Billy the Kid Versus Dracula (1966)

I don’t know why I’m suddenly fascinated by the schlocky career of William Beaudine. The only two films I’ve previously seen from the professionaly subpar director, The Ape Man & Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, both tested my usual unending patience for poverty row garbage starring Bela Lugosi, who I love dearly. Yet, there’s an undeniable draw to Beaudine’s schlocky frivolity, no matter how often the promise of his films’ premises fail to pay off. Take, for instance, his final two productions before retirement/death. Filming both titles in just eight days on the same Californian ranch, Beaudine capped off his career with the “Weird West” double bill of Billy the Kid Versus Dracula and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter. There’s no way either film could live up to the full schlock potential of their titles, thanks to Beaudine’s passionless workman sense of craft. Just the mere fact that films exist on the market with such preposterous titles is enough to draw me in as an audience, though, no matter how many times I’ve been burned before. In that way William Beaudine may just have been a movie/money-making genius.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Billy the Kid Versus Dracula is that it was filmed in 1960s color instead of 1950s black & white. Otherwise, it’s the exact unimpressive mashup of supernatural action & lackluster romance you might expect from the title. Billy the Kid is a real life historical figure, placing the prestige & plausibility of this work somewhere around the heights of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. In the film, he’s posited as a retired gunfighter, an outlaw made good. His determination to live a quiet life is jeapordized when his young fiancee is hypnotized and quarantined by a vampire (never once referred to as Dracula in the script) who arrives in their small Old West town posing as her uncle. Everyone else seems to ignore the improbability that this oddly incestuous European man would be this teenage woman’s uncle and accepts him as her new guardian after he drains her parents of their blood. Only Billy the Kid senses that something is afoul and must murder the vampire invader in a way that both doesn’t arouse suspicion from the law and trades in his pistol-shooting tactics for a traditional heart-staking. It’s all very silly.

Unfortunately, the silliness at the core of Billy the Kid Versus Dracula has all the urgency of a Halloween-themed episode of Bonanza or Gunsmoke. When the vampire hypnotizes women he glows red and closely resembles an illustration of Satan. His bat form is also adorably shoddy, like a Party City decoration, and is used as silhouetted screen wipes during the opening credits. The rest of the movie is on the most boring end of cheap Western media, however, and it’s not at all surprising that this “Weird West” double bill was financed by television producers. I’m much more in tune with the campy pleasures of cheap horror than whatever people see in cheap Westerns, so maybe the Cowboys & Indians gunplay of Billy the Kid Versus Dracula would play better for audiences who never tire of grizzled men with six shooters who uniformly refer to Native Americans as “savages.” I guess since my interest in watching the film was only piqued during its few stray vampire attacks, I might have been better off watching a different Dracula film altogether, but I will admit the absurdity of the setting has an endearing novelty to it that a 70min feature can easily sustain while remaining moderately charming.

As tickled as I am by the Billy the Kid Versus Dracula‘s titular premise, the movie has no excuse to be as dull or as uninventive as it is, especially considering its mid-60s release date. I like to imagine an alternate universe where William Beaudine were more passionate about his absurdist schlock. A version of this film made in the 1950s by a fired up Ed Wood could easily have been an all-time​ cult classic, maybe even with Bela Lugosi in the villainous lead. Beaudine manages to reduce something so wonderfully outlandish to a by the numbers, television-esque work of supernatural tedium. I was only moderately entertained by it for a few isolated stretches, but I still can’t resist the urge to watch its sister film, Jesse James Meets Frankenstein‘s Daughter anyway. Who could pass up a title like that, no matter who’s behind the camera? I am my own worst enemy.

-Brandon Ledet

The Magnificent Seven (2016)

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fourstar

I hate Westerns. I really, really do. When I was a kid in rural East Baton Rouge Parish (and especially when we went to visit even-more-rural friends and family in St Helena), they seemed to make up the bulk of television outside of primetime; moreover, family friends who were fortunate enough to own more than ten videocassettes (which was how I defined wealth then, and, perhaps, now) still had a collection that was largely made up of Western cinema. The filmic depiction of the mythological Wild West, with its overwhelming anxiety about bandits, borderline racist depictions of native people, the uniform whiteness of the protagonists (which led me, as a child, to be unable to tell characters apart), and overall bland cinematic eye really turned me off. I can barely even stand to watch the Western episodes of The Twilight Zone, my favorite show of all time; when one comes on during Syfy’s annual marathons, it’s the cue for me to go outside and get some fresh air.

There are exceptions, of course, to every rule. As a rule, I loathe musicals, but I can see the merits in, for instance, the Heathers musical, which I saw both in New York and in Austin, and I am more willing to accept characters breaking into song in animation, which is already acceptable removed from cinema vérité (Bob’s Burgers and The Simpsons most notably, but also more traditionally musical fare like The Little Mermaid). There are Westerns that I like, enjoy or otherwise feel something like fondness for; my grandfather loved Quigley Down Under and thus so do I, The Quick and the Dead is a fun movie, and Sergio Leone’s Westerns are cinematically engaging on a level that intrigues me. And, of course, 1960’s The Magnificent Seven.

When The Verge did their write-up on 2016’s Magnificent 7 last month, they heralded its arrival in their headline: “behold, the progressive Western.” I didn’t see that review before I saw the film, but it was also the first thing that struck me about this film after I largely ignored the promotional materials. Although the film follows the structure of the original film (and, by extension, Seven Samurai), gone are the questionable and dated trappings of the old school Western, replaced with an easily digestible parable about capitalism and race dressed up in a gunslinger’s shoot ‘em up. And it’s pretty great!

Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) is a corrupt industrialist who has his sights set on Rose Creek, a mining town in northern California. He and his cohort of morally bankrupt private detectives, thinly veiled versions of the Pinkertons who broke up strikes in the real West, roll into town and burn the facade of the church, telling the townsfolk that he will return in less than a month to purchase the last of their hard-earned land for less than half of its worth, and they can either fall in line or die. Shortly thereafter, widow Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) and her friend enlist the help of warrant officer Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington) when he passes through town in pursuit of a fugitive. Although he is at first reluctant, Chisolm relents when he hears that the Bart Bogue is behind this transgression, he agrees to help Rose Creek defend itself.

In a plotline that has been homaged from The Avengers to Star Wars (so much so that most viewers likely think it’s older than locomotion), Chisolm recruits six more men to join him: rapscallion sharpshooter and gambler Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt), Mexican outlaw gunslinger Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Ruffo), legendary New Orleans rifleman “Goodnight” Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) and his knife-wielding associate Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), Comanche wanderer Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier), and tracker Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio). The seven men come together (with Emma acting as a kind of alternate teammate in various situations) to try and teach the settlers of Rose Creek to defend themselves against Bogue’s imminent invasion.

I really enjoyed this film. Above and beyond the general thrill of a legitimately fun Western with clearly evil and less-clearly-good characters, I loved the subtext. Gone is the marauding bandito who terrorized the peasant village of the original, replaced by the face of true evil in every generation: avaricious capitalist men driven by their lust for and worship of material goods (and the power that they bring) with no regard for the cost of human life and dignity. Instead of helping to protect and serve the populace of Rose Creek from outside influence, the sheriff of the town has been bought and paid for by Bogue; the innocents who have entrusted him with their lives are mowed down by him for immoral reasons, just as we so often see the loss of life (largely of people of color) at the hands of modern police forces. The deputies of the town are amoral thugs with no sense of right or wrong, hired mercenaries with so much blood on their hands that they’ll never be clean; not only are they evocative of the Pinkertons but also of the PMCs used in Iraq and elsewhere, before and during the war on terror.

Standing in their way are a black man (given that the film is set in 1879 and the fact that Chisolm refers to living in Arkansas, he is likely to be a former slave), a Native American, an Asian man, and a Mexican sharpshooter (in one notable exchange, Vasquez remarks that there is no such thing as a “Texican,” illuminating the lie in the name given to him by others who sought only to steal the land and livelihood of himself and his people). Beyond these POC are other marginalized people, including a soldier with PTSD and an elderly man who has been declared useless by society. And a woman!

In a more traditional Western, Bogue would represent progress, the man bringing civilization to the “savage” western edge of the country, but here he is shown for who he really is, a corrupt monster who uses bullying and violence to make his mark on the world, and, ultimately, he is undone by a diverse coalition of men (and a woman!) who forsake old grudges (as seen in the interactions between Red Harvest and Jack Horne as well as Vasquez and Faraday) in order to prevent an evil reaping of innocent people. And, hey, it’s a surprisingly progressive film that you can probably get even your racist grandpa to watch. Check it out!

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Bone Tomahawk (2015)

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One of the best, most unexpected developments in recent media has been the resurgence of Kurt Russell. His work in 1980s John Carpenter classics Big Trouble in Little China, Escape from New York, and The Thing helped establish Russell as a genre flick icon, a charming-but-gruff personality with a history of cult classic works backing up his instant likability. A starring role in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof threatened a comeback for Russell back in 2007, but it doesn’t feel like that potential has really been put into motion until this past year. After an oddly humorous supporting role in Furious 7, Russell has returned to the Western cinema work he began in Tombstone, in both the recent Tarantino film The Hateful Eight and in Western-horror genre mashup Bone Tomahawk, making 2015 the first time he’s ever had three feature film credits in a single year. And with a great part coming up in the next Guardians of the Galaxy entry, it feels like he’s just getting started.

In Bone Tomahawk, Russell plays a mustachioed, old-timey sheriff of a small, Old West town humorously named Bright Hope. When a couple of Bright Hope’s own are abducted by a rogue tribe of “inbred” Native American “troglodytes”, Russell’s hardened sheriff embarks on a rescue mission with his elderly deputy, a hothead husband bent on retrieving his missing wife, and a wildcard cad. As the cad exposes himself as a self-aggrandizing blowhard, the husband increasingly becomes crippled & enraged, and the deputy continues his descent into the mutterings of a doddering old fool, the sheriff remains as the sole member of the rescue party seemingly well-equipped for the journey. No one can be truly prepared for what lurks at the end of this particular rainbow, though: a ruthlessly sadistic tribe of cave-dwelling cannibals.

I’ll be upfront as I can about this: I’m not typically a huge of fan of the Western as a genre. Its hyper-masculine, protect-the-wives-and-horses-from-the-savage-bandits mentality & spacial pacing aren’t my usual go-to idea of entertainment. Worse yet, Bone Tomahawk delves into some grotesque Eli Roth/Cannibal Holocaust bodily horror that I have a difficult time getting behind. The latter half of the movie in particular is jam-packed with field surgery, scalping, decapitation, internal burning, and all sorts of other unpleasant gore I would typically avoid. For all of its brutality & no-nonsense masculinity, however, Bone Tomahawk does know how to subvert these genre hallmarks enough to leave behind a generally pleasing picture. The man-vs.-nature vulnerability of a broken leg or a lost horse is still essential to the plot’s macho problem-solving, but it’s undercut by nuances in the dialogue, like when a woman comments on the doomed-to-fail rescue mission, “This is why frontier life is so difficult. Not because of the elements or the Indians, but because of the idiots. You’re idiots!” Speaking of “the Indians”, the film’s othering depictions of the antagonistic tribe of cannibalistic troglodytes’ demonic screams & skull armor is balanced by representation of other Native Americans who are much, much less barbarous & in exchanges like when a cowboy calls a native “a godless savage”, then immediately scratches his genitals with the barrel of a pistol.

Bone Tomahawk strikes a satisfying balance between living out a (possibly outdated) genre (or two)’s worst trappings & subverting them for previously unexplored freshness. Part of what makes it work as a whole is the deliciously over-written dialogue, like when David Arquette’s ruffian thief complains to the sheriff, “You’ve been squirting lemon juice in my eye since you walked in here,” but mostly it’s just nice to see Kurt Russell back in the saddle participating in weird, affecting genre work. I tend to go for a more cartoonish, morbidly humorous approach to gore than what’s presented here & I don’t see anything accomplished in this film that I didn’t enjoy far more in 1999’s criminally-overlooked Ravenous, but I also recognize that there are fans of the Western & of blunt, brutal horror that will get a kick out of what’s presented here. It’s a well-constructed, highly-disturbing genre pic with a solid lead hero, the exact kind of thing I’m glad to see Russell return to at this point in his career.

-Brandon Ledet

The Hateful Eight (2015)

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fourstar

One of the first things that will always come to mind with Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, The Hateful Eight, is the William Castle-esque pageantry of its release. Framed as an Old Hollywood-style Road Show, the film was released one week earlier than its digital-version wide release date as a 70mm film print (a strip twice as large as was standard when film prints were standard) complete with an overture, intermission, and a full-color playbill. The Hateful Eight Road Show was a three hour long experience. Purchasing tickets more than a week ahead of time I got the distinct feeling of when you’re anticipating a band you love coming to town instead of a film. To tell the truth, though, the Road Show wasn’t as flashy or as exciting as you would expect, not even as over-the-top as the Grindhouse gimmick attached to Tarantino’s Death Proof release. The overture & intermission were blank spaces accompanied by music. The “extra footage” was, presumably, a collection of extended exterior & detail shots that helped establish mood. Watching the movie unfold on projected film was a nice touch for an homage to old-fashioned Westerns, but it’s a detail that could be forgotten once you’re immersed in its story. The best part of the Road Show was not how it punched the film up & made it more exciting, but how it slowed the proceeding down & let it breathe.

At one point in The Hateful Eight, Samuel L. Jackson’s balding, ex-military bounty hunter says, “Not so fast. Let’s slow it down. Let’s slow it way down.” That seems to be the film’s M.O. in general. Tarantino is, of course, known to luxuriate in his own dialogue, but there is something particularly bare bones & talkative about The Hateful Eight. It’d say it’s his most patient & relaxed work yet, one that uses the Western format as a springboard for relying on limited locations & old-fashioned storytelling to propel the plot toward a blood-soaked finale. Depicting a (jokingly) self-described Bounty Hunter’s Picnic, the film follows the transport of a dangerous criminal (played by an especially feral Jennifer Jason Leigh) in the company of eight potentially dangerous men who are all snowed-in in in a small Wyoming cabin during a blizzard. Among them are Kurt Russell’s weathered bounty hunter, desperate to see her hang; Sam Jackson’s similarly-minded bounty hunter with his own payday to protect; Bruce Dern’s cantankerous Southern Rebel general who refuses to let go of the Civil War; Tim Roth’s “jolly good” rapscallion of a Brit; and the list goes on. As the plot unfolds it becomes apparent that one or more of the strange men are determined to set the prisoner free by leaving behind a trail of dead, which makes for a Western version of a mystery film like Clue or John Carpenter’s The Thing. Tarantino’s no stranger to genre mashups or liberal borrowing, but there’s a relaxed, unrushed pacing that started to emerge in his films sometime around Inglourious Basterds that’s getting its full due in The Hateful Eight.

Watching Tarantino’s films with the general public is always a little nerve-racking for me. The mashup of comedy & violence in his work builds a lot of nervous tension that leads to much-needed laughs, but I find a lot of audiences will laugh at disturbing moments designed to leave you more in abject horror instead of knee-slapping amusement. The Hateful Eight provides a wealth of opportunities for this discomfort. The audience around me laughed during shots of Jennifer Jason Leigh being beaten half to death by the men in charge of her transport. I found that more horrifying than amusing (despite her playing a cruel, heartless character herself), but Leigh’s immediate response to of spitting, shooting snot rockets, and licking up blood with a smirk were all very funny to me in a Jerri Blank kind of way and fell onto a silent room. Similarly, the copious amount of utterances of the word “nigger” in a post-Civil War America setting & an extended fireside tale of a rape & murder left me chilled to the rest of the room’s bizarre reactions. At least we could all agree on the excellent physical comedy gag of a door that wouldn’t stay latched? Tarantino knows exactly what he’s doing with this tension, something he plays up with decisions like ending the rape tale with a silent intermission or having characters puke blood in a grotesque practical effects display that alternates from funny to horrifying to funny to you get the picture.

So many details complicate the background & history of The Hateful Eight that it’s difficult to separate them from the film proper. The film’s screenplay was leaked online prior to production, so an infuriated Tarantino cancelled the film outright, then doubled back & staged a table reading before deciding to actually begin filming due to an overwhelmingly positive response. I mention this backstory because it bleeds into the film not only in its dialogue-heavy vibe, but also in the way Tarantino himself acts as a narrator, reading stage directions aloud during the film. The Thing vibes are inescapable in its snowed-in, no-one-can-be-trusted plot structure, but are also backed up & complicated by unused segments of Ennico Morricone’s score for John Carpenter’s The Thing. Then there’s the experience of the Road Show & the 70mm print, two features I cannot separate from the movie as a finished product. I also found myself thinking of its “Spend the holidays with someone you hate” tagline in the trailers, especially in Michael Madsen’s cowboy’s interrupted plans to spend Christmas with his mother & in a particularly uncomfortable rendition of “Silent Night”. It’s difficult to know when you’re enjoying The Hateful Eight or when you’re enjoying the experience & the lore of watching The Hateful Eight. It’s a confusingly engaging film in that way.

There are a few things that are remarkably clear about The Hateful Eight to me right now, though. It is an incredibly violent, misanthropic, lushly-photographed tale of a collection of vile ruffians murdering each other in such a flippant, nonchalant way that it leaves you with both nervous laughter and total disgust. In that way it’s classic Tarantino, so mileage may vary depending on how you already feel about his work. In this case, though, the pacing is slowed way down to allow the violence & the nervousness to soak in even deeper than before, leaving you with a particularly nasty, hateful feeling at the end credits.

-Brandon Ledet

Wild Gals of the Naked West (1962)

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After the vignette structure that loosely held together his third “nudie cutie” picture, Erotica, Russ Meyer returned to feature length narratives for his fourth film, Wild Gals of the Naked West. Unfortunately, the same narrative slightness that worked well enough for The Immoral Mr. Teas to become a breakout success & singlehandedly launch the nudie cutie genre had become tiresome as soon as Meyer’s second picture, the impossibly dull Eve & The Handyman, and near sadistic by the time Meyer made Wild Gals of the Naked West. Wild Gals expands upon the strange quick cuts & surreal pastel-colored voids that distinguish Meyer’s work from other Mr. Teas imitators, but outside of a couple sparse visual quirks there’s nothing too remarkable about the film. It’s difficult to shake the feeling that Wild Gals was more or less an an excuse for Meyer & friends to play Western-themed dress up in the desert. And, of course, to display bare breasts.

Our host for this burlesque take on playing cowboys & Indians is an old, drunken Western coot played by Jack Moran. Moran had previously provided the besides-the-point narration that made Erotica a mildly enjoyable, disorienting experience, but this was his first full collaboration with Meyer, both as an onscreen presence & as the sole credited screenwriter. Moran would later go on to pen some of Meyer’s best work of the 1960s (including the cult classic Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!), but it’s hard to see too much promise in the razor thin screenplay he provides for Wild Gals of the Naked West. Even less dignified than his razor-thin screeplay is his onscreen portrayal of the old coot narrator, decked out in a hideously cheap costume complete with horrendously fake-looking eyebrows & mustache.

Much more exciting in her introduction to the Russ Meyer landscape is the actual old coot Princess Livingston, a toothless howl of a loon that would later appear in notable Meyer pictures like Mudhoney & Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (not to mention an appearance in the Pufnstuff movie, of all things). Princess Livingston has a wild authenticity to her, making crazy eyes for the camera, cackling like a drunken witch, and calling to mind future featured players in Meyer-devotee John Waters’ films like the late, great Edith Massey. Wild Gals of the Naked West tries its best to cultivate a sense of unbridled chaos in shoddy, vaudevillian gags involving gorilla costumes, crossdressing, and pranks involving outhouses, but none of the film’s thematic shenanigans can even approach the cinematic lunacy Princess Livingston commands simply by being her wonderful self.

Besides the introductions of Jack Moran & Princess Livingston, Wild Gals is mostly significant in its over-indulgence in the pastel voids that made The Immoral Mr. Teas‘ hallucinogenic glimpses of nudity quaintly fascinating. Here, all visions of Old West saloons & brothels are confined to these otherworldly, pastel-colored spaces, populated by quick cuts of hand-drawn pianos, pasties-covered breasts, hideous drunks downing untold gallons of liquor, strange rubber masks, and six-shooters going off indiscriminately. If the entirety of the film’s action was contained in these nudity-filled bursts of drunken chaos, Wild Gals of the Naked West might be among the best of Russ Meyer’s nudie cutie work. Instead it’s severely bogged down by hokey gags involving the aforementioned gorilla suit, sex workers lassoing johns onto second floor balconies, and truly awful Native American caricatures (although I did admittedly enjoy the ones where the Native men were operating WWII gear like grenade launchers & Tommy guns). All in all, Wild Gals may be mildly fascinating for a Russ Meyer completist looking for early glimpses of Jack Moran, Princess Livingston, and the director’s trademark rapid-fire editing, but after previously watching three similarly vapid nudie cuties from Meyer in a row, I found the ordeal somewhat tiresome.

-Brandon Ledet