Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A Fistful of Spaghetti: Mini Reviews of European Western Films

This column covers The Good, The Average & the Mediocre in the Spaghetti Western genre. The following mini reviews are a double feature of two obscure European western pictures.


Ken Clark (Bud Massedy/John Smith), Alberto Cevinini ("Slim" Kincaid), Michael Leomine (Carson), Gustavo De Nardo (Sergeant Warwick), Jany Clair (Janet)

Directed by Mario Bava

Bud Massedy comes across a group of dead Union soldiers, the victims of an Indian attack. One man is still alive and gives Bud a message to take to Wagon City and deliver to the bank there. It states the bank is to hand over $150,000 in funds for the soldiers stationed at Fort Alamo. Bud takes off for the town but encounters trouble once he's arrived. Fleeing with a young knife thrower named "Slim", the young upstart takes Bud to his gang lorded over by the unhinged Carson. Bud gets the idea of staking a claim on the soldiers wages since the brutality of the war had already cost him his ranch, his cattle and the life of his sister.

The group take the uniforms off the dead soldiers and make their way to Wagon City. Something goes wrong and the maniacal Carson kills an old woman inside the bank. Later, Carson and his men knock Bud and "Slim" unconscious and abscond with all the money. Left for dead by the Osage Indians, a Union regiment finds the two men tied to the ground in the blazing sun. Still masquerading as soldiers, Bud and "Slim" attempt to escape in the night, but that plan is thwarted by an Indian that sneeks into the military encampment.

The next day, the convoy is halted by a group of attacking Osage Indians chasing a Union soldier on horseback. Killing the Osage warriors, Bud finds that the Union man is the crazed Carson. Continuing on to Fort Alamo, the convoy comes across the Osage's Valley of the Dead. Ignoring the warning, the soldiers pass through anyways much to Bud's dismay. With the presence of Carson, a beautiful red head named Janet and the stalking Osage hordes, Bud decides to sneak away to get reinforcements before the impending Osage attack the next morning.

Famed director Mario Bava takes his first shot at the western genre with this enjoyable, yet brief entry. Favoring the American style of oater far more than the Italian one, there is, nonetheless, several strikingly violent scenes. No doubt Bava was given a tiny budget (note the fake looking cacti) to realize his vision of the west, given his propensity to do so much with so little, his photographic style is present in so many sequences here especially in the numerous studio bound shots. The script is good, too and moves the action along at a fast clip. The whole film has a serial feel to it complimented by the myriad of colorful elements typical of Bava's cinematic style.

Ken Clark is pretty damn good as the hero having just come off of two stellar main villain roles in both HERCULES AGAINST THE MONGOLS (1963) and HERCULES AGAINST THE BARBARIANS (1964). His granite facial features lend him a criminal caricature, but he makes the protagonist role work in his favor. A shame he didn't appear in very many more western films. The score for the film is the most unremarkable aspect of the production. Other than that, Bava's first Euroater is a pretty good affair, if simply average film. Not a patch on his past, or future successes, but a fun, if brief way to spend 76 minutes.

This review is representative of the German Koch R2 DVD. There isn't an English dub, but there are English subtitles.

The second half of this double bill is an enjoyable western film from 1967...


Peter Lee Lawrence (Josh Lee), Andrea Bosic (Mr. Evans), Nello Pazzafini (Butch), Lucio Rosato (Hank), Luigi Vannuchi (Captain Clifford), Beba Loncar (Christine), Rosalba Neri (Lizzy), Romano Puppo (Clell)

Directed by Alfonso Brescia (as Al Bradley); Music by Bruno Nicolai

During the Civil War, groups of rebel bands in Missouri lay claim to protect their lands and livestocks from Union soldiers. The aristocratic Mr. Evans is a firm believer that the rebels are really patriots and their acts of thievery are not criminal. Josh, one of Evans ranch hands, speaks out against their plundering and acts of violence. Josh is in love with Christine, Evans' daughter. She is to be sent away to Jackson till the turmoil has been quelled.

One of Evans' ranch hands, Hank, secretly works for the renegade Union Captain Clifford and he leads him and his soldiers back to Evans' ranch. Clifford uses the excuse of searching for the rebels dressed in Union attire as a means to ransack Evans' home and steal his horses. Clell is killed and Hank shoots Lizzy, his wife, in a fit of rage. Josh returns, and after finding his brother and sister-in-law killed, finally decides to join Butch and his outlaw rebels to find Capt. Clifford and his men in an effort to settle this personal vendetta.

Peter Lee Lawrence is pretty good as the guilt ridden Josh. Interestingly, he hates the violence of his Southern compatriots committing murder disguised as acts of patriotism. He soon changes his way of thinking once his brother and his wife are shot down in cold blood. Josh, himself, commits murder to save his friend, Butch. Becoming an outlaw himself, he is now a wanted man just after the war is over. Upon Christine's return home, the devious Captain Clifford (now retired from active duty) uses her to get to her fathers ranch and take it from him. Nello Pazzafini gets a big role here, a role much bigger than he is usually afforded.

Alfonso Brescia directs the film quite well and this 1967 production eschews typical Italian western motifs deciding more for an American style approach, albeit retaining the violence level inherent in the Euro counterparts. Brescia must have enjoyed directing Peter Lee Lawrence as he also starred in the enjoyable .32 CALIBER KILLER (1967). DAYS OF VIOLENCE is a bit more dramatic and has more insidious villains, but .32 CALIBER KILLER is a more fun film and a better vehicle for Lawrence as it suits his restrained style. The score from Bruno Nicolai is good as well especially the main theme. The action scenes are very well done (for a change) and varied complimented by some risky stunt work.

The film appears to have been shot in or around the same locations as the popular West German Winnetou westerns. The photography of Fausto Rossi captures some stunning vistas that jump off the screen in this lovingly restored print from Koch. This is a slightly above average oater that contains a good story, a worthwhile score, some striking locations and some shifty antagonists. Those who can deal with an Italian western not confined to the conventions of Leone's style, or a DJANGO (1966) type sagebrush saga will find a quality film here despite its affinity to American western sensibilities.

This review is representative of the German Koch R2 DVD. There is no English dub, but there are English subtitles.

My Bloody Valentine (1981) review


Paul Kelman (T.J.), Lori Hallier (Sarah), Neil Affleck (Axel), Don Francks (Chief Newby)

Directed by George Mihalka

***WARNING! This review contains pics of graphic violence and gore***

"From the heart comes a warning filled with bloody good cheer, remember what happened as the 14th draws near."

A group of young miners in the quaint town of Valentine Bluffs celebrate their first Valentine's Day dance in twenty years after a horrifying incident resulted in the annual event being halted. Two decades before, a group of miners were trapped below ground from a methane gas explosion while partygoers enjoyed themselves at the dance. One man, Harry Warden, survives and is placed into a mental institution after having turned to cannibalism to survive the tragedy. Returning to the sleepy town one year later, he murders the two men that caused the terrible catastrophe. Now, twenty years later, with the impending Valentine's Day dance, the murders begin anew.

One of the best and goriest of the slasher films that stalked movie houses in the early 80's. Sadly, those that have caught the film either in theaters, television, on video, or even Paramounts initial DVD release of the movie have had to deal with a severely compromised version...until now. With seemingly no interest in releasing an uncut version, Paramount licensed the film out to Lionsgate in what has become one of the most eagerly awaited horror releases of all time. At first, director George Mihalka had the idea of doing a sequel whereby he would somehow incorporate the cut footage into the new film since fan interest in seeing this elusive footage was very high.

With this new special edition DVD from Lionsgate, the unseen gore footage has been reinserted into the film for the first time ever. In the beginning, there were early rumblings that the cut scenes were only going to be accessible as a special feature on the disc. Apparently due to an immense amount of angry fans outraged at the thought of the footage not being a part of the film after so many years, it was soon decided that all the shots would be integrated into the film as it should be.

During the films original release, there was a general outcry among a concerned public over the increasing amount of gruesome violence prevalent in mainstream motion pictures of the time. Since Paramount was the distributing studio for FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980), (the one that started it all) they decided to make an example of this Canadian horror film by enforcing the removal of nearly all the scenes of gory violence wrecking havoc with the flow of the film.

Also on this new DVD edition, you have the choice of either watching the "theatrical" version, or watching the directors cut with the lost footage included in the feature. What is most curious, though, is that this supposed "theatrical" cut features some alternate shots not present in the original 'R' rated cut released to theaters, or on all subsequent video, laserdisc (includes the Japanese LD, too) and Paramount's DVD of the film.

The alternate shots consist of the flashback scene where the rescuers uncover the only survivor, Harry Warden. There is a shot of him feasting on an arm, the camera capturing the shot from the front of the actor. On all prior releases, the camera is above him looking down, yet there is no eating of the arm seen, just the actor holding the arm up to his mouth and coughing.

Another shot that is not in any prior release at all, but is seen in this DVD's theatrical version, is also from the flashback. The shot consists of Warden removing the heart from one of the men responsible for the cave in. It will be interesting to see if there is a big stink over the inclusion of this extra shot in what is supposed to be the original 'R' version of the film.

The film itself is (obviously) far more violent with these extra gore shots put back in place. Many of them are unusually lengthy such as the discovery of Mabel's corpse, the crazy bartender's death, the shower head victim and the nail gun death scene. Tom Burman (in addition to effects designer Ken Diaz) was one of the make up effects artists on the film and also had a hand in effects sequences for films such as THE FOOD OF THE GODS (1976), INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978), PROPHECY (1979), THE EXTERMINATOR (1980), HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME (1981), HALLOWEEN 3 (1983) and the 3-D sci-fi movie, SPACEHUNTER: ADVENTURES IN THE FORBIDDEN ZONE (1983).

There are a good number of notable attributes regarding Mihalka's movie. One of the most interesting is the total lack of teen characters present. The characters here are all young adults and the love triangle is captured rather dramatically by the director and is handled very well compared with the cookie cutter cut out characters often associated with slasher pictures.

Rodney Gibbons' cinematography is commendable; all the more so considering the crew shot a good portion of the movie inside a real mine 900 feet underground. Considering that so many similar horror films were in production utilizing titles that recognized a holiday of some sort, this production was initially called 'The Secret', so that no one would know what the real name of the picture was.The stunt work is also good and all the actors and crew should be applauded for essentially risking their lives in a real mine to get the film in the can.

The score by Paul Zaza is suitably spooktacular when it needs to be if only occasionally ominous. The cues are subtle much of the time but the viewer gets a good stinger when one of the hapless characters is about to be offed in some gruesomely spectacular fashion. The dark natured ballad that plays over the end credits detailing the actions seen in the film has a Gordon Lightfoot sound to it and was sung by Scottish-Canadian John McDermott. He was hired by the films composer, Paul Zaza. The tune is very folksy and a good piece of music.

MY BLOODY VALENTINE (1981) is a bloody good time that is just as much fun now as it was back during its original release. The restored gore scenes are easily the only reason to double dip for those who have bought the previous edition from Paramount. But then, taking into consideration the alternate shot during the flashback sequence, fans may want to hold onto the previous DVD edition. One of the best slashers ever finally gets its due on DVD.

This review is representative of the Lionsgate DVD.

Death Ship (1980) Dis List Review #1

This column is reserved for terrible movies with little, to no redeeming qualities that are woefully disappointing to me; Movies that could, or should have had potential, but fail on nearly every level; Movies that aren't good enough to be bad cheese. This is...



George Kennedy (Captain Ashland), Richard Crenna (Trevor Marshall), Nick Mancuso (Nick)

Directed by Alvin Rakoff

A cruise vessel carrying hundreds of passengers is sunk by a menacing and derelict ship. The survivors awaken the following day to find the great black ship drifting behind them. They all board the ominous craft and immediately realize that something is terribly wrong. With no means of rescue, the dwindling survivors discover their involuntary exile was formerly a Nazi torture boat and the possessed Death Ship has no intentions of allowing any of them to escape alive.

Alvin Rakoff's obscure 'Haunted House At Sea' bears some similarities with THE SHINING (1980). However, this movie is nowhere near the class of the Kubrick film. The comparison springs from the possessed Ashland (played by Kennedy) to that of Jack Nicholson's crazed performance of Jack Torrance in THE SHINING. Like that character, Ashland descends into madness brought on by the spirits of the previous Nazi ship hands. Kennedy never comes close to the over the top shenanigans of Nicholson, but he approaches the role with a modicum of conviction. He doesn't seem at all comfortable in this role.

Make no mistake, this is a pretty terrible movie with very little to recommend it. Some scenes are well done, yet the bulk of the picture is shot in a turgid fashion. The script has an enormous amount of potential, but misses its mark at nearly every turn. I'm quite surprised that Kennedy and Crenna signed on for this. No doubt it sounded much better on paper than what ended up on screen.

Granted, both Crenna and Kennedy had begun appearing in horror pictures around this time with Crenna starring in the superior haunted house devil movie, THE EVIL (1978) and Kennedy with a guest starring role in the hillbilly horror JUST BEFORE DAWN (1980). Mancuso also did some other horror work such as NIGHTWING (1979) and the well done suspense film laced with horror elements MOTHER LODE (1982), directed by Charlton Heston.

The ship itself is a fine, foreboding set piece. Some attempt is made to express the notion that the ship is alive and lives off of blood. This becomes annoying after the multiple zooming in and out, or disorienting shaking of the camera bombards the viewer every few minutes. The Nazi angle is an interesting one yet it isn't explored to much of an extent and happens late in the film.

The disjointed nature of the movie is brought to bear in the 40+ minute documentary on the making of the flick. The overall lifeless handling of the material is understandable when director Rakoff admits that he didn't care for this type of movie and disliked the script. Writer and famed director Jack (COFFY) Hill shares a similar displeasure as he had hoped he was going to get to direct the movie but was unable to do so because the film was financed with Canadian money and the producers wanted a Canadian director. Hill states he would have taken an entirely different approach to the material than director Rakoff.

A couple of the well done sequences come during the last 20 minutes when Trevor and Nick make the discovery of the true origin of the evil ship. The shower scene is fairly unsettling, but aside from a lot of moldy and rotting corpses and one or two suspenseful bits, it's an extremely forgettable affair. This is definitely a case where the trailer is far better than the actual picture. I can't imagine this movie being on anyone's ten best list, or even a top 100.

The plethora of special features on this disc is heartwarming, yet at the same time, rather disconcerting considering there are so many far worthier movies that don't get anywhere near the attention this fairly lousy and unremarkable movie has gotten.

This review is representative of the British region 2 DVD from Nucleus Films.
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