Monday, February 27, 2017

THE WEIRD WEST GENRE: Weird Western Film Part 4

   Now, there were some ‘weird western’ films being done at the time. With the backslide of the traditional, ‘Hollywood’ western came the need to jazz it up (like it had been with the serials during the late 30’s) and the 50’s saw a lot of horror and sci-fi that producers figured might go nice into a flagging genre. Beast of the Hollow Mountain in 1956 and Curse of the Undead and The Living Coffin – both in ’59 – are the big ones, but that wouldn’t quite do the trick.
   Neither would El Jinete Sin Cabeza or “The Headless Horseman”, a three-part serial released in Mexico in 1957. In it, Pancho Villa’s head goes around in a box until it ends up in the hands of the Headless Horseman, who goes on to make trouble with it. Fun little picture.
   But adding horror or sci-fi elements don’t make a weird western, poof, just like that. No, the ‘weird’ of the weird west comes from something else. A mood of the Old West itself, an eerie sense of the landscape, of all that unknown all around you. And that feeling, that creepy lurk of how a town sat, or a man looked, would truly come to pass with the Spaghetti westerns. This best exampled by the films of a gent known as Sergio Leone.
   The release of his Fistful of Dollars in 1964 really led the charge toward taking apart the western film and as a result, lending it a true sense of the weird. Leone wasn’t the first to do so, as the Spaghetti western itself wasn’t new (Sergio’s dad invented the genre in 1913, remember) and there were plenty of Eurowesterns going on at the time. British, German, even Russian productions, but unlike the early Spaghetti westerns – which were merely Italian-produced films – Fistful would give a new definition to the term. From them on, when someone would make a Spaghetti western, they’d be making a certain kind of film. When folks would talk about them years later, they’d be talking about a certain kind of film. Not an ‘Italian-produced’ film, but a ‘Leone-type’ film.
   Now, those Spaghetti pictures in the early 1900’s were, as mentioned, just Italian-produced western films. There was no real commentary going on about putting new life into American westerns (the American western had barely started when the Spaghetti western set off) or criticizing the American western genre. Or America itself. But by the 1960’s, well, the American Western was done with. Hell, if you can’t save a genre with a title like Curse of the Undead, it’s probably time to pack it in.
   Truth is, folks were bored with westerns and the attitude seemed to be, to foreigners, that America thought it had the rights to the Old West, just ’cause it’d happened in their country. Like America was the only place could make a western and make it right. To America, well they’d keep making the western as it had been, where the larger facts of history got ignored, the obvious consequences of certain actions could be sidestepped and Hollywood could show how white men had won the west singlehanded. Failing that, they’d fight ghosts and vampires and whatever else they had to for the price of a movie ticket.
   Well, that just wasn’t gonna stand for a lotta new filmmakers looking to make their mark and take a shot at a genre that’d sat too long on its laurels. To those making Eurowesterns and Spaghettis, the dying American western was perfect for criticizing the country’s current place in the cultural landscape and its dated ideals. This perspective gave these new films an edgier, gloomier quality, almost a surreal one. Too, there were simply social and cultural differences in the writers and directors which influenced how they interpreted the Old West. These folks made the ‘white hat hurrah’ of the classic western a bloody, cynical and unsettling affair.
   In a word:
   So, western serials at the turn of the century had given way to a decline in popularity, then a resurgence in the late 1930’s of western films that kept up for the next two and a half decades. But now, those films were tired and mediocre and due for a change. It was about 1960, and a few folks had an idea how they might get that done. The result would redefine the western and give us a whole new type of weird western, while they were at it.

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