normally scheduled programs. They are absolutely spectacular and maybe a little too effective in playing on our current fears of terrorism. Bravo, Black!
While the first forty minutes may be a mixed ball of emotions and tones, the second and third acts of Iron Man 3 boast breathtaking action sequences and showdowns. The Mandarin’s first attack on Tony’s home is appropriately disorienting and frenzied as our hero desperately tries to round up all the pieces of his armor to fight back against the advancing helicopters. The standout rescue of thirteen Air Force One passengers tumbling through the air will have every single audience member holding their breath and wondering if their hero will be able to pull off the rescue. It is by far the film’s coolest action set piece and quite possibly the best from any Marvel film yet (it would only be second to the battle for New York City in The Avengers). Things really get epic when the grand finale hits and I must say, this is the first Iron Man film that truly seems to have a satisfying and coherent climatic showdown. The previous two films seemed to wrap everything up a bit too hastily, at least in my humble opinion. I won’t say too much about this fiery clash, but it really puts our hero to the test and finds Stark actually breaking a sweat, something you didn’t really see when he was trading blows with Iron Monger and Whiplash.
The true beauty of the Iron Man films is that there seems to be a genuine and giddy enthusiasm from the performers, which is always infectious. Downey continues to wow us as the mile-a-millisecond industrialist with a weakness for booze and babes. He can be crude, charming, and hilarious, but he can also reveal a vulnerability buried deep inside all the clanking iron. He is also given the chance to jump into a few action scenes without the cover of a CGI suit of armor, which is a nice change of pace. Paltrow continues to glow as the mild mannered Pepper Potts, who is even given the chance to throw a couple of punches herself. By now I’m sure you’ve heard or seen that she dons one of Tony’s Iron Man suits. Cheadle is his usual tip-top self as the straight-laced Colonel Rhodes/Iron Patriot. He doesn’t do anything extraordinary but he has plenty of charming moments with Downey’s Stark. Perhaps the biggest surprise of Iron Man 3 is how good Ben Kingsley is as the mumbling teacher-terrorist Mandarin. I don’t want to spoil the Mandarin but believe me when I say that he will practically have you in a ball under your seat when you first meet him. Guy Pearce also shines as the crippled scientist Aldrich Killian, a bitter rival who slowly morphs into one seriously nasty piece of work. Rounding out the new players is the severely underused and virtually pointless Rebecca Hall as Maya Hansen, who is basically there to provide a bit of exposition and that’s it. What a waste!
While all the zippy action and adventure is fun, Iron Man 3 is not without its faults. In addition to the choppy commencement, I also found Tony’s little detour into rural Tennessee to be a bit dull. While there, Tony is forced to mingle with a local boy named Harley (played by Ty Simpkins), who I just couldn’t really bring myself to care about. Then there is the big twist at the middle of the film, which filled me with disappointment. Once again, I can’t go into much detail about it but I do think the film could have done without it. Overall, Iron Man 3 is a great way to kick off the summer movie season and it finds the series returning to form after a muddled second installment. It smartly plays on our current fears of terrorism and it wraps them up in one big, loud, and bold action sequence after another. It would have been nice to see the film venture deeper into the dark side and drop some of the childish humor, but I suppose they just have to appeal to the kiddies too. Oh, and do stay for a nifty little treat after the credits. You’ll be glad you did.
by Steve Habrat
At the height of the Italian zombie and jungle cannibal craze, exploitation director Antonio Margheriti (yes, you heard his name in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds) came up with the idea to mix the two splatter subgenres together, add a dash of Apocalypse Now and The Warriors, and replace real jungles for concrete ones. The result of this strange brew is Cannibal Apocalypse, a hit-or-miss grindhouse zombie extravaganza that features some impressive gore for a low budget Italian exploitation effort, some mildly entertaining action sequences, gratuitous nudity, and, yes, even a bit of senseless pedophilia. Cannibal Apocalypse could also have been a fairly solid exploration of the traumas of war and early on it seems like it is threatening to get a bit psychological, but after the first twenty minutes or so, the film abandons any sign of something substantial. In its place is the same old clichés that we’ve seen before set to the same synthesizer scores that played over countless other Italian zombie and jungle cannibal movies before it. The only difference is there is a hilarious saxophone playing over those pulsing synths. Make no mistake; this is an exercise in sleazy short-term thrills that goes great with a few Pabst Blue Ribbons. There is no long-term meditation and reflection over a glass of Chardonnay.
Cannibal Apocalypse begins with a rip-roaring flashback to the Vietnam War, with Norman Hooper (played by John Saxon) and a group of commandos storming an enemy bunker where two other commandos, Charlie Bukowski (played by Giovanni Lombardo Radice) and Tom Thompson (played by Tony King), are being held prisoner. Much to Noman’s horror, his two buddies have developed an insatiable hunger for human flesh and are in the process of devouring the charred body of a Vietnamese woman. While trying to help his friends, Tom suddenly lunges at Norman’s arm and he tears a big chunk right out of it. Several years later, Norman appears to be living a normal, happy life in an Atlanta suburb with his wife, Jane (played by Elizabeth Turner). Despite the happy face he puts on, Norman is still haunted by the horrors that he witnessed during the war and he even finds himself being seduced by the teenage girl next door. To make things worse, he finds himself craving human flesh. One day, Norman gets a call from Charlie, who has been recovering in a local mental hospital, about grabbing a drink and catching up. At first Norman turns down Charlie’s offer to get together, but after Charlie goes berserk in a local movie theater and rips open a girls throat, Norman is forced to reconnect with his friend and convince him to give himself over to the authorities. While in custody, Charlie meets up Tom, who is also still craving human flesh. As Charlie and Tommy bite more and more people, the cannibalistic cravings begin to spread and madness begins spilling into the streets.
The opening twenty minutes of Cannibal Apocalypse are fairly impressive and well spoken, as the camera is trained on the seriously disturbed Norman and the traumas that haunt him. He suffers from terrible nightmares and he squirms every single time he sees a piece of raw meat sitting in his refrigerator. Things really boil over when the young neighbor girl seduces Norman and he proceeds to take a chunk out of her hip. It is creepy in more ways than one and frankly unnecessary. From here on out, the filmmakers are more interested in showing bare breasts and giving the audience extreme close-ups of teeth tearing into chunks of meat rather than exploring the mental slip that these characters are experiencing. The gore just continues to escalate and you should know that the effects are pretty jaw dropping for a cheap Italian cannibal flick. One scene finds a doctor having his tongue ripped out by an infected nurse after he mistakes her attacks for seduction. Just to make things even more disgusting, the nurse then spits the very realistic tongue onto the floor and proceeds to bash the doctor’s head open. In another standout moment, our group of cannibals huddle around one victim’s leg and then saw it open with an electric saw, all while the camera zooms in on the mutilated meat. Yet the king daddy of gore shots comes when one character has a hole blown through their stomach with a shotgun. Just to make sure we understand that there was a hole blown through the character’s stomach, Margheriti cuts to it multiple times and even shows an extreme close up of it.
While the artier spurts may be the true stars, Cannibal Apocalypse contains some surprisingly passable performances from the actors. Saxon is convincing enough as the mentally unstable Norman. It rumored that Saxon really hated making the movie and that he has refused to see it. You’d never guess he was miserable though, as Margheriti never catches him sleepwalking through a scene. Then we have Radice, who you may remember from Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead. For those who don’t remember him, he is the guy who gets the drill right to the temple. Radice is in full crazy throughout much of Cannibal Apocalypse and he seems to be relishing every second he is in the film. If you think Radice is gonzo, wait until you get a load of King’s gnashing and thrashing Tom, who chomps, rants, and raves all while blood drips from his gums. He is so outrageous that he surpasses bad and just dives right into hilarity. Turner meanwhile is forgettable as Norman’s suspicious wife, who doesn’t even seem moved when he tells her he was fooling around with the girl next door. May Heatherly is also on board as Helen, a poor nurse who gets bitten and turns into a robotic cannibal with a craving for human tongues. She joins the pack of flash eaters near the end of the film as they dash around in the sewers, but she is mostly there to get gunned down by gas masked police officers.
Heavily inspired by Fulci’s Zombie and George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, Cannibal Apocalypse never reaches the extreme highs of either film it is attempting to emulate and it certainly never taps into the satire that Romero did in 1978. Margheriti does manage to deliver a few action sequences that will hold your attention, especially the climactic chase through the hazy and rat infested Atlanta sewers. There is also an unintentionally hilarious brawl with a group of bikers in a seedy alleyway that looks like something ripped right out of The Warriors. The unintentional laughs will continue when you hear the wildly inappropriate disco score that accompanies most of the carnage. Overall, Cannibal Apocalypse is far from scary and it squanders every single opportunity to explore the impact that war has on our troops, but as far as inexpensive exploitation films go, it does have some stomach churning violence. This is only for those people who have worn out their copies of Zombie and Dawn of the Dead and are craving a lesser-known cannibal flick.
Cannibal Apocalypse is available on DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Most spaghetti westerns that emerged from Italy between the mid 1960s and mid 1970s didn’t necessarily reinvent the wheel. Most directors saw the success of Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy or caught a glimpse of Sergio Corbucci’s coffin-dragging gunslinger in Django and they quickly began trying to capitalize on the success of those cowboy epics. They poured in all the familiar ingredients and sometimes they even slopped on a bit more of the red sauce (blood) to cater to the exploitation crowds who ate up these foreign dishes. Yet every once and a great while, a formulaic spaghetti western would gallop along that had just the right amount of attitude to make it a minor and entertaining triumph. One of those formulaic but fun triumphs would be Giulio Petroni’s moody 1967 offering Death Rides a Horse, an odd-couple revenge tale that has a particularly dark opening sequence and an apocalyptic climatic shootout that will most certainly lodge itself in the viewer’s memory. It may not have the epic reach of a film by Corbucci or Leone, but Death Rides a Horse can be lively and menacing enough to lure spaghetti western nuts back for a second and even third viewing if they so desire. I’ve personally seen the film three times and I have to say, it has never lost my interest even if I have seen all of this done before.
As a young boy, the baby faced Bill (played by John Phillip Law) watched as his family was brutally murdered in cold blood by a group of masked bandits. Just before the bandits depart, they light the family’s house on fire and leave Bill to be burned alive. At the last second, another stranger who wears a skull necklace pulls the young Bill from the flames. Fifteen years later, Bill has grown up to be a deadly gunslinger searching for the men responsible for the death of his family. Meanwhile, the aging gunslinger Ryan (played by Lee Van Cleef) has just been released from prison and is searching for the gang that framed him. Ryan’s search leads him to nearby town where he meets Burt Cavanaugh (played by Anthony Dawson), one of the men who framed Ryan and who was also present the night that Bill’s family was murdered. Ryan demands $15,000 dollars from Cavanaugh, but he is reluctant to pay such a large sum of money. Just before Ryan has a chance to kill Cavanaugh, Bill shows up and guns the thug down. Realizing that they are after the same gang, Bill and Ryan begin racing each other to track down the rest of the gang. As they try to stay one step ahead of each other, they begin to realize that they may actually need each other if they want to stay alive.
While much of Death Rides a Horse is riddled with clichés, there are two parts of the film that are really allow it to stand out from the countless other spaghetti westerns released during this time. First is the opening sequence, which has to be one of the most gripping and terrifying scenes in any spaghetti western out there. You will be holding your breath as a group of masked bandits ride up to a small house in the middle of a thunderstorm, burst in on the happy family, gun down the man of the house as he reaches for a rifle, and then savagely rape the women on the dinning room table, all while a terrified and innocent young boy looks on. Then, to put the finishing touch on their heinous work, the bandits light the house on fire and ride away into the night. It is a scene that you would expect to open a really great horror movie rather than a rollicking cowboy picture. Then there is the climatic gunfight set right in the middle of a dust storm. It is ripe with apocalyptic doom as thick sheets of sand billow around and silhouette the gunfighters while they try to put each other six feet under. For as unsettling as the gunfight is, Petroni breaks it up by lacing it with a number of chuckles that have really held up over the years. While both of these set pieces send a chill, they are made even better through Ennio Morricone’s yowling score, which sounds like a terrifying Indian war chant erupting from the surrounding mountains. Good luck getting it out of your head.
In addition to these two sequences and Morricone’s hair-raising score, Death Rides a Horse is also worth the time for the performance from the always-welcome Lee Van Cleef. While he played second fiddle to Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name in For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, he is sneering and scowling front and center here. From the moment we see his aging and graying gunslinger, he shoots his viper-like gaze right through us and he continues to keep us on the edge of our seat with gravelly warnings like “revenge is a dish that has to be eaten cold.” For all his toughness, Van Cleef does show a softer side in Death Rides a Horse and it comes through when he is forced to play mentor to the young gunslinger Bill. As far as John Phillip Law’s performance goes, he does okay as Bill but he doesn’t hold us like Van Cleef does. Law is a fine enough actor, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes he seems like he is trying too hard to deepen his voice or look like a fierce bad boy (sounds sort of like Lou Castel in A Bullet for the General). You could see other spaghetti western tough guys laughing him out of the saloon if Law dared show up to their poker table. The bond that Van Cleef and Law’s characters form is certainly solid and multi-layered, at times being emotional and at times played for laughs. Law doesn’t miss a chance to bat an eye at Van Cleef’s aging wisdom and Van Cleef doesn’t shy away from chuckling at Law’s naivety.
There isn’t much depth to Death Rides a Horse but there is plenty to keep the viewer entertained and coming back for seconds, especially if they are fans of the Italian westerns. Quentin Tarantino fans will find plenty to like, as the spaghetti western-loving director littered Kill Bill: Volume 1 with numerous references to this particular film. The most obvious will be the use of Morricone’s stomping war-cry score, which is used during the showdown between the Crazy 88 and the Bride in the House of Blue Leaves. They’ll also notice that the flashbacks that Bill suffers from when he spots one of the bandits responsible for the death of his family look suspiciously similar to the flashbacks that Bride suffers from when she stares down one of her old colleagues. Oh, and how about the name “Bill?” I’ll leave the rest for you to discover on your own. Overall, almost every single supporting actor blends in with the scenery and the villains are so cookie cutter, they could have been borrowed from any other spaghetti western, but there is enough action, suspense, and charms here for me to give Death Rides a Horse a solid recommendation if you are in the market for some retro action. Just remember that this isn’t Leone or Corbucci territory you’re riding through.
Death Rides a Horse is available on DVD, but it is very difficult to find a good transfer of the film. It is currently available on Netflix Instant Watch.