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.
by Steve Habrat
After the success of Sergio Leone’s violent 1964 spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars, a whole slew of Italian directors scrambled to emulate Leone’s reinvention of the western. While many of the spaghetti westerns that were made in the wake of A Fistful of Dollars were overlooked or forgotten, some managed to recruit a following and for good reason. In 1966, director Sergio Corbucci released Django, which really sent Europe into a western frenzy and at the time happened to be the most violent film every made. By today’s standards, Django is rather tame aside from a certain scene featuring a man having his ear sliced off and then fed to him, but it still manages to get the adrenaline following for an hour and a half. Along with Leone’s Man with No Name trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly), Django stands as a shining example of the spaghetti western and one of the more fun exploitation films out there. It does have some shoddy craftsmanship in places (the dubbing leaves a lot to be desired, the cinematography is so grainy that the picture almost flashes at certain points, the music is a bit cheesy in places) but you can honestly say you’ve never seen a western quite like it. If the reckless violence and bad attitude don’t lure you in, wait until you get a load of Franco Nero’s brooding gunslinger Django, a nasty piece of work that tugs a mud-caked coffin behind him that conceals one hell of a deadly weapon. He almost looks like he stepped out of the coolest comic book you’ve never read.
After saving a prostitute named Maria (Played by Loredana Nusciak) from two bloodthirsty gangs, former Union soldier turned gun-slinging drifter Django (Played by Franco Nero) takes Maria under his wing and leads her to a nearby border town that is largely abandoned. Behind him, Django drags a mysterious coffin that he never lets out of his sight. Django and Maria take shelter at the town brothel, which happens to be the haunt of the two gangs that Django saved Maria from. It turns out that the two gangs, one being a KKK style cult led by Major Jackson (Played by Eduardo Fajardo) and the other being a trigger-happy gang of Mexican banditos led by General Hugo Rodriguez (Played by José Bódalo), are locked in a battle for the dying town and Django has unfinished business with the heads of both gangs. After a nasty confrontation with Maj. Jackson’s men, Django teams up with Gen. Rodriguez for a robbery that will make both Django and Gen. Rodriguez very wealthy men. Little does Gen. Rodriguez know that Django has plans of his own and that Maj. Jackson is responsible for the death of Django’s wife.
Quick to get into the savage gun battles, fistfights, and staring contests, Django is certainly a different breed of western, even when compared to Leone’s patient and thoughtful work. Corbucci doesn’t appear to have anything deeper on his mind and he is more concerned with getting to the next brutal confrontation between Django and anyone dumb enough to make him angry. Is there really anything wrong with this? No, not really. The film consistently keeps you glued to the action and you just can’t wait to see what is hidden inside Django’s coffin of death. In between the bloody showdowns, Corbucci builds a menacing and slightly creepy atmosphere in the confines of the ghost town and the local graveyard where most of the action takes place. The streets are muddy, the buildings collapsing, and the fences twisted beyond repair as storm clouds loom in the distance. It is the type of place that is so rough and tough, even the prostitutes get into muddy brawls in the streets. The graveyard is just as worse for wear, a dusty wasteland where jagged graves and dead trees barely stand against the howling winds and walls of dust. It certain is a grimy and vaguely apocalyptic vision where there are no heroes to make things right, just those looking out for number one and those who want to kill everyone in sight. Hell, these guys are so vicious; they don’t even flinch when they gun down the kindly bartender Nathaniel (Played by Ángel Álvarez).
While no one in Django gives an A-list performance, the players are all very memorable mostly because their characters are so colorful. Nero is the one in charge here as Django, a stone cold gunslinger who has hidden his heavy heart behind a brick wall. He has little use for Maria, who he saves from certain death and then largely ignores (Yeah, I haven’t quite figured that one out either.). He spends most of his time sitting in the brothel, sipping a glass of whiskey and waiting for Maj. Jackson to show up and pick a fight. Naturally he does and Django kills a shocking number of his men in the span of maybe five minutes. We don’t learn too much about this mysterious drifter, only that he is out for blood and that he fears no man. Nusciak is quiet and haunted as Maria, a beautiful prostitute who finds herself in love with the consistently distracted Django. We learn that Fajardo’s Maj. Jackson is one wicked guy as he picks off innocent Mexicans in the muddy streets just to let off a little steam. Bódalo’s Gen. Rodriguez is a sweaty brute that is constantly being saved by Django yet is quick to dish out a little revenge despite all he owes to the heartbroken drifter. Álvarez is sweet and timid as the shaky bartender who tries so desperately to keep the peace between everyone. His fate is the only moment where the viewer’s emotions are put to work.
Despite its stunning brutality, Django was a massive hit in Italy and it inspired a huge number of unofficial sequels that all managed to work Django into their titles yet have very little in common with Corbucci’s film. There was only one official sequel, Django 2: il grande ritorno, that did star Nero but wasn’t directed by Mr. Corbucci. For fans of exploitation cinema, it may interest you that Ruggero Deodato, the man responsible for Cannibal Holocaust, served as assistant director on Django. If you’re looking to jump into the spaghetti western subgenre, Leone’s marvelous trilogy and Corbucci’s Django are great places to start. You may want to ease in with Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars to really see if this is your bowl of pasta but if you are big on action, Django will really have you on the edge of your seat. It’s also worth checking out for the super catchy theme song that plays over the dreary opening credits (Good luck getting it out of your head!). Overall, Django is flawed but it also happens to be a gritty, savage, pulpy, and highly influential ride through the Wild West. If you’re a cinema geek, western fanatic, or exploitation guru, you may want to seek this sucker out. It truly is one of a kind.
Django is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
If you find yourself being the type of person that can’t force yourself to sit down and watch a foreign art house film, you should really make an effort to start with and see Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 film Yojimbo (The Bodyguard). Yes, there are subtitles in the film, so you will have to do a small bit of reading, but Yojimbo, which was the film that influenced Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone’s groundbreaking spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars, is such an entertaining film that you will find yourself forgetting that there are subtitles on the screen. Devoid of any off-putting pretension, Kurosawa puts more emphasis on limb-severing action and hearty comedy that will appeal to both average movie viewers and the art house crowd. A highly influential film, Yojimbo has been widely considered to be a true classic that finds its own influence in western cinema, creating a slightly surreal Japanese western that is ripe with dazzling black and white cinematography, packed camera shots, and some truly breathtaking showdowns that will leave you gasping.
Yojimbo follows a wandering, masterless samurai (Played by Toshiro Mifune) who happens upon a 19th century town that is caught in the middle of a war between two rival gangs. After dropping in to the local tavern, the elderly owner, Gonji (Played by Eijiro Tono), gives the samurai all the information about the rival crime bosses, Seibei (Played by Seizaburo Kawazu) and Ushitora (Played by Kyu Sazanka). Gonji warns the samurai that he should leave the town before one of the gangs confront and kill him but seeing an opportunity to make a hefty chunk of change and a way to clean up the town, the samurai decides to stick around and devise a way to trick the gangs in to destroying each other. After infiltrating one of the gangs by displaying how skilled he is with a samurai sword, he sets his plan in motion but certain members of both gangs begin to suspect that he is not simply interested in aligning himself with one specific gang.
For the individuals out there who are fond of cinematography, the resplendent whites and the charcoal blacks from cinematographers Kazuo Miyagawa and Takao Saito are an absolute must-see and perhaps my favorite aspect of Yojimbo. The film, which was made in 1961, has such a sharp, luminous picture that I absolutely couldn’t believe my eyes. For any film fan, the picture here will certainly have you dying to go out and pick up the Bu-ray for maximum picture quality. Complimenting this masterful cinematography is hack-and-slash action that sends a severed arm flying here and buckets of flowing blood there. The best “ewww” moment comes when a mangy dog trots through the streets up to the samurai carrying a severed hand in his dingy mouth. It comes as such a shock to the viewer that it becomes a combination of funny and appalling. The fight scenes in Yojimbo suddenly explode across the screen—a technique that catches the viewer off guard at first and then is suddenly over just as quickly as it began. This is a method that Leone would apply in his slow building gunfights that would begin and end in a loud crack in each and every one of his sweaty westerns.
While Yojimbo is impressive with its camerawork and white-knuckle action, Kurosawa doesn’t ever forget to keep you laughing and rallying behind our masterless samurai, who consistently toys with each gang. Yojimbo is a highly comical film, especially when the two gangs decide to go head to head in the deserted streets. Each gang has members who brag about how fearless they are and how feared they should be. When our hero approaches one gang, three young gang members approach him and boast how dangerous they are. Our hero chuckles in their faces and calls them cute, enraging them enough to have them draw their swords and lunge at the cool, calm, and collected hero. In a flurry of gore, the dangerous criminals are reduced to blubbering babies crying for their mothers. Yojimbo plays with this constantly, offering the audience hot-headed tough guys who are quickly revealed to be cowards who run off to their stern and commanding mothers (I think the women in Yojimbo are scarier than the men are!). It is a gag that constantly grabs a few belly laughs, especially the scene where the two gangs charge each other in the streets and then retreat back to their lines only to charge again and then flee. While all the charging and fleeing is going on, Mifune represents the audience, sitting back and howling at all the cowardice that has been revealed.
Mifune is an actor who is in complete control of each and every scene, playing the levelheaded hero who never seems to break a sweat, almost like all of this is second nature to him. Mifune’s samurai, who tells one gang leader that his name is Sanjuro Kuwabatake, is clearly the inspiration for Clint Eastwood’s cigar chomping Man with No Name. Hell, at times, Sanjuro is seen chewing on what appears to be a cigar, further highlighting the impact. Another standout is Daisuke Kato as the vile Inokichi, Ushitora’s dim, overweight brother who adds a few more laughs to all the action scurrying about the town and speaking through bucked teeth. Tono’s Gonji is another lovable character as the elderly tavern owner who doesn’t want trouble and reluctantly aids Sanjuro in his quest to clean up the streets. Isuzu Yamada is a nasty piece of work as Orin, Seibei’s wife who hovers over her husband’s brothel and takes control when Seibei is too afraid to. Tatsuya Nakadai shows up as Unosuke, Ushitora’s youngest sibling who carries a pistol and nabs the film’s coolest battle with Sanjuro, who attacks the gunfighter with nothing but a sword and dagger.
While Yojimbo’s plot gets a little too thin at times, there is never a tedious moment to be found in Kurosawa’s western. There is something for everyone in Yojimbo, from the people who are looking for a love-reunited story all the way to those who just want to see a fearless hero cut his way through countless bad guys. Yojimbo has been caught in the shadow of Leone’s equally entertaining spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars but I think both films are equal in their eminence. As far as I’m concerned, both films are classics in their own right and their impact on cinema is quite clear. Overall, Yojimbo is a flawless action film that will keep the audience on its toes from beginning to end and one hell of a significant action hero. A must-see foreign classic with incredibly wide reach and appeal. How can you deny a film that contains the line “I’m not dying yet! There’s a bunch of guys I have to kill first!”
Yojimbo is available of Blu-ray and DVD.
Sukiyaki Western Django (2007)
by Steve Habrat
When you first hear about Japanese auteur Takashi Miike’s samurai/spaghetti western mash-up Sukiyaki Western Django, you can’t help but be intrigued if you are a fan of either genre. Any unlikely genre mash-up is going to grab the interest of cinema fanatics and when you say the unpredictable Miike is behind the camera, it becomes a must-see film. But, like most genre mash-ups/hybrids, Sukiyaki Western Django is immensely disappointing. Way back in 1964, Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone was inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s samurai film Yojimbo and he loosely based his first spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars off of Kurosawa’s film and ended up reinventing the genre. The east was the inspiration for the new vision of the west that was emerging out of Italy. With Sukiyaki Western Django, Miike pays tribute to the two classics and fuses the spaghetti western to the samurai film then attempts to conceal the line where he connected them. The result is a surreal and often times cartoonish vision that also attempts to weave in some traces of Japanese history. Unfortunately, Sukiyaki Western Django, which is named after a popular Japanese one-pot beef dish and Italian filmmaker Sergio Corbucci’s legendary spaghetti western Django, has a flavor that is tasty on the first bite but quickly begins droning on the viewer until Miike dumps a whole bucket of salt and pepper on the feisty gunfight at the climax.
Sukiyaki Western Django picks up in the small town of Yuta, Nevata, where two warring gangs, the Heikes (reds) and the Genjis (whites), are waging a battle for control of the town. One day, an unnamed gunman (Played by Hideaki Ito) wanders into Yuta and offers up his service to whichever gang will pay more. After demonstrating his skills, both make generous offers to this mysterious gunman but he isn’t entirely interested in their offers. The gangs are after gold that is buried somewhere near the town and one gang is importing a weapon that can give them the upper hand in their battle. The gunman begins playing to two gangs against each other in an attempt to wipe both of them out and make off with the gold for himself. As the war grows more and more violent and the body count racks up, the gunman finds an ally in a legendary gunslinger that has been hiding in plain sight of the gangs. Her name is the Bloody Benton (Played by Kaori Momoi) and she happens to be an independent one-woman killing machine.
Sukiyaki Western Django opens with a nifty sequence that involves a lone gunslinger named Piringo (Played by Quentin Tarantino) who finds himself confronted by three cowboys who wish to kill him. Miike doesn’t make any attempt to hide the fact that his actors are on a soundstage with a painted backdrop behind them and a very visible string holding up the giant sun. The sequence is suggestive of films like The Searchers, Once Upon a Time in the West, and A Fistful of Dollars all in one breath. It is the most inspired sequence in Sukiyaki Western Django, Tarantino getting his dream role of emulating Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name. If Miike had run with this technique throughout the entire runtime, Sukiyaki Western Django would have no doubt been a much better and cooler film. When the film travels to Yuta, he switches over to real landscapes, intense color pallets, and lots of special effects which all get worn out before they even get going. Miike finally gets things back on track during the final shoot out where he slips in references to The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, Django, and The Great Silence. This is a sequence that will have fans of the genre erupting in applause. It is a sequence that also single handedly saves Sukiyaki Western Django from crumbling like one of the ramshackle buildings that dot the town of Yuta.
One choice that Miike makes that is very questionable is having his Japanese actors abandon their mother tongue and speak broken English. On one hand, it is understandable why he would make this choice, approaching the western genre that finds its roots in America, but it is clear that some of his actors are having a difficult time with the English language and that they would have been more comfortable speaking their own language. In my opinion, if he would have stuck to the Japanese language, Sukiyaki Western Django would have been a much more coherent film and much easier for the viewer to follow. At times, I found myself getting lost and finally switching on the subtitles so I could understand some of the actors and keep up with the plotline. Once I did this, Sukiyaki Western Django clicked together ever so slightly. Miike also makes the mistake of not fleshing his characters out enough, turning them into silly caricatures that look like they leapt off the pages of a comic book and left their back stories in the mind of their creator. You can’t particularly care about any of them and they all just fill the screen to become moving targets for shotgun blasts. The actors seem to be having fun with their characters but no one actually inhabits their character and brings them to life.
Sukiyaki Western Django exists simply to be an in-joke to the hip cinema crowd and I must admit that I enjoyed a few of those in-jokes. I found the references to Yojimbo and the spaghetti western classics to be comical but I wish that Miike’s film had created its own world rather than just cobbling together borrowed blood-dipped chunks of other director’s cinematic worlds. The film will also appeal to those who have a strong interest in world history, as the film makes a fistful of references to historical events including England’s Wars of the Roses and Japan’s Genpei War. To me, Sukiyaki Western Django turned out to be a middling film that left me dissatisfied because I thought it was capable of so much more but it wasn’t interested in aiming higher. I tend to enjoy Miike’s depraved work even though it makes me want to loose my lunch after it ends but this particular film never comes together when it needs to, especially when it is giving clunky, vague and longwinded explanations of its plotline that are ultimately forgettable. Miike does add a bit of kick with the awesome opening sequence, the very cool Bloody Benton character (the only one given an intriguing backstory), and the outrageous climatic showdown. If you find yourself to be the fanatic of Japanese cinema and history, a guru of westerns, spaghetti westerns, Yojimbo, Quentin Tarantino, Miike, and his entire body of work, you will eat up Sukiyaki Western Django. If you are only some of those things or none of those things, you’re going to find this film to be an incredibly uneven experience and a chore to endure.
Sukiyaki Western Django is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
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.
Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
by Steve Habrat
Of all the shock films, exploitation movies that bathe in depravity, and hardcore cinema I have seen in my life, no film has been as extreme as Ruggero Deodato’s 1980 Italian shocker Cannibal Holocaust. It is, in many respects, the best exploitation film I have ever seen because it is the one that goes all the way. In school, many people talked about Faces of Death, a staged exploitation film that supposedly features footage of real death scenes clipped together. Clearly, no one had ever heard of Cannibal Holocaust. This film features it all from authentic animal slayings, some of the most graphic sex scenes I have seen in a motion picture, rape, castration with a barely visible cut in the film, gruesome dismemberment, cannibalism, intimidation, and decadence. What is most shocking is the display of tainted ethics from the individuals who should be the cultured. Instead, the civilized are the savage monsters, the ones looking to draw blood, destroy, and exploit. I will warn you that after you watch Cannibal Holocaust, you will not ever be the same.
A film you will never find just tossed on the shelf of your local Best Buy or Barnes & Noble, Cannibal Holocaust is not exactly the easiest film to see, but it is out there and you can find it, but be prepared to do a little digging. I saw the film a couple of years ago on DVD and I never shook seeing it. I was disgusted by the real footage of animal killings, done in such cruelty it almost made me loose my lunch. When I stumbled upon the film on DVD and out on the shelf for purchase at FYE, I happily shelled out the money to own what is one of the most notorious films in the history of cinema. When the clerk saw what I was buying, she looked at me in disbelief and asked, “Are you sure you want this?”
“Yes”, I replied taken aback.
“Have you ever seen it?” She flipped it over and examined the back. Her face was contorted in repulsion at the fact she was touching it.
“Yes, I saw it a few years ago and I’ve never forgotten it. I collect films like this and it is a must own for my collection. I am a huge fan of grind house cinema, gore flicks, and hardcore exploitation movies.”
“You have an iron stomach and a strange hobby!”
I am very proud of my copy of Cannibal Holocaust. Call me sick, twisted, in need of a shrink, whatever you want, but it is one of my most prized DVDs I own and I will NEVER loan it out. I don’t want the awesome insert that folds out into a print of the original Italian poster to be ripped, torn, or desecrated. I don’t want either of the two discs in the set to be scratched, ruined, or exposed to dust. I don’t want the awesome slipcover that declares it is the “The Most Controversial Movie Ever Made” dinged up in any way. My copy of this horrific film is pristine. Truth is, there is actually one documentary I saw that topples Cannibal Holocaust called Death Scenes, a newsreel of real death footage spanning from World War II to the early 90s. Death Scenes should never be sold to the open public due to some of the footage included in it. That was a film I almost turned off, especially when the film showed us (with haunting sound) a horrific car wreck from the 1950s, the body horribly mutilated as what I am assuming is a surviving passenger or perhaps family member (?) screams and cries as the body is pulled from the twisted fist of steel. Be comforted that there is one film out there that can out shock Cannibal Holocaust.
Cannibal Holocaust follows a group of documentary filmmakers as they set out to film indigenous tribes in the Amazon Basin. These tribes, it turns out, happen to be cannibals. The documentary crew consists of Alan Yates (Played by Carl Gabriel Yorke), Faye Daniels (Played by Francesca Ciardi), Jack Anders (Played by Perry Pirkanen), and Mark Tomasco (Played by Luca Barbareschi). After no word from the crew, New York University anthropologist Harold Monroe (Played by Robert Kerman) sets out to find and rescue the crew. All that he returns with is their film canisters, which the media is anxiously waiting to air. After a screening of the footage, the film depicts horrors that no one could have imagined.
The film’s unblinking and alarmingly real violence caused quite a stir throughout the world when Cannibal Holocaust began its theatrical run. The film premiered in Milan and shortly after its debut, the courts seized copies of the film and had Deodato arrested for murder. He avoided a life sentence by presenting his actors in court and proving his innocence. The film has been banned in multiple countries since its release, further adding to the hype around it. Yet Deodato has not made a brainless ode to gore. No, he has offered up a critique on the violence lurking in what appears to be the most civilized of human beings. It also attacks the media for their relentless hunger to slap violence on television and make a spectacle out of it. The film also acts as a found footage film, one of the first films to inspire copies like The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, and more. The way the cameraman refuses to put down his camera and help his crewmembers being pulled apart right in front of him is so authentic, it will scare the ever-living hell right out of you. It has been said that Deodato was inspired to make the film one day while his son watched the news and he noticed the way the journalists focused on violence and carnage.
The film also equates sex with violence, suggesting that we get sexual pleasure out of the violence. One graphic scene finds two of the crew members having sex on the ashes of a burned hut, which the crewmembers are responsible for. This is a sequence in motion picture history that I personally was never able to quite shake from my brain. It made me sick, squirm while seeing it, and actually cover my eyes. The worst part is the crew makes the tribe watch as they act out this vile display. The film also wields a bizarre hypnotic effect on the viewer, partly from some dreamlike camerawork and the swirling synths that compose the memorable soundtrack. Credit should be given to Deodato who pushes the boundaries of repulsive imagery while keeping your eyes on the screen. You will want to look away but you won’t be able to. It has been said that spaghetti western director Sergio Leone sent Deodato a letter praising the realism of the film.
While I hail Cannibal Holocaust to be a rhythmic film that still resonates to this day, this is not a film for everyone. Know your limits, your sensitivity, and understand that this film should not be approached as just another ordinary horror film. It is the furthest thing from ordinary or simple. It never pulls a punch and I laud it for never even batting an eye at what it chooses to show you. If animal cruelty upsets you (I have a dog of my own and I have to say some of the violence towards animals really upset me.), stay far, far away from Cannibal Holocaust. Ranking as the second most upsetting film I have ever laid eyes on and chosen to subject myself to, I have to say it wins as a classic among exploitation pictures. The special effects crew has pulled off a mesmerizing bit of trickery with the violence, sometimes lacking no cut whatsoever. One of my film professors once told me, “If the film sparks any kind of intellectual conversation or debate, the film is not a bad one.” This statement stuck with me as I watched this film. Cannibal Holocaust should and does spark discussion, debate, and lures out emotions you never thought a motion picture would make you tackle.
Grade: A- (Be aware that just because I gave this an A-, you should still approach with extreme caution)