Death Rides a Horse (1967)
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.
A Bullet for the General (1966)
by Steve Habrat
While the Italian spaghetti westerns of the mid-60s and 70s dealt with some minor political issues, mostly American capitalism, there was a separate subgenre of the spaghetti western called Zapata westerns that dared to go deeper. Zapata westerns were usually dealing directly with the Mexican Revolution of 1913 and were much more politically charged than the regular spaghetti westerns, which would often set the Mexican Revolution in the background. These Zapata westerns would usually be critical of US foreign policy, the Vietnam War, fascism, capitalism, and were usually made from a Marxist point of view. Perhaps one of the most popular and recognizable Zapata westerns aside from Sergio Leone’s Duck, You Sucker is the 1966 film A Bullet for the General, which was directed by Damiano Damiani. Relentlessly thrilling, refreshingly comical, and unafraid to embrace plenty of action, A Bullet for the General is not only the first Zapata western, but also one of the most fun spaghetti westerns out there. Beautifully shot, sharply written, and carried by unforgettable performances from Gian Maria Volonté, who found stardom through Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More, and Klaus Kinski, the man who played the creepiest Dracula the world has ever seen, A Bullet for the General is an epic and sweeping journey with a powerhouse climax. And I can’t forget to mention that it features Kinski dressed in monk’s robes and gleefully tossing grenades. You really don’t get much cooler than that!
A Bullet for the General centers around a group of banditos led by cunning El Chuncho (Played by Gian Maria Volonté), who are tasked with collecting weapons for the revolutionary leader General Elias (Played by Jamie Fernández). Early on, El Chuncho attacks a government munitions train, but the mission gets messy as the soldiers on board begin fighting back against the trigger-happy banditos. During the attack, El Chuncho happens upon a mysterious American traveler named Bill Tate (Played by Lou Castel) who goes out of his way to help out the attacking banditos. El Chuncho and his gang, which also consists of his religious brother El Santo (Played by Klaus Kinski) and beautiful gunslinger Adelita (Played by Martine Beswick), take an immediately liking to Bill and they invite him to join their gang. Naturally, Bill accepts their invitation and is quickly given the nickname “Nino.” Bill is eager to get rich quick and he immediately starts plotting multiple attacks with El Chuncho, but as time passes, El Chuncho gets increasingly interested with the Mexican Revolution and the idea of making a difference. El Chuncho slowly evolves into a vicious freedom fighter, but his relationship with Bill takes a rocky turn after he discovers a gold bullet in Bill’s travel case.
Early on, A Bullet for the General wins over the action crowd with nearly forty minutes of nonstop gun battles, massacres, and rollicking attacks set to an uppity score from Luis Enriquez Bacalov and Ennio Morricone. The opening attack on the government train is about as epic as action scenes can be, with director Damiani using widescreen compositions of bodies falling, banditos charging, and innocent passengers ducking for cover as bullet and wood splinters around them. Damiani and screenwriters Salvatore Laurani and Franco Solinas slow the action down very briefly to allow Bill to join El Chuncho’s gang and then it snaps back into the breakneck action complete with a massive machine gun. Forts are attack, men are executed, and Kinski’s wildly entertaining El Santo screams Bible versus and lobs grenades at scattering soldiers. After all the adrenaline has worn out, Damiani and company begin pumping in the politics, whispering warnings about the United States meddling in the conflicts of other countries and even calling to mind the raging Vietnam War. It also flirts with an anti-capitalist message, especially with the character of Bill looking to fill his pockets off the Mexican Revolution. It is hard to fault A Bullet for the General for trying to send a message and it is interesting to see an outside perspective on these issues, but it begins dragging its feet while doing it, coming almost to slow crawl as it drives its point home. It is definitely an awkward shift after all the gunfire and explosions that set the stage, but Damiani dares to keep these slower moments light and comical.
A Bullet for the General also benefits from some seriously entertaining and unforgettable performances. Volonté, who made his name playing sadistic gunslingers in Leone’s first two entries in his Dollars trilogy, is an absolutely delight as El Chuncho. His character’s progression is certainly interesting and he throws himself into it with a devil-may-care grin on his face. You just can’t help but love him as he tries to train bumbling peasants to fire a rifle, only to grow more and more frustrated with each passing second. It should also be said that the final image of his character is about as prevailing as they come, as it solidifies his character’s radical shift. Castel is grossly miscast as Bill, who tries to disguise his boyish face with icy glares and short monotone responses that are supposed to make us believe he is a grade-A hardass. Luckily, Volonté picks up his slack and really makes their relationship work. Kinski threatens to steal the show from Volonté as the deeply religious yet bloodthirsty El Santo. Kinski would go on to embrace that wild intensity in Sergio Corbucci’s grim and snowy spaghetti western The Great Silence, but here he embraces macho action star complete with bared chest and headband. Rounding out the players is Beswick, who wows with her natural beauty yet keeps us all in check with her skills with a weapon. She isn’t afraid to ride with the boys, which prevents her character from seeming like just a romantic distraction.
As far as spaghetti westerns go, A Bullet for the General may be one of the most entertaining of the genre. It packs a shocker of an ending and a pretty impressive twist with one of the main characters, one that really takes an emotional toll on the viewer. While you do hate to see the film slow down in the middle, it never misses a beat. It will have you chuckling and also hanging on the deepening relationship between El Chuncho and Bill. My favorite sequence of the entire film was the touching and pivotal moment between Bill, who is struck ill with Malaria, and El Chuncho, who plays doctor and protector while also discovering a dark secret about his friend. Overall, it may not be as well known as it should, but it is hard to wave off A Bullet for the General as a small effort in the spaghetti western genre. It may be stuck in the shadows of such films as the Dollars trilogy, Django, Duck, You Sucker, and Once Upon a Time in the West, but it matches the epic scope of Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West while keeping the action, the politics, and the character development flowing freely. Perhaps its biggest flaw is the casting of Castel, who just can’t really sell his character, but everything is so good, you’ll overlook it. A Bullet for the General is a groundbreaking film and a must-see for anyone who loves film or westerns.
A Bullet for the General is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Night Train Murders (1975)
by Steve Habrat
Imitation was the name of the game in Italy from the mid 1960s until the mid 1980s, something that was both positive and negative. Sergio Leone gave birth to the spaghetti western genre in the mid 60s with the marvelous A Fistful of Dollars, a leaner and meaner version of the American western, and Lucio Fulci sent Italy into a zombie craze with his uncompromisingly vicious 1979 grindhouse film Zombie, which was marketed as a sequel to George Romero’s mega hit Dawn of the Dead. It is no surprise that Italy was also enamored with Wes Craven’s grainy rape/revenge horror outing The Last House on the Left. Aldo Lado’s Night Train Murders is Italy’s answer to Craven’s horrifying redo of Ingmar Begrman’s The Virgin Spring, even marketed as the “new Last House” and using The Last House on the Left’s famous tagline, with minor alterations (“You can tell yourself it’s only a movie – but it won’t help”). Many have argued that Night Train Murders is actually a stronger and much more intelligent film than The Last House on the Left, but in reality, the film seems to be preoccupied with its graphic sexual assaults rather than really doing anything fresh or constructive with the story outside of some thin satire and a change in setting. It should also be pointed out that the film is poorly paced and (naturally) shoddily dubbed with eye-rolling dialogue. The only thing that saves the senseless clone is the acting, which is surprisingly strong for a controversial grindhouse throwaway.
Night Train Murders focuses on two pretty college girls, Margaret (Played by Irene Miracle) and Lisa (Played by Laura D’Angelo), who are taking an overnight train from Munich to Lisa’s parents home in Italy for Christmas. While on board, Margaret and Lisa cross paths with two thugs, Blackie (Played by Flavio Bucci) and Curly (Played by Gianfranco De Grassi), who hop aboard the train to avoid being arrested by the police. As they hide from the ticket collector, Blackie attempts to rape a pretty upper class woman (Played by Macha Meril), but is shocked that the woman begins seducing him and enjoying his advances. This promiscuous woman joins the two thugs on their journey, but the train is soon stopped after authorities get word of a bomb on board. The girls decide to hop on another train that guarantees they will reach their destination by morning and allow them to avoid the suspicious Blackie and Curly. As the girls settle in, they are shocked to discover that the two thugs and the woman who pursued them on the previous train are also on board. As night falls and the train cabins darken, Lisa and Margaret become the victims of rape and torture at the hands of Blackie, Curly, and the mysterious woman. As the night goes on, the girls begin to realize that no one is going to be able to save them and they begin wishing for death.
After the slow set up that hangs over the first act of Night Train Murders (the girls flirt with the thugs, Curly plays his harmonica, Blackie has graphic sex with the mysterious woman), director Lado settles in for almost forty minutes of graphic rape and jaw dropping torture that will certainly stir up the casual viewer, but frankly just exhaust the hardened horror buff. The initial first encounters during the lengthy rape sequence are certainly appalling (the deflowering with the switchblade comes to mind), but after a while, you are left checking your watch and wishing that Lado would move on with the story. When we do finally move past the nasty stuff, Lado seems to rush the confrontation between Lisa’s parents and these three sadistic individuals. If you are familiar with The Last House on the Left, you obviously know that the parents cross paths with the thugs and proceed to serve up a bloody plate of revenge. Night Train Murders approaches the sequence as almost an afterthought, and the way the parents figure out what has happened feels forced. When the sparks finally do fly, things do get bloody, but it never reaches the levels of violence that The Last House on the Left reaches. Amazingly, there is plenty of atmosphere during the final confrontation (the billowing fog and the whistling wind do send chills as Lado fixes his camera on a dead body), but the action feels a bit sanitized for a film that seems well aware that it is a knock-off exploitation film. It sadly never achieves the realism that Craven achieved.
For an exploitation film, Night Train Murders does muster some above average performances from its leads. Miracle and D’Angelo are certainly sympathetic as Margaret and Lisa, especially when they realize that there is no hope of escape from these three maniacs. Especially effective is D’Angelo’s Lisa, a virgin who is violated with a switchblade and then left to bleed out. As far as the thugs go, Bucci and De Grassi will make your skin crawl as Blackie and Curly. One is just as bad as the other, the loose cannon easily being Curly, who happens to be an unpredictable junkie with a sinister harmonica. Meril’s mysterious woman (we never do learn her real name), who joins forces with Blackie and Curly, is probably the creepiest character in the film, a seemingly sophisticated upper class woman who conceals her darker interests in porno and smirks at the violence erupting around her in the final moments. It is frightening the way evil is lured out during an attempted rape, a horrific act that she enjoys. And we can’t forget Enrico Maria Salerno and Marina Berti as Lisa’s parents, Giulio and Laura, two more upper class citizens who erupt in quivering carnage even though they state their dislike for violence in society.
At times, Night Train Murders seems to have a bit more on its mind than simply rape and revenge, but the idea of violence lurking in the most civilized human beings seems stale and borrowed, much like the plot itself. The film is effective with its claustrophobic setting (very rarely does Lado’s camera venture out of the train cabin) and the image of a switchblade stuck between Lisa’s legs is certainly something that will not leave your memory any time soon, but the film never manages to sicken like it thinks it does. The middle section just becomes tedious and sadly, boredom begins to set in. It should also be noted that the film packs a beautiful and haunting score from Ennio Morricone, a nice little surprise for the viewer. Overall, if you’ve exhausted your copy of The Last House on the Left and you’ve admired Bergman’s staggering The Virgin Spring, Night Train Murders is worth checking out simply for the slightly different take on the story. However, if you’re an exploitation fan, Night Train Murders will leave you longing for the scummy realism of Craven’s film.
Night Train Murders is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Django Unchained (2012)
by Steve Habrat
For years, Quentin Tarantino has been hinting that he wanted to make a spaghetti western. He constantly gushes about Sergio Leone’s classic epic The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (it’s his favorite film) and he even nabbed a bit part as a Clint Eastwood type gunslinger in Takashi Miike’s tepid Sukiyaki Western Django. We knew his take on the gritty western was coming but we didn’t know exactly when. Well, that long rumored epic he has been hinting at is finally here and I must say, I think Mr. Tarantino has outdone himself and delivered one of the finest films of 2012. Red hot with controversy (the N-word is used A LOT), Django Unchained is a firecracker of a film that finds the talkative director at his wildest and craziest. For years, audiences have been split over his kung-fu/spaghetti western mash-up Kill Bill, some saying he flew too wildly off the rails (I hear many describe it as “weird”) while others smack their lips at the cartoonish carnage. Me, I was all for a Tarantino western and I couldn’t be happier with the results. Yes, Django Unchained is a difficult pill to swallow with its harsh look at slavery but remember that this is Tarantino’s version of history and that alone should tell you everything you need to know about the film. Django Unchained is ultimately a valentine to a genre that Tarantino adores, which makes it easy to forgive some of the edgier moments of this masterpiece. I would go so far to say this is Tarantino’s strongest film and the one that seems to be the most alive with the spirit of 70s exploitation cinema. Maybe this should have been the film he made for his portion of Grindhouse.
Set two years before the Civil War, Django Unchained begins on a cold Texas night with a group of recently purchased slaves being transported through the countryside by the Speck brothers. As the group shuffles through the night, they are approached by Dr. King Schultz (Played by Christoph Waltz), a German dentist turned bounty hunter who is looking for a specific slave named Django (Played by Jamie Foxx). Schultz is hunting for a trio of deadly gunslingers known as the Brittle brothers and Django is the only one that can identify them. Schultz and Django make a deal that if Django takes Schultz to the Brittle brothers, he will help Django locate his long lost wife, Broomhilda (Played by Kerry Washington), who has been sold to a sadistic plantation owner named Calvin Candie (Played by Leonardo DiCaprio). As Schultz and Django bond, Schultz realizes that Django has a talent for the bounty hunting business and he begins showing him the ropes. The two form a deadly alliance that sends them to Mississippi, where they begin devising a way to infiltrate Candieland, Candie’s ranch that is protected by his own personal army and houses brutal Mandingo fights.
Just shy of three hours, Django Unchained covers quite a bit of ground during its epic runtime. It is jam packed with Tarantino’s beloved conversations, something that he knows he is good at and just can’t resist. The conversations are as fun as ever, but sometimes Django Unchained is just a little too talky for a spaghetti western. It is just odd to me that Tarantino would be making a tribute to spaghetti westerns and then never shut his characters up (For the love of God, his favorite movie is The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly!). I would expect someone like Tarantino to know that the gunslingers from Sergio Corbucci’s west sized each other up through razor sharp stares and not through constant chatter. No worries though, as I am sure that most audience members won’t pick up on this so it doesn’t really damage the overall product. Despite this minor nuisance, if you are a fan of westerns or exploitation cinema, you will be bouncing off the walls with delight. Tarantino zooms his camera in and out of action suddenly (it is hilarious every single time), getting right in a characters face or zooming out suddenly from a close up to reveal a jaw dropping landscape behind them. He laces his film with tunes from Ennio Morricone and Riz Ortolani, two instantly recognizable names if you’re up and up on your Italian westerns and cannibal films from the 60s into the 80s. When the gore hits, it is cranked up to the max. The blood often looks like the red candle wax goop that poured from gunshot wounds or zombie bites in the 70s. Hell, even Franco Nero, the original Django from the 1966 film (if you’ve never seen the original Django, you might want to get on that), shows up for a brief cameo! Are you exploitation nuts sold yet?
Considering this is Tarantino’s show, the performances are all top notch and instant classics. I was a little worried about Foxx starring as our main gunslinger Django but he is on fire here. He channels Eastwood and Nero’s silent heroes like you wouldn’t believe while also adding a layer of quivering mad sass to the character (Get a load of the delivery of “I LIKE THE WAY YOU DIE, BOY!”). I loved it every time Tarantino would zoom in to give us a close up of his scowling mug as it chewed on a smoke through tangled whiskers. He wins our hearts through his heartbroken stare and his determination to get poor Broomhilda back from Candie’s clutches. He instantly clicks with Waltz’s Schultz, a devilishly funny and clever bounty hunter who packs a mean handshake and can talk himself out of any situation. Waltz brings that irresistible charm that he brought to Inglourious Basterds and settles into the character quite nicely, a cartoonish cowboy who nabs all the best dialogue. When Foxx and Waltz are on screen together, the chemistry between them unbelievable. One is strong and silent, a pupil who is eager to learn and win back his life while the other is chatterbox joker who is deadlier than anyone could imagine. They alone will lure back for seconds.
As far as the rest of the cast goes, DiCaprio practically steals the film away from Foxx and Waltz as the bloodthirsty Calvin Candie. He is sweet as sugar one minute and the next, he is ordering his men to feed a terrified runaway slave to a pack of hungry dogs. You won’t fully appreciate the power of his performance until you get to the dinner sequence, which finds tensions rising to the point where Candie snaps and cuts his hand on a champagne glass. I honestly think he will earn an Oscar nomination for the hellish turn. Then we have Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen, an elderly house slave that spews more profanity than his character in Pulp Fiction. Along with Waltz, Jackson gets to deliver the feisty lines of dialogue and you can tell he loves every second of it. He disappears in the role to the point where you can’t even tell it is him. The role also serves as a reminder of just how good an actor Jackson truly is. Washington gives a slight and sensitive performance as Broomhilda, Django’s tormented wife. Keep your eyes peeled for an extended cameo from Don Johnson as Big Daddy, another wicked plantation owner who leads a bumbling early version of the Ku Klux Klan. Also on board are Michael Parks, Tom Savini, Jonah Hill, Bruce Dern, Franco Nero, and Tarantino himself, all ready to grab a chuckle from those who will recognize them.
As someone who has been a fan of Tarantino’s work for years, I have to say that I firmly believe that Django Unchained is his best film yet. It is unflinching with how it handles slavery while also staying shockingly lighthearted at the same time. It packs a gunfight that features more blood, guts, and gore than anything he threw at us in Grindhouse and it manages to tell a touching buddy story that creeps up on your emotions. I just wish Tarantino would have paid the extra dough and digitally scratched the film to make it feel even more like an authentic exploitation film. Overall, Tarantino proves that there is still some life left in the western genre and he gives it a massive shake up by fusing it to the blaxploitation genre. It may not be historically accurate but Tarantino has the good sense not to sugarcoat this dark chapter of American history. There are some tough moments but he never shies away from having fun and slapping a big smile right on your face. Long live Django and long live the spaghetti western. Django Unchained is one of the best films of 2012.
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.
A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
by Steve Habrat
With the western genre beginning to loose steam in America during the 1960s, new interest in the genre was sparked with the emergence of Sergio Leone’s dusty A Fistful of Dollars, a rock-n-roll reinvention of the fatigued western genre. A Fistful of Dollars was the first spaghetti western to land in America and introduce audiences to the rising star Clint Eastwood and his iconic Man with No Name, arguably the best western character ever created. The spaghetti westerns that were coming from Italy were rougher and tougher than the ones America was churning out, westerns where the line between right and wrong were blurred and the violence was cranked up to the max. A Fistful of Dollars is one of my favorite westerns and perhaps one of the most influential, boldly breaking new ground and embracing a dark edge inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. This is the first film that introduced many to the genius of Ennio Morricone and his whistling scores.
A Fistful of Dollars follows the Man with No Name (Played by Eastwood) as he arrives in a small town on the Mexican border. Once he arrives, the local innkeeper Silvanito (Played by José Calvo) informs him that the small town is caught in a deadly feud between two families—the Rojo brothers and the Baxters. The Man with No Name sees this feud as an opportunity to begin playing the two families against each other and make some large sums of cash in the process. The Man with No Name uses a group of Mexican soldiers mosey into town with a large shipment of gold as a chance to spark up a conflict. As the feud grows deadlier and deadlier, The Man with No Name pushes the malicious and clever Ramón (Played by Gian Maria Volonté), one of the leaders of the Rojo gang, a bit too far and puts his life in danger.
What is instantaneously atypical about A Fistful of Dollars is the fact that the film refuses to allow us to root for the sheriff of the small town, the ones who stand for law and order. It breaks the mold laid by the American westerns where you root for the honest, ethical, and steadfast. Here we root for a man who operates in a gray zone, someone only looking to benefit himself and no one else. He is better than the Rojo gang but the Man with No Name still operates outside the law. He is interested in personal gain and wealth, seeing the dispute as a game of chess, his squinty eyes carefully plotting his next move. He is shrouded in mystery, hidden in a poncho and always chewing on a cigar. What is his story? We find ourselves drawn to those we do not know and we actually like someone we know nothing about more than when we learn about their past, present, and future. This is precisely why the Man with No Name possesses a magnetism that in my eyes can’t be matched.
Leone’s portrayal of the west is another standout of A Fistful of Dollars, giving us a vision that is the furthest thing from romanticized. Much like the morals at their heart, the American western was concerned with presenting a glossed over version of the Wild West, a place where love stories flourished along with the good old boy heroes. Leone’s west wasn’t a place where the good guys wore white and flashed a badge and the mean old outlaw was dressed in rebellious black. Just like the fine line our hero walks, this west is shifty, deadly, and often repulsive. Here cowboys and outlaws chug whiskey, womanize, kill for entertainment, and pick gunfights out of boredom. For such a depraved place, Leone mirrors it in the run down builds that dot the town. Everything just seems like it is rotting away into the blowing sand right down to the sweaty close-ups that Leone loves to shove our faces in. Faces are weather worn, wrinkled, crack, toothless, and broken. It is a place where even the viewer keeps an eye on the gunslinger at the bar in the background, a place where apprehension rules every move we make. Leone, it appears, wouldn’t have it any other way.
Leone also finds beauty in silence and glances, a touch that would become increasingly popular in his work. In A Fistful of Dollars, the Man with No Name talks more than he does in For A Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Yet when dialogue is spoken, it is cynical and pessimistic, no one ever truly offering a word of hope that things will get better. Leone ties silence with tension, allowing faces and eyes to do all the talking and squinting to signal it was time to draw your pistol. These silences usually build up to explosive gun fights that last five seconds at their longest. This approach would go on to inspire Quentin Tarantino, who is very vocal about his love of Leone’s work. It is this approach that separates the loyal fans of Leone from the one’s who prefer films that are talkative. And yet the anti-social personality of his work mirrors the anti-social behavior of the characters he photographs.
In film school, one of my professors praised Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 epic The Wild Bunch as the film that captured the dramatic shifts in American society in the 1960s. He claimed that the film acknowledged the death of the conservative values and the beginning of a new era. I’ve always wondered where that left Sergio Leone’s work, especially his Dollars trilogy. Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars was one of the first to truly acknowledge the violent shift in American during the 1960s. Leone presented a west that would run John Wayne out of the town the film took place in and gave us a hero with distorted morals. The film was made in 1964 but was released in America in 1967, right smack dab in the middle of an angry America that was facing an unpopular war in Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, riots, protests, assassinations, the rising counterculture, and more. While I agree that Peckinpah’s film has a lot on its mind, I don’t believe that he was the first one to use the western to mirror the times and make a statement about the evolution of America. For a film genre that was American made, one where the good guys always prevail and the bad guys always loose, Leone was among the first to rip those black and white ethics to shreds, magnify our underlying violence, and in the process, created a classic film that is just as nasty today as it was back then.
A Fistful of Dollars is now available on Blu-ray.
The Great Silence (1968)
by Steve Habrat
For those who are not familiar with spaghetti westerns, a movement within the western genre during the mid 1960s, The Great Silence may not be your best introduction to the subgenre. You are probably wondering, what is a spaghetti western? A spaghetti western is an Italian made western that is usually set in a rundown frontier town and features ugly, weather worn characters. Among these characters is usually a protagonist who walks a fine line between good and bad and an antagonist who is usually beyond loathsome. And usually everyone is really, really sweaty and the violence is really, really gruesome. The best-known spaghetti westerns are Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly) and Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. If I were a novice to the genre, I would begin with the four films I have just listed and if you feel the genre is for you, then immediately see The Great Silence, a spaghetti western that embraces every single attribute I listed above and replaces the sweaty, dusty setting with a snowy backdrop. This film is just as uncompromising as the environment it takes place in and, boy, is it violent.
The Great Silence follows a mute gunslinger known as Silence (Played by Jean-Louis Trintignant) on a quest to find the bounty hunters responsible for the slaying of his family and taking away his speech. Silence kills off his targets by picking fights with them and then shoots them in self-defense. He wanders into the town of Snowhill, Utah, set high in the snowy mountains and in the clutches of a brutal blizzard. The craggy, snow-caked hills are a safe haven for poor and starving refuges that the merciless bounty hunter Loco (Played Klaus Kinski) and his bloodthirsty gang have been hired to drive out. The rough weather has caused the refuges to become outlaws themselves in order to keep themselves alive. After Loco kills an African American outlaw, his wife Pauline (Played by Vonetta McGee) hires Silence to kill Loco, setting into motion a bleak and nasty showdown.
Director Sergio Corbucci frames several unforgettable moments throughout The Great Silence. One scene finds Loco dragging an outlaw through the snow while he interrogates him. The opening sequence finds Silence shooting off the thumbs of one gunfighter, making sure he can never pick up a weapon again. There is a saloon scene where a repulsive gunslinger gnawing at a greasy piece of chicken makes the mistake of picking a fight with the glaring Silence. But the reason the film gained notoriety is the climatic gun battle, which is horrific, tense, bleak, and unforgettable. Some countries were upset over the dark ending of the film and demanding Corbucci shoot an alternative ending that was much more optimistic. I prefer the grim end–the way Corbucci intended the film to be seen, as the Wild West wasn’t always a forgiving place where heroes triumphed in the face of evil.
The Great Silence also features a jangly, lingering score by spaghetti western composer Ennio Morricone, who seems to have scored every single one of these films (He must have been a busy guy!). Everyone on the face of this earth is familiar with his score for The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (That famous whistle?). It has been said that the spaghetti western is supposed to be the rock-n-roll version of the American western and Morricone’s music was meant to exemplify that statement. With The Great Silence, the score is a bit less scruffy and more romanticized, even when paired with the soft and epic long shots of snow-covered mountaintops. The Great Silence isn’t just a party for the boys, as it features (surprisingly!) a romance between the strong Silence type and wounded Pauline. Even the new firm sheriff of Snowhill, Burnett (Played by Frank Wolff, who also shows up in Once Upon a Time in the West, another surprisingly romantic spaghetti western) seems like more of a character who stepped out of a John Wayne western than a world full of grotesque money hungry murderers.
The Great Silence doesn’t go soft on the viewer. Oh no, just get a load of Kinski’s Loco, a breathy bounty hunter who likes to play with his prey before he puts it down. He buries bodies in the snow and then returns later to claim them (No respect for the dead), hides weapons all over town, and will gun down anyone without batting an eye. He is the personification of evil and a true spaghetti western antagonist. Kinski, who was a sensational actor, enjoys going bad in this one and who can blame him. He’s a self-centered character out to only benefit himself and certainly not the residents of Snowhill. Kinski was always so good at adding multifarious emotions to his villainous turns (See Nosferatu the Vampyre to see what he does with Dracula) and Loco is no different. I got the sense that if and when he laid waste to the refuges in the hills, it would not be for the sake of law and order and the only emotion he would feel is desperation, desperation to find more outlaws with a big price tag attached to their head.
It is a shame that the DVD print of The Great Silence isn’t better than it is. It seems as if the print of the film wasn’t properly cared for, as some shots are hazy, sometimes scratchy, and crude. Yet The Great Silence provides haunting entertainment for those who wish to subject themselves to the climax (You’ll feel this one, folks) and is just as grim as the era it was released in (1968, for those interested). The drastic change in location also makes for a western of a completely different breed, making it all the more memorable and distinct. Even the gunslingers have a more flamboyant feel to them and are not simply the tough-as-nails type. If you are a person who enjoys the romanticized west, you may want to skip this one. I recommended this film to a family friend who loves westerns and he reported back with a negative reaction to the film. If you enjoy spending time with some truly revolting and morally corrupt individuals, you’ll want to head to Snowhill immediately.
The Great Silence is now available on DVD.
The Thing (2011)
by Steve Habrat
Another month, another horror remake coughed up from lazy Hollywood and this time it’s the prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 chiller The Thing. August saw the remake of another 80’s horror flick, Fright Night, which was playful, spry, and hip. The Thing 2011 fits nicely along with the original 1982 classic, but after establishing no mood, it becomes a showcase for the latest special effects Hollywood has to offer and to be perfectly honest, they are not much to write home about. The creature effects are what made the Carpenter original such a standout. They were appallingly real where here they seem rubbery and computerized. In fact, they are only a notch above direct to DVD effects. The Thing 2011 is also the furthest thing from hip, seeming appropriately old school but never really utilizing the effect (the film begins with the classic Universal Studios logo). It’s drenched in fakery when it could have benefitted from a real scare. It’s also certainly not playful, never elaborating on the original story but rather simply resorting to rehashing the original plot with different actors. It only adds B-movie princess Mary Elizabeth Winstead gripping a flamethrower and a big, laughable UFO at the end.
Remember in the Carpenter original when MacReady (Krut Russell) and the resident doctor ventured into the charred ruins of the Norwegian camp at the beginning of The Thing 1982? The place looked like hell had rained down upon it. It was also especially creepy because our mind filled in what happened to these people. Well, Hollywood found it necessary to show us what happened and it doesn’t look that much different from what happened in the American camp. After a group of Norwegian scientists stumble upon a UFO and a crablike alien buried in the snow of the Arctic, American paleontologist Kate (Played by Winstead) and her partner Adam (Played by Eric Christian Olsen) are recruited by a Norwegian scientist named Dr. Sander Halvorson (Played by Ulrich Thomsen) to come to the site and help them remove the alien from the snow. She takes on the job and upon her arrival, she meets a pair of American pilots Carter and Jameson (Played by Joel Edgerton and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). Once the scientists remove the alien from the ice and bring it back to the camp, it soon wakes up and breaks from its icy confines. It begins attacking the scientists one by one and duplicating the helpless saps. Paranoia rips through the group and soon the alien begins rearing it’s fangs and tentacles all over the place, ripping out from heads, arms, stomachs, etc. As the group awaits help to arrive, they desperately search for a way to figure out who is normal and how to quarantine the alien from spreading outside the camp.
This Thing isn’t a terrible movie and it actually has a bit of potential buried beneath the snow and ice. Winstead is a talented actress and her toughness is believable, but she’s not the reluctant hero the MacReady was. Edgerton also attempts to fit ol’ Kurt’s boots but he doesn’t fair any better. The film segues nicely into the ‘82 original and I will pat it on the back for that, but other than that it really seems to have no reason to exist. Furthermore, it’s empty headed and without commentary. The Cold War paranoia was part of what makes the original a classic to this day. It’s a frosted over mirror of paranoia, dread, fear, and suspicion. It comes as no surprise to me because the trailer boasted that the same people who gave George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead a CGI makeover produced this film too. The 2004 Dawn of the Dead was much more fun than The Thing 2011 and that is mostly because it wasn’t afraid to stray a bit from the original concept.
So what exactly is the potential here? For one, the characters could have been a bit more interesting. None of them grabbed me and when one of them crumpled into alien bits, I wasn’t filled empathy. I never really cared. The film could have also had some more memorable moments in the alien department. The original film works because it has moments of pure exhibition. Who will ever forget the severed head sprouting legs and trying to walk off? Or how about a dead man’s chest caving in and revealing a set of teeth, which proceed to bite off another man’s arms? There is nothing like that here and all we get is a computerized dog-like human that crawls around and has two heads. And how about the alien itself? Well, it would have been better left charred and on an autopsy table rather than actually seeing it scamper about the camp. It was creepy never truly knowing what it looked like. I could have also done without the end, which finds several of the characters chasing the alien around its massive UFO. The film climaxes with another perfect grenade toss, unfortunately missing a one liner as good as “Yeah! Well fuck you too!” And how about the blood test in the original? Here, there is nothing that suspenseful and instead we get a tooth-filling test. It never comes close to the unbearable intensity of the original scene.
The Thing 2011 pulls the same stunt as Dawn of the Dead 2004, making the audience sit through the end credits and watch brief flashes of the set up for the original film. Over these scenes, the original Ennio Morricone score slithers over the footage. I kept crossing my fingers for a cameo from MacReady but don’t get your hopes up too high. The Thing 2011 needed to discover it’s own identity and it never does. I never minded sitting through the film and spotting the references to the original, but it became tedious after a while. It never offers up any new information on the alien, just a few minor hints at how it duplicates its prey. None of the explanations are riveting and they slowly suck the terror out of the film. Much like the gooey, roaring antagonist, The Thing 2011 is just a duplication of the 1982 film. And just like any duplication or copy, there are a few imperfections that eventually give it away. And what does The Thing 2011 give away? It slowly reveals that the filmmakers had absolutely no idea how to build upon this story. Grade: C+