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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Hunting Party (1971) review


Oliver Reed (Frank Calder), Gene Hackman (Brandt Ruger), Candice Bergen (Melissa Ruger), Mitchell Ryan (Doc Harrison), L.Q. Jones (Hog Warren)

Directed by Don Medford

The Short Version: One of the most unsettling, misogynistic westerns and least subtle action films ever made. While it tries to out WILD the BUNCH, it's also fairly tedious when blood isn't splattering across the screen or the twitching of corpses aren't in view. This depressing savagery lensed in Spain comes from the director of some of the best original TWILIGHT ZONE episodes. The plot is little more than a reworking of THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME, but with uninteresting or deplorable characters whose sole purpose is to kill, maim, rape, or be killed. Gorehounds will love it and while it's not technically a bad movie, it's far from a good one. Medford, or the scriptwriter were apparently smitten with Peckinpah as his trendsetting western is a glaring inspiration. However, STRAW DOGS (1971) controversial rape scene may have been inspired by a similar one seen here.

Desiring the need to read, outlaw Frank Calder kidnaps the wife of Brandt Ruger, a wealthy ranch owner and sexual sadist. The demented Brandt gets his rich friends together for a special type of hunt using a state of the art rifle with telescopic sight that can kill a man at 800 yards. This well to do, but inexperienced posse proceed to hunt down the stronger, tougher outlaws picking them off from a distance till Brandt and Calder meet in a final, dead end showdown.

One of a few hardcore/splatter westerns that came in the wake of THE WILD BUNCH (1969), this 'Out West Expoitation' has nothing of substance outside of gore, suffering and pain. Along with SOLDIER BLUE (1970), Don Medford's seedy and demented tale of vengeance are the most well known while others like CRY BLOOD APACHE (1970), FIVE SAVAGE MEN (1970) and to an extent, HANNIE CAULDER (1971) are negligible at best. Michael Winner's 'DEATH WISH among the cacti', CHATO'S LAND (1972) also falls into the wild gory west sub-genre, but only the R rated cut and not the PG version of the US DVD release. If it weren't for some Peckinpah-ian photographic flourishes, an oppressively merciless atmosphere and frequently over the top gore, THE HUNTING PARTY would scarcely be worth watching. The cast doesn't hurt, either, but then the script gives them very little to chew on amidst a crippled plot that's left to bake in the desert sun.

That Calder kidnaps Melissa (believing her to be a teacher) in the hopes of teaching him to read is fine and all, but we never find out why he wants to learn to read. There's a vague mention of the citizens of Macon County hiring Frank for something to do with money, but this is never elaborated on, nor discussed again. We also never learn Brandt's motivation for saving Calder for last when he has ample chances to take him out. Also, Brandt's penchant for sexual torture is never explained. The movie is full of gaping wounds and the only thing keeping it alive are all the myriad scenes of gruesome gun battles and twitching corpses. For this movie, the makers go the extra mile in presenting a dying man. On a few occasions, the camera lingers on the squirming death throes before a victim expires. One scene we see Brandt and his rich cronies observing one of Calder's men dying while they make the comparison to a wounded animal.

Virtually none of the cast are likable and Bergen's character, Melissa, is given next to nothing to do but be raped and beaten up at regular intervals. In the films first scene she's nearly raped by her impotent sadist of a husband (Hackman) who likes things rough to the extreme. Not long after, she's kidnapped by Frank's gang and threatened with rape once more. After being tormented further in what amounts to exposition here, Frank, himself, rapes Melissa--but she seems to like it and ends up falling in love with him post coital(!) after he explains he took her the way an Indian would have(!!) His is a gentler rape, you see (curiously, this rape scene may have been inspirational to Peckinpah for a similar one in his controversial STRAW DOGS released later in the year). Amazingly, Melissa is threatened with rape yet again in addition to being punched and kicked by one of Frank's men towards the end. The treatment she receives after this is a further travesty of justice, but then this was the 1970s and movies during this decade barely had time for anything other than somber and depressing moods, which isn't a detriment at all. Bergen was busy being abused in the early 70s after co-starring in the much better SOLDIER BLUE (1970).

The two big guns here, Gene Hackman and Oliver Reed do an incredible job of being unpleasant and disgusting working with material that only allows their actions to propel their characterizations. Hackman looks thoroughly embarrassed and ashamed from start to finish. His portrayal of Brandt is suitably sadistic, but judging by Hackman's body language, he looks like he'd rather be anywhere but in this movie. Over the course of the film, he tortures a naked Asian prostitute aboard a whore train, hunts down and systematically kills a group of men like they were deer and saves the most disturbing brand of Brandt's justice at the end. At the very start of the movie, Brandt rapes his wife while scenes of a cow (one of Ruger's cattle, actually) being stabbed in the throat and gutted by Frank and his gang are intercut. The movie clues you in on just what you're in for before it ever even gets started.

Reed, on the other hand, devours his role as the leader of the gang of cutthroats--and he's supposed to be the good guy of the picture! Even though his character is mere cardboard like the rest of the cast, he manages to turn a grit into gold with what he's got to work with. The scene with the peaches is the closest the movie comes to sympathizing with Calder and a scene where he's forced to shoot one of his friends borders on shakespearean levels of tragedy. Oliver Reed later appeared in a comedy western as an oversexed Indian in THE GREAT SCOUT & CATHOUSE THURSDAY opposite Lee Marvin and Kay Lenz.

While this is little more than an exploitation movie, there is an interesting, if likely unintentional left wing political parallel here with the wealthy ranchers and their high tech weaponry going after the uneducated and uncouth dirty outlaws. The script also explores dissension among the ranks of both Frank's gang and Brandt's hunting party. The level of misogynism is alarming to say the least and if this is the way women were REALLY treated back in the Old West, then it was a radically unsafe time and place to be a female. There's also one brief sequence that wounds the gloomy atmosphere in one of the absolute worst usages of blue screen you're likely to see in a Hollywood picture. You can even hear the hollowness in the actors voices recognizing the enclosed studio set they are actually in. You would expect this sort of thing in a 50s and early to mid 60s movie/television show, but here, it's sloppily rendered and gets a giggle when one wasn't intended. Still, this scene has one of the best dialog moments that further drives home just how despicable Brandt really is.

However, the opening credits sequence is really quite good as Frank and his gang ride through Ruger's town after specifically being told not to by the sheriff. They purposely ride past Ruger Bank which is flanked by the sheriff and a number of armed men. Italian western fans will have a field day spotting various locales and Riz Ortolani's score is magnificently melancholic capturing the atmosphere wonderfully. The slow motion shots of the massive blood squibs are spectacular and the sound effects of the awesome .54 caliber Sharps Borchardt telescopic rifles sound like explosions going off.

As said above, there's some things to like in THE HUNTING PARTY, but there's more that hinders this from being anything resembling a classic western. If the filmmakers intended to create a world of hopelessness, death and unpleasant, deranged people, than they surpassed their expectations but forgot to balance this with a compelling story and characters with a little more meat on their bones. The most memorable aspect is the spectacular gore, which the film revels in more than anything else. The weapons Brandt and his band use are a novel touch and add an air of suspense to the action scenes, but that's all this film has to offer--hate, an overabundance of misogyny, extreme gore and three stars who probably wished they'd skipped this PARTY.

This review is representative of the MGM DVD


A hero never dies said...

I found this decidedly unpleasant and pretty boring when I saw it. Even now I'm surprised that Hackman chose to be in it. Great review Brian

venoms5 said...

Hey, thanks, Martin. Yes, it's most definitely unpleasant! I like the film, but would never call it a good movie. It's shot just fine and all, but the characterizations just aren't there and for a film that's this nihilistic, it needs compelling people to care about to make the tragedy mean something. Here, it's just exploitation. Nothing wrong with that, but with this cast, it would only have made things far more dramatic. Who knows, maybe it suffered some drastic cuts prior to release? Still, when there's no blood, gore and violence onscreen, as you said, it's pretty boring. It does have one helluva ending, though. Even knowing how it ended from an old bootleg tape catalog, it was still pretty damn shocking.

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