Death Rides a Horse

Studio: Kino Lorber Studio Classics

Nov 21, 2017 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

The sub-genre of “Spaghetti Westerns” refers to the six hundred plus Westerns produced in Europe in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Frequently made on the cheap with multi-lingual casts - the stars were often American, with the rest of the actors performing in their native Italian, Spanish or German before being dubbed into English - the cycle was a crucial component of the Revisionist Western period, an era which saw the genre reach new heights of style and violence as well as new depths of morality and cynicism. Spaghetti Westerns peaked in the latter half of the 1960’s, following the international success of the Dollars Trilogy, directed by Sergio Leone and starring Clint Eastwood as the iconic Man with No Name. Anyone only familiar with those staples of the form would be hard pressed to find a better place to branch out than Giulio Petroni’s Death Rides a Horse.

Released in 1967 in the immediate wake of the Dollars Trilogy, Death Rides a Horse features some overlap with the Leone classics that typify Spaghetti Westerns. It stars Lee Van Cleef, one of cinema’s all-time badasses and co-star of two of the three Dollars films. It features music by Ennio Morricone, famed for the titular theme of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and numerous other iconic film scores. Mostly, it just excels at a lot of the tropes and stylistic flourishes that make the genre such a blast. Quests for revenge, crazy trick shooting, awkward camera zooms, hilariously incongruous dubbing, scores of henchmen getting blasted to kingdom come. The story is straightforward, as these things usually are. John Phillip Law - star of the cult classic Danger: Diabolik - plays Bill, who as a boy sees his family robbed and murdered by a group of masked outlaws in a clumsily staged but brutally effective opening scene. With key features of each thug - tattoos, scars, etc. - burned into his young brain, Bill grows up to be a world-class marksman and sets out to hunt the men who killed his family. He encounters a complication in the form of Van Cleef’s Ryan, a gunfighter who just finished a fifteen-year prison stretch after being betrayed by the same gang of outlaws. Their race to take revenge becomes an uneasy alliance that builds to a predictable but satisfying twist.

In addition to building on the films that preceded it, the influence of Death Rides a Horse has trickled down to some of today’s biggest genre filmmakers. Its whip-pans and quick zooms are Edgar Wright’s bread and butter - albeit for more overt comedic effect - and its narrative of episodic murder was a direct inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, which also cribs elements of its score. There are several fun elements in the film that seem ripe for Tarantino’s style of homage by way of plunder; the best is Bill forcing a saloon piano player to strike three keys as a countdown to a pistol duel, with each note becoming a loud non-diegetic swell in Morricone’s score. The action is entertaining and inventive - the final shootout during a dust storm is a particular standout - and the chemistry between Van Cleef and Law is great fun. Law is a bit too babyfaced to effectively play an avenging assassin and his stilted John Wayne-esque delivery isn’t much compared to Van Cleef, who will always look like the hardest son of a bitch in any room he’s in. Bill mocks Ryan as “grandpa” throughout the film despite the fact that Law was thirty and Van Cleef forty-two at the time the film was made, but they carry themselves like there’s decades separating them.

Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray edition of Death Rides a Horse brings out the texture in its modest production values, as well as the craggy faces of the cast members who aren’t John Phillip Law. It features a commentary track by Alex Cox, director of the cult classics Repo Man and Sid and Nancy. It also features a half dozen trailers for other Spaghetti Westerns. They’re treasure troves of hilariously intense voiceover and genuinely badass taglines. A personal favorite is for another Van Cleef vehicle, Return of Sabata, which boasts “The man with gun sight eyes is back! And he’s throwing his weight around - a quarter of an ounce at a time!”


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November 27th 2017

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