Saturday, December 17, 2011
#122: Cut-Throats Nine (Joaquin Luis Romero Marchent, 1972)
Here's an interesting oddity: a dark, violent western with horror and crime thriller elements and an atmosphere recalling Werner Herzog's madmen-surviving-the-elements classics. The film is bleak with no sympathetic characters, but it's also unpredictable, directed with invention and energy, strikingly shot on location by a talented cinematographer, and features character actors with great movie faces, each one getting a carefully placed closeup. The 1972 Spanish film was originally marketed and released as a western but flopped. Scenes of splatter and gore were shot and added to the film, and it was rereleased and marketed to drive-in, exploitation, and horror fans. It did a little better, not much, but acquired an enduring cult reputation that finally led to its DVD release. The gore reshoots are silly, with lots of Tempura paint red and bulging intestines, but the rest of the movie is solid, solid as a rock, to quote noted gore enthusiasts Ashford & Simpson.
Spain stands in for the American west as a wagonload of violent prisoners, chained together and sentenced to a lifetime of hard labor and accompanied by a cavalry on horseback, move through a snowy mountain pass on their way to a fort after working in a gold mine. A family of criminals, led by its vulture-faced father, attempts to rob the wagon of its gold but is unsuccessful at finding any. The ensuing struggle leaves the wagon in shambles, the cavalry misdirected or dead, and the prisoners left to wander the elements on foot, chained together, led by the sole remaining sergeant and his adult daughter on the surviving horses. The sergeant knows that one of the criminals murdered his wife, but he doesn't know which one, for reasons never satisfactorily explained. He leads his daughter and the seven chained violent rapists, robbers, and murderers on foot to the fort, battling the weather, lack of enough food, and the various hidden motives of everyone, including his daughter and himself. Things get more complicated when the hidden gold is accidentally discovered by one of the convicts. Twists pile on twists, which I'll leave for you to discover. I'm not spoiling anything by letting you know that no one gets what they want in the end. Happy endings are for suckers in this landscape.
My description of the film makes it sound more conventional than it is. Tonally, it occupies a place of its own. I think western fans will enjoy it a great deal, but it also calls to mind Herzog's Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo, and Heart of Glass as well as the gore scenes from Herschell Gordon Lewis' films and Mario Bava's Twitch of the Death Nerve. It also occupies that fine tradition of crime films including Kubrick's The Killing and Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs in which a group of hardened criminals need to work together but don't trust each other and in which the audience is only given hints about their pasts. These are strange genres to mix, and the film finds a unique visual palette to fit the mood, combining quick B-movie energy and violence with an almost mystical art-film approach to the landscape. The flashbacks are handled well, giving us small pieces of the backstory without bogging down the narrative. Marchent freeze-frames the action when an event triggers a memory in one of the characters, then briefly switches to a flashback sequence with minimal or no dialogue before returning to the freeze frame and resuming the present action.
As a nice bonus, the English dubbing on the DVD is some of the best I've heard, with real performances instead of the usual jarring cheeseball idiocy. Once I grew accustomed to the voices not matching the lip movements, I soon forgot I was watching a dub. That almost never happens, though I wish the DVD had included the original subtitles. I don't know how involved Marchent or the cast was in the dubbing process, so it would have been nice to see the original dialogue subtitled, though the dubbing frees up the English-speaking viewer to take in every part of the frame.
This film is kind of a stretch to place on a horror movie list, but I'm glad Rue Morgue made the leap. If I had to narrow Cut-Throats Nine to a single genre, I wouldn't hesitate to call it a western. The video store I rented it from sensibly placed it in its western section. However, it's a bizarre western, sharing only horses and a wagon with a typical classic of the genre like Stagecoach, for example. I think horror fans will find much to enjoy in Cut-Throats Nine, not just the gore and a hallucination sequence involving a ghost. If you're like me and love horror films and westerns, you're going to have a great time with this one.
P.S. I haven't seen any of Marchent's other films, but he has some great titles, including Implacable Three, Seven Hours of Gunfire, One Hundred Thousand Dollars for Lassiter, and I Do Not Forgive ... I Kill!. He's still alive but hasn't made a film since 1994. Bizarrely, plans for a remake of Cut-Throats Nine are underway, with Harvey Keitel in the lead. Let's see if it actually happens.