Sunday, February 19, 2017

THE WEIRD WEST GENRE: Weird Western Film Part 3

   So the early days of silent western films gave way to western serials, which gave way to westerns falling into the same genre heap as science fiction and horror. Pulp entertainment. Then Dodge City was released in 1939 and set the stage for the Classic Western film, which ruled the roost for the next twenty five years.
   No need to get into those films, we know those films. Some fine pictures there, some not so fine. But the template is the same. Good and bad, good usually wins. Women in peril, usually subservient. Mainly white casts, and the biggest parts for the men. Black, Mexican, Chinese, Native American, if they were featured at all, were on the bottom rungs as slaves, laborers or villains.
   It wasn’t a real picture of the Old West, them films. It started out as something like it. John Ford for example, was a hell of a director. He captured the bleak but beautiful scenery of the time like none other. His men were men, and while pretty straight-forward types, had some mystery about them, some depth, if only in the way they were framed in a shot. Howard Hawks, same deal. But that level of skill ain’t possible to maintain when the audience is clamoring, so like their serial forebears, the western film saw a decline.
   It was always idealized, but soon became a kind of parody of itself. By the early 50’s, the look of a frontier town was some studio backlot. Batwing doors for a man to stride through, fat bartender with a curly moustache washing glasses. Ladies of the evening who never seemed to have sex. Always with their hair perfect and a beauty mark penciled above their lip.
   No costumer had really ever gotten a cowboy’s clothes (or hat) right, but soon they went right off the rails with bright colors and big, bold Stetsons. They were all clean-shaven (unless they were evil), never got sick from the sun or the water and could ride for days without saddle sores or a bad back. They drew heels on each other for trivial things, or just threw down in a fistfight. Knocking each other through saloon banisters and busting bottles over heads is still an image we have today of the western film, and it’s a humorous one, it happened so often in those movies.
   Obviously, things had to change. The western was still a viable genre. It was still about taming a frontier, man against nature and himself. If the movies had pulled away from that, turning them into foolish entertainment once again, then it was time to turn that around. But not by going back, no. Not to serials or to borrowing from other genres like sci-fi or horror with them serials.
   It was time to look at what a western was really about and try to seize that. And it was just in capturing that sense of the land itself, the loneliness and mystery of the Old West, that we’d come upon some elaboration on what makes a weird western.
   These were of course, the Spaghetti westerns. True, I been talking mostly about the American Western and didn’t want to complicate things by getting into Spaghetti westerns too soon. Or European Westerns either, which are those financed in Europe (not Italy, though) and generally written and directed and cast by Europeans. But the truth is, the Spaghetti westerns had among their number their own weird western about 20 years before The Phantom Empire.
   In fact, they had the first one, which some say is also the first Spaghetti western, too. Back in 1913, a man made La Vampira Indiana, a vampire-themed western which, with its Old West premise (a Native American princess of a sort is the vampire in question) and well, the weirdness of that horror element itself, certainly makes it a contender for the first true weird western.
   Now, the man responsible, Roberto Roberti was also known by his given name, Vincenzo Leone. He’d end up with the female lead of that western (Bice Waleran) and in 1929, she gave birth to their son, Sergio.
   In 1964, Sergio Leone would come to re-define the western with A Fistful of Dollars and as a result, lay the groundwork for others to build upon a whole new interpretation of the genre. Along with Sam Peckinpah and other Revisionists and Alejandro Jodorowsky blowing fool minds with his Acid Westerns, the 60’s were gonna prove to be the turning point not only of the western film, but western cinema at large.
   But before things got too weird, there were still some ‘weird’ westerns to squeeze outta the deal.
   (No, that ain't any poster for Leone's vampire movie. I needed one and my pal Terry  - who also does my book covers - came up with one for me. Man's got a cute-ass way about him, if you can't tell.)

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