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.