Sunday, 19 August 2007
Four of the Apocalypse
Four of the Apocalypse
Dir: Lucio Fulci
By the mid seventies the spaghetti western was coming to the very end of its cycle. From the highly influential work of the mid sixties and the inevitable barage of bandwagon jumpers that followed, through the mature works from the end of that decade with their heightened political awareness and then on to the pastiche and comedy westerns of the early seventies the genre had pretty much run its course and was being overtaken in the popularity stakes by the crime film. Getting a western made by this time was not as easy as it had been. Many of the western sets were now in semi ruin and financing was less forthcoming as returns and popularity dwindled. As a result the films which were made during this time often stand out in the memory although not always for the best reasons.
But when they were done right the eurowesterns of the late period could be as good as any. Mannaja and Keoma from 1977 and 1976 respectively were prime examples of solid revenge flicks from this period and show there was still mileage to be had from the genre in the right hands. Soundtracks, although very different from their sixties predecesors, were just as memorable and the camerawork which reflected the bleaker tones of the period could be just as evocative. But the times were different and the film which possibly reflected this shift best was Lucio Fulci's Four of the Apocalypse.
Fulci made a few westerns during his career but will be far better remembered for his other exploitation films where he became notorious for his use of excessive violence and sexual cruelty. In Four of the Apocalypse he served up a fair portion of this but also showed he could offer much more besides; intertwining disturbing scenes of sadism and gore with ones of genuine warmth and subtlety. It is a difficult film to categorize for this reason. On the one hand it features some of the most disturbing violence seen in the genre, on the other it attemts to go deeper into the pyschology of its characters than any other italian western I can think of.
At the heart of this film is the rambling, episodic journey taken by four lost souls; a card sharp, a pregnant whore, a drunk and a madman as they escape from the murderous vigilantes of Salt Flat and head for a new start 200 miles across the desert. Along the way they meet the very best and worst humanity has to offer and are faced with the extremes of nature, from searing desert sun to torrential rain and deep snow. And through the trials of their journey each character finds a form of redemption; an escape of sorts from their limbo of suffering. Although for some, sadly, this comes only in death.
Central to this journey is the redemptive qualities shown as available in a group as opposed to solitary and self centred living. Each of the four are seen as flawed but show honour and forgiveness to each other within their unit as they travel. They also encounter two seperate communities, a travelling religious group and an isolated all male mining town who both offer generosity and warmth. Even Bud, the madman who sees dead people finds a sort of peace in a ghost town and its graveyard along the way.
In opposition to this communal harmony is the figure of Chaco, a sadistic bandit they encounter in the desert and who personifies malice and cruelty in its extreme. From his random slaughter of any wildlife that crosses his path to the systematic torture and murder of a pursuing sheriff and the rape of Bunny, the pregnant teenage whore of the group, Chaco oozes menace and evil. A Charles Manson, devil like figure; at first charismatic and appealing to some of the group, he quickly turns predator and tormentor, exploiting the weaknesses of the four as he goes.
Tomas Milian's portrayal of Chaco is the most powerful in the film. His evil persona hangs over the entire picture although in reality he only appears for two relatively short periods. His knifelike stare, framed by the two crosses painted under his eyes, burns through the screen; the intensity of his malice following you after the picture's end like a spectre. This is Milian at his method acting best. Inhabiting the part; making it all too real for the viewer.
But if Milian is king here the other roles are played with more than adequate skill. Michael J. Pollard is disturbingly effective as Clem the drunk, while Fabio Testi's handling of the central protagonist role of Stubby Preston the vain and slick card sharp is solid enough. Less is asked of Harry Baird (Bud) and Lynn Frederick (Bunny) but they fill the roles respectably and each leaves their own mark on the film.
So why, if I see so much depth in this film, is it predominantly recalled by most solely for its violence?
I suspect the answer lies in the extremes the violence reaches and it is here that, for me, Fulci lets himself and the film down. When a film contains scenes of rape, murder, skinning alive, torture, drug taking and cannibalism it is hard to focus the attention on issues of community and redemption. The prolonged section towards the end of the film where the birth of Bunny's child brings warmth and a sense of wonder to an isolated group of hard drinking miners is quickly overshadowed by an image of a man with half his buttocks eaten away.
This, I believe, is a real shame and ultimately detracts from the film's quality. It is almost as if Fulci was trying to make a different sort of film but just couldn't help himself. Allowing his own demons to dominate the story in much the same way that Chaco infiltrates and corrupts the group of four. But for better or worse, these demons do dominate the film and although I believe it has some great moments it is an ultimately confused end product as a result. It is certainly a film I would recommend, as its strengths generally outweigh its weaknesses, but it doesn't fully develop its potential and as a result cannot be included amongst the very best of the genre.