by Steve Habrat
The spaghetti western genre can be a truly grim affair, from the shifty characters to the unflinching violence right to the decrepit towns. Enzo G. Castellari’s 1976 Keoma is no different. Keoma goes a step further and early on establishes an apocalyptic atmosphere with barely any hope in sight. Despite the doom and gloom, Keoma is one of the most scenic spaghetti westerns I have seen, one that has obviously been treated with care since its release and embraces any opportunity to show off the mountainous landscape. Keoma is a must-see spaghetti western for two other unique approaches. The film is narrated almost like a Greek tragedy, the story guided along by a male and female singer that provides us with our hero Keoma’s inner thoughts and several nifty slow-motion shootouts, slowed down so we can see the victims doing a dance of death right before they hit the ground. They are vaguely evocative of the shootouts in The Wild Bunch and Thriller: A Cruel Picture in their splendor and horror.
Keoma follows a half-breed gunslinger named Keoma (Played by Franco Nero) who returns to his plague-ridden hometown after service in the Civil War. After saving a sick woman named Lisa (Played by Olga Karlatos) from a group of brutal gunslingers who are rounding up plague victims, Keoma learns that his hometown is in control of a brutal landlord named Caldwell (Played by Donald O’Brien). Making things worse, Keoma’s three brothers are looking to join forces with Caldwell and they wish to do away with Keoma. Teaming up with his father, William Shannon (Played by William Berger), and their ex-slave and servant George (Played by Woody Strode), Keoma begins trying to help the plague victims of the town, bringing in medicine, food, and a Marshall to bring law and order to the community. In the meantime, Keoma has to stand up to Caldwell and finds himself hopelessly outgunned.
Unlike other spaghetti westerns, where the characters sit around and stare at each other and mumble little snippets of dialogue (don’t take that as negative criticism, I absolutely love westerns like that), Keoma is a chattier experience and one that is much more action packed than other entries. In fact, I was truly taken aback by the extended gunfight at the climax of the film, one that lasts about twenty minutes. This is a film that is galloping along right from the windy opening scene. In such films like Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence, Django or even the films of Sergio Leone, the violence was sudden and short, startling the viewer with how quickly it started and how fast it ended. Keoma draws these sequences out and then proceeds to slow the violence down, exploiting it just like a good sleaze picture should. The end shoot out is at times redolent of Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 The Wild Bunch crossed with Bo Arne Vibenius’s Thriller: A Cruel Picture, the camera glued to the waving ribbons of gore spilling out of the bullet holes of the dead. I was also impressed with the way the film has held up all these years, a clear picture, timeless acting, and expert dubbing (I point this out because these films are usually poor in the dubbing department).
Keoma packs a steely-eyed performance from the gruff Franco Nero as Keoma. Imagine if Johnny Depp had time traveled back to the 1970s, grew a thick beard, and dawned a cowboy hat. If you can make a mental image of that (I doubt that is very difficult), you have Nero’s Keoma. Keoma isn’t a man interested in money or wealth. He only sets his sights on bringing law and order to a town without any and in the process, protecting those who can’t protect themselves. He’s a far throw from Eastwood’s The Man with No Name when it comes to his morals but he is still a man who doesn’t have infinite amounts to say. Sure he speaks more than The Man with No Name, but he hates scum that has too much to say. Those who do end up meeting the blast of his double barrel shotgun. Another standout in Keoma is Woody Strode as George; a pitiful ex-slave with petrified eyes and who is consistently enduring malicious racial slurs spit at him by Caldwell’s men. He is a man who was once honorable, a man who Keoma looked up to when he was just a boy. When we meet him, he is a slouchy drinker who doesn’t stand up for himself. Your heart will break when one of Caldwell’s men walks up to him and urinates on his boots, making a fool of George even though he was just trying to do the right thing. When George finally picks up a gun (and crossbow) and joins Keoma to defend the town, you will want to stand up and cheer.
Director Castellari makes Keoma a standout with some inventive camera angles that makes the film an artful journey into the west. The opening scene has the camera sitting stationary inside an abandoned structure, mostly in the dark except for the light streaming in from a slamming screen door where we can faintly see Keoma ridding through a ghost town. The door is to the right if the screen, the camera almost trying to remain elusive and reluctant to enter the ailing world. Another scene finds the camera placed behind a piece of wood that Keoma and his father are using as target practice, the picture slowly being revealed from the holes shot into the wood. Castellari compliments that unique camerawork with a shrieking score that is the furthest thing from the jangly Ennio Morricone scores that were so popular in these films. The score is used to allow us to hear the thoughts of the characters and sometimes acts as our own inner advice to the characters. It suggests that Keoma should run away with Lisa and start a new life, fleeing the danger that is slowly closing in around them. It also narrates the tension between Keoma and his three nasty brothers, their fractured relationship told in both the score and in flashbacks that play out right before the eyes of the adult Keoma.
For fans of the spaghetti western, Keoma is a must-see for its hasty pace, drawn out action, and doomed love story all told on an apocalyptic stage. At times, the score can get a bit distracting, a nice and inimitable idea but not always as harmonizing as it should be. Another small gripe I had with the film is that the villain Caldwell is slightly brushed over and left underdeveloped. Overall, I had fun with the tragedy that is Keoma and I loved the way the film embraced rollicking action sequences. Next to Leone’s work, Keoma has aged remarkably and is easily accessible to those who are usually put off by older films like this. If you love your westerns with an unconventional touch, seek out Keoma immediately. You will not be disappointed.
Keoma is available on DVD.
Thriller: A Cruel Picture (1974)
by Steve Habrat
Cruel is indeed one way to describe Thriller: A Cruel Picture, the ultra violent and ultra graphic tale of revenge from Swedish director Bo Arne Vibenius. The tagline of Thriller: A Cruel Picture describes it as, “The movie that has no limits of evil!” I think it is safe to say that the uncut version of the film has no limit on anything including unsettling drug use, slow motion brutality, and pornographic sex scenes that don’t cut away. Truth is, Thriller: A Cruel Picture ranks as one of the best exploitation films I have ever seen, and exploit it certainly does. The film puts the hero Frigga (Played by Christina Lindberg) through the ringer, exploiting the traumatic events that plague her (rape, forced drug use, addiction, prostitution, and revenge) and follow her around. When Frigga, or One Eye as she is often called, finally picks up a sawed off shotgun and begins hunting down all the people who have wronged her, you want to stand up and cheer her retribution on. We feel this way because director Vibenius shoves our faces in the explicit torment inflicted on her early on and even if we deem it obscene, it fuels our urge to root for her in the last forty minutes. Bravo, Vibenius!
Thriller: A Cruel Picture shows us the agony of Frigga (Played by Lindberg), a young girl who early in her life is sexually assaulted by an older man. In the wake of the encounter, Frigga is mute and withdrawn, living a fairly peaceful life in a small, secluded town. She grows up into a pretty young woman and one day, she misses a bus that is supposed to take her to a doctor’s appointment in town. As she stands at the bus stop, a suave pimp named Tony (Played by Heinz Hopf) pulls up and offers her a ride into town. He invites Frigga back to his apartment, drugs her, and then forces her into a life of prostitution and drug addiction. When Frigga resists, Tony stabs out her eyeball and begins calling her One Eye. As the fury builds in the mute One Eye, she begins attending karate classes and learning how to handle firearms. When she is ready, she takes to the streets and unleashes uncontrolled vengeance on the people who have wronged her. She soon finds the police bearing down on her, but that isn’t going to stop One Eye. Anyone dumb enough to get in her way finds themselves staring down the barrel of a sawed off shotgun.
The success of Thriller: A Cruel Picture rests on the shoulders of Lindberg’s Frigga/One Eye, who conveys so much pain without uttering a word. As a girl she is violated, her innocence being robbed and when she grows up, she appears to be living a fairly conservative lifestyle. She is a sweet, small-town girl who is still haunted by the traumatic event in her past. When she meets Tony and is forced into prostitution, her growing pain and frustration is conveyed in the shrill buzz of the film’s score. The buzz is sharp and sudden, usually played during the graphic sex scenes. Her face is slashed with anguish and pain, yet her eyes are cold, plotting, and mapping out her plot to take revenge. One Eye’s silence is all the more chilling when she is dishing out revenge, making her seem disconnected from the violence she is unleashing. But One Eye isn’t satisfied with only taking revenge on those who wronged her. She takes aim at police officers that attempt to halt her rampage and anyone else who makes the mistake of stepping in her path. She becomes the vexing embodiment of desensitization.
Thriller: A Cruel Picture is not for the faint of heart or the uptight. The first half of the film shows some truly disturbing images of drug addiction, Lindberg really shooting up with a mixture of salt and water. Your heart will break every time she holds her hand out to Tony for her daily doses of heroine. You will flinch every time she inserts that dreaded needle into her arm. The uncut version of the film also features authentic sexual intercourse between Frigga and her customers. The camera slithers around the actors, making sure we know that this isn’t faked or staged. If you fear the film is pornographic, take comfort in the fact that these scenes are not particularly erotic. They are actually quite disturbing, especially complimented by the shrill buzzing score that conveys Frigga’s anguish. Early on, there is a scene that shows the viewer how Frigga looses her eye. After she attacks one of her customers, Tony bursts into her room and pins her on her bed. He then slowly lowers a scalpel towards the camera, the camera acting as Frigga’s perspective. The film then cuts to Frigga, the scalpel piercing her eyeball. This scene was filmed using an actual cadaver. Yes, you are really seeing an eyeball being violently dug out of a skull. It’s gruesome stuff. The violence here is not restrained in the least, the last act composed of quiet and lingering slow motion shots of One Eye’s victims meeting the blast from her shotgun.
To say that Thriller: A Cruel Picture is an acquired taste is an understatement. You really have to be someone who likes cult cinema to fully appreciate the film. I think it is unwarranted to write off this film as depraved and tasteless, as I found Thriller: A Cruel Picture to actually be one of the artier offerings of cult cinema. On the DVD box, Quentin Tarantino is quoted as saying Thriller: A Cruel Picture is “the roughest revenge movie ever made” and ended up being one of his influences for Kill Bill, channeling One Eye in Daryl Hannah’s Elle Driver. Worth a look for its artistic approach (chilling POV shots) and handling of its subject matter, many will find themselves lured back to Thriller: A Cruel Picture, eager to experience it all again. It does boast some truly outstanding sequences (the hand-to-hand combat scene in slow motion would drive Matrix fans nuts), addicting the viewer with its raw, undaunted execution (live rounds were supposedly used in the weapons). A classic among sleaze cinema that happily lives up to your expectations, exceeds them, and then aims a shotgun right in your face.
Thriller: A Cruel Picture is available on DVD in both the regular theatrical edition and the uncut version.