Continuing on from earlier, the second half of a spaghetti western double feature.
I’ve come to the opinion that you can’t have a spaghetti western without a score by Ennio Morricone. Just can’t do it. I remember watching Hang ‘Em High right after seeing the Dollars Trilogy, and y’know, its music stood out too much—pure Hollywood bombast. Morricone’s music has its own epic bombast, but a unique vibe all of its own: twangy guitars, warbled animal howls, mournful choral interludes. Without Morricone’s score, it’s just another western. Of course, it helps if you have a hardboiled anti-hero, minimalism in design and dialogue, gritty noir tropes, and a strong kinetic energy that was otherwise lacking in the flagging western genre in the ’60s. And you hit the pure spaghetti western definition when it involved American actors filming overseas for Italian cinemas.
Death Rides a Horse – 1967
“Vengeance is a dish that must be eaten cold.”
As a child, Bill Meceita (John Phillip Law) saw his family murdered—the women raped—before his eyes. Growing up with vengeance in his heart and his hand quick to his gun, he vowed to track down the men involved. Things begin to heat up when gunman Ryan (Lee Van Cleef) is released from a chain gang, and returns to the town where he was betrayed. I think you can see where this is going. The two rivals eventually form an uneasy friendship: the old gunfighter and the young gun, a complex relationship between mentor and pupil, with bad blood between them.
Lee Van Cleef was born to chew scenery; I’m at a loss to think of a point where he didn’t deliver a great performance. I’m less impressed with John Phillip Law, who has the demanding presence of Van Cleef or Eastwood, but not the voice or acting chops. I wouldn’t say he’s bad in this role, but that he didn’t convince me. He’s kind of like a stolid, monotone John Wayne Lite, which I guess has some appeal. On the bright side, there’s not as much dialogue in the film, relying more on action and visuals.
The movie’s pacing starts off slow, with an air of looming dread beginning with the gothic horror-style murder in a pouring rainstorm. The two main characters start off beset by rivalry, each trying to get to their quarry first—Ryan wants to extort them before killing them, to get the fat stacks of cash they took from Bill’s father, and Bill just wants to shoot all of them. But patience will be rewarded, first with the two characters’ relationship building in interesting ways, and then with the suitable explosive finale, with the two gunslingers taking on the old posse and their mob of mooks. Outmanned, outgunned, but not out for the count, it’s a great shootout set-piece to end things once and for all.
There are a few parts that fly over the top, even for a B-movie. Early on, there’s a scene of Bill shooting, to show off his prowess, and it’s little more than unabashed gun-porn. I didn’t count the shots, but I’m pretty sure he’s got Hollywood specials, since he’s blazing away at eight or ten shots per pistol—and hitting with incredible accuracy. Recurring flashbacks recall the murder sequence when Bill sees some telltale mark that points out a killer, one of the few instances where John Phillip Law shows a sliver of emotion. The coolest is near the finale; after walking through a graveyard of half-buried mummified heads in the middle of a dessicated Mexican town, John Phillip Law’s Bill himself is buried alive by the bandits. (No, that doesn’t count as a spoiler since it’s in the trailer.)
The Morricone main theme is a lot rougher; a jaunty guitar track strumming along like a wild pony, overlapped by the screeching flute, which bleeds into a vocal chant that makes a lot more sense when you know the lyrics. Overall pretty good, but I’m not a huge fan of the screechy flutes—it’s unnerving, which fits with the theme at least.
This was one of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite spaghetti westerns, making his top-20 list and getting referenced in Kill Bill a lot. I thought it was good; maybe not that good, but a contender nonetheless. It’s an excellent film with a lot of unique twists, such as the impromptu father-son relationship between the two main stars, and the perfect epic showdown. Death Rides a Horse is a fine spaghetti western, something that fans of the genre will love, but not a requirement for those outside that group.
When I say “The Seventies was the best decade for crime films,” your answer should be “No shit, Sherlock.” The French Connection, Dirty Harry, The Godfather, The Taking of Pelham One-Two-Three, Night Moves, The Gauntlet, pretty much anything with Michael Caine… speaking of whom, was in a classic of crime cinematography on the border year of 1969. That would be The Italian Job, a heist flick known for its classic car chases.
So, The Italian Job. After an intro scene where the Mob bumps off some guy in Italy, dapper gentleman gangster Charlie Croker (Michael Caine) is released from prison, and immediately sets off on a new job. This time, a heist in Italy, finishing the job planned by the guy killed in the opening sequence: making off with $4 million in gold bars the Chinese are delivering. With the aid of Mr. Bridger (Noël Coward), still living in a luxuriant prison cell, and his girlfriend Lorna (Margaret Blye), Croker assembles a team to pull off this heist. It includes a number of screwballs, such as Professor Peach (Benny Hill), a computer whiz with a thing for large ladies. They’re walking a fine line, avoiding both the police and the Mafia; with the roaring of engines and crashing of the Italian transit system’s mainframe, they’re off.
What strikes me most is how you can’t make a movie like this any more. Never mind the costumes and so-very-’60s music, I’m talking about the plot and setup: the entire movie is so-very-’60s. Everything is set up, through perfect planning and careful legwork, so that the heist goes in the Brits’ favor. And while there are some surprises for them, it ends up with madcap chase sequences going in favor of Caine’s crew, the Italians stumbling around confusedly, crashing into walls, wrecking their cars, and so on.
There’s no sense that the robbers are in any kind of trouble; the Mafia thread purports to some trick ending, something related to Caine’s girlfriend, but that never appears; and up until the literal cliffhanger, there’s no sense that these guys aren’t going to make off with four million in gold bricks. Part of the problem is that a proposed sequel never appeared, but I was struck by how short the film was—making it shallow in both plot and character development, and its lack of emotion detracts from its attempts to build tension or drama.
Of course, that’s not why you’re watching this movie. You’re watching to see a well-coordinated planning sequence turn into Mini Coopers driving up, through, and over buildings—down into a subterranean mall, into a church, through a sewer system, on a roof, etc. And it’s a fine chase sequence, even if it’s pure Mini glorification, something that the remake latched onto to the point where it was the best two-hour ad for Minis ever made.
And because of that well-executed heist—and chase—the film is deservedly a classic. It’s nice to see an old-fashioned heist go well for the heroes, and the chase scenes are entertaining for their madcap nature, blazing through every kind of location imaginable. But I guess the dark old film noir and gritter late ’60s/early ’70s flicks are more my cup of tea; while I liked The Italian Job as an enjoyable lighthearted romp, with good characterization and fantastic car chases, I thought it was too straightforward, with a feeble plot lacking in suspense or depth. To each their own.
Since I managed to get ahead of myself on the 15 Days of Horror thing, time to do something different. Since I just read Fritz Leiber’s novel Conjure Wife, I thought I’d do a tie-in between blogs and popped on Netflix to see which of the three movies based on the book were on streaming. The answer would be 1962′s Burn, Witch, Burn!, released as Night of the Eagle in its native land of England.
A quick rundown if you’re too lazy to read a review of the novel: Norman Taylor (Peter Wyngarde) is a psychology professor at a small England college who lectures on beliefs and the supernatural right before he discovers his wife Tansy (Janet Blair) is a practicing witch. Being a man fueled by logic and reason, he has her burn all of her charms and occult paraphernalia. Wrong move; it turns out she was practicing white witchcraft to aid her husband’s career, and now the disbelieving Norman finds his once easy life is now fraught with peril (and large stone eagles).
There are a number of changes between the book and film, but most of them are marginal. Hempnell College was in New England in the book; because of its location the film dropped replaced the “New” with “Jolly Old.” Tansy no longer has her own dressing room to store her witch stuff in; instead, she keeps them in the drawer above where Norman keeps his pyjamas (British spelling, wot wot!). The stone dragon was replaced with a stone eagle, hence the schlocky original title, and comes complete with a transformation and Hilarious Superimposed Normal Hawk Footage (you can see the strings!). That’s pretty much it; the film is very accurate to its source material.
The biggest changes were with the characters. In the book, Norman was kind of a dick to his colleagues, considering himself better than them, but a loving husband devoted to Tansy; in the film, he’s a dick to everyone. In the book, you get a strong sense that Tansy is calm, collected, and working her butt off to save Norman even though she’s renounced witchcraft (see: the storm scene with the dragon); in the same scene in the film, along with most of her scenes, Tansy is an overemotional neurotic who spends a lot of time screaming. There’s also a bad run of trite dialogue early in the film, but other than that (and the screaming), the acting was fine.
I think the book was much better for handling suspense and tension, though the movie still gave its all. The film is pure budget British (or, British budget) from the early ’60s, so don’t expect a lot, even though Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont were the screenwriters. I think it’s a passable film, not a great movie or lost classic, but it covered the plot of the book without compromising.
As for whether it was scary or not… I’m not the best judge of that, having went into the movie knowing what was going to happen. The film follows the same pattern of strange events to build tension, but it does have some twists that made things interesting—most of them occurring near the end. I thought it was solid, if not outstanding.
I ended up skipping yesterday; I’ll catch up this weekend.
At this point I think Hitchcock’s crime thrillers are his best work—North by Northwest, To Catch a Thief, Rear Window—but there’s no way to overstate his impact on both cinematography and the horror genre. Hitchcock had a long and distinguished career, producing dozens of movies in the ’20s and ’30s which are classic thrillers in their own right, such as The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, and Jamaica Inn. And he kept making suspenseful films up until his death.
I knew I’d end up with a Hitchcock on the list, but the one that came to mind first wasn’t Psycho; while that one had a major impact, particularly influencing the slasher genre, and shocked the world with the shower scene and ending, I think it’s a little overrated as a horror movie. (Heresy, I know.)
No, the one that came to mind was The Birds.
There’s a reason for that. See, mom would talk about going to the drive-in growing up, and her parents would go see the “adult” stuff after they thought she’d fallen asleep. Only, she usually hadn’t, and in one such case had the crap scared out of her by The Birds. In an irony of cyclical events, I saw it when I was really young and it scared the crap out of me. (Trust me, if you see this movie at a young age, it will get your overactive imagination working in overdrive for a few days.)
Compared to modern films, this one is antiquated: there’s no sexuality (unlike Psycho), very little blood, and only one fast shot of gore (the dead old man with his eyes pecked out that scared the shit out of mom). The stuffed birds and proto-blue screen technology are so fake it’s painful. Yet Hitchcock had a reputation for a reason, and it’s his directing that makes the film a horror classic.
Why is it scary?
Hitchcock was a master of thrills and suspense long before the thriller genre was coined, and this movie is a showcase of his tension-building. The pacing is spot-on, with plenty of memorable scenes: Tippi Hedron waiting outside the schoolhouse while birds slowly line up on the telephone wires and playground equipment. Trapped in a phone booth, and then diner, during a catastrophic bird attack. The final scenes, escaping through fields covered in squawking birds. And the final fight scene, reminiscent of Night of the Living Dead: normal people holed up in a house, fighting for survival.
What I think makes the film “scary” is its idea: the attack by unexpectedness. Birds are everyday, normal objects; without warning, they suddenly become violent, perturbed, hostile. Nobody expected harmless birds to become dangerous, so there’s no safety measures in place, no expectations for them to be hostile. Would you ever assume that a bird is dangerous? It’s one of the best horror movies taking average, non-threatening things and making them into killers. (Though, when that list covers the spectrum of deadly threats as killer slow-motion rabbits, to killer beds, to killer elevator shafts killing people in the same ways normal elevator shafts do, birds have a leg up: they’re already twice as scary as half that shit. They’re smart, have huge beaks, and can crap on your head.)
“They’re coming to get you, Barbra!”
George Romero’s vision of the walking dead has done more to influence the zombie film genre than anything else. His undead are grotesque shambling corpses, which you may recognize from most—over half, by any account—of the following zombie flicks. If you look at the history of the zombie film sub-genre, there weren’t that many zombie films before Night of the Living Dead, which picked up in the ’70s and ’80s and exploded in the early 2000s.
The film’s plot is also something that has had a major impact on the genre: a group of random, innocent people trying to survive as hordes of the dead rise up, seeking to feast on flesh. Many modern films/games/novels attempt to justify or explain its zombie background—for example, viruses in 28 Days Later, The Walking Dead and I Am Legend, the latter having more influence on the zombie genre than it had zombies itself.
I think it works better in Romero’s version: we don’t know why they’re up, why they eat people, or anything else. Instead of coming across as campy, it’s damn creepy: those original zombies are complete unknowns, but visible, tangible threats.
It also started a groundswell of independent horror films, with Evil Dead taking the concept and making it into the How-To guide for shooting a budget horror flick. And it managed to add some interesting commentary to the civil rights movement happening around it—the lead male role is that of a black man, a very controversial move for the ’60s. Even if, as Romero claims, Duane Jones was cast only because of his performance, it ended up making an impact on critics and viewers.
Why is it scary?
Two reasons. First, the setting and characters. They’re pretty average, not particularly trained for a zombiepocalypse, nor do they have much group cohesion. They’re isolated, not sure what the hell’s going on, it’s dark out—which is stunning in a black-and-white movie, where Romero uses a lot of great shading techniques—and they’re not well armed. They hold out the best they can, and that’s where the horror comes from: it’d be like if you and some random people were holding out the best you could.
Second, this is the film that launched the zombie genre, and as such isn’t tied down by modern-day formulaic contrivances. Now, when you make a zombie movie, most often it’s a parody/comedy or an intentionally schlocky low-budget flick. Much like with anime and comic books, I think the formula of the genre—the audience’s expectations, and the film’s (or game’s, or novel’s) attempts to meet those expectations—do the genre a disservice, not taking itself seriously as anything but another example in the genre niche. And the zombie over-exposure, like with vampires and werewolves, means they aren’t scary any more on their own.