The Art of the Car Chase

When I was a young boy I learned to love movies. And, strangely, I learned to write categorized lists of certain particular things that stood out for me. Perhaps I had a touch of OCD about making lists. Or maybe I just was really moved by certain cinematic moments and wanted to keep track of them. Possibly I just didn’t want to forget the names of the movies. I wouldn’t forget the scenes themselves, but back in the 70’s and early 80’s there weren’t such convenient ways to watch a movie again. You essentially just had to wait until it came on television, albeit in a interrupted-by-commercials version. And also edited for content and time constraints. No salty language, no nudity, and no graphic violence. And hell, this movie is too long for network broadcast anyway, so let’s just cut out an additional 25 minutes while we’re at it. It’s gotta fit in-between the new episode of Happy Days and the 11 o’clock newscast.

Of course I made a master list of pretty much every movie I’d seen. Movies seen in theaters had that fact denoted by a bold capital T next to it, for theater. Movies I watched at home on TV had no code written by the title. I would start with the movie title, the year it came out if I could find it, and then a star rating between 1 and 4 stars. My lists were written on classroom notebook paper with the blue lines and three holes on the left side. I wrote my lists in pencil, like I was doing a research project for my 6th grade project. Which, in hindsight, I should’ve actually done for some school credit.

Looking back on this I totally understand the fascination with car chases. These are very exciting scenes in films, riveting and smartly edited. Fast motion and danger always intrigues viewers. Also I would have been fascinated by car chases because it was a magical foreign powerful thing to a child who isn’t old enough to drive. It was like watching a science-fiction movie with a character flying a starship into warp drive. It was unattainable and fantastical. You can’t get your permit to drive in Oregon until you are 15 years old. So to a 7-year-old boy, even the possibility of driving a huge steel gasoline-powered vehicle was still another 8 years away. So my entire lifetime up to that point would need to be doubled for me to even be allowed behind the wheel of a car.

The car chase need was also fulfilled more regularly on television shows of the times. Ones that I watched regularly were Dukes of Hazzard, CHiPs, The Streets of San Francisco, and Starsky and Hutch. The car chase became an expected staple of these shows, and some achieved quality chases less and less regularly. Watching these predictable and sanitized car chases each week just made me appreciate the real deal found in theatrical films all the more. There was literally never any threat to the main characters, because we knew they would return the following week in the next episode. These tv show car chases mainly felt like an opportunity to crash some cars in slow motion.

Most of my favorite car chases have one thing in common. No music. A truly great car chase lets the sounds of the engines, squealing cars, and car horns be the soundtrack. Then add in some panicked dialogue, gunshots, and breaking glass to this symphony. My top three car chases are Bullitt (1968), The French Connection (1971), and To Live and Die in L.A. (1985). No music. Well, Bullitt has some moody jazz music while they play their slow cat and mouse game around San Francisco. But when they click in their seatbelts and start the car chase in earnest, the engines roar and the music disappears. I hate when a Hollywood film adds music that is essentially telegraphing to us what we should feel at that moment. We don’t need it. Especially with chase scenes. They are exciting enough and the visceral excitement of the scene will transfer to us off of the screen.

Yet another complaint about recent trends of car chases is the unnecessary use of CGI, or computer generated images. You’ll notice that none of the films I cite as my favorites have any fake effects in them. So they’re primarily from the 70’s and 80’s. There are indeed some filmmakers who continue to shoot films honestly, seeking realism over grandiosity. I don’t list any of the Fast and Furious films on my lists. Fuck those movies. Ridiculous cartoons with cars and humans defying the laws of physics on the regular. It’s like watching an updated Wile E. Coyote cartoon with the Road Runner in a tricked out muscle car. Any computer graphic designer can animate a realistic looking car and add smoke and skid marks. But why would you? Then we’re watching a video game cut-scene. Just because you can do a thing, doesn’t mean that you should do a thing. Give me rubber on asphalt. Let me hear the gears shifting and grinding. Let me see actual human actors in the driver’s seat looking over their shoulders in panic. Let me see windows shattering and broken glass on the road. Put a camera in a chase car and follow the cars at 90 mph. Give me a real car chase.

The movies I grew up watching were from the 70’s and 80’s. So obviously, all car chases were actually done in-camera.  I have so much respect for the stunt coordinators and drivers of the cars in the chase scenes. Back then, you had to block off entire lengths of streets or highways and close them off with Police barricades. Then you would repopulate them with dozens of stunt drivers. Not only were the two cars involved in the chase driven by professional stunt drivers, but every single other car in the background was too. You had to coordinate every element of that chaos. It was vehicular choreography.  A precisely timed dance of sedans.

Unless you were William Friedkin filming The French Connection. He went out in the streets of NYC without the necessary permits, and filmed one of the most frenetic, stressful and exciting car chases in cinema history guerrilla-style. Stunt driver Bill Hickman drove the Pontiac while William Friedkin filmed from the backseat. Some of the cars that veer into Gene Hackman’s path are just neighborhood residents who didn’t even know that a movie was being filmed. One actual collision was just a random guy heading to work that drove in front of Hackman’s chase car. This crash is in the movie. The producers later paid the man’s repair costs for the car. This movie’s chase was also unique because it didn’t involve two passenger vehicles. It was a chase between Gene Hackman’s car and the elevated subway train that the bad guy had commandeered.



Then about 15 years later, William Friedkin gave us yet another of the best car chases in cinema. To Live and Die in L.A. is a gritty, dark, unique crime thriller that came out in 1985 and starred William Peterson and Willem Dafoe. I imagine that director Friedkin had to say to himself, “OK, I currently have one of the finest car chases under my belt. It’s time to top myself. I can do even better.” And for my money, he certainly did outdo himself with this one. While The French Connection is indeed great, it’s one guy in a car chasing an elevated subway train. With To Live and Die in L.A., he has two secret service agents in a car trying to get away from pretty much everybody. It starts out with a payoff gone wrong and their contact being shot by unknown shooters. They flee, and more and more cars and shooters pop out of every overpass. Clearly their operation was being surveilled, and they are greatly outnumbered and disadvantaged. Just when they lose one car, another one pops out and joins the chase. More agents shoot at them from nearby overpasses and cars. The desperation grows. One great element is the point of view perspective of our anti-heroes inside the car where the sound disappears and it’s just the noise of the passenger’s panicked breathing as he sort of loses it. The driver flashes back to his bungee jumping scene of adrenaline rush, and the passenger replays the shooting death he just witnessed. They recklessly charge through alleys, streets, railroad tracks, and dry aqueducts before they are stopped and surrounded. Then, in an even more desperate and insane move, they decide to enter the highway going the wrong way to escape. It’s a batshit crazy scene. Even stranger is that Friedkin actually put our two anti-heroes on the correct side of the highway. It’s all the other traffic that is going the wrong way. Just another subtle directorial choice to put the viewer on edge. I didn’t notice this disorienting detail until years after first seeing the film. This car chase took 6 weeks to shoot, again giving us about 10 minutes of an amazing chase sequence.




Now we arrive at my ultimate favorite car chase movie, Bullitt. Stunt driver Bill Hickman did the driving in this classic Steve McQueen film from 1968. You can also see him driving in the 1973 Roy Scheider film The Seven-Ups. In Bullitt, he drives the black 440 Dodge Charger against Steve McQueen’s Ford Mustang GT Fastback. Steve McQueen was an avid race car driver, and wanted to personally do all of the driving that the insurance company would allow. He was a stickler for realism, and he wanted as many shots as possible to actually show him driving so the audience bought into it. He knew that anytime we see a shot of a driver that isn’t the actor, we are immediately brought out of the movie. Some of the shots where the two cars are raging along at 90 mph, ramming into each other, skidding, and even firing shotguns are made all the more amazing because we can see that it’s actually the actors. Today you would more likely see a digitally recreated actor’s face on a stunt driver’s body. And the scene would suffer because of it.


In my opinion, Bullitt has the car chase to end all car chases. There might be more showy car chases now, or chases with a higher body count, but this one will be rightfully copied and imitated forever. For me, this car chase has not been bested in the 50 years since it came out. And every car chase that has come after was influenced by it. Steve McQueen’s detective Frank Bullitt realizes that he is being tailed by two bad guys. He loses them and comes around behind them. The hunter is now the hunted. The assassins click in their seat belts and we know we’re in for a ride. At one point the car that Bill Hickman was driving corners just a little too widely and actually crashes into the camera setup. This was a tripod camera set up on a parked car. The screen flashed to white and we cut to the next scene. The camera itself was destroyed but the film canister was salvaged, and the shot was left in the film. Things like this greatly add to the believability and realism of the action.


This chase goes all over San Francisco and has so many iconic moments. It’s also messy, like a real car chase would be. McQueen overshoots the turn on a residential street and has to back up and peel out again. The entire chase is brought to a halt when they can’t navigate around a grouping of cars and trucks and a motorcycle. McQueen’s character actually pauses to make sure that the fallen motorcycle driver gets up and is ok before restarting his pursuit. This chase has all of the key elements of a great car chase. Avoiding obstacles. Jumps. Point-of-view camerawork. Collisions. Innocent bystanders getting in the way. Very high speeds. Ramming each other off the road. Gunfire. And a very explosive climax. Some car chases just have one or two of these essential elements. Bullitt has every single one. If you haven’t seen this chase, shame on you. It’s arguably the most influential car chase in cinema history. It reportedly took three weeks of shooting, and gave us almost 10 minutes of high-octane car chase perfection.



I saw this film countless times on television growing up. Then it was the first VHS tape I purchased as a kid. I remember it was in an oversized clamshell case. I saved up $29.99 to buy it from the local video store brand new. I found the book it was based on at the library and read that (Mute Witness by Robert L. Pike). I bought the plastic model kit of the 68 Mustang and glued that together. As per usual, I immersed myself in this film as much as possible. I read up on any trivia I could find about this film. Then, as an adult in my 30’s, this film screened at a high-end cinema here in Portland, Oregon. I finally got to see a screening of one of my favorite films ever in a great theater with amazing sound. The sound of the engines absolutely screamed from the screen, filling the theater with RPMs from 35 years ago. The point of view shots of the cars jumping the hills actually made me move in my seat like I was bracing for the impact of the jumps. The screeching tires were so loud it made me wince. When the white-haired assassin fires his shotgun at McQueen, there is a shot with McQueen driving and bullet holes from the shotgun appear on the windshield. His car starts to veer back and forth at 90 mph making an unearthly squealing sound before he rights it. It’s a harrowing moment, especially because losing control at that speed would result in the car rolling a dozen times before finally stopping.  The print had been restored so it looked like it was filmed just a few years ago, instead of the washed out, grainy, damaged print I had seen so many times on TV. And no commercial breaks. I was in car chase heaven that day. I felt like I was an 8-year-old boy again sitting at home my pajamas watching this movie for the first time on TV. And that’s exactly what movies are supposed to do.


Just for reference, here is my listing of greatest car chases from when I was a little guy. It honestly hasn’t changed much. There’s just a couple of additions from more recent films.

  1. BULLITT (1968)
  2. DUEL (1971)
  4. THX-1138 (1971)
  5. THE SEVEN-UPS (1973)
  6. THE DRIVER (1978)
  9. THE TERMINATOR (1984)
  10. TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. (1985)
  11. THE HITCHER (1986)
  12. THE HIDDEN (1987)

More recent additions:

  2. TRUE LIES (1994)
  3. RONIN (1998)
  4. BATMAN BEGINS (2005)
  5. THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)
  6. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015)

Honorable mentions:

  3. THE GETAWAY (1972)
  5. GONE IN 60 SECONDS (1974)




Reading the movies

I am a certified movie freak. A cineaste. Huge film buff. Master of movie minutiae. A cinephile.

It’s difficult to attempt to pinpoint just when this happened. But cinematic art has dominated my life since I was a young boy. Some of the best experiences of my life involve seeing a film opening weekend in the theaters with people I love. I’ll go see a movie alone just as often as I will with friends. I’m the guy who can name a movie if you give me a starring actor, or tell you the director and year of release of a film being discussed. I’m overflowing with useless trivia about films that really affected me. I read the trivia section of for fun. I quote films all the time in regular conversation. I’m honestly not as clever or quirky as my friends think I am, I’m just quoting obscure movies all the time. I can list off every Sam Peckinpah film in chronological order including the year of release. I wish I could somehow monetize this collection of cinematic data that lives in my brain. I could retire tomorrow if that were possible. My fiancée says that in a certain scenario where aliens land and can only communicate through movie references and trivia, I could legitimately save the world. Or, in a more real-life example, I can win some pitchers of beer at movie trivia nights.

I am also an avid reader. A book nerd. Word geek. A collector of paperbacks and first edition hardbacks. I attend author readings at bookstores.

I read everything, all the time. I always have. My parents said I learned to read very young, and I haven’t stopped. I read comic books as a kid. I read Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment at age 14 for fun, not for a school assignment. As an adult I collect graphic novels of all genres. In college I devoured textbooks by day, and then read pulp horror novels at night. I also played drums in a band in college, and would garner inspiration by reading music biographies of all kinds. I read books about Jim Morrison, and I read poetry books written by Jim Morrison. I read Henry Rollins poetry books and other titles from his publishing company, 2.13.61. Jimi Hendrix biographies. Newspapers, blogs, obscure authors, feminist authors, mainstream authors, unknown new authors, and all the science fiction I can find. Gimmie that book, I’ll read it. Sylvia Plath, Hunter S. Thompson, Jack London, Bret Easton Ellis, Clive Barker, H.P. Lovecraft, Mario Puzo, Charles Bukowski, Dan Simmons, Tolkien. Going to Powell’s Books here in Portland, as I have been since I was a teenager, is a religious experience for me. Before I lived in Portland, I would drive up from Eugene to visit Powell’s and return with bags full of used paperbacks. My home always is dominated by bookshelves, and moving into a new house is mainly boxing up my books and carrying those heavy loads into my new library.

So naturally, combining my two great loves of movies and books is perfection. Books about movies. Movies based on books. Memoirs from the set of a film. Screenplays. Books about the behind the scenes making of the film. Art books examining the matte paintings, costume design, and model-making involved. If I’ve read the source material for a film, I have all that extra information with me as I watch the movie. This definitely increases my enjoyment of the film. And when I’m reading the printed version of the movie, I obviously have all the visual imagery in my mind as I read. Both experiences are greatly improved.

As a pre-teen I would watch a movie and then track down the novelization of it to read. Anything to further immerse myself in the world of the movie. Often the film novelization would be written by a known author looking to make an easy buck. Other times it was written by a nobody, and occasionally it was written by the screenwriter or even the director. I was always looking for explanations of confusing or abstract concepts in the film. Or just trying to find out exactly what happened to certain characters whose demise in the movie was off-screen, implied, or edited out so they could show it on television. I read Alan Dean Foster’s novelization of ALIEN for this very reason. There were sometimes scenes that were not in the movie, characters who weren’t in the movie, and even added prologues and epilogues. Often it was like reading the extended director’s cut with an added hour of reintegrated footage. If the book was written first and the film was just ‘based on’ the book, it might be nothing like the movie at all. Philip K. Dick’s book “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” is so dissimilar to BLADE RUNNER that the only commonality between the two is that there are artificial humans called replicants.

I also tracked down the novelization of John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN. It was written by Curtis Richards, which is a pseudonym for author Dennis Etchison. There’s probably not a very large audience for a novelization of a slasher movie. But I was happily surprised to read several chapters that actually explained the concept of evil that travels from person to person and is literally unstoppable. There were flashbacks to ancient Samhain rituals that (incorrectly) involved human sacrifices. This was fascinating to me as a teenager. For those people who didn’t buy how Michael Myers could suffer those injuries and just keep on attacking Laurie Strode, the book gave the back story in a very satisfying way, making me enjoy the movie even more. It was pure evil that traveled over centuries through different hosts.

Acclaimed author Orson Scott Card, famous for the countless Ender’s Game books, wrote a novelization of the James Cameron underwater adventure THE ABYSS. Piers Anthony wrote a great novelization of TOTAL RECALL, even though that film was based on a short story by Philip K. Dick. Vonda N. McIntyre wrote several of the Star Trek movie novelizations, after creator Gene Roddenberry himself wrote the novelization of STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE. David Morrell wrote the amazing book First Blood in the 70’s. After the Stallone film was made of that book, he himself wrote the novelizations for both Rambo: First Blood part 2, and Rambo 3. Another horror movie novelization that I read repeatedly was THE OMEN by David Seltzer. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK even got a novelization by Campbell Black. Alan Dean Foster seemed to do exceptionally well with film novelizations. I had several written by him including ALIEN, ALIENS, PALE RIDER, OUTLAND, STAR WARS, and THE BLACK HOLE.

Here’s a quote from Alan Dean Foster about taking film novelization jobs:
“I took it for two reasons. First, because I was a young writer and I needed to make a living. And because, as [a fan], I got to make my own director’s cut. I got to fix the science mistakes, I got to enlarge on the characters, if there was a scene I particularly liked, I got to do more of it, and I had an unlimited budget. So it was fun.”

There were also movie tie-in books called FOTONOVELS. I got into them as a young kid collecting a series of these based on the original Star Trek series. These ‘books’ were literally just a collection of hundreds of color stills from the film in chronological order. The dialogue was written on each photo like comic book styled balloons. They are essentially storyboards of the entire movie, but with actual frames from the movie instead of charcoal or pencil sketches. The one I remember reading a lot was the FOTONOVEL of STAR TREK 2: THE WRATH OF KHAN. My copy actually had a significant mistake in it. A portion of the book was out-of-order. 20-30 pages of the story happened way before it occurs in the film. There were no page numbers in this book, but since I had seen the film in theaters twice when it came out in 1982, I knew the story well. The pages were put in the wrong order. I wonder if that book with that printing error would be worth money now. I probably should have hung onto that.



There were Fotonovels of the first 12 episodes of Star Trek, then the first two Star Trek films. I also had the Fotonovel of the INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS remake and BATTLESTAR GALACTICA. These were all paperback-sized books. Then there were some larger format ones called Movie Novels of the films ALIEN and OUTLAND. I pored over these photos, especially focusing on the special effects and gore shots. These two books were from violent rated R films, so I was riveted by the detailed photos. Sometimes a shot will only show for a second in the film, so it’s almost subliminal. But these books had bright color pics of the chestburster scene in ALIEN and the depressurized heads exploding in OUTLAND. The amazing set design and alien design by H.R. Giger in ALIEN was also on gorgeous display in the Movie Novel. Prior to the arrival of VHS players, this was really the only way we had of reliving and analyzing the films.

After watching the great Roman Polanski film CHINATOWN, I was moved to read all I could about it. It’s a confusing movie with shielded character motivations, and the political machinations of the water bureau and Noah Cross passed over my head as a pre-teen. This was a pretty adult movie for my little kid brain to absorb. This movie wasn’t based on a book. Robert Towne wrote the screenplay. It is commonly regarded as the greatest screenplay ever written, and is studied in film schools as such. This was long before you could just look up any screenplay on the internet. I tracked down a company that printed up screenplays and sent them a check for $30 for the script to Chinatown. It came in the mail and I stayed up all that night reading it. Hearing the actors speak the lines in my head. Singing the Jerry Goldsmith musical themes (that trumpet!). Visualizing the amazing actors bringing these words to life. The screenplay really was just a bound paper script like actors would use on set. I learned the art of the screenplay format from reading this repeatedly. The way you indent, center, and list character lines so the actors can easily find their parts. The way you set the scene with location, time of day/weather (INTERIOR. OFFICE – NIGHT.). The short descriptive sentences written to get the point across without the flowery over-descriptive paragraphs like in a book. The brief stage directions for dialogue like ‘mocking’, ‘sing-song voice’, ‘wounded and sad’. The screenplay reads as a simple detective story that gets more intricate and complicated as you go. The movie improved and expanded it to film noir. After devouring the screenplay I watched Chinatown again, armed with all the knowledge gleaned from reading it. I loved it even more, and I still regard it as one of the best films ever made.

I would also buy all of the Art of Star Wars books as a kid. The original three Star Wars films changed my life, cinema itself, and marketing/merchandising forever. I found everything I could related to these films from action figures to models to comics and books. Each film put out books about the special effects and set design. Then there were Star Wars sketchbooks. These had what appeared to be legitimate blueprints and sketches of all the ships and vehicles to scale. Even if a ship was only glimpsed for 5 seconds in the movie, it had a toy made of it and pages dedicated to showing its design and function. Later, when I went to college, I was an architecture major for a year. I wonder if my obsessions with the Star Wars schematics had anything to do with that choice. I also collected the screenplays. These were often accompanied by color photographs from the films, and black and white storyboards of the onscreen action. Again, this was really the only way for fans to relive the experience of the films since this was before the emergence of the VHS home video market. You couldn’t just go watch your favorite movie whenever you wanted to. You just had to wait for a rare theatrical re-release, or watch an edited TV version if and when it aired on a network.

There were some storyboards in the Empire Strikes Back illustrated screenplay that actually changed my memory of the movie. In the battle on Hoth with the Imperial Walkers there was, at one point, a scene where a snowspeeder pilot becomes wounded and intentionally flies his ship into the window of one of the AT-AT walkers. This kills the pilots, causes the entire head of the walker to explode, and takes down one more walker during that famous battle. I don’t think this scene was ever filmed, but there are storyboards of it in this book. That would’ve had the rebels taking out 3 of the 5 walkers, and been a great addition to that battle. The first walker is destroyed by using tow cables to trip it, and the second walker is destroyed by Luke throwing explosives inside. Because, “That armor’s too strong for blasters.” In any case, since I had read this screenplay and soaked in the storyboards of this snowspeeder suicide attack, I burned it into my memory a little too well. I convinced myself that this scene actually was in the movie. Or honestly, it could have been storyboards in that art book just as well as it could have been on a BBC radio production. I listened to those on the radio as well, and later bought the cassette tapes. Maybe it was in the novelization, or the comic books, or the Story of Empire, or some Starlog Magazine article. But this kamikaze snow speeder takedown of an Imperial Walker was definitely absorbed by me as a kid. It wasn’t until years later when I saw Empire again on VHS that I realized that scene wasn’t actually in the movie. (Or, George Lucas had tinkered with his movies even more and removed the scene.) Imagination paired with obsession can do strange things to a person’s memory.

I could keep writing about this topic, but I may need to take a break and actually watch a movie. Or read a book about a movie. We shall see.

SHOOT (1976)


“One shot and the world gets smaller.”
   –Marilyn Manson, ‘The Reflecting God”

I was going down the rabbit-hole of 70’s films on YouTube and obscure film lists on Letterboxd when I discovered Shoot. This 1976 gem of paranoia and violence fits right in with so many other beloved classics of that decade. I have no idea how it is that I’ve never seen this movie before. As a kid, I would have read the movie listings in the paper guide and been attracted to it simply by its title. That’s sort of how I would choose films back in those days. Alas, I’d never even heard of this Canadian film until now. It is obscure enough that you can’t find it for purchase anywhere. It’s not available on DVD at all, and VHS tapes of it are probably scarce as well. The only place it can currently be seen is a questionable-quality upload on YouTube. It was based on a book by Douglas Fairbairn.

The tagline sets up the simple story pretty well.
“A thriller that begins where Deliverance left off.”

The cast is led by Cliff Robertson. He won the Academy Award for best actor in 1968’s Charly. He also starred in Three Days of the Condor, Obsession, and Midway. But for me, I will always think of his as Hugh Hefner in the 1980 Bob Fosse film Star 80. Ernest Borgnine is also on the team as the voice of reason and restraint. Casting Borgnine was perfect, as people would remember his as ‘Dutch’ in Sam Peckinpah’s classic The Wild Bunch. He also won the Academy Award for best actor in 1955’s film Marty. And Henry Silva is the hot head of the group. He starred as various bad guys for decades, but I remember him best as the coke-fueled assassin in Sharky’s Machine. These three actors were cast perfectly, a believable collection of men’s men.

A group of 5 men go on a hunting trip and encounter another hunting party. Mistakes are made, and one man is killed in a brief shootout. But then it gets very interesting as the men go about trying to determine what to do next. They debate the implications of killing a man out in the forest and reporting it or waiting to see if the other group does. The paranoia grows. Secrets are kept, investigations mounted, alliances formed, motivations questioned, moral issues debated, and violence planned. There is a post-Vietnam malaise of veterans returned from the war with no outlet for their training or fighting instincts. I was often reminded of First Blood, especially the novel by David Morrell.

I wonder if Michael Cimino saw this film, as it came out two years before his classic, The Deer Hunter. The scenes of 5 friends going on a hunting trip, each of varied levels of skill and dedication, are strikingly similar. I almost expected Cliff Robertson to say, “A deer’s gotta be taken with one shot.” Except in The Deer Hunter they do find and shoot a deer. In Shoot, they never find anything. But when they find another hunting party, they end up killing one of them. A theme of this film seem to be that guns are meant to be fired eventually, and if men cannot find animal prey to shoot at they will shoot at each other. Humans are, after all, the most dangerous game.


There is a scene in Sam Peckinpah’s western classic Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid that seems to be a direct influence on this movie. In Bloody Sam’s 1973 movie, James Coburn watches a family on a boat float by on the river. The man on the boat is target shooting at empty bottles that his son is tossing in the river. Coburn decides to also fire at the bottle. Earlier in the film he did the same thing when coming up on his friends target shooting at chickens. Coburn’s character (unseen by his friends) started shooting at the chickens to surprise them. Back on the river, the man on the boat becomes scared at this stranger on the shore firing a gun, so he takes a shot at Coburn. His family hides on the boat. Coburn grabs his rifle and prepares to fire back but doesn’t. Both men size each other up and think about what just happened and what could possibly happen. They each hold their rifles and the boat passes down the river without further incident. They watch each other with understanding. This is a very elegiac and poetic scene in a film about changing times. I am happily surprised that a producer didn’t cut this scene.

Three years later, in Shoot, we have a very similar encounter. Our team of 5 hunters who are bored and frustrated at not finding any deer discover another team of 5 hunters across the river. They size each other up. Both groups are wearing green camouflage clothing and orange wool caps. It’s a surreal mirror image. Ernest Borgnine’s character even states, “They look just like us.” Then one of the other men fires on our team and hits a character in the head. Everyone shoots back and a firefight ensues. The original shooter is shot in the forehead and dragged off. Borgnine keeps yelling, “NO! NO!” which reminded me of Warren Oates yelling the same thing during his shootout in Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me The Head of Alfred Garcia. Random violence broke out for no reason. Did one team think the other team was trespassing on their land? Trying to kill them? Were they guarding a drug lab? Did they just want to kill a stranger? We will never know, and that actually isn’t important. Unexplained misunderstandings and ‘hunting accidents’ happen. Boredom, machismo, brotherhood, and violence bubbling just under everyone’s skin caused this. Vietnam veterans probably suffering from PTSD with no outlet for their rage and training. A national obsession and worship of guns and firepower. Add in themes of tribalism and territoriality and this all could be an allegory for most wars of the last few decades. There is usually no turning back after an initial act of violence and death happens.


Even though this is decidedly a man’s movie, three women characters are given very interesting counterpoints to the male characters. Cliff Robertson learns of the funeral service for the man who was killed on the riverbank and goes to meet the widow. He poses as an old friend to learn what she knew about the killing, and whether the other men in that group are plotting revenge. Kate Reid just about steals the show as the widow. She reveals that the men have described the incident as a stray bullet causing an accidental killing. The way she asks him “Are you a hunter, sir?”, is both wounded and defiant. Grieving and drunk, she talks about sleeping with a gun under her pillow. She gets in an interesting discussion about 2nd amendment gun rights and her fear of crime and drug users. Typical conservative philosophy. She makes racist comments blaming minorities for crime in general, and babbles about hippies deserving what they get. It’s a fascinating scene, and very well acted.

Another interesting scene is when Cliff Robertson’s wife says to him, “Why are you home early on a Saturday night? Is it that time of the month for your friend?” We immediately know that their marriage is ending or over, and he has a mistress, but the wife still remains there. They are clearly only together for their daughter, and the wife’s misguided hope that it will get better. He implies that one of them could move out and she says, “I prefer it this way.” He may be primarily absent, but at least he is there sometimes.

Then Helen Shaver puts in a stellar performance with her one brief scene. She plays an acquaintance of the main character trying to get a job from Cliff Robertson, and she comes on to him strong. It turns out she doesn’t even want the job, she just wants him. She’s full of flirty comments, promises, and allusions. She tries to seduce him in an office and does a lot with very little. He resists her blatant offers for sexual involvement. I was so impressed with her performance here, it’s such a tour de force. I’d love to know if this scene was scripted this way, or if there was some improvisation. Shoot appears to be her first major studio film, so this was a great debut of a talented new actress.

Ernest Borgnine (Lew) gives a stunning speech late in the film during a planning meeting of the team. Cliff Robertson (Rex) is planning on how to get weapons and additional men to go out and ambush the enemy. It’s a study of the concept of groupthink. Everybody is just going along with the insane plans except Borgnine’s character. He listens to the plans and struggles with it before finally trying one last time to talk them out of it. He continues to resist the group’s trajectory towards more violence, and debates their potential actions eloquently and passionately. His monologue is logical but heartfelt, and very convincing. This scene alone is worth watching the movie for.

Rex: “But if one of those guys fires one shot…just one shot. God help ’em.”
Lew: “No…God better help YOU. Because you WANT it to happen.”

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While arranging to get their veterinarian friend to treat the head wound and debating what to do about the incident, Cliff Robertson says “I do respect Pete’s bleeding head, and Lew’s bleeding heart.” That summarizes the balance perfectly as the main character tries to placate all opinions. Revenge vs. Mercy. I don’t think the film is actually taking a position philosophically. I think militaristic gun-loving people can enjoy the film as well as pacifist liberals. One could find the film celebrating this gun-culture machismo, or one could find the film condemning and criticizing it. There are certainly scenes of men cleaning their guns and valuing firepower above all else. And conversely there are scenes vocalizing and damning the ludicrous actions taken by fearful men. Obvious connections to fascism with one dictatorial leader are present, and I was also reminded of the fascistic leanings of the first Dirty Harry film in 1971. The scenes of violence can be enjoyed as in an action movie, or judged as man’s brutal inhumanity to man. It’s the moral and philosophical questions the film raises that interested me the most. I also thought of similar films like Southern Comfort and Red Dawn, as well as the obvious comparisons to Deliverance and First Blood. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s one you probably haven’t seen and should.

This film follows in the steps of many other great 70’s films of a certain bleak grit. Taxi Driver, released the same year, was the story of a sociopathic Vietnam Vet having trouble fitting into the world and taking on a cause. It ends in an infamous bloodbath. Soldier Blue was a western that builds to a gut-wrenchingly violent climax. Straw Dogs is another uncomfortable Peckinpah film that builds up to the riveting violent conclusion. Deliverance, Death Wish, Dirty Harry, and Rolling Thunder (released after Shoot) all have violent denouements that aren’t particularly happy endings. Even if you win, you lose. Often at the cost of your soul.

Here is the only online version that I could find. I sincerely hope this film gets a DVD/BluRay release soon.

Film Geek: Expert Level

Do you want to know what level of film geek I am? Expert.

Here’s a recent example.
While watching the film Spirited Away in theaters, I heard the exact same musical cue as used in the movie Death Wish.
Spirited Away is a 2001 Japanese animated kid’s movie from 2001 by Hayao Miyazaki under Studio Ghibli.
Death Wish is a 1974 Charles Bronson vigilante movie by Michael Winner.

I went home afterwards and put in my Blu-Rays of both films to confirm what I heard. Sure enough, it’s the exact same music.
It’s done on piano. It’s just two chords. Just a few short seconds. But it’s so memorable in Death Wish that I can recall it whether I’ve seen that movie recently or not. Kind of like most of us can start humming The Imperial March from the Star Wars movies on cue. I can do that with this theme from Death Wish. Herbie Hancock composed the music for Death Wish, so he can pursue the copyright infringement case if he wants to.

If you want to check it yourself, please do.
DEATH WISH: At the 35:04 mark. Bronson is in the shooting range for target practice in preparation for becoming a vigilante. He says to his friend, “I loved my father.” He fires the gun. The piano cue plays on the soundtrack. It’s this scene right here:

charles bronson-death wish-movie review-the review-dante ross-danterants-blogspot-com

Death Wish 00.jpg

SPIRITED AWAY: At the 5:38 mark. Young Chihiro is walking through the dark scary tunnel with her parents. They emerge from the tunnel and pause in a large room with colored windows and benches. They walk across the room to the exit. The piano cue plays on the soundtrack.



These two films couldn’t have less to do with each other. And I’m not even really suggesting that one copied the other. I’m just happy to notice and recognize a grouping of notes that was used by two different film composers decades apart from two different countries. It’s bound to happen. There are only so many notes and chords, after all. But damn if I didn’t make a surprised face as I watched the kid’s anime, heard the cue, and thought immediately of Charles Bronson blowing away muggers in New York City. Which is the absolute last thing that I should be thinking of during that movie.

I suppose if you really wanted to stretch for another similarity between the two films, you could make a case that Charles Bronson is No-Face.




All I do know is, if there’s ever a trivia question asking what the movies Death Wish and Spirited Away have in common, I’m taking home the prize.


I’ll gladly enter The House of the Devil

The House of the Devil is my kind of horror movie. Because it is one giant homage to classic horror films of the 70’s and 80’s. A slow burn to a riveting nightmare finale.

The House of the Devil came out in 2009. Seeing it in theaters made me feel like a kid again, sneaking out to watch scary movies on my parent’s TV in the wee hours of the night. Everything from the songs they chose to the slow pacing brought me back. Even the poster art evokes classic haunted house films from the 70’s and 80’s.


I am, of course, a huge horror fan. Analyzing the films that I deem ‘the best’, it’s clear that I love the slow build. Most of the films I cite as the best horror films are from the 70’s and 80’s. They do not use CGI. They use practical in-camera effects. They actually let you get to know the characters so you care about them when they are in peril. They don’t go for predictable and trite jump scares every 10 minutes. They use unique orchestral music on the score, and/or perfect songs from the time. They have a psychological factor that makes things even more disturbing. Think of these films: The Shining, The Omen, The Exorcist, Halloween, The Fog, The Burning, Suspiria, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Thing.

So Ti West must share my love of these films, because he made a film that takes everything from these movies and recreates them in 2009. From the opening credits you know that this movie is a throwback retro experience. Even the grain of the film and slightly faded-out daytime shots feel like they were shot on 35mm film stock from 1978. Apparently he actually shot in on 16mm to give it that dated and grainy look. Nothing digital on this movie. The fonts even look like horror films of the 70’s, as do the almost random freeze-frames during the credit sequence.

The plot is simple, as it should be. A poor college student takes a babysitting job to get money to move into her new apartment. She arrives at the creepy house and makes some demonic discoveries. The plot is pretty much a collection of any horror film’s generic tropes. The plot isn’t what matters, it’s the mood and the building of creepy tension. After they show you a particularly graphic and surprising bit of gory violence, you are then always on edge. Waiting for the next one. You now know what the film is capable of. So any scene of the heroine walking around the house is fraught with danger and anxiety.

The lead actress is perfectly cast. A pretty brunette actress named Jocelyn Donahue. I have to say, her features reminded me of several classic 70’s horror movie heroines. Check out photos of Margot Kidder from The Amityville Horror, Barbara Hershey from The Entity, and Jessica Harper from Suspiria. I’m not saying that the director intentionally cast Jocelyn because she might remind people of these actresses, but it sure did make me think of those characters. And also Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode in Halloween. All women were attractive, slender, and portrayed vulnerability and terror very well.


I love when a film chooses songs that I have a personal connection with and that bring me right back to that time in my life. This film nailed that. The first song we hear is an instrumental that made me think of The Car’s song, “Moving in Stereo”. It isn’t that song, but the chord progression and eerie vibe of it is strangely similar. The next song used is Greg Kihn’s song “The Break Up Song (They Don’t Write ‘Em)”. Then they really got me by using a lesser-known favorite of mine by Thomas Dolby called “One of Our Submarines”.

One of our submarines is missing tonight
Seems she ran aground on maneuvers

Bye-bye empire, empire bye-bye
Shallow water – channel and tide”

All of these songs have an eerie mood to them, or at least a memorable minor chord structure. Then the song they play while our heroine dances around the creepy house is the classic 80’s song from The Fixx, “One Thing Leads to Another.” This places the film’s events in 1983 based on that song’s release date. (The date is never given in the film) And all of these classics place me in middle school. The Walkman that she listens to in the movie was possibly the exact model that I also had in the 80’s.

Another excellent casting choice is Tom Noonan as Mr. Ulman, the man who hires our protagonist for the babysitting job. For me, I will always think of Tom Noonan’s very unsettling performance as The Tooth Fairy serial killer in Michael Mann’s amazing 1986 film, Manhunter. His tall frame and calculated manner of speaking just add to his oddness. He uses a cane with a metal eagle handle, which may or may not be a tip of the hat to Angel Heart, where Robert DeNiro has a very similar cane. And that character was indeed, the devil himself.


This film truly takes it’s time with the story development, and reminds me a lot of another 70’s horror classic, Burnt Offerings. This is a 1976 haunted house movie starring the great Oliver Reed and Karen Black. One of the agreements they make, just like in The House of the Devil, is to be there to take care of the mother upstairs. This person may exist, they may not exist, they may be something else entirely. But the caretaking of an unseen person (force) in the house is done well in both films. And Karen Black also fits the requirement of being a slender brunette heroine. I used to watch Burnt Offerings anytime it came on. It was a rare horror film that was rated PG so it could be shown uncut on network TV. I am certain director Ti West watched it as well, as the similarities are myriad. Or to reference The Exorcist, the similarities are legion.

It isn’t giving away any spoilers to say that this film has something to do with Satanic cults. The preface of the film talks of how a majority of American citizens in the 80’s believed in abusive Satanic cults, and how this film is based on true events. So comparisons to another lesser-known 1971 horror film called The Mephisto Waltz are appropriate. That film starred Jacqueline Bisset and Alan Alda, and I also would watch this on TV whenever it came on. The poster had a naked Jacqueline Bisset drawing a Satanic pentagram on the floor. This film, along with Rosemary’s Baby, dealt with Satanists in mainstream cinema, and also treated them as ordinary regular likable people instead of ridiculous cartoon characters. Perhaps normalizing them makes them even scarier.


The whole Satanic cult theme even resonated with me, as I read several books about this phenomenon during the 80’s. I remember sort of hiding them because I didn’t want my parents or anybody thinking that I was into Satanism or anything. One book was called “Say You Love Satan” and another was called “Devil’s Child.” I had these books on my secret bookshelf so as not to draw attention. I was fascinated by the topic, and loved reading horror stories by H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, Clive Barker and others. I was a huge fan of heavy metal, and followed the silly lawsuits against artists like Judas Priest and Ozzy Osbourne. The PMRC was trying to ban or label musical works that they deemed offensive. I became a huge fan of Slayer, with “South of Heaven” being my favorite album from them. I even read some books by Anton Szandor LaVey, the founder of the Church Of Satan. Satanism is hugely misunderstood, and was basically an invention in San Francisco created to piss off religious people. The core of Satanism is to reject any religious dogma, and believe in personal power instead. So a 70’s throwback horror film dealing with a Satanic cult? Sign me up.


Not to oversell it, but the climax of this film is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. After a long tense build, when the film finally opens up the gates it’s a bloody nightmare. Our heroine  escapes from a Satanic ritual and engages in battle with numerous things in the house. A lunar eclipse occurs while all hell breaks loose. She is wearing white shroud that gets covered with blood, evoking memories of Sissy Spacek from Carrie. Mrs Ulman reminds me of Billie Whitelaw’s evil nanny character from the original film The Omen. Some musical cues sound like they are straight out of The Shining. She wields a kitchen knife up elaborate wooden stairs, which is reminiscent of Psycho, Halloween, and Suspiria. I don’t believe any of these directorial choices are accidental. The filmmakers want us to be thinking of all these other classic horror films as we watch this one. You’ve gotta know your history. The final 20 minutes of this movie is a horror fan’s dream come true.


I guarantee that some people will dislike this film and call it boring. They are probably more suited to hyper-edited manic horror films with killings and maimings every 8 minutes like clockwork. I would even surmise that people 21 and under won’t like this film because of the films they’ve been raised on. But people 21 and over will probably enjoy this film for its loving embrace of the tenets of 70’s and 80’s horror cinema. For me, this film delivers everything that I want out of a horror film. I’ll gladly enter the House of the Devil.













Westworld: Nothing can go wrong

Westworld. Michael Crichton’s thought-provoking and fun 1973 sci-fi classic that he both directed and wrote. I watched this movie dozens of times as a kid. Anytime it would come on TV I would stop what I was doing and tell my parents not to bother me for two hours. This film was my introduction to artificial intelligence, robotics, westerns, and entertainment.

Westworld poster

I recently got to see this film on the big screen in 35mm and was moved to write a review of one of the seminal films of my youth, and how it holds up today.

Westworld is a tightly paced film that has influenced countless movies since. I would list The Terminator, Predator, Blade Runner, Jurassic Park, and Ex Machina. The cast is perfect, and the direction is unique. The plot is relatively simple. In the future, an amusement park for adults has been created. Delos is a three-part theme park where you can immerse yourself in one of three worlds. Roman World, Medieval World, and West World. You wear the clothes, eat the food, reside in lodgings, and participate in activities of the time. We follow the two protagonists James Brolin and Richard Benjamin as they experience the old west of 1880 in Westworld.

The entire scenario is a not-so-veiled criticism of Disneyworld, which just opened 2 years prior to this movie. I liked the dark social commentary that human beings would love a vacation where they could legally kill people and have sex with people without any consequences. Because they aren’t legally human beings, they are simply robotic humans, androids, tools for our entertainment and self-gratification. They get rebuilt every night, so what’s the harm?

Casting Yul Brynner as the iconic gunslinger was absolutely genius. He capitalized on our pop-culture memory of him from The Magnificent Seven in 1960. In Westworld he literally wears the same all-black outfit that he wore in that film 13 years earlier. And casting him as the bad guy was in the same vein as Sergio Leone casting Henry Fonda as the bad guy in Once Upon a Time in The West. He has few lines of dialogue, but he sells every line. There are shots of him where he is just standing and staring with his hands on his gunbelt that I’ve never forgotten. His glare is beyond powerful.

Later in the film he has silvery mirrored contacts in his eyes to show his improved visual scanning implants. Not only does he look creepy and badass, but this reminds me of Ridley Scott’s similar eye effect used in Blade Runner to signify when a character is a replicant. There are many similarities to Blade Runner, which is one of my favorite films. I’m sure Ridley Scott watched Westworld and knew he could take those themes to a higher level 9 years later. In Westworld, the only way to truly tell if a person is a robot is to examine their hands for little ridges between the digits of their fingers. In Blade Runner, the only way is to proctor the Voight-Kampff test, and even that psychological test isn’t 100% reliable. Especially when the replicants don’t know that they are a replicant and they have been gifted memories from someone else’s childhood.

Yul Brynner the glare

I love the odd little scenes Crichton puts in that aren’t necessary to the story. One great shot near the end of the film shows a roman statue that has been broken and left in a river. There is a drop of water from the river running down its face like a tear. This happens as everyone is being killed and raped off-screen. Another is the reflections in the mirrored cop sunglasses that the pilot of the hovercraft wears when transporting patrons to Delos. Nothing about these scenes adds to the plot in any way, but that mysterious shielding of the eyes and reflections of moving landscapes is striking and memorable. I wonder if he had seen Lucas’ excellent debut film THX-1138, which also used a similar device. Except in that dystopian future film, the entire face of the robotic police officers was reflective metal.

Mirrored sunglasses

The other surreal scene that really stuck with me is the employees of Delos coming out in the middle of the night to collect the dead bodies of the day’s adventures for later repair. The music is haunting and very unusual as the anonymous workers set up a large spotlight to work by. Nobody is talking to each other as they gather the bodies and cart them away in a truck. The night shift really does clean up corpses at 4am so nobody has to see the carnage over breakfast. When I watched it this time I wondered if the clean-up crew themselves were also robots. Doing the grunt work out there in the middle of the night cleaning up the broken bodies of their own kind. This scene could’ve been cut, or not even filmed by another director. It could just be mentioned by the scientists that the clean-up crew gets the bodies in the middle of the night to be repaired. But he took the time to create this ghostly unnerving scene and provided some of the best ambient music in the film.

Speaking of the soundtrack, I have to say that Fred Karlin did an amazing job. He filled the movie with very unusual sounds and musical effects instead of the normal orchestra playing compositions like we get in so many movies. No stock melodies that telegraph what emotion we should be feeling in that particular scene. His soundtrack has numerous noise cues that I still cannot identify. During the final chase there is one particular sound that reminds me of helicopter rotors with a touch of a horse snorting. He also uses a tense sound effect that is quite similar to one used to great effect in the 1968 Gregory Peck western called The Stalking Moon. That film also has a very long final chase/fight between the protagonist and antagonist. And it turns out, Fred Karlin did that soundtrack as well. That explains why I love both films so much. His Westworld soundtrack is on its way to me from right now.

The western is one of the truly American experiences, and we have a wealth of films to prove it. From the John Ford and Howard Hawks classics, to the graphic and genre-pushing spaghetti westerns (my favorite), to the western mythic quest films. The common themes include revenge, honor, brotherhood, and men out of time. Directors like Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Corbucci, and Clint Eastwood hold the top spots for western directors for me. Who among us didn’t play western playground games as kids, or imitated John Wayne’s drawl? It’s almost a universal American lust for the old west and wild frontier that makes a film like Westworld so appealing. Wouldn’t you pay $1000 a day (1973 costs) to dress up as a gunslinger and go around with your best friend drinking whisky and challenging some shady cowboys to a gunfight? Robbing banks? Starting a bar-fight? Visiting the brothel? Chasing down and killing all the bad guys?
Many of us would.

This film certainly slingshotted ahead the conversation about artificial intelligence, robotic realistic sex dolls, and computer viruses. This movie seems simple on the surface, but has deep themes that become more and more relevant as technology advances. Today, young schoolchildren can name ‘computer virus’ and know exactly what that entails. There is a growing industry selling realistic life-like human sex dolls for thousands of dollars. And the idea of supercomputers becoming sentient and possibly deciding that humans are in need of extermination has been a topic of countless science fiction books and films of the last 45 years. Westworld certainly was prescient regarding these scary and relevant issues.

Watching this film again as an adult I recognize one particular reason I liked it so much. Every time our heroes encounter the villain played by Yul Brynner, they dispatch him in a very distinctive and violent manner. Now I know that Crichton was probably copying the great Sam Peckinpah with these western shootout scenes. Peckinpah was famous for his multi-camera coverage and slow motion death scenes. And the use of blood squibs. Every time there is a gunfight with the Yul Brynner character it goes immediately to slow motion, and the ‘ballet of death’ that Peckinpah loved so much is shown perfectly. Blood squibs not only explode from the front of the man in black for the entrance would, but they also burst out his back for the exit wound. Often he is blasted out a window and the hundreds of glass shards tinkle and reflect the sunlight as his corpse falls below.

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Another 70’s stereotype is the use of brightly colored fake blood when characters get shot. In Westworld, this criticism can be explained away because the creators of the robotic gunslingers would have wanted any bullet wounds to be very noticeable and graphic. After all, these are paying customers. We want to make sure that the patrons see their enemies get shot to bits and have the bright blood spurts to celebrate it. It’s a red world, after all.

This film also likely was one of the first to use thermal vision effects. We’ve seen this a hundred times since, most noticeably in the 1987 John McTiernan action film Predator. But in 1973 this technology was just becoming available and filmable with computer effects. Speaking of special effects, they all hold up quite well. The Yul Brynner character has his faceplate removed to expose the circuitry inside. It’s still a riveting scene and is very believable. Other scenes involving acid being thrown on his face results in a creepy couple of shots where his head is smoking. Another striking shot is of his body laying on the ground after being burned. The smoke effects remind of something John Carpenter would do years later. And as covered earlier, the shootout scenes and resulting bullet wounds are graphic and realistic. I love seeing Yul Brynner firing his rifle repeatedly with the casings flying out, exactly the way he did in The Magnificent Seven. But this time, he is the relentless evil force hunting the innocents.


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His character truly is the original Terminator. I believe James Cameron said that the Arnold Schwarzenegger character from the Terminator films was influenced by Yul Brynner’s Westworld character. I think also the same was said from John Carpenter about Michael Myers in the original Halloween movie. Unstoppable. Pure evil. And each with a few false endings where we think they are dead but they aren’t yet.

“Listen, and understand. That terminator is out there. It can’t be bargained with, it can’t be reasoned with, it doesn’t feel pity or remorse or fear, and it absolutely will not stop…EVER, until you are dead.”

This is the entire final 30 minutes of Westworld. The hunt that goes from Westworld out into the gorgeous cinematography of the mountains then into Medieval world. At times Brynner’s character seems to just be toying with his prey. At other times he is limited by his technology damage and has to get creative. He truly has over-ridden the 3 Laws of Robotics created by Isaac Asimov. These prime directives were to be encoded into the brain programming of every robot.

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws

Yes, Michael Crichton went on to deal with a similar theme park gone wrong scenario in Jurassic Park. But Westworld is the original, and a damned great ride. I’m shocked at how good it still is. Western fans and science fiction fans should all watch this movie again. As Yul Brynner famously says, “Your move.”



Spaghetti Apocalypse

Four of the Apocalypse is a 1975 spaghetti western film directed by noted horror director Lucio Fulci. And it’s unlike any film I’ve ever seen.

I am a huge fan of spaghetti westerns. As a teenager I fell in love with the big three by Sergio Leone (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly). While those are probably the most satisfying and well done, there are literally hundreds of others to explore. A few dozen of them are great and worth your time. Unfortunately, once producers saw a successful genre they milked it too deep. Putting out so many mediocre-to-bad spaghetti westerns killed the genre for a long time.

I had already been a fan of Lucio Fulci’s horror films. He became known as the ‘Godfather of Gore’ in the 70’s and 80’s and earned that moniker from such great films as The Beyond, Zombi, and The House by the Cemetery. When I learned he dabbled in various other genres including spaghetti westerns, I quickly tracked this film down and gave it a watch.

Honestly, I kind of hated this film when I first watched it. I imagine that was because I went in with expectations of a gore-fest like his other films, and/or I expected a gritty revenge tale in the style of Death Rides a Horse or the original Django. I found it very unsatisfying and the music irritating. Four of the Apocalypse in indeed an odd movie. Some would call it batshit crazy.

Here’s the description from the back of the Blue Underground DVD release:

Having survived a vigilante slaughter, four hard-luck strangers – gambler Stubby Preston, a pregnant prostitute, the town drunk, and a madman who sees dead people – escape into the lawless frontier. But when they meet a sadistic bandit named Chaco, the four are plunged into a nightmare of torture, brutality, and beyond. In a land that screams with the pain of the damned, can four lost souls find redemption and revenge?

Yeah I guess that is the basic description of the plot, but it’s much more than that. I can’t tell if Fulci wanted to just mess with our expectations of his film, or if he was trying for a more surreal and emotional classic quest story. The film at times feels like a road film, other times a pseudo-love story, a horror film, or even an exploitation flick. Normally this tonal change would sink a movie, but somehow I think that it works here. They are all flawed, anti-heroes that end up meeting a truly sinister and evil antagonist in Chaco.

One of the strongest performances, and a compelling reason to watch this film, is Tomas Milian’s role as Chaco. He exudes menace and malice with every squinty dusty glare. He based this character in part on Charles Manson. Scraggly hair, wild eyes, unpredictable, and sadistic. He clicks his ring against his Winchester rifle like a nervous rattlesnake about to pounce on a desert mouse. He draws crosses underneath his eyes in a completely striking and original move. He gives all four miscreants peyote and ties everyone up. He tortures a captive just for the sake of torturing them, rapes a character, kills many many people, and basically seems to have an agenda of chaos. Most recently, Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow seems to have taken much visual inspiration from Chaco. Much like Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz character in Apocalypse Now, his character doesn’t actually have all that much screen time, but he is talked about and feared and reacted to for the entire movie. And his presence dominates any scene that he is in.


If the film was more hallucinatory and symbolic, it would give Alejandro Jodorowsky a run for his money. I was definitely reminded of El Topo and The Holy Mountain at times. But then the opening scene has great slow-motion shootouts with bloody squibs a la the great Sam Peckinpah. Parts in the middle of the film feel like a horror movie. The snowy landscapes bring to mind McCabe and Mrs. Miller and The Great Silence. The love story reminds me of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. This movie is all over the place. Maybe Fulci was inspired and intentionally mixing it all up. Maybe he was lost and didn’t really have storyboards or all the details worked out. Maybe he and the entire cast were drinking and drugging in the desert making it up as they went. All possibilities are valid.

Don’t watch is as a spaghetti western. Watch it as a mythic quest film. I think then the chance of disappointment would be lessened. Upon my second viewing, all the characters are archetypes and antiheroes desperately trying to escape a torturous and insane antagonist. Their surreal journey across the harsh desert will bring redemption, death, life, madness, and revenge, among other things.

One criticism is the music. Indeed there are numerous folk songs that, by today’s standards, seem to distract from the story. I hated the music the first time I watched it. Some of the songs have the exact vocal effects and style as 70’s Pink Floyd. Which makes sense since Dark Side of the Moon came out a couple years prior to this film and sold a bazillion copies. And, just like Keoma, another spaghetti western with questionable music, some of the songs actually are narrating the action on the screen. That’s a hard narrative choice to pull off without sounding corny.

But it was the 70’s and music like that was huge. It wouldn’t be any stranger than a current film using current bands and styles on their soundtrack. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid came out a few years prior to this movie, and I don’t love their use of Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head. Some of the most successful album-oriented-rock acts then were artists like The Carpenters, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, The Eagles, etc.  Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Keoma, Mannaja: A Man Called Blade, and Django all use folksy acoustic music. So go into it knowing that this film is of its time, and it has some interesting music to show it.

But on the good side, this film is unusual and takes you to areas you didn’t expect to go. Which I love. One of the best scenes is when Bud is walking around naked in the rain talking to tombstones in the graveyard as if the people were there and could hear him. I’ve never seen something like that happen in any other movie. Another striking scene is when a small town comprised entirely of men all stop and react to the sound of a baby crying after being born. No baby had been born in the town prior, people had only died. The way the men rally around and celebrate that new life is touching, and something very unusual in movies, let alone a spaghetti western. Finding out the fate of the church caravan is very well framed and directed. I noticed a group of baby goats walking over to the corpse of their Mama goat when I watched it this week. What a subtle detail that probably took several takes and intricate staging.


The cinematography is gorgeous and gives us creepy spiderwebbed rooms in an abandoned church. The director caught heat wave ripples in the air above the mountains when the band of four trudges across the wilderness. Images of the group carrying one person on a stretcher across the cracked desert playa are beautiful. It’s a surreal and almost nihilistic film where you’re just rooting for the least evil character. At times I feel like the film, and director Fulci, are actually sneering at us. When the film first came out it was apparently censored or banned in some regions due to some graphic violent scenes. By today’s standards it would only be rated R, or even a hard PG-13, but the subject matter and oppressive tone and dread certainly can add to it’s reputation. It is stark, violent, and disturbing stuff, to be sure. But I think marketing the DVD in this way does a disservice because then we except some horrific scenes of brutal graphic violence like in Fulci’s horror films. And what we get instead is a very unusual and actually poetic spaghetti western that will keep you on edge if you let yourself be drawn into it.

I’m a big fan of the final confrontation amidst shaving cream, blood, and a straight razor. This film stands alone in its greatness. I actually think that is is Fulci’s best film. Join the group of strange anitheroes on their quest across the desert of hell.