Thursday, May 26, 2016

THE WICKED WEST


 

A few years ago, I decided to write a followup to my 2004 book Nightmares in Red, White and Blue, a cultural study of American horror films. 

At first, I imagined it as a book about horror remakes, reboots and “re-imaginations”—because those were dominating the genre at the time.  (This was somewhere in the lull between “torture porn” and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY.)   I outlined the book, started doing research, and even wrote a first chapter… then changed my mind.

When I came back around to the project a year or two later, I decided to make it a book entirely about supernatural / metaphysical horror films—focusing especially on films made since the mid-1980s.  I had been working for several years on a Discovery Channel series called A HAUNTING, which seemed to be in line with the latest trends in the horror genre, and I had strong opinions about why and how such stories work.  So I started writing.  Again I created a full outline, did some in-depth research, and completed a first chapter.  I was feeling pretty good about it, but somewhere along the line I got distracted.

One of the things that distracted me was exploring L.A.  Every weekend, my wife and I would go hiking at scenic spots in and around the city, and I quickly realized that every scenic spot in and around L.A. has been featured in a movie at some point.  Many of the more remote locations have a long history of use as filming locations, especially in westerns.  Although I had never been a particular fan of westerns—I naively thought it was a genre built on clich├ęs—visiting these filming locations prompted me to start watching some studio-era westerns I'd never seen.  I found a great old-fashioned video store called Eddie Brandt’s Saturday Matinee that had a lot of stuff never released on DVD.  After that I was hooked.

Somehow, over the next few years, my prospective horror book became a book about westerns.  Initially, I thought of it as “a book about the other great American film genre about violence."  I had an idea that westerns generally presented a very conservative perspective on violence, while horror films are more liberal.  But that simplistic notion disappeared once I actually started watching the movies.  My hope is that end result of my cinematic exploration will be a compelling introduction to the genre for people like me: members of a certain generation (raised on action, horror and sci-fi films) who have never really given westerns a chance. 

2015 was a big year for westerns.  Films like THE HATEFUL EIGHT, THE REVENANT, and BONE TOMAHAWK made a big impression on younger moviegoers—in part, I think, because they aren't what we expect from westerns.  They are adventures, thrillers, horror films.  But still westerns.  Personally, I don’t believe that any genre is ever pure.  I can’t write about the horror genre without also writing about psychological thrillers and dark sc-fi, and sometimes even comedy.  I don’t think anyone can, or should, write about westerns in this day in age without also considering “hidden westerns” that are more readily identified with other genres.  (I borrow the term "hidden westerns" from filmmaker John Carpenter, who has made more than his fair share of hidden westerns.) 

When I started obsessing about westerns, I noticed that the most comprehensive and authoritative books on the subject tend to assume that the genre basically died in the mid-1970s, with maybe a few gasps of new life in the early 90s and late 2000s.  Being a horror fan, of course I love the idea that the western genre is undead… returned from the grave, somehow transformed by its years in purgatory.  Hence the title of my book: The Quick, The Dead and the Revived.

It’s not a book about horror-westerns.  It’s a book about the most intelligent and influential western films from 1939 to 2010, in the same way that Nightmares and Red, White and Blue was about the most intelligent and influential American horror films from 1931 to 2000.  I tried to examine all of the classic A-westerns.  There are three chapters alone on the 1950s, the decade that produced the most iconic films in the genre.  There’s also a chapter on spaghetti westerns, as well as chapters on urban westerns of the 1970s, space westerns of the 1980s, neo-westerns of the 1990s, and the postmodern westerns of the 2000s.  I think the book proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the genre remains vital—if still somewhat hidden and underappreciated.

Now, because I know that my name on a book cover is probably not going to draw my fellow horror fans to the western genre, I want to point to some places where the two genres overlap in interseting ways.  I think most horror enthusiasts are vaguely aware of the more overt attempts to blend the two genres—mostly B-movies and DTV features about ghosts, vampires and zombies in the Old West.  Stuff like CURSE OF THE UNDEAD (1959), BILLY THE KID VS. DRACULA (1966), Charles Band’s GHOST TOWN (1988), DEAD NOON (2007) with Kane Hodder, etc.  I’m not a big fan of that type of horror-western.  I prefer more subtle overlaps.

Gary Cooper and Boris Karloff in UNCONQUERED
For example, I can’t watch Cecil B. DeMille’s western UNCONQUERED (1947), which stars Boris Karloff as the villainous Chief of the Seneca Indians, without thinking about how DeMille typecast Karloff as another “monster.”  (UNCONQUERED is a very un-PC movie.)  In a similar way, I can’t help but think of John Carradine’s performance as a rather effete Dracula (in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and HOUSE OF DRACULA) when I watch him in westerns.  And Carradine was in a lot of westerns, including some of John Ford's best work.  Likewise, Lon Chaney Jr.—best known for his performance in THE WOLF MAN and its sequels—made more western films than anything else, right up to the very end of his career.  Even Vincent Price dabbled in the genre, most notably in Sam Fuller’s THE BARON OF ARIZONA (1950).

My favorite early horror movies are those that came out of RKO in the 1940s, under the auspices of producer Val Lewton and directors Jacques Tourneur and Robert Wise.  So I was thrilled to find that Lewton’s only western, APACHE DRUMS (1951), plays like a forerunner to George Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.  (I was, in fact, so excited that I emailed Romero to ask if he’d ever seen it.  He said he hadn’t.)  Tourneur and Wise also made their own forays into the western genre.  Tourneur’s STARS IN MY CROWN (1950) is only marginally a western, but it’s a personal favorite of mine.  I think of it as an Old West version of Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, although STARS was made a few years before Bradbury wrote his novel.  Wise directed one of my favorite noir westerns, BLOOD ON THE MOON (1948), starring Robert Mitchum, as well as one of the most intense westerns of that time period, TWO FLAGS WEST (1950).  And speaking of noir westerns…

There are some obvious crossovers of film noir and the western films.  Hardboiled detectives on dusty streets, that kind of thing.  But I don't want to name them, because much prefer straight westerns that have a streak of dark naturalism or fatalism in them.  I love vaguely metaphysical westerns like PURSUED (1947), YELLOW SKY (1948), and COLORADO TERRITORY (1949), so I wrote an entire chapter about these psychological / noir westerns in my book.  

Robert Mitchum in the noir western BLOOD ON THE MOON
Once you get to American cinema in the 1950s, it’s almost impossible to avoid talking about westerns.  It was by far the most popular genre of the day, in film and in television—although science fiction gave it a good run for its money.   That said, it should come as no surprise that some of the best-known sci-fi and horror filmmakers of the day made some pretty innovative westerns. 

Andre De Toth is primarily remembered as the director of the 3-D Vincent Price vehicle HOUSE OF WAX (1953), but he was actually more of a western enthusiast than a horror enthusiast.  John Ford personally recommended him to direct RAMROD (1947), and De Toth cast his wife Veronica Lake in the lead female role, opposite Joel McCrea.  De Toth went on to make seven more western films with screen cowboy Randolph Scott in the 1950s, plus one with Kirk Douglas (THE INDIAN FIGHTER, 1955). He rounded out the decade with one of my personal favorites, DAY OF THE OUTLAW (1959)—a particularly bleak film featuring one of Robert Ryan's best performances.

Andre de Toth
Jack Arnold—the man behind Universal’s monster movies IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE (1953) CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954), and TARANTULA (1955)—made MAN IN THE SHADOW (1957) starring Orson Welles as a cold-hearted rancher, Audie Murphy’s best western NO NAME ON THE BULLET (1959), and the blaxploitation western BOSS NIGGER (1974) with Fred Williamson.

William Castle and Roger Corman each made several westerns in the 50s, although the merits of those films are debatable.  Some have argued that Corman’s directorial debut, FIVE GUNS WEST (1955), was the inspiration for ensemble action movies like THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN and THE DIRTY DOZEN.  Corman himself, however, was quick to abandon the genre—although he later produced two compelling westerns from director Monte Hellman, THE SHOOTING (1966) and RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND (1966), both starring Jack Nicholson.  And I’ve always been fascinated by Corman’s claim that he helped to develop the Gregory Peck vehicle THE GUNFIGHTER (1950), one of the most iconic westerns ever made, when he was still a lowly script reader at Fox. 

Jack Nicholson and Millie Perkins in THE SHOOTING
Edgar G. Ulmer is not as well known as Castle or Corman (although his following seems to grow every year) but he made a western that is more interesting than anything either of them did in the genre.  I’m not sure what to say about THE NAKED DAWN (1955), except that if you are a fan of Ulmer’s work (which includes Universal’s THE BLACK CAT and DETOUR), you should definitely check it out.  It's a unique film in the genre.  Ditto Ray Milland’s directorial debut A MAN ALONE (1955), a very strange—eerily effective—little western.  And while we’re on the subject of strange…. Did you know that Rod Serling wrote a western?  It’s called SADDLE THE WIND (1958), and it’s pretty good…. Although not as good as some of the western episodes Serling wrote for THE TWILIGHT ZONE.   Serling also reportedly wrote an early draft of Marlon Brando’s ONE-EYED JACKS (1961), but we probably shouldn’t give him credit—or assign him blame—for that one.

Gene Fowler Jr. is another name that is familiar to classic horror fans.  He directed the cult classics I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF (1957) and I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE (1958).  He also directed SHOWDOWN AT BOOT HILL (1958), a respectable B-western that gave Charles Bronson his first lead role and paved the way for Roger Corman to cast Bronson in a comparable breakout role in MACHINE-GUN KELLY (1958).  Even more striking are Fowler’s credits as an editor.  He worked on Fritz Lang’s WESTERN UNION (1941), Sam Fuller’s RUN OF THE ARROW (1957) and FORTY GUNS (1957), Clint Eastwood’s first American western HANG ‘EM HIGH (1968), and the controversial A MAN CALLED HORSE (1970).  

Charles Bronson and John Carradine in SHOWDOWN AT BOOT HILL
Italian westerns are, of course, some of the most violent and horrific westerns around, reflecting a backlash against the genre in the late 60s and early 70s.  Horror icons like Mario Bava, Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci were part of the trend.  Bava directed one of the many pseudo-sequels to the immensely popular RINGO (RINGO IN NEBRASKA, 1966), as well as the western-comedy ROY COLT AND WINCHESTER JACK (1970).  Not his best work, but entertaining.  In addition to creating storyboards for the opening sequence of Sergio Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968), Argento co-wrote the Zapata western THE FIVE MAN ARMY (1969) and the ultra-violent CEMETERY WITHOUT CROSSES (1969).  According to some sources, he was also involved with CUT-THROATS NINE (1972).  Fulci likewise has three hyper-violent westerns to his name: MASSACRE TIME (1966), FOUR OF THE APOCALYPSE (1975) and—depending on who you ask—A BULLET FOR SANDOVAL (1969). 

As far as I’m concerned, FOUR OF THE APOCALYPSE is the nastiest postscript on the spaghetti western subgenre—although Sergio Corbucci’s THE GREAT SILENCE (1968) remains the best.  Others point to DJANGO, KILL! (1967) as the darkest Italian horror-western.  It's certainly the weirdest.  And there’s no question that DEATH RIDES A HORSE (1966), one of Quentin Tarantino’s favorites, is filled with indelible horror imagery.  These films all influenced increasingly dark and bloody American westerns, like WELCOME TO HARD TIMES (1967), THE STALKING MOON (1968), SOLDIER BLUE (1970) and Robert Aldrich’s ULZANA’S RAID (1972).  


Did I mention Robert Aldrich’s other westerns?  The filmmaker who gave us WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962) and HUSH… HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE (1964) also gave us APACHE (1954) and VERA CRUZ (1954), both starring Burt Lancaster.  I remember when I went to the Deaville Film Festival in 2009 with my NIGHTMARES IN RED, WHITE AND BLUE documentary, the thing I was most excited about was the fact that they were screening all three of Aldrich’s major westerns.  The French still appreciate this genre, even if most (younger) Americans don’t. 

I could go on.  Christopher Lee co-starred in a British-Spanish western that pioneered the rape-revenge subgenre (HANNIE CAULDER, 1971).  Charles Bronson starred in a Native American version of JAWS (THE WHITE BUFFALO, 1977).  PSYCHO’s Anthony Perkins made an excellent law-and-order western with Henry Fonda (THE TIN STAR, 1957).  HALLOWEEN’s Donald Pleasance played a terrifying villain in an extremely gritty western (WILL PENNY, 1967).  John Carpenter has written several westerns, including an early script that was optioned by John Wayne’s production company (and later made--badly--as BLOOD RIVER, 1991).  I’d argue that Wes Craven made a western (THE HILLS HAVE EYES, 1977).  George Romero's most recent Dead movie (SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD, 2009) was an homage to the Gregory Peck western THE BIG COUNTRY (1958).  The list goes on and on, and I’ve included many these titles in my book. 

So, horror fans… welcome to The Wicked West.  Read on.