Fistful of Westerns Part 21: The Twilight Years
Catch up on the series: read part 20 here
After the huge success of the TRINITY pictures, the SABATA films, and MY NAME IS NOBODY, spaghetti western comedies were all the rage, but this era too was coming to a conclusion and Italian horror pictures were becoming the next big trend in Italian cinema, sometimes labeled as Spaghetti Nightmares, so it’s no surprise that the three western films listed here would be written and directed by people who would later be often associated with the Italian horror genre; Lucio Fulci, Enzio G. Castellari and Sergio Martino as well as writer/actor Luigi Montefiori more commonly referred to as George Eastman. These pictures are not comedic nor do they have the pulpy adventure of the 60s era, rather these three films have a kind of somber, dark and sometimes morbid poetry about them. I’m sure the filmmakers knew they were at the end of the genre, as westerns on both sides of the pond were fading away, only the mighty Clint Eastwood could draw the crowds in, and even he was starting to shy away from them despite having made the best western in the decade, THE OUTLAW JOSIE WALES. These three films I’ll be going over are often neglected and underrated pictures in each of the filmmakers ouevre, but are probably their most artistic, especially in the case of Fulci’s FOUR OF THE APOCALYPSE. All three pictures also have one thing in common, they feature French actor Donald O’Brian.
FOUR OF THE APOCALYPSE (1975)
Director: Lucio Fulci
Writer: Ennio De Concini, Bert Harte, Lucio Fulci
Music: Fabio Frizzi, Franco Bixio, Vince Tempera
Staring: Fabio Testi, Lynne Frederick, Michael J. Pollard and Tomas Milian
FOUR OF THE APOCALYPSE may very well be one of the bleakest, disturbing and nihilistic spaghetti western ever made, though CUT-THROATS NINE would probably win in a competition, and is just a real downer of a film. That’s not saying it’s not any good, it’s just not the feel good film of the year or any year for that matter. What sets Fulci’s film apart from other Spaghetti Westerns is that it doesn’t follow the usual Spaghetti Western tropes, like Revenge, though it does play a factor, it’s just not for something that happened years earlier, nor is it a quest for gold or the manipulation of people for riches. Instead what writers Ennio De Concini, Bert Harte and Director Lucio Fulci have spun is a western gothic about four lost souls and the downward spiral life has forced them into.
The film opens lightly with Stubby Preston (Fabio Testi) a suave, well dressed, card sharp who arrives in The town of Salt Flats, as the narration informs us “on the day the citizens committee has decided to clean house.” He is immediately arrested by the local sheriff (Donald O’ Brian) and thrown in jail. There he meets three other in-mates; Emanuella O’Neil (Lynn Frederick VAMPIRE CIRCUS, SCHIZO) whose knitting and acting refined. “What do your clients call you?” She sullenly answers, Bunny. Then the congenial, but insane, Bud (Harry Baird UFO, 1000 CONVICTS AND A WOMAN) and finally Clem (Michael J Pollard THE WILD ANGELS, BONNIE AND CLYDE) the local drunk. Stubby eventually pays off the sheriff and the four leave town for good. All this is directed with an uncharacteristically light touch by Fulci.
The picture becomes episodic as the quartet go on there journey to start a new life and the learn things about each other, Bunny is pregnant and Clem’s severe alcoholism and where the characters become more tragic. They come across a group of Amish who feed them. Stubby and Bunny pretend to be married. Bunny asks the leader to pray for her unborn child and we get to know Bunny more, she’s essentially a very sweet kind hearted, young woman.
Then the picture takes a dark turn when they meet the Mexican bandit Chaco (Tomás Milian RUN, MAN, RUN, COMPAÑEROS) he ask to tag along with them in exchange he’ll get food. They agree and they ride off as Chaco bullseyes geese flying around they’re all happy with Chaco until some men come shooting. Chico shoots them. The others think he’s a hero, except Stubby whose suspicious, until they hear screaming. Chaco has one of the men whose actually a lawman, strapped to a tree and is skinning him and the film gets darker and darker. Chaco is a bloody psychopath, he gives them peyote, has Clem tie up the others so he can have some booze and Chaco rapes Bunny. Clem realizing what he did tried to fight Chaco but Chaco shoots him and leaves them all to die in the desert.
These tragic souls that took the easy way of life with gambling, sex and drink just keep falling. Clem frees them from their binds but he’s wounded bad, they leave once more only to find the Amish people, men, women and children have all been massacred by Chaco who’s now riding with his crew. Starving they make it to a ghost town where Clem on his death bed makes Stubby and Bunny promise to get married. Later after Clem passes and the lay him down in another building, Bud comes in with some fresh meat, saying he found an animal and killed it. They cook up the meat and eat. Stubbs checks on Clem’s body only to find out they’ve been eating Clem. If you’re familiar with Lucio Fulci’s Zombie pictures you can kind of see that coming. Stubby tells Bunny Bud had to leave that he’s gone mad. I assume he killed him.
The film is basically four characters trying to get out of Hell with Chaco being some kind of demon there to punish them for their vices. The make it to a snowed out mining town that’s inhabited only by men and Bunny has her child but dies giving birth. The men name the child Lucky and Stubby let’s them raise him and leaves where he finds Chaco and kills him. The end is very anti-climatic and dour.
FOUR OF THE APOCALYPSE is Fulci at his most cerebral. He doesn’t play with conventions but rather skins the fat off his narrative, much like like the psychotic Chaco. I’m still trying to think what this is all about. Is it about redemption? I don’t think so, as no one is really changed except perhaps Clem, who regrets having taken the Devil’s wine sort of speak from Chaco. Lynn Frederick, whose probably best remembered as being Peter Sellers 22 year old wife, he was 56 when they married, plays Bunny a little too innocently but that is the charm of her character and makes it uncomfortable when Chaco forces himself on her. It’s beautifully shot by Sergio Salvati who shot THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY and like a lot of these later Spaghetti’s owes Some to Sam Peckinpah’s THE WILD BUNCH and Robert Altman’s MACABE & MRS. MILLER slo-mo gunfights, snowbound town.
Director: Enzio G. Castellari
Writer: George Eastman, Nico Ducci , Mino Roli
Music: Guido De Angelis and Maurizio De Angelis
Staring: Franco Nero, William Berger, Woody Strode, Olga Karlatos
“You know what it is you’re searching for?”
“Myself I guess…”
KEOMA has a very grim, bleak and spiritual view of the American West after the Civil War and at times feels like a post apocalypse picture; director Enzio G. Castellari would go on to to actually make a few, 1990:THE BRONX WARRIORS, it’s sequel ESCAPE FROM THE BRONX and the 80s exploitation classic (but then aren’t they all) WARRIORS OF THE WASTELAND. But, unlike those previously mentioned pictures, there is a dark poetry to this story of the ostracized half-breed Indian named KEOMA, that at times has Biblical aspirations.
DJANGO’s Franco Nero stars as the longhaired grungy clothed, Keoma, here looking like a grown up version of THE ROAD WARRIOR’s feral Kid, who returns home after fighting against the south during the Civil War. Arriving into town with a howling wind at his back, the town, like Keoma himself, is a bleak, muddy, abandoned shell of what it once was. A spirit (Gabriella Giacobbe billed as “Witch” but she seems more like a ghost or spirit) asks him why he came back and why he fought in the white mans war, Keoma replies “You exist so a man can fulfill his destiny. Why do you want to change mine?” He asks. “I did it once remember? I changed destiny so that you alone should survive that massacre.” What happened is reveled in a rather nice in-camera flashback, as are all the flashbacks in the picture. The spirit explains what happened to him as a child, as the camera slowly pans we see it play out.
He leaves town as the credits roll then comes across a group of victims from a plague that is going on. The film never really elaborates on the plague, just that a bunch of people have it and are taken to a colony of victims one of the victims is the father of pregnant Liza Farrow (Olga Karlatos, ZOMBIE 2, ONE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA) the father tries to escape but is shot down and the cowboys start messing with Liza, until Keoma comes along, for some Sam Peckenpah slo-mo shoot outs and takes Liza away as The Spirit watches from above the canyon.
Like the Bible’s Mary and Joseph the two go into town to look for shelter. They go to a saloon where the prostitutes and cowboys panic on account that they think Liza has the plague and a shoot out happens. They get a room and Liza explains what went wrong. The town has been taken over by a gang of confederate outlaws lead by Caldwell (Donald O’ Brian, INGLORIOUS BASTARDS, DR BUTCHER M.D.) they took over the silver mine which has polluted the water that has caused the plague. While walking around he comes upon his old friend George (Woody Strode, SPARTACUS, THE PROFESSIONALS) who was once a slave for Keoma’s family and is now the town drunk. “You were never a drinking man.” “I used to have something to hope for.” He replies. “But the war is over you got your freedom.” “But I found out what it was worth…that’s why I drink.” Their conversation is interrupted by a harsh wind and the appearance of the spirit who is pulling a wagon, repeated viewings this makes sense.
Keoma leaves the town and goes to visit his father (William Berger, SABATA, IF YOU MEET SABATA…PREY FOR DEATH) “What was it all for?” Keoma posits about the war. “I figure after we got through slaughtering all those injens we thought we’d do something generous so we gave freedom to black man, now we feel good and we can go back and finish off the Indians.” Keoma asks about his brothers and his father informs them that they chose the strongest, they hooked up with Caldwell. This scene is very poignantly written and is surprising to find in a western especially in a spaghetti one. There may be reason for that, the script written by actor Luigi Montefiori aka George Eastman was disliked by director Enzio G. Castellari and was re-written during shooting, with Franco Nero often re-writing his own lines which explains a lot of these philosophical moments.
27 x 41″ Poster Frame. Comes with a .040″ thick crystal clear UV blocking acrylic front sheet, a 10 mil crystal clear polyester separator sheet; a Blue-gray B flute archival corrugated back sheet and two polyester hang tabs.
Back in town Caldwell’s gang take Liza to the old mine were they’ve been taking the plague victims. There Keoma faces his half-brothers who despise him and takes Liza back. He discovers that Caldwell refuses to let the town’s doctor cure them with medicine that he needs. His brothers tell there father to do something about Keoma as they don’t want to kill him out of respect for their old man. Keoma wants George to help him defeat Caldwell. “What happened to you George, you were my idol, you a black man, me Half Indian. I never forgot the lessons you taught me. I learned from you that the color of a man’s skin doesn’t make any difference. In those days you were never afraid of anything, from a wild cat to a grizzly bear.”
Eventually they get the medical supplies they need and give it to the people. Since Keoma’s brothers could not stop him, Caldwell goes over to take care of it himself, but the boys kill Caldwell’s men thinking that keoma and Caldwell will end up killing each other and they’ll take over the town. But instead Their father gets killed trying to protect Keoma and the brothers, seeing this, blame Keoma for the death and string him up on a gear Christ like and take over the town. Later in the evening during a rain storm the spirit shows up like Mary and turns into Liza and takes him down and they leave to the abandoned town in the beginning of the picture so she can give birth. The final scene is one of The most haunting scenes in Spaghetti Westerns. Keoma’s brothers show up and they stalk each other in the town. Castellari puts this scene together without sound except for Liza’s labor pains as Keoma kills his brothers one by one. The baby is born but Liza dies and Keoma, heartbroken jumps on his horse and leaves.
The spirit holding the infant says “You cant go, he’ll die!”
“He can’t die, because he’s free and man who is free never dies!”
Castellari considered this to be his best picture and I would have to agree with him. Everything about the picture is fantastic, the lush cinematography, the grungy production design, the direction; its only fault really are the songs by Giudo and Maurizio De Angelis that comment on what’s happening, gets a mite annoying. The songs themselves are ok, I just don’t need to be told what I’m seeing. The film touches on ecology and the environment and the damages that civilized men brought to the new world as well a race relations.
MANNAJA: A MAN CALLED BLADE (1977)
Director: Sergio Martino
Writer: Suaro Scavalini, Sergio Martino
Music: Guido De Angelis and Maurizio De Angelis
Staring: Maurizio Merli, John Steiner, Martine Brochard, Donald O’Brian, Sonja Jeannine
A panicked man runs through a fog covered, murky bog. A horse trods after him. The music thumps like a heart beat. Atop the horse rides death in a wide brimmed hat. He pulls out a hatched and throws it, slowly cutting through the fog until it hits its target severing the man’s hand. So begins Sergio Martino’s MANNAJA. Just like the previous films, MANNAJA looks more like a horror picture and has the pace of one, but the plot harkens back to the early days of the Spaghetti Western.
Sergio Martino was no stranger to the Spaghetti West having made the 1970 picture ARIZONA CULT RETURNS, he worked in many genres, but he primarily worked in horror and giallo pictures; films like the infamous and influential TORSO, THEY’RE COMING TO GET YOU aka ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK, and later SLAVE OF THE CANNIBAL GOD, THE GREAT ALLIGATOR and SCREAMERS. Like Enzio G. Castellari’s KEOMA, MANNAJA is very much a grimy, muddy, atmospheric at times, gothic western. He brings some of his horror touches to the film and it works nicely, like in the case of the open which is similar to a scene from his earlier picture TORSO. However, unlike KEOMA, there really is no subtext or poetry going on here just your standard revenge picture.
The plot is straight forward enough and harkens back somewhat to the golden days of Sergio Leone’s FISTFUL OF DOLLARS era. We learn that the man whom had his handed chopped off is Burt Craven (Donald O’ Brian KEOMA) who has a price on his head for 5,000 bucks. The two march into the very grim and gothic looking town of Suttonville, signs have been placed over houses of ill repute, so we right away know it’s run by religious zealots who are more than likely corrupt. They step inside a saloon and order a couple of drinks but are denied, no alcohol in town, but he noticed the people gambling have drinks. No worries, he interrupts the game and wants to play a game of highest card his price 5 grand he lays down the wanted poster for Craven. Needless to say he wins and once outside lets Craven go, apparently Mannaja, has been planning this for a while, you guessed it, Mannaja is out for revenge.
You see Suttonville is run by Edward McGowan (Philippe Leroy, LE FEMME NIKITA, THE NIGHT PORTER) who had killed Mannaja’s father and booted them off their land to build the mine that has made him prosperous, but the real baddie is Voller (John Steiner, TEPEPA, SALON KITTY) McGowan’s muscle and the guy whom Mannaja had taken five grand from in the card game. Mannaja knows that Voller has a scheme to rid McGowan and take everything from him so Mannaja convinces McGowan to hire him to get Vollor and rescue McGowans Daughter (Sonja Jeannine) whom Voller has kidnapped. Seems simple enough.
The film has some humorous touches, like when McGowan upset with Mannaja trying to hire him a gun tells Vollar to come in with his dogs. Two big ferocious Rottweilers come in but as soon as they see Mannaja they wimper and lay down. “We’ve reached an understandin’these dogs and I.” It’s never explained why the dogs are frightened by him, I guess Mannaja is just a bad ass.
After a very muddy fist fight with Vollar Mannaja goes out to the mine to scope it out where he gets into a shoot out and roughed up even more a burlesque troupe passes by and nurses him and he falls for one of the girls, Angela ( the beautiful French actress Martine Brochard, Umberto Lenzi’s EYEBALL, Tinto Brass’ PAPRIKA)
Eventually we learn that McGowans daughter has hooked up with Vollar and is helping him to rip off the old man. Vollar ends up getting the best of Mannaja and bury him up to his neck and killing Angela. Craven now with a hook for a hand digs him up and takes him to a cave where Mannaja convulses ala Clint Eastwood in FISTFUL OF DOLLARS. The we get the big show down in the cave which plays very much like a horror picture as well.
Of the three pictures here Mannaja is perhaps the least original, it owes a lot to Keoma, but it is the most entertaining of the three. Maurizio Merli was not really known for staring in westerns, he mostly did Poliziotteschi, cop films like the infamous ROMA VIOLENTA aka VIOLENT CITY. It’s a shame he didn’t do more westerns as he’s very good in this. The music is by Maurizio and Guido De Angelis who score Keoma as well and like keoma it has songs. I love the main theme, it sound like a duet between Nick Cave and David Bowie. MANNAJA: A MAN CALLED BLADE would be sadly on of the last Spaghetti Westerns, audiences now were craving the horrors of Dario Argento and space operas like STAR WARS for their thrills.
DVD Case Sleeve. Fits all DVD cases. 6 x 8-1/4″ x 1.5 mil POLYPROPYLENE. Resealable flap. Reseal tape is on the flap of the bag.
Stay tuned for more of this series!