Arrow are playing totally to my tastes at the moment with their box sets. Within a little over a month, they’ve delivered a Eurocrime set to satisfy my newfound interest in the genre, a kaiju/chanbara set that feeds my love of Japanese cinema (review forthcoming) and now they’re bringing out a collection of spaghetti westerns, another genre I’m incredibly fond of. So, despite having a mountain of screeners to review throughout July, I eagerly added Vengeance Trails – 4 Classic Westerns to the pile.

My thoughts on the film, special features and AV quality follow.

Massacre Time

Director: Lucio Fulci
Screenplay: Fernando Di Leo
Starring: Franco Nero, George Hilton, Linda Sini, Giuseppe Addobbati, Nino Castelnuovo
Country: Italy
Running Time: 92 min
Year: 1966

Massacre Time sees spaghetti western legend Franco Nero play Tom Corbett, a gold prospector who’s given a mysterious message requesting he urgently comes home (to Laramie), to see his brother Jeff (George Hilton) and surrogate mother, Mercedes (Rina Franchetti). Tom hasn’t been back there in a long while, after being sent away by his father before he died, so rushes over, wondering what the problem may be.

When Tom arrives at Laramie, he finds his family home and much of the town has been sold to a wealthy landowner named Scott (Giuseppe Addobbati). He has a stranglehold on the locals which is maintained by his sadistic son, Jason (Nino Castelnuovo).

Tom also finds his brother has become an alcoholic who lives with Mercedes in a lowly shack on the edge of town. Jeff won’t tell Tom why he thinks he was summoned to Laramie and Carradine (John Bartha), who was the one that wrote the original message, is killed before he has a chance to explain.

Eventually, after more people close to Tom are killed, Jeff decides to illuminate him and takes his brother to see Scott, so that all can be revealed and those wronged can be avenged.

Massacre Time was quite a turning point for its director, Lucio Fulci. He had previously directed a lot of TV, plus a number of comedies and jukebox musicals but this was his first western and, more importantly, the first sign of what was to come.

Fulci is best known as a director of violent, gory horror films, such as Zombie Flesh Eaters and The Beyond, and whilst Massacre Time is quite different to those titles, it was the film where he first amped up the violence. Indeed, it’s a tough western with plenty of action, including some brutal punch-ups and a memorable extended whipping scene that likely inspired a similar scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.

Now, I must admit, I’m not actually a big fan of what I’ve seen of Fulci’s work in the horror genre, but I have liked some of his non-horror films quite a lot and Massacre Time follows that trend.

The commentators and film historian featured on the disc claim the film is quite influential and ground-breaking and I don’t think I’d agree with that. I found many of the visual flourishes, characters and story beats (such as the aforementioned whipping scene) reminded me a lot of Leone’s Dollars trilogy and other spaghetti westerns. However, I do think it’s a very well-directed film. It looks great, with effective use of depth and movement, it has a strong sense of pace and atmosphere, and it contains a number of thrilling set-pieces.

The film also boasts a rich and charismatic central performance from Hilton. He, in a way, plays the real central character in the piece, even if Nero’s Tom Corbett is presented as the hero. Tom is pretty passive for the most part, whilst Jeff does all the leg work and has more of a character arc than his brother. Castelnuovo makes a hissably evil villain too, though the strong suggestion of his homosexuality leans towards an unfortunately common trait in westerns of the era of making the more twisted villains effeminate, if not always openly gay.

Overall then, Massacre Time is a really solid piece of genre filmmaking, even if I didn’t feel it broke the mould. A stylish, violent, no-nonsense spaghetti western, it delivers all the ingredients you’d expect from the genre, in a taut, exciting package.

My Name is Pecos

Director: Maurizio Lucidi
Screenplay: Adriano Bolzoni
Starring: Robert Woods, Pier Paolo Capponi, Lucia Modugno, Peter Carsten, Umberto Raho
Country: Italy
Running Time: 85 min
Year: 1966

My Name is Pecos sees Robert Woods play the titular character. He’s a mysterious Mexican with a great skill for gunplay. He wanders into Houston around the time that Joe Kline (Pier Paolo Capponi) and his fellow bandits kill a stagecoach driver that had run off with their bank robbery takings. The driver managed to hide the money somewhere in town before he was caught, so Kline terrorizes the people of Houston to try and get his hands on the gold.

Meanwhile, Pecos tries to keep Kline and his men in check and we gradually learn that he has his own motives for sticking it to the bank robber.

It’s refreshing to see a Mexican hero in a genre where they’re usually relegated to bandidos or background players. Unfortunately, the character is played by a white actor in makeup (including some painful looking pinned up eyelids, for some reason), which puts a damper on it, but it’s at least vaguely admirable. Plus, the fights are often motivated by racism rather than your standard “we don’t like outsiders here”, which adds weight to the sequences.

Woods isn’t the most charismatic of leads but is suitably bad-ass in his various showdowns. Capponi is a little textbook as the villain too. Umberto Raho, however, who plays an all-knowing, slimy undertaker, is one of the most memorable cast members. He brilliantly captures the conniving nature of his character, a man with little honour, only interested in lining his pockets.

My Name is Pecos is probably the most generic film in the set, with its typical revenge plot and bog-standard characters. However, it works very effectively. The director Maurizio Lucidi had a background in editing and it shows in how tautly paced the film is. It looks good too, making nice use of the wide frame, though the cinematography is less inventive and impressive than in the other films in the set.

Overall then, My Name is Pecos is slightly less polished than its stablemates here, but is still a fun, if rather generic, spaghetti western with a refreshing Mexican hero (albeit performed by a white actor). With a healthy dose of fast-shooting action and plenty of macho posturing, it’ll keep genre fans happy enough.

Bandidos

Director: Massimo Dallamano
Screenplay: Juan Cobos, Gianbattista Mussetto, Romano Migliorini
Based on a Story by: Juan Cobos, Luis Laso
Starring: Enrico Maria Salerno, Terry Jenkins, María Martín, Venantino Venantini, Marco Guglielmi, Cris Huerta
Country: Italy, Spain
Running Time: 95 min
Year: 1967

Bandidos opens in spectacular fashion with a lengthy train robbery by Billy Kane (Venantino Venantini), which ends in the heroic gunslinging passenger Richard Martin (Enrico Maria Salerno) getting his hands shot and crippled.

We flash forward a few years and Martin, who was once a famous performing sharpshooter, is now training a new apprentice in the art of using a firearm for his travelling sideshow. This youngster is soon killed though, as a joke by an audience member. When Ricky Shot (Terry Jenkins) comes to Martin’s rescue as he’s fighting the murderous audience member and his buddies, Martin talks Ricky into being his next protégé.

Ricky soon learns, however, that Martin isn’t just interested in a gunslinger for his show. He wants to train a man up to be fast enough to kill Kane for him. As Ricky’s skills dramatically improve, the prospect of enacting the revenge Martin so desires starts to become a reality.

The director of Bandidos was Massimo Dallamano, who was Sergio Leone’s cinematographer on A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More. As such there are a few visual and stylistic similarities and ideas, though I think overall it has its own character. Alex Cox pontificated that the film was made by Dallamano in answer to being dropped from shooting The Good the Bad and the Ugly. Though Bandidos doesn’t quite reach the heights of that, it comes pretty close and shows that Dallamano was more than just Leone’s DOP.

The director grabs your attention from the offset, with the impressive opening sequence ending with an epic tracking shot along the side of the train that has just been robbed, showing the scale of the massacre on board, ending by pushing in on the touching hands of a dead couple on the floor. Throughout the film, great use is made of depth, movement, light and colour to make a handsomely mounted western.

Helping Bandidos stand out, besides its visual style, is its storytelling and the strength of its characters. Martin (expertly played by Salerno) is particularly richly drawn, with his symbolic castration at the beginning of the film and need to have a surrogate deliver justice for him giving added depth to his quest for revenge. Ricky (less impressively portrayed by Jenkins) is more enigmatic, to begin with, but revelations towards the end of the film cast new light on the character and unveil a clever twist in seemingly innocuous elements of the opening sequence.

The film is not as bloody and violent as the others in the set, though there’s still a fair amount of slickly presented action and some cruel and humiliating elements in the way characters treat each other. It tells quite a tragic story overall, rather than a cynical one.

All-in-all then, Bandidos is a well crafted, engrossing western with well-developed characters on top of the stylish thrills you come to expect from the genre. Great stuff.

And God Said to Cain

Director: Antonio Margheriti
Screenplay: Giovanni Addessi, Antonio Margheriti
Starring: Klaus Kinski, Peter Carsten, Marcella Michelangeli, Antonio Cantafora, Giuliano Raffaelli
Country: Italy, West Germany
Running Time: 100 min
Year: 1970

We open And God Said to Cain with Gary Hamilton’s (Klaus Kinski) release from a chain gang after 10 years of imprisonment. He heads straight to the town where he used to live with one thing in mind, revenge. You see, that 10 year stint on the chain gang was due to being framed by Acombar (Peter Carsten) and betrayed by his lover Maria (Marcella Michelangeli).

On the same evening that Hamilton travels into town, Acombar’s son, Dick (Antonio Cantafora), comes back from West Point to a hero’s welcome. Acombar has high hopes for Dick, grooming him for lofty roles, greasing the wheels wherever he can, hoping for him to become president one day.

Acombar tries his best to hide his past with Hamilton from Dick, sending out every gun-toting goon he has to kill the vengeful ex-con before he gets to him or the Acombar name gets slandered.

Hamilton is a force to be reckoned with though and picks off the unfortunate gunslingers sent out to stop him, one by one. During all of this, which happens over a single night, a literal storm rages through the town, mirroring Hamilton’s metaphorical storm.

Arrow saved the best till last with And God Said to Cain. It’s a rather unusual western in how it blends the genre with traits from horror movies. With the period setting, particularly Acombar’s lavishly decorated mansion, there’s a distinctly gothic vibe to it, on top of slasher elements in how Hamilton picks off the bad guys in the dark throughout the night.

The film looks fantastic too, moodily lit with great use of light and shadow as well as the elements in the sunset entry of Hamilton, ensuing storm and fiery finale.

Also stylistically impressive is the film’s use of sound. A sequence where Hamilton is tracked by a native American goon, for example, expertly uses the differing sound of footsteps in mud and the drip of the damp walls of the cave the scene is set in to create a wonderfully quiet sense of tension. The relentless tolling of the church bell and clever use of its organ in the killing of a priest also add highly effective audible tropes from the horror genre.

The great Klaus Kinski featured in a lot of westerns but was largely just a villain, henchman or guest star to go on the poster, so it’s great to see him take the lead here. He does a great job too, giving a more restrained performance than usual, whilst some of the other cast members play it fairly big.

With its single day time constraint and minimal number of locations, it’s a stripped back and claustrophobic film, which works very much in favour of its style and concept.

Overall then, it’s a unique, stark western with a welcome gothic horror spin. It’s a real treat to watch. Racked with tension and expertly directed with great use of sound and lighting, it’s my favourite film in the set.

Vengeance Trails – 4 Classic Westerns will be released on 26th July in a Limited Edition 4-disc Blu-ray set from Arrow Video. All of the films look fantastic, rich in detail and colour with natural-looking grain. I’ve used screengrabs throughout this review to give you an idea of picture quality.

You get both English and Italian audio options on all the films. I opted for the Italian tracks each time and they all sounded decent.

4-DISC LIMITED EDITION CONTENTS

– High Definition Blu-ray™ (1080p) presentations of all four films
– 2K restorations of all four films from the original 35mm camera negatives, with Massacre Time, My Name is Pecos and Bandidos newly restored by Arrow Films for this release
– Restored lossless mono Italian and English soundtracks
– English subtitles for the Italian soundtracks
– English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing for the English soundtracks
– Galleries for all four films
– Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing by author and critic Howard Hughes
– Fold-out double-sided poster featuring newly commissioned artwork by Gilles Vranckx
– Limited edition packaging with reversible sleeves featuring original artwork and a slipcover featuring newly commissioned artwork by Gilles Vranckx

DISC 1 – MASSACRE TIME

– Alternate US dub
– New commentary by authors and critics C. Courtney Joyner and Henry Parke
– New documentary featuring a new video interview with actor Franco Nero and an archival video interview with actor George Hilton
– New video interview with film historian Fabio Melelli
– Italian trailer

DISC 2 – MY NAME IS PECOS

– New commentary by actor Robert Woods and C. Courtney Joyner
– New interview with actor George Eastman
– New interview with actress Lucia Modugno
– New documentary featuring a new interview with Fabio Melelli and an archival interview with cinematographer Franco Villa
– Italian trailer

DISC 3 – BANDIDOS

– New commentary by author and critic Kat Ellinger
– New interview with assistant director Luigi Perelli
– New interview with actor Gino Barbacane
– New interview with Fabio Melelli
– Alternate end title sequence

DISC 4 – AND GOD SAID TO CAIN

– New commentary by author and critic Howard Hughes
– New documentary featuring a new interview with Fabio Melelli and a new audio interview with actress Marcella Michelangeli
– New interview with actor Antonio Cantafora

On the Massacre Time commentary by authors and critics C. Courtney Joyner and Henry Parke, the pair keep the conversation flowing and there are some interesting points made, though they spend a lot of time overly worshipping Fulci and I found myself disagreeing with some of their statements about how influential the film was. It’s a decent track overall though.

Similarly, I found myself disagreeing with some of the claims made by film historian Fabio Melelli but enjoyed and appreciated his illuminating contributions nonetheless. He makes several comments about the strong psychoanalytic qualities of the film but doesn’t expand enough to explain, so I felt like he was reaching in this aspect.

The interview with Nero and Hilton is enjoyable, with the pair discussing their relationship with the western genre, as well as their memories of making the film and working with Fulci and each other. They both take pleasure in boasting about how good they were at riding and shooting too. I appreciated how neither minced their words about Fulci. They both point out how intelligent he was and a great director but also talk of how fiery and difficult he could be.

On My Name is Pecos, the commentary with Robert Woods and C. Courtney Joyner is an easy listen, with the actor genial and having a lot of nice things to say about those involved. It’s not the most illuminating track in terms of facts or analysis but it’s still worth a listen.

Fabio Melelli’s piece, which gives some brief analysis and background, is backed up by an interview with the film’s cinematographer, Franco Villa. He offers a nostalgic look back at the period the film was made.

The Luigi Montefiori (a.k.a. George Eastman) interview is enjoyable and honest, with the actor recollecting his work on the film, as well as the rest of his career. It’s amusingly disrupted by his lively and affectionate dog though.

Lucia Modugno’s interview is honest about how she’d take any part back then and experienced some bad treatment on sets. She also tells an amusing story about the makeshift ‘facilities’ during filming Pecos.

Kat Ellinger’s commentary on Bandidos is my favourite of the set. She gives a thorough and engrossing analysis of the film and history of those involved. She’s particularly keen to extol the virtues of its director, Massimo Dallamano, who’s best known simply as the cinematographer on the first two Dollars films.

The film’s assistant director, Luigi Perelli, tells of his career on the disc. He’s an intelligent and interesting speaker with plenty to tell of his days learning the ropes before becoming a director himself.

Once again, Fabio Melelli gives his thoughts on the film and fills us in on the backgrounds of those involved.

The And God Said to Cain commentary with Howard Hughes is well researched and detailed, though the delivery is quite dry. He has some fascinating things to say about Margheriti, in particular, including the rumour he was approached to do the special effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The interview with Antonio Cantafora is worth a watch too. He shares his memories from the shoot and thoughts of his costars and director. It’s not particularly filled with fun anecdotes and he’s not the most charismatic speaker but it’s nice to hear about the making of the film.

Fabio Melelli, yet again, provides some illuminating background on the film. He also presents a phone interview with the actress Marcella Michelangeli, which contains a few tales of the shoot.

I didn’t get a copy of the booklet to comment on that, unfortunately.

So, a solid set of extras for a great collection of films. Highly recommended.

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