Monday, December 31, 2012

Cult Classics Revisited: Special "Spaghetti's End" Edition: FOUR OF THE APOCALYPSE (1975); KEOMA (1976); and MANNAJA (1977)

In the wake of the huge global success of Sergio Leone's A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964), FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (1965), and THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY (1966) came hundreds upon hundreds of spaghetti westerns that were cranked out at an astonishing rate well into the 1970s.  By the early 1970s, with the coming of nihilistic American westerns like Sam Peckinpah's THE WILD BUNCH (1969), the genre segued into political westerns such as Damiano Damiani's A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL (1968), Sergio Corbucci's COMPANEROS (1968), and Leone's DUCK, YOU SUCKER (1971) before making a sharp turn towards the comedic with the success of THEY CALL ME TRINITY (1970).  TRINITY made a star of Terence Hill, who had been working as a character actor for years under his real name Mario Girotti.  Starting with 1967's GOD FORGIVES, I DON'T, Hill often teamed with burly Bud Spencer (real name Carlo Pedersoli) on a series of spaghetti westerns that ranged from lighthearted to outright slapstick.  While American westerns got increasingly violent in response to the first wave of spaghetti westerns, this new wave, in which most characters seemed modeled after Eli Wallach's Tuco in THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY (Wallach even played a Tuco-like character in the 1969 Hill/Spencer western ACE HIGH), was more concerned with the lighter side of the genre.  The success of THEY CALL ME TRINITY led to a sequel (1971's TRINITY IS STILL MY NAME!) and tons of offshoots and unofficial sequels (even an earlier Hill film was retitled REVENGE OF TRINITY).  Spaghetti western experts like Howard Hughes, author of the genre analysis Once Upon a Time in the Italian West, frequently cite 1973's MY NAME IS NOBODY as, for all practical purposes, the end of the genre.  A TRINITY-inspired western-comedy produced by Leone (who also directed parts of it, though Tonino Valerii is given sole credit) and therefore bringing the genre full circle, NOBODY paired Hill with Hollywood legend Henry Fonda for the story of a goofball gunslinger goading an aging cowboy into going out in a blaze of glory by taking on a 150-man posse singlehandedly.  While the film's 1974 US release flopped (it was sold as a BLAZING SADDLES knockoff), MY NAME IS NOBODY was a huge hit in Europe, and led to a Leone-produced semi-sequel A GENIUS, TWO PARTNERS AND A DUPE (1975), which was also released as NOBODY'S THE GREATEST.  A few more slapstick spaghettis were produced and the genre quietly passed on as other trends, like polizias and EXORCIST ripoffs, took over.

Most audiences moved on as the spaghetti western faded into the sunset, which explains why three noteworthy (and too late for their own good) examples managed to fall through the cracks, though there were others that certainly justified the end of the genre, like Gianfranco Parolini's dreadful GOD'S GUN  (1976), possibly the worst spaghetti western ever made.  Lucio Fulci's FOUR OF THE APOCALYPSE (1975), Enzo G. Castellari's KEOMA (1976), and Sergio Martino's MANNAJA (1977) were about as far removed from the TRINITY school of spaghetti westerns as one could get, yet none of the three really fit in with the first or second wave of spaghettis, either.  They're the kinds of bizarre, offbeat films that get made when no one's paying attention, from directors not normally associated with the genre. 

(Italy - 1975)

Directed by Lucio Fulci. Written by Ennio De Concini.  Cast: Fabio Testi, Tomas Milian, Lynne Frederick, Michael J. Pollard, Harry Baird, Donald O'Brien, Adolfo Lastretti, Bruno Corazzari, Lorenzo Robledo. (Unrated, 104 mins)

FOUR OF THE APOCALYPSE was directed by Lucio Fulci, then a jobbing journeyman just a few years away from cementing his place in cult movie history with 1979's ZOMBIE. Gambler and card cheat Stubby Preston (Fabio Testi) arrives in Salt Flat for his latest con game and is quickly kicked out of town by the sheriff (Donald O'Brien), along with three other miscreants:  pregnant prostitute Bunny (Lynne Frederick), town drunk Clem (Michael J. Pollard), and the crazed Butt (Harry Baird), who claims to see dead people.  Taking a coach and heading to Stubby's next stop of Sand City, the quartet are joined by depraved outlaw Chaco (Tomas Milian), who drugs them and rapes Bunny before shooting Clem in the leg and riding off.  Vowing revenge on Chaco, Stubby pulls this odd "family" together as romance blooms between with Bunny and he decides to change his dishonest ways.  There's very little in the way of action in this low-key, character-driven film, with most of the graphic bloodletting confined to the opening and closing sequences.  With its odd characters and set pieces, its soft rock soundtrack, and its general eccentric quirkiness, it almost feels like Robert Altman, Arthur Penn, or George Roy Hill took a break from Hollywood and decided to go to Italy to make a spaghetti western just for the hell of it (it's probably not a coincidence that BONNIE AND CLYDE Oscar-nominee Pollard is in the cast).  It's a film with surprising heart and shocking transgression, and the latter shouldn't be surprising given that it's a Lucio Fulci film.  The bond that forms between the four outcasts feels genuine, and Fulci films rarely get more sensitively heartfelt than the moment when a dreary, depressed town filled with hard-bitten old bastards beaten down by life finds joy and hope in the cries of Bunny's newborn baby.  It's moments like this that contrast sharply with Chaco's violation of Bunny, his horrific torture of a sheriff (perpetual victim Lorenzo Robledo, the Sean Bean of spaghetti westerns) and Butt's final meltdown after Clem dies, when Stubby finds out that the delicious meal Butt prepared for them is...Clem.

The four leads work very well together, though I wish Pollard's Clem had more to do and Butt's disappearance is abrupt and clumsily-handled (and may be due to British actor Baird's health issues; he was suffering from glaucoma and went blind around the mid-1970s--he died in 2005 but FOUR OF THE APOCALYPSE was his last film and the character's vanishing act looks like a textbook example of an actor suddenly being unavailable).  Milian doesn't have a lot of screen time but is a truly repulsive bad guy (and it's one of the rare instances where he's dubbing himself in an Italian film).  The effectively American-sounding score was composed by Bixio-Frizzi-Tempera, with songs performed by European duo Greenfield & Cook with the Benjamin Franklin Group.  FOUR OF THE APOCALYPSE is a strange film that refuses labels.  The brief, horrific foray into cannibalism and the emotional third act exemplify the kind of wild unpredictability that makes the film such a one-of-a-kind entry in both the spaghetti western genre and Fulci's filmography.

(Italy - 1976)

Directed by Enzo G. Castellari. Written by Mino Roli, Nico Ducci, Luigi Montefiori, Enzo G. Castellari.  Cast: Franco Nero, Woody Strode, William Berger, Olga Karlatos, Orso Maria Guerrini, Antonio Marsina, Gabriella Giaccobe, John Loffredo (Joshua Sinclair), Donald O'Brien, Leon Lenoir, Wolfango Soldati, Victoria Zinny, Massimo Vanni, Giovanni Cianfriglia. (Unrated, 101 mins)

Like many Italian genre directors, Enzo G. Castellari dabbled in a little of everything until he found his niche, first with Franco Nero-headlined crime thrillers like HIGH CRIME (1973) and STREET LAW (1974), and later with the Italian WARRIORS ripoff 1990: THE BRONX WARRIORS (1983) and the post-nuke THE NEW BARBARIANS (1983).  He made everything from macaroni combat adventures like EAGLES OVER LONDON (1970) and THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS (1978) to gialli like COLD EYES OF FEAR (1971), and had a few first-wave spaghetti westerns under his belt, like ANY GUN CAN PLAY (1967) and KILL THEM ALL AND COME BACK ALONE (1970).  He also directed the dismal TRINITY ripoff CRY ONION (1976), one of the worst spaghetti westerns ever made despite a fascinating cast that included Nero, Sterling Hayden, Martin Balsam, legendary Chicago Bears linebacker Dick Butkus, and a farting horse.  Perhaps to wash away the foul taste of CRY ONION, Castellari and Nero immediately reteamed for the more serious spaghetti throwback KEOMA.

KEOMA finds the Castellari-Nero alliance in fine form with Nero as the half-breed Keoma, who returns to his home after the Civil War to find the area a plague-infested wasteland ruled by the evil Caldwell (Donald O'Brien), a Confederate officer who took over the town and whose shady business dealings resulted in a polluted well that's killed off much of the population.  Keoma immediately gets on Caldwell's bad side when he kills a couple of his flunkies who were terrorizing pregnant widow Lisa (Olga Karlatos).  Things get even more complicated when Keoma must deal with his loathsome half-brothers (Orso Maria Guerrini, Antonio Marsina, and Joshua Sinclair), who never accepted Keoma as their father's (William Berger) son and now very inconveniently work for Caldwell.

"Lemme hear ya say KEOMA!"
Even though it arrived three years after the effective end of the spaghetti western, KEOMA was well-received by European fans eager to see Nero back in DJANGO mode after ten years.  As far as I can tell, KEOMA never got a US theatrical release, which seems odd considering that even CRY ONION made it to a few US theaters in 1980.  There's definitely a post-WILD BUNCH Peckinpah feel to the directorial style Castellari uses here, not so much in the violence (which is plentiful but not particularly bloody), but in the frequent use of slo-mo in the action scenes.  Also notable is the imaginatively-staged finale with Keoma taking on his brothers while Lisa gives birth--as the mayhem ensues, we don't hear the gunfire but rather, the pained screams of Lisa and nothing else as Keoma's brothers are murdered.  It's an initially disorienting effect that's ultimately a very creative use of sound and editing by Castellari and his regular editor Gianfranco Amicucci. There's also some crucifixion/resurrection symbolism and a witch (Gabriella Giaccobe), who may not be real and could represent Keoma's conscience.  Nero, dubbing himself, is at the top of his game here, and KEOMA also benefits from the unusual casting of career badass Woody Strode as the disgraced and bullied town drunk who was once an idol to a young Keoma and sees the battle against Caldwell as his one shot at redemption.  If there's one thing that's prevented KEOMA from becoming a legit spaghetti western classic and made it a target of ridicule, it's the absolutely terrible score by the usually-reliable Guido & Maurizio De Angelis, filled with badly-croaked songs that function as a Greek chorus warbled by singers for whom English is a second language.  Sure, most of these films have goofy scores and silly songs, but the tunes in KEOMA are exceptionally godawful.  Aside from that, KEOMA is top-notch.

(Italy - 1977)

Directed by Sergio Martino. Written by Sauro Scavolini, Sergio Martino.  Cast: Maurizio Merli, John Steiner, Philippe Leroy, Martine Brochard, Sonya Jeannine, Donald O'Brien,  Salvatore Puntillo, Rick Battaglia, Nino Casale, Enzo Fiermonte, Nello Pazzafini. (Unrated, 96 mins)

Maurizio Merli began his career in Italian genre fare as a second-string Franco Nero but briefly became a superstar in the mid-1970s with a string of extremely violent police thrillers like Umberto Lenzi's incredible ROME ARMED TO THE TEETH aka THE TOUGH ONES (1976).  Usually playing a hard-nosed cop with anger management issues and a tendency to play by his own rules, Merli's Harry Callahan-like characters (he played different cops with names like Tanzi, Berni, and Betti, but they were all basically "Maurizio Merli") made him a sort-of Italian Clint Eastwood, but as the polizia films went out of style by the early 1980s, so did Merli.  He drifted into Italian TV gigs and had a supporting role in the 1981 British drama PRIEST OF LOVE with Ian McKellen, but he never broke into American movies and never got to have his big Tarantino comeback: Merli was only 49 when he died in 1989 from a sudden, massive heart attack while playing tennis.

Merli's day in the sun was relatively brief, but he's become a beloved cult figure with fans of 1970s Italian cop thrillers.  It's possible that the only reason MANNAJA got made was because Merli wanted to make a western and became a star after the genre faded away.  MANNAJA was pretty much last call for the spaghetti western cycle.  It's the last noteworthy one (though Fulci managed to sneak in SILVER SADDLE in 1978), and by this time, even the comedic TRINITY knockoffs had ceased being made and Italian genre fare was moving in a different direction, namely ripoffs of blockbuster American movies.  MANNAJA was directed by Sergio Martino (1973's TORSO), who had one spaghetti western to his credit (1970's ARIZONA COLT RETURNS), but was known mainly for his early 1970s giallo collaborations with the stunning Edwige Fenech.  Martino, like Fulci and Castellari, pinballed around the Italian B-movie scene for years but found his niche relatively early, and when gialli became passe, he tried his hand a bit of everything:  cop thrillers (1975's SUSPECTED DEATH OF A MINOR), sex comedies (1976's SEX WITH A SMILE), cannibal horror (1978's MOUNTAIN OF THE CANNIBAL GOD), and post-nuke (1983's 2019: AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK), and almost everything in between.  MANNAJA is stylistically interesting for its excessively foggy look, and Martino shoots some scenes as if he were making a horror movie (also helping this is a recurrent pulsating electronic music cue that sounds like it belongs in a zombie flick).  It's a pretty standard western overall, but there are interesting touches throughout that make it a unique entry in the field.

Blade (Merli) is a tomahawk-hurling, fur-coat-wearing bounty hunter who arrives in Suttonville to claim the reward for the wanted Burt Craven (Donald O'Brien, a fixture in these last spaghettis).  Blade lets Craven go when he finds out that Suttonville has no marshal and the only law is McGowan (Philippe Leroy), a puritanical, religious fanatic mining magnate who rules the town and whose irresponsible business practices have created a smoggy, foggy pollution and a sick but practically enslaved work force (a "job creator," if you will).  Blade irritates McGowan's top strongarm Voller (an expectedly hammy John Steiner) by jockeying for his job, but Blade has an ulterior motive:  McGowan ran Blade's father off their land in the process of building his empire, and inadvertantly caused Blade Sr's death.  Sick of taking orders from McGowan, Voller kidnaps his boss' daughter Deborah (Sonya Jeannine), setting off a chain of events that will, of course, lead to Maurizio Merli kicking all sorts of ass.

John Steiner as Voller
Merli tones down his rageaholic act a tad for MANNAJA, but he's still a solid hero and it's a shame his career didn't last longer.  Martino achieves a nicely foreboding look to the film with all the fog and mud, and the way Blade emerges from the fog for his showdown with Voller is a great shot.  Other than that, there's not much about MANNAJA that's very innovative, but it's an enjoyable actioner and a worthy eulogy for the genre, even if it gives us another batch of ill-advised Greek chorus songs from Guido & Maurizio De Angelis illustrating obvious plot points, this time with the croaking singer from the KEOMA soundtrack trading verses with a guy who's trying way too hard to sound like David Bowie.


  1. Thanks to Nigel Maskell for alerting me to the existence of SILVER SADDLE. I thought I was up on my Fulci, but that one totally fell through the cracks with me.

  2. It's a funny thing.

    I have a weird affection for the songs in Four of the Apocalypse. I wouldn't say they're good and I can't come up with a logical reason why they should fit the movie, but it works for me. It's part of what makes the movie, which I love, feel almost like McCabe and Mrs. Miller, especially with both using unusual settings and cold winter as prominent pieces.

    (Yes, I'm very generous with Four of the Apocalypse, like I said, I love it!)

    And yet the songs in Keoma are intolerable. I just bought the Blu-ray and I'm looking forward to revisiting it for the other elements, but it's the songs that stand out. Those work less, and yet are transparently intended to invoke McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Perhaps it's the lack of subtlety in the connection or in the lyrics.

    Now, I wish I remembered the songs in Mannaja. I remember liking the movie well enough, but now that I'm trying, I don't remember much about it.

    I guess I should revisit all of these soon.