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.

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.)

Saturday, February 4, 2017

THE WEIRD WEST GENRE: Weird Western Film Part 2

   So, in 1935, the Weird Western film was accidentally born outta pulp magazine stories and the end of the silent western era. This was with film serial The Phantom Empire, starring Gene Autry, singing in some ancient civilization miles under the Earth’s surface. You can see then, how that wasn’t something anyone did on purpose. You can’t even really say the thing was a true Weird Western. But if there’s to be a contender for the first, well, there’s an argument to be made for this one.
   (At least in America, but we’re not there yet.)
See, there were western serials that came earlier, with their own mixes of sci-fi and horror. Mystery Mountain in 1934 had The Rattler, master of disguise and holed up in a cave full of electronic gizmos. Terror of the Range, even farther back in 1919, had a vampire and Lightning Bryce, that same year, put in some Indian ‘magic’.
   However, these really just had weird villains. You could swap them out with any old black hat and end up the same place. Of course, Phantom was similar. While it did have its entire mystery pinned to those folks living underground, we didn’t really need Gene Autry as a cowboy. Take out the hidden city and your whole story is shot, but make Autry a singing mail clerk or soldier or airplane pilot and it works out the same.
   That’s a thing to keep in mind with any genre fiction – is whatever person or item that makes it part of that genre so important that you can’t remove it without wrecking the story? Did we need a vampire in Terror, or if we did, then did we need cowboys to chase it? How about Lightning Bryce? Did there have to be Indian ‘magic’ – which was just powders and hocus pocus to confound the heroes momentarily – in order to move the story forward?
   Not really, on any of those accounts. None of them are Weird Westerns, despite the addition of some weird elements in a western setting. No, the ‘true’ weird western was decades off yet. But in the meantime, there was still plenty of weird to see in the serials of the day.
   Not really in the western ones themselves, though. Sure, Phantom and a few others with masked and mysterious villains (and their evil ‘powers’) to spice things up, but they were pretty standard fare. Good guys and bad, a ranch somewhere needed defending, maybe someone’s brother or dad got killed and off they went. All anyone wanted to see was them cowboys, anyway.
   No, for the real weird, people went to other horror and sci-fi serials, with their whole framework built out of unearthly visitors and evil conspiracies and strange machines. Homunculus in 1916 was an early sci-fi one, and The Crimson Stain Mystery did for horror that same year. Those genres continued on same as the westerns, so there was no real need to jump up the western by adding anything new to it. As its own ‘weird’ genre, that is.
   And that kept on fine from the advent of real movies around 1903, on up to the late 1930’s. Phantom Empire came out, then Riders of the Whistling Skull in ’37 and The Terror of Tiny Town in ’38, two more swipes at the ‘weird western’ genre, though that genre had no name, yet.
   Why’d anyone bother? Well, like the horror and sci-fi films of those days, the western serials were cheap pulp. Disposable entertainment so sure, why not make a full-blown sci-fi or horror western? Or in the case of Tiny Town, one with nearly the whole cast made up of little people? Now was the time to take that popular whiz-bang stuff from the other genres and mix the western all the way up. The western had seen its best days, so there was nothing to lose.
   Then of course, came Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power and all their handsome Hollywood friends to save the day. Dodge City with Mr. Flynn was released in 1939 and brought westerns back from pulp serial-hell to traditional audiences. It was produced by Hal B. Wallis, who’d already produced Captain Blood, Fugitive From a Chain Gang, Little Caesar and dozens more. He’d go on to have his hand in Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon and hundreds more after that. Around 400 in his career. Reviving the Western was nothing for this guy.
   John Ford’s Stagecoach helped as well, as did Destry Rides Again and plenty others. The western was off and running once more. The fare was still standard, good guys and bad, ranches and rescues but the money was bigger and the talent more capable. They provided rich backdrops and powerful performances. The movies of that time established what we know now as the Classic Western: traditional, predictable and plenty profitable. For the next twenty five years, it’d stay that way.
   And then things would get really goddamn weird.