Upbeat Cynicism

what do you mean i lost my mind?

Death Rides A Horse, 1968

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Four word review: Awesome title, decent movie.

A few more words to fill out the review:

Contra Roger Ebert, this is not truly a bad movie, certainly worthy of more than a single star. It’s entertaining and fun, as goofy as it sometimes gets, and nowhere near being bad. It’s not really near being good either, but it is what it is, and isn’t aspiring to more. It succeeds in being what it wants to be.

Death Rides a Horse starts off with a well-done prologue that’s more horror than western. On a dark and stormy night ((Really stormy. It looks like the water is sluicing down from firehoses onto the actors, almost. )), five villains kill off guards around a house, then the family within, getting in some rape of the mother and daughter for good measure. The youngest son survives by hiding and, though he is found by one of the villains, his secret is kept and he is allowed to live.

This sequence gets several flashbacks throughout the movie, making re-use of the crudest, most amusing stylization of the movie. The boy gets a good look at one feature of each villain — but not their faces (mostly). One has a tattoo of playing cards across his collar bone, e.g. Anyway, the boy looks, we get a quick zoom in on his eyes, then a quick POV zoom in on the thing he’s noticing, and then another shot of him looking. These zooms are repeated later in the movie, each time he meets one of the men much later on.

The boy grows up to be John Phillip Law, who has been training in the intervening fifteen years to become preternaturally good with both six-gun and rifle.

At about the same time that Law gets evidence that will finally start to lead him to the men that slaughtered his family, Lee Van Cleef (god among men) is getting released from prison after fifteen years for good behavior.

Van Cleef is after the men who sold him out and left him in hard labor for fifteen years, and crosses paths with Law.

(No points for guessing that the two groups of men are the same, or that Van Cleef turns out to be the guy who rescued the boy.)

What develops as they start competing with each other on the hunt is a very fun and interesting relationship. Van Cleef clearly wants the kid to get out of his way, but also can’t help pulling the kid out of a few scrapes and mentoring him along the way. Granted, he keeps stealing Law’s horse and leaving him to walk miles, so that he can get a good lead on him, but still, the relationship is a lot of fun to watch unfold. And the final confrontation didn’t play out in quite the way I expected.

John Phillip Law does a passable job (somewhat suprisingly). Lee Van Cleef is in top form, as good here as he was in his Leone films. The man was not only good, he was a professional.

All in all, a rollicking good time, even if it’s no kind of a classic.

This is on Mill Creek Entertainment’s Spaghetti Westerns pack, which offers a heck of a lot of (squeaky, odd-sounding) bang for the buck and is, because of some of the rarities it contains, a must-buy in any event. The image is muddy, and it’s cropped (pan and scan, not widescreen). It’s on other collections from them, as well, and various other places since it’s public domain. But unless and until somebody does a really bang-up restoration and special edition release of this one, this one gets the job done.


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