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.
Django Unchained (2012)
After what felt like an eternity (just slightly under four months, actually), Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece Django Unchained is finally available on Blu-ray and DVD. If you didn’t see my Top 10 Films of 2012 list, then you didn’t know that this ultra-violent and ultra-entertaining spaghetti western was my pick for the best film of last year. Funny, action packed, stunningly well-written, and unflinching, Django Unchained also features some of the best performances from last year (wait until you see Christoph Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio). The Blu-ray isn’t particularly bursting with features, however, there is a documentary called Reimagining the Spaghetti Western: The Horses & Stunts of Django Unchained, a look at the costume designs from Sharen Davis, and a feature called Remembering J. Michael Riva: The Production Design of Django Unchained. If you’re a fan of cinema or a Tarantino nut, you might want to high tail it over to Best Buy to pick up their special edition that comes in some nifty packaging that will look mighty cool next to your Tarantino XX collection. So, if you wish to read the Anti-Film School review of Django Unchained, click here, and if you’re curious why I picked it as the best film of 2012, click here.
-Theater Management (Steve)
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.
by Steve Habrat
Before Italian filmmaker Lucio Fulci became known as the “Godfather of Gore,” the grindhouse/horror legend dabbled in a number of non-horror film genres. In the late 1950s and 60s, he directed a handful of comedies and then set his sights on thrillers and gialli in the early 1970s. In the mid to late 60s and early 70s, Italy was enamored with spaghetti westerns and it comes as no surprise that Mr. Fulci decided to contribute a few westerns of his own to the booming subgenre. Near the end of the spaghetti western craze, Fulci released Four of the Apocalypse, a surprisingly sensitive but brutal trip into the Wild West that plays by its own set of rules. Lacking a strong, silent hero going to war with a pack of snarling gunslingers, Four of the Apocalypse is heavy with character development and shockingly light on gunplay. If you’re a fan of Fulci’s gory later work, rest assured that Four of the Apocalypse has plenty of the blood and torture that many of his fans expect, but you will also be surprised to find that you get attached to the four main characters before you are blindsided by the pitch-black tragedy that looms over the second half of the film. It really proves to those who wrote off Fulci as a horror hack that the “Godfather of Gore” is capable of making films with some serious substance.
Four of the Apocalypse picks up in Salt Flat, Utah, with a big time gambler named Stubby Preston (Played by Fabio Testi) arriving in town looking to make some money. Shortly after arriving, Stubby has a run-in with the Sheriff and he winds up thrown in jail with a beautiful prostitute, Bunny (Played by Lynne Frederick), the town drunk, Clem (Played by Michael J. Pollard), and the local loony, Bud (Played by Harry Baird). That very evening, a group of masked bandits attack Salt Flat and leave the town a bloody mess. The next morning, Stubby cuts a deal with the sheriff and the four soon find themselves traveling to the next town, which is 200 miles away. As they make their way down the dusty trail, the colorful group gets to know each other and Stubby begins taking a liking to Bunny, who also happens to be pregnant. The lighthearted trip is soon interrupted by a mysterious bandito that calls himself Chaco (Played by Tomas Milian), who wishes to join and travel with the group. Chaco claims that he is an expert hunter and that he can defend the rag-tag group from raiders and bandits. All seems well at first, but Chaco soon reveals himself to be a sadistic bandit that leaves the group for dead. With no food or water and one of their group severely wounded, Stubby vows to track down and kill Chaco for what he has done.
While the spaghetti western was known for delivering plenty of shoot-em-up action, Four of the Apocalypse shies away from the relentless violence that made the genre so popular. While a gun is fired here and there, the only real action comes from the beginning of the film, with the masked bandits turning Salt Flat into a war zone. This early scene has plenty of Fulci’s signature gore, with holes blown through the bellies of drunken cowboys and gunslingers hung from buildings. It is actually a fairly creepy sequence, especially since the bandits seem to be attacking for no reason and they are sporting white masks with eyeholes torn into them. From there on out, Fulci leaves most of the gunplay behind and focuses on the sunny relationship between our four likable travelers. The downside to this opening explosive action is that the pacing is thrown off and the film seems to come to a screeching halt when the group hits the road. While the all-out action is pulled back, Fulci does darken the whole affair when Chaco rides into the frame. Chaco is certainly a captivating character, but with him comes torture, rape, and death, all of which shatter the innocence of the group. Things really get grim when cannibalism rears its ugly head in one of the darkest moments of the entire film.
Four of the Apocalypse also features some truly exceptional and memorable performances from nearly everyone involved. Fabio Testi really casts a spell as Stubby, the handsome and outgoing gambler that everyone seems to be familiar with (Even Chaco has heard of him!). A clean-cut guy who can’t say no to a good shave, Stubby is far from the conventional spaghetti western hero. When he mingles with a group of hardened outlaws near the end of the film, he is glaringly out of place but we can see that he may be considering going down the path that these men have chosen. Then we have Frederick’s Bunny, the beautiful prostitute who strikes up a romance with Stubby. Despite her line of work and her growing baby bump, she retains a youthful innocence that is rare when it comes to spaghetti western prostitutes. Pollard’s Clem is a pitiful soul, one who is a slave to the bottle and will literally do anything for a swig of whiskey. Fulci really focuses on his sad eyes, which easily pierce your heart. Baird’s sweet but simple Bud was probably the most sympathetic and naive character as he rambles on about speaking with ghosts in a graveyard. Yet the one that stands high above all these characters is Milian, who is absolutely unforgettable as the unpredictable Chaco. As sadistic as they come, Chaco is like a gun slinging Charles Manson, one who manipulates and violates with the aid of peyote.
What I absolutely loved about Four of the Apocalypse is that it really seemed to be playing by its own set of rules. The final confrontation between Stubby and Chaco is subtle and minimal yet strangely poignant and satisfying. You’ll also find yourself hanging on the hope and tragedy that blossoms out of Stubby and Bunny’s arrival in the town of outlaws, all of whom melt over the arrival of Bunny’s child. You will find yourself wishing that Fulci had paced his film better and that he would have pulled the distracting folk score from the film and replaced it with a jangly Ennio Morricone track. Over the years, Four of the Apocalypse has become sort of a midnight movie for some of the violence peppered throughout, but the film never seems overly interested in exploiting the bloodier moments, something that is very rare for Fulci. Overall, Four of the Apocalypse is an absorbing and emotional journey across a bleak and hopeless landscape. There are a few dry spots to be found but end result is a wildly disturbing character study that allows the film to set itself apart from the other films of this subgenre.
Four of the Apocalypse is available on DVD.
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.