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 the stretch of films that John Carpenter made from 1978 to 1982, Escape From New York may be my least favorite of the films that also included Halloween, The Fog, and The Thing. It is these four films that are perhaps the most prolific films of his career (I should also throw in Assault of Precinct 13 and Big Trouble in Little China) and all have their own respectable cult following. Escape From New York is probably his most eccentric film in this stretch, one that broke the horror mold that he was falling into. Escape From New York ventures into science fiction and action territory (Carpenter explored science fiction with his debut film Dark Star in 1974) and the result is a fairly mixed bag of masculine 80’s clichés, inconsistent action sequences, and sputtering suspense. Still, I am willing to forgive in most of these areas but the one that really hurts is the lack of a suspenseful atmosphere that I feel Carpenter did so well. He would return to form, thankfully, in with his 1982 science-fiction chiller The Thing. There would be some magic found in Escape From New York, this first pairing of Carpenter and Kurt Russell, a match made in badass heaven.
Escape From New York invites us into a dystopian world where, in 1988, crime rose 400%, causing the U.S. government to construct a giant wall surrounding New York City that turns the greatest city in the world into a sprawling maximum-security prison. The year is 1997 and Air Force One has crashed into the dangerous streets of the prison, streets that are crawling with psychos and criminals. The President (Played by Donald Pleasance) was on his way to a three-way summit meeting between the U.S., China, and the Soviet Union for a discussion on nuclear fusion, a meeting he is desperately needed at. Police Commissioner Bob Hauk (Played by Lee Van Cleef) enlists the help of scowling ex-soldier turned criminal Snake Plissken (Played by Kurt Russell), who is facing a life sentence behind the city walls. Hauk tells Plissken that if he retrieves the President in twenty-four hours, he will pardon Plissken of his sentence. Plissken reluctantly agrees and travels into the grungy wasteland where he finds himself facing a relentless army of bloodthirsty criminals who all want him dead. Along the way, he runs into some old acquaintances and faces off against the sinister Duke (Played by Isaac Hayes), who plans to use the President as his key to freedom.
It’s almost impossible not to read Escape From New York as a faint satire of the crime that ran rampant in New York City in the 1970’s into the 1980’s. The 1980’s and early 1990’s saw some of the worst of the crime. Escape From New York saw itself released in 1981, right in the midst of the flurry of crime and right at the start of the Regan Presidency. Escape From New York has a heavy military and police presence within the film, masked soldiers prowling the tops of the prison and helicopters swooping in to shoot and kill any prisoner that looks like they are attempting an escape. When the film is mirroring the uncontrollable crime of New York City and Regan’s focus on military expansion, Escape From New York is witty, cynical and, yes, tense in some respects. You do feel uneasy because you don’t really know the terrors that lie beyond those walls and there is the paranoia of war right around the corner. Even the early scenes, where Carpenter keeps many of the psychos in the shadows are a bit unsettling, but then he turns the lights on and allows the sun to come up to chase all those demons out of the shadows and into the sewers.
Escape From New York does do a good job at creating a dystopian world that is admirable in the attention to detail. While watching it, I could completely see this grungy vision of New York City being completely plausible for the time in which it was released. Plissken is warned not to venture into the subways or into certain parts of the city by its wary prisoners, the one’s with hints of good within them. Shadowy silhouettes scamper through the streets, evocative of homeless street dwellers calling the grime caked darkness home. The effects are also quite impressive, especially when you keep in mind that the film was made for a whopping six million, which by today’s standards wouldn’t get you far at all. At times, it is a bit obvious that Carpenter is filming miniatures and a sequence involving a glider tumbling down the side of the World Trade Center looks a bit dated, but outside of that, the film has aged very well.
Escape From New York would not be the classic that it is considered if it didn’t have Kurt Russell in the lead as Snake Plissken. Plissken is almost always as cool as a cucumber, his voice just above a whisper as he tiptoes around the littered streets with an intimidating machine gun. Plissken practically becomes the definition of the strong silent type, even when he is thrown in a wrestling ring with a gigantic brawler who is looking to pull Plissken’s head from his body. It was this film that revealed the peanut butter and jelly pairing of John Carpenter and Kurt Russell, Carpenter dreaming up perfect one-liners for Russell to mumble before he aims a gun or throws a punch. The writing would really take shape in The Thing, the film that contains one of Russell’s greatest one-liners, but Russell sure gets to have some pokerfaced fun here (Hauk: “Plissken? Plissken, what are you doing?” Snake: “Playing with myself! I’m going in!”). Escape From New York also features a few other Carpenter alums, Pleasance as the half-hearted President and Adrienne Barbeau as the curvy and dangerous Maggie. Harry Dean Stanton, who would go on to appear in Carpenter’s 1983 film Christine, has some fun as the shifty Brain, who betrayed Plissken in the past.
Escape From New York leaves the viewer wanting more and not particularly in a good way. I wanted more development of Isaac Hayes’ Duke, a villain we mostly only hear about and when we see him, he never really strikes fear into our hearts. Lee Van Cleef’s Hauk just jogs around from behind computer screens to a helicopter and back again. Stanton and Barbeau both seem to be having some fun in Carpenter’s wasteland, Barbeau overjoyed to be reunited wit her The Fog director, but their characters aren’t really elaborated on, only there to keep Plissken on his toes. Escape From New York belongs to Russell and he is the one who will lure you back behind the walls of the New York City maximum-security prison for repeat viewers. The film is also notable for its satire and political commentary, touches that elevate the film above a mindless science fiction/action throwaway. I would have liked the story to develop a little more, for Plissken to explore a little more of New York City and bump in to a few more baddies. Yet there is enough bloody action to keep us occupied in our visit to this nightmare world and, for those who have never seen it, it is worth seeking the film out to be introduced to the man that is Snake Plissken. I guess that is enough for me to recommend the Escape From New York. If only it had that signature tense Carpenter atmosphere but I guess a guy can dream, right?
Escape From New York is available on Blu-ray and DVD.