Thursday, January 1, 2009

KEOMA (1976) d. Enzo Castellari

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

On the surface it would not seem that a DVD review site that specializes in horror films would have any interest in Italian Westerns, but after careful reflection it can be seen that the two genres have a great deal in common. Both horror and “Spaghetti Westerns” depend on very careful development of imagery and both must have actors/actresses that can convey powerful emotions through their facial expressions that will engage the feelings of the viewers. Both film genres are often intensely violent and have grisly scenes of depravity, exploring the basest of human motivations. For all these reasons and many more, horror and Italian Westerns are distant cousins linked by the strange and wonderful heredity of being exploitation movies that cash in on mining the themes and subjects we love to watch but often won’t admit our devotion to. One can’t watch a “Spaghetti Western” and not be transfixed by the repugnant brutality and bloodthirsty villains, fought tooth and nail by heroes just as willing to trade their souls for hard-won victories. If that isn’t the essence of what attracts viewers to horror, nothing is and those very ideas are the quintessence of KEOMA, an Italian-made “western” bringing together the fabulous tag-team of actor Franco Nero and director Enzo Castellari, two men who worked together often and successfully.

Set in the post-Civil War “West”, KEOMA is the story of a half-breed fighter who returns to his boyhood town after many years to find it consumed by plague fears and ravaged by violence, villainy and letchery. In an effort to pay debts to those who raised and sheltered him as an unwanted child, Keoma decides to help a pregnant plague survivor and the remaining plague victims who have been concentrated in a refugee hamlet. Keoma is eventually forced to take on the town’s boss to break his control of the village, while at the same time settling old scores with his three half-brothers. Keoma measures out justice with every bullet, knife stroke and body blow he delivers in an effort to bring freedom to a place he once called home.

Despite being made at a time when westerns, both in the U.S. and in Europe, were on the decline, KEOMA has all the attributes of a classic of the genre. Like most of the Italian westerns, it is shot incredibly wide so as to provide any viewer with a panoramic experience of sweeping vistas of plains, hills, cliffs, valleys and other features that calls forth a wild and bleak beauty. The set design is outstanding in a miserable fashion, with Keoma’s town looking as desolate, dingy, dark, dirty and disgusting as possible, creating an air of threat and menace right from the beginning. Typical of Enzo Castellari’s fabulous directorial work, shots are composed with a great deal of artistry and consideration, focusing on the powerful and deeply expressive looks on character’s faces, but also taking in the drama unfolding all around them. Mr. Castellari never skimped on action sequences that will impress and all through the film there are bullet-ridden, arrow-impaled and knife-gored bodies flying through the air in slow motion, from great heights, at full speed and smashing through wooden props, helping to intensify the sense of murderous mayhem and gruesome ghastliness that pervades much of the film.

What makes KEOMA better than your average “shoot-em up” is the patient story that builds on many wonderful elements. The tried and true mythos of a reflective, haunted gunfighter is carefully woven into the plot, even as the narrative gains steady momentum as dramatic stretches are more steadily punctuated by violent action and eerie, nostalgic flashbacks. As the film moves ahead, just as a river it gains velocity and power, rushing towards a thunderous conclusion, and KEOMA does not hold back on on titanic clashes over the last one-third of the motion picture. Throughout this archetypal story of vengeance, there is the piercing blue-eyes, suavely accented voice and hirsute masculinity of Franco Nero. Dirty-faced, ratty-haired and flea-bitten for the duration of the film, his character’s morose yet purposeful savagery propels the film forward on a tide of strange and yet undeniable charisma. Added to that mix is a cast that looks the part of each and every filthy, sadistic, gloomy, hopeless and horrifying character in this tale. What is most impressive is not always what the characters say or even how they say it, but how they react to each other and their surroundings with simple yet supremely powerful glances, sneers or looks of profound shock or sadness. Woody Strode, who was one of the most underrated actors of bygone years, is another of the cast members whose presence is stamped all over this film just by his granite chin and awe-inspiring physique, even at the age of 62 in 1976. Woven into this already rich tapestry is a very strange but effective film score that blends old-style western instrumentals with newer ballad lyrics that wouldn’t seem to work but it does. In the end, KEOMA is as enjoyable a western as anything made on either side of the Atlantic Ocean even during the “golden years” of the genre. This is just as attractive as any of the Leone films and just as tough and loutish as the Italian crime dramas that were proliferating in the 1970s, making it a film that works on many levels and taps into all kinds of internal avenues of cinematic enjoyment.

Most people don’t think of “bonus features” when they think of westerns, but KEOMA has a small but exceptional cache. There is an excellent audio commentary track with director Enzo Castellari and journalist Waylon Wahl. There is also an outstanding 10 minute interview with Franco Nero called “Keoma: Legends Never Die” that is highly entertaining and equally as informative. There is a pair of text “Talent Bios” of Enzo Castellari and Franco Nero as well as the theatrical trailer, which is worth its weight in gold. It is probably a good idea to watch all of the extras after watching the feature, for although there aren’t many spoilers, the aura of KEOMA is not knowing what to expect along the way, which is made even more interesting after hearing what Franco Nero has to say about the way this motion picture was written and filmed.

For some strange and deeply sorrowful reason, despite many attempts to revive their lost glory, westerns continue to disappear from the cinematic landscape. Recent efforts like 3:10 TO YUMA, THE QUICK AND THE DEAD, YOUNG GUNS and TOMSTONE, to name just a few, have tried to breathe life into this once-mighty genre. Instead of resuscitating that which cannot be saved, what makes more sense to the true movie-lover is to travel back in time via your DVD player to when greatness was all around us. Watch KEOMA, which is the real thing and revel in the manliness and malevolence, just as you thrill to the lust for blood in an era when life was cheap and a six-shooter was the law. Sit back and let your eyes be saturated by KEOMA and see for yourself why Italian Westerns and classic horror movies have that spark at the core of their beings that are akin and should be enjoyed by fans of either film genre.

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