Spaghetti westerns are inherently dark and twisted, a view of the American west that is based in some sort of historical reality but done up with a heavy dose of steroids. Some obviously are tougher to handle than others, my toughest to get through being 1967's Django Kill! Well, I've got a new spaghetti western that I had trouble getting through. Uncomfortable and dull to boot, it's 1975's Four of the Apocalypse.
Thrown into jail in the western town of Salt Flats, gambler Stubby Preston (Fabio Testi) finds himself sharing the jail with three other people; Bunny (Lynne Frederick), a pregnant prostitute, Clem (Michael J. Pollard), a dimwitted drunk, and Bud (Harry Baird), a drunk who sees ghosts all around him. That night, Salt Flats comes under attack by a gang of bandits, much of the townspeople killed in the attack. The quartet is untouched, leaving them on their own with no guns and little supplies to get to the nearest town across the desert. Stubby and his motley trail mates head out into the desert, meeting an assortment of people along the way. One of them is a bandit named Chaco (Tomas Milian) who at first seems helpful enough but quickly shows his true colors. Now they must band together more than ever if they hope to survive both the desert and Chaco's sadistic tendencies.
A writer and director with a ton of scripts and feature films to his name, 'Apocalypse' director Lucio Fulci is known above all else as the king of gore in the 1970s and 1980s. His love of gore obviously found a home in the Italian horror genre, but he departed long enough early in his career for this spaghetti western. In the years since its release, that's what 'Apocalypse' is known for more than ever...the violence. The action is kept to a minimum, but the early attack on Salt Flats is horrifically bloody, huge bright red blood squibs seemingly throwing up out of people. One scene has Chaco carving up a living man's stomach, probably the most uncomfortable scene in the entire movie. There's an edge of the uncomfortable throughout the movie. It isn't always the violence that startles us, but the build-up instead, the personal nature of it. There's also some cannibalism, rape, massacres, and crippling knee shots for those tallying at home.
The unfortunate part is that the violence is used to shock us, but to what end? What is Fulci trying to say here? What's his message? I think at some point he set out to make an allegory, a metaphor about the world in its entirety. We get four people with some huge flaws -- gambling, prostitution, alcoholics, insane -- and they are thrust into this apocalyptic, end of the world type situation. It's a world where anything goes and seemingly no law exists. It sounds good, huh? I thought so, but the execution isn't there. At one scene, it is the darkest, most disturbing movie you've ever seen, and the next, a town of all men up in the snow-capped mountains are celebrating the birth of a baby boy. It just doesn't fit together. A message needed to be picked and stuck to it. Instead, I feel like Fulci is trying to deliver some profound message that never quite comes to fruition.
Not helping the cause is a script that doesn't make any of the characters that interesting and/or sympathetic. Testi is far from your prototypical spaghetti western hero, and that's a cool change of pace. On the other hand, he's a helpless, whiny doofus who can't see trouble until it hits him in the face. Frederick is required to look worried, Pollard is Pollard, goofy and aloof with that constant confusing grin on his face, and Baird hams it up, describing all the ghosts and dead people he sees. None are that interesting to watch, making their plight in the desert uninteresting and taking away any emotional investment we have away in rooting for them to make it. Spaghetti regular Bruno Corazzari is solid as Lemmy, a drunken doctor up in the mountains who helps care for Bunny while Adolfo Lastretti has a fun if underused part as a gun-toting preacher. Also look quickly for Donald O'Brien as the sheriff of Salt Flats.
The best thing going for 'Apocalypse' is Milian as Chaco, for good and bad. This is a villain so sadistic, so pure evil that it becomes almost unbearable to watch these scenes. He baits the desert travelers and then turns on them, feeding them some sort of hallucinogen and then proceeds to torture them in various ways, always with a smile on his face. His look/appearance is a big part of the character, long, flowing hair, a bandana around his head, long, colorful robes, maybe a little mascara under there, and what appears to be crucifixes carved under his eyes. In a would-be allegory about life, is Chaco's evil supposed to be the Devil? Is he just the Devil, straight up? That's up to you to decide, but his scenes are the most interesting thing in this story, even as uncomfortable as they are to watch.
Intentions of a profound story that doesn't amount to anything aside, I think my biggest issue here is a cardinal sin in filmmaking. This is an incredibly dull, downright boring film. It has no real redeeming qualities other than Milian's performance. What is it trying to say? Is it trying to say anything? In between bits of shocking violence, we get long stretches of Stubby and his fellow travelers walking across deserts, through the hills and all to a ridiculously awful folk-like soundtrack from Italian songwriters. It is out of place and just too folksy for its own good. I found myself fast-forwarding a lot late in the film, and even Stubby looking for some vengeance in the last act could save this bomb. Very disappointing negative review.
Four of the Apocalypse (1975): */****