The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Friday, April 16, 2010

A Town Called Hell

When watching a spaghetti western, there's a certain amount of weirdness to be expected.  After all, these were typically European directors/producers/screenwriters interpreting the American west so weirdness just comes with the territory.  But beyond anti-heroes and crazy villains, the spaghettis were often heavy on graphic violence, religious imagery and symbolism, and no penchant for having to have a happy ending.  Basically, everything I like in a western.

For years, the craziest spaghetti I saw was 1967's Django Kill! which features some truly disgusting violence, a gang of gay cowboys, and...wait, that's enough, violence and gay cowboys is a good explanation.  Last night on Netflix Instant viewing, I checked out 1971's A Town Called Hell for a couple reasons, I've never been able to actually track a copy down, and two, the cast looks ridiculously good.  It's not a straight Italian spaghetti western with British and Spanish backing, but it's got all the right elements.  If anything, it's got too many elements.  This one is all over the place and ranks right up there with Django Kill! for new weirdest spaghetti.

It's 1905 in Mexico (right in the middle of the Mexican revolution for you history buffs).  A widower, Alvira (Stella Stevens) rides into the dusty, rundown town of Bastardo -- not 'Hell' as the title implies.  She is offering $20,000 for the man who murdered her husband, but she doesn't know who he is, only that he's in the town.  Alvira's only clue is a name...'Aguila.'  But other than that, she's got nothing to go on.  Three key people in Bastardo seem to have information.  There's the Priest (Robert Shaw), the Colonel (Martin Landau) with his army detachment, and Don Carlos (Telly Savalas), the town's corrupt mayor/bandit. But nothing comes easy, and the betrayals start flying and the bodies start to add up.

Where to start?  Spaghetti westerns generally had an extremely dark tone full of cynicism and violence, lots of anti-establishment feelings.  'Hell' certainly qualifies because no character is safe.  The violence isn't graphic but it is brutal in its honesty.  There are hangings, stabbings, shootings, and so much more.  The setting for this is a really desert town that has fortress walls on all sides, and even though the movie was made/filmed in Spain, it looks like Mexico in all its dusty, dirty glory.  I'm positive I'm reading too much into this, but the town could be some sort of purgatory, some bizarre version of hell.  Or it could just be a whacked out western, you make the decision. 

The story itself is too interesting with director Robert Parrish mixing and matching left and right.  An IMDB user stated there's at least 15 plots, they just last 2 or 3 minutes before moving on, and really, that's a pretty accurate description of this gothic, dark western.  Stevens sleeps in a coffin at night and has a pale deaf-mute protector, Spectre (Dudley Sutton), with her at all times.  Savalas is a violent dictator with an iron fist on this town...until he doesn't anymore when his men turn on him, crucifying him.  Shaw has a vivid dream where Stevens' Alvira kills him in his sleep.  Landau as a Mexican officer?  That does seem pretty logical.  A flashback with a sped-up version of the Battle of New Orleans and a bizarre, confusing backstory just caps it all off.  That's the movie in a nutshell, always moving and never slowing up enough to know how ridiculous it all sounds.

Through all of the craziness, there's a really cool if sometimes odd cast.  Robert Shaw is one of my favorite actors, and he's the star here.  Simply named 'the Priest,' he has a past that still gnaws at him, and he seems to be the only person who knows who 'Aguila' is.  On a non-consequential level, Shaw is also sporting a badass handlebar mustache and mutton chop-like sideburns.  Savalas is the shirtless bandit mayor (honestly, in his 30 minutes he never has a shirt on) who gets to ham it up.  His departure about 30 minutes does come as a surprise, mostly because we never see how he gets whacked.  Landau is the only one who doesn't work because well, he's not Mexican.  He's loud and obnoxious but still isn't a good villain.  Stevens is wasted -- but looks good doing it -- and appears like she wandered into the set and just started reciting lines.

There's also supporting parts for Fernando Rey as an old blind man who may hold the key to Aguila's identity, spaghetti western regular Aldo Sambrell as Calebra, one of Don Carlos' thugs, TV star Michael Craig in flashback as Paco, one of the Priest's partners, and Al Lettieri as La Bomba, Carlos' not so smart treacherous right hand man.  What I liked about this western -- and I did like it -- was the general weirdness of it all.  There's this great cast and no story (not a coherent one at least), but all the little things add up.  Recommending this almost in spite of itself.

A Town Called Hell <----trailer (1971): ** 1/2 /****

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