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.
by Steve Habrat
In all the years I have been seeking out and watching cult classics from years past, by far one of the most unusual is Jane Fonda’s kinky 1968 science-fiction film Barbarella. Based on the French comic books by Jean-Claude Forest, Barbarella certain does look like it stepped out of the pages of steamy pulp in intergalactic go-go boots. Directed by Roger Vadim, Barbarella is a carefree and trippy celebration of Fonda, who was married to Vadim at the time the film was made, and her bare naked body as it flits around sets that look like leftovers from Forbidden Planet. While it is certainly not a film you would seek out for an absorbing story, Barbarella comes up a half-winner due to the alien worlds it sends us off to and the tongue-and-check jibber jabber that is delivered through half-cracked smiles by each and every actor in front of the camera. While there are plenty of moments in this soft-core color explosion to like, there are plenty of moments where the extreme camp and bloodshot misadventures of Barbarella wear thin on the viewer. I certainly found myself struggling to stay on the line cast by Vadim, mostly because the initial thrill of the film’s flamboyant manifestation fades about half-way in and we are left with a goofy piece of pop art struggling to keep its head above the boiling cosmic goo.
In the distant future, sexy space traveler Barbarella (Played by Jane Fonda) is zooming through the galaxy when she receives a transmission from the President of Earth (Played by Claude Dauphin). The President asks Barbarella to travel to the planet of Tau Ceti and retrieve Dr. Durand-Durand (Played by Milo O’Shea), the inventor of a devastating weapon called the Positronic Ray, and return him and the weapon safely to Earth. As it turns out, Earth is now a peaceful place, where weapons are forbidden and sex has a man and woman taking exaltation transfer pills and pressing their palms together. Barbarella accepts the mission and as her adventure plays out, she hooks up with Catchman Mark Hand (Played by Ugo Tognazzi), blind angel Pygar (Played by John Phillip Law), kindly Professor Ping (Played by Marcel Marceau), and the evil Black Queen of Sogo (Played by Anita Pallenberg). Through these encounters, Barbarella is reintroduced to the joys of real sex and also finds herself partnering with resistance leader Dildano (Played by David Hemmings) to topple the Black Queen.
Barbarella is probably best remembered for the opening anti-gravity strip tease performed by the leggy Fonda, who sheds her stuffy spacesuit and bears it all for those who are interested. It is probably the most artfully photographed scene of the entire film as she dangles in her shag-carpeted spaceship. The rest of the film is just bursting with bottled sexuality that is dying to be uncorked. You’ll chuckle at suggestive set pieces and how the film pauses for one outrageous sex scene after another. The funniest is by far Barbarella’s encounter with Catchman Hand, who pulls off a big furry overcoat to reveal an equally hair chest that has him resembling a big drooling bear. The cosmic sex is complimented by a lounge jazz score that seems horrifically out of place and absolutely perfect at the same time. Things really hit a new level of crazy when a villainous character straps Barbarella into a devise called the Excessive Machine that, yes, pleasures you to death (I couldn’t make this up). Despite the heavy sexuality that will have even the most uptight viewer undoing one or two buttons, Barbarella is fairly tame for a film based on an adult comic strip. It walks a fine line between porn spoof and legitimate science fiction adventure that seems desperate to have a bit more depth. My guess is there is some uncharted lore here but Vadim can’t resist pausing for heavy kaleidoscope petting that becomes a bit stale by the time the film hits the hour mark.
And then there is Fonda’s performance, which thrust her into stardom and proved that she can wear the hell out of a pair of tights. Fonda is portrayed as a gee-whiz goofball with a heavy dash of gullibility and innocence in her big bedroom eyes. There are times where I fully believe she wants to burst into laughter, especially when she is attacked by a bunch of flesh-hungry dolls or answers the President’s transmission in her birthday suit, but she keeps it together. Barbarella also has to hold a record for the most costume changes caught on film. Throughout this hour and forty minute adventure, Fonda wears countless revealing getups that expose her unmentionables in some way, shape, or form. As far as the supporting players go, there is John Phillip Law’s Pygar, an eerie statuesque angel who I swear is a robot. Frankly, I thought he was the most bizarre character in all of Barbarella and he really creeped me out, especially when he stares blankly off screen and says an angel is “love.” Marcel Marceau gets kooky as Professor Ping, who slinks around a wasteland called the Labyrinth while munching on flowers. David Hemmings is the high note here as the bumbling Dildano, a resistant fighter who doesn’t appear to be capable of resisting much of anything. Anita Pallenberg is also a marvel as the lesbian Black Queen who is supposed to be evil but sometimes isn’t. She cackles gleefully through her dialogue that has her calling Barbarella her “Pretty, Pretty”. Milo O’Shea also gets to let his villain flag fly as Durand-Durand but he is never as much fun as the Black Queen.
To be honest, I’m sort of at a loss when it comes to truly evaluating Barbarella because the film almost defies criticism. It’s just such a strange film that you almost have to see for yourself to truly understand how anomalous it is. Part of me really enjoyed all the lava lamp kinkiness but part of me was simply appalled by how bad the film is at parts. I found myself impressed with the meretricious cosmic environment even if some look like they were painted on a giant canvas. I had fun with some of the characters while others just rubbed me the wrong way or freaked me out (Pygar is especially weird). As someone who adores cult cinema, it was easy for me to see why Barbarella has earned such a cult following but more often than not, Barbarella was just boring me rather than entertaining me in a so-bad-it’s-good sort of way. Overall, Barbarella is a middling swirl of hallucinatory Technicolor that quickly wears out its welcome. At least Fonda makes for good eye candy.
Barbarella is available on Blu-ray and DVD.