Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Cowboy Apocalypse
The enthusiasm of Quentin Tarantino aside, the Spaghetti Western remains a cult taste even more esoteric than one for  kung-fu movies or Seventies cheerleader comedies. The days when The New York Times could dismiss Spaghettis as "The Burn, The Gouge and the Mangle may be gone but once you get past the Leone canon, you're not likely to find much in the way of critical recognition. (An exception to be made, of course, for Christopher Frayling's masterful "Spaghetti Westerns: from Karl May to Sergio Leone" which covers all aspects of the Europeanised version of the West ).
Spaghetti westerns made less of an impact in the US than you might think, once the dust had settled and the dollars counted from United Artists' highly profitable release of the Dollars trilogy. Though most of the major studios picked up one or two Spaghettis for their drive-in markets, most of the US releases came courtesy of smaller and now forgotten distributors.
Over the last few decades (the Spaghetti boom was more or less over by 1971), most of the non-Leone films became almost impossible to find. Thanks to a few DVD companies, the situation has improved slightly especially with the release of two boxed sets, Once Upon a Time in Italy, from Anchor Bay and The Spaghetti Western Collection from Blue Underground . There are no classics on the level of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly or Once Upon a Time in the West, but for those with an interest in the western genre, the nine films display the wide range of variations Italian directors played on familiar frontier themes. Those who only know Leone's masterpieces will find surprises here: European-filtered westerns that rework traditions, bend generic rules and add elements of politics, slapstick and even horror.
The oddest film in the Anchor Bay collection - not the best - is unquestionably Lucio Fulci's Four of the Apocalypse, of which little has been written. Frayling simply cites it as an example of a Spaghetti western made late in the cycle and claims that it attempts to apply the style of Easy Rider to the genre. That's true up to a point: there are lots of solar effects, self-consciously loose focusing and a vague sense of counter-cultural sympathy. But that doesn't begin to cover the inadvertent and almost heavyhanded weirdness of the film.
Four of the Apocalypse is based on stories by Bret Harte, loosely strung together as random encounters. (I don't know much of Harte's work, but I recognised elements from "The Outcasts of Poker Flats" and "The Luck of Roaring Camp".) A chance encounter in a prison massacre brings four outsiders together: a gambler (Fabio Test), a pregnant prostitute (Lynne Frederick), a drunk and an off-balanced black man who talks to the spirits of the dead. Heading out with particular destination, they cross paths with a psychotic, Manson-like outlaw (Tomas Milian) who torments them, feeds them peyote and leaves them to die in the desert.
(Much of the film's loopy charm is in the casting. Testi is likable in an only-here-for the-ride way. Frederick, better known as the widow of both Peter Sellers and David Niven, is an actress of limited skills, yet endearingly earnest. Pollard, of course, was a cult figure whose post-Bonnie and Clyde career never really happened. And Milian is a major figure in the Spaghetti canon, but better known for his comic work in political Spaghettis like Companeros, which gives his complete lack of sympathy in this film an even more chilling edge.)
Fulci is best known as a director of gory and occasionally colorful horror movies, a specialist in the Italian sub-genres of zombies and cannibalism.And true to form, he even manages to include a particularly unpleasant meal and a gratuitous torture scene in a film that shifts its emotional tone with every sequence. (The "Luck of Roaring Camp" episode, for example, is an unabashedly sentimental segment in which an exclusively male mining town become surrogate fathers to a newborn baby.)
No, it's not really a very good movie, nor a particularly coherent one, but that's part of the charm of minor Spaghetti westerns. The filmmakers simultaneously borrow the traditions of the western genre and treat them in the most cavalier fashion. They love the genre but they can't stop trying to change it.
Click on either of the links below to buy Frayling's book or either of the DVD collections from Amazon.

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