Friday, January 5, 2007

Four of the Apocalypse

Four of the Apocalypse
dir. Lucio Fulci

January 4, 2007 - DVD

Lucio Fulci has to be considered one of the all time great sloppy filmmakers. His stories were usually some kind of not-so-elaborate rehash, his plots were bare at best, and his characters were usually at the whim of whatever deviance he had in store for them (FULCI: “Think you’re a smart historian doing vital expository research? So wrong, sir… You’re only here to get your face attacked by herky-jerk spider puppets for six minutes.” HISTORIAN: “Wouldn’t I logically try to defend myself?” FULCI: “Let them eat your eyes!”). And we love him for this, of course, but he’s more like an acquired novelty taste than a straight up master of the cinematic story. It was a shock, then, when I sat down to Four of the Apocalypse expecting the old spicy red entrails in creamy white ocular sauce and instead found myself watching one of the spaghetti western genre’s few true masterpieces—a thoroughly considered, metaphorically rich, and beautifully shot testament to, of all things, the potential for goodness and fortitude!

We start in some familiar movie territory; The American West is ending. Somewhere in Mexico, the Wild Bunch are making their last stand, and John Wayne is choosing to embrace his niece instead of kill her. Here, an entire town is being brutally stripped of life by remorseless masked assassins (employed by greedy entrepreneurs, or taxmen, or something), and the only survivors are a group of mythic western odds ‘n ends: a cardshark (Fabio Testi), a drunk (Michael J. Pollard), a whore (Lynne Frederick), and an African-American mystic (Harry Baird). These characters are uncomplicated in that they’re not even really people as much as they are oft-perpetuated fantasy ideals. They’re so archetypal, in fact, that when they hit the road together—all relative strangers—they naturally seem like old, easy friends. And then they meet Chaco.

Tomas Milian’s psychotic bandit/killer is a character so evil and original that it’s shameful he isn’t considered among the great villains. This is like Lonesome Dove’s Comanche-Mexican Blue Duck taken two steps further, outside specific racial heritage and with a heavy dose of Manson. Chaco is lawlessness and chaos pumped into the body of a drug-addled rapist with crosses under his eyes, and the way Milian works his jaw makes it seem like he’s maybe chewing on something a little meatier than tobacco. Through Chaco, we suddenly see the purpose of our shambling gang of four— if this group is unable to produce (or discover) some sort of civil society, then violence and disorder will be the only remnants. In the end, all they’re able to do is bring a baby into the world, kill Chaco, and basically just hope for the best. We know from the beginning that our heroes can’t survive—after all, they’re not actually human. But they’re fighting for us. I don’t think I’m reaching when I say that Fulci’s investigating what will remain from that old west mentality, and how the frontier culture will rebuild and finally stake its permanent roots in America.

This is heady shit operating on a gut level that might impress Cormac McCarthy even over Sergio Leone. And I’ve said nothing about the many weird adventures, all mesmerizing, each of which place the characters in odd, empty or dying landscapes. And this is all in a fuckin’ two-hour spaghetti western directed by Lucio “Zombie-Fighting-A-Shark” Fulci! Isn’t that crazy? The man had genius in him, and it’s just our good luck that he managed to make it most clear in as inherently awesome a mold as this. Four of the Apocalypse builds on the platform of A Fistful of Dollars, Django and the rest, and uses the conventions of the genre (excess, brutality, shorthand) in as intelligent and meaningful a way as anybody could possibly desire. There are a few other spaghetti westerns I guess I’d call “better” (there are some lapses in logic here suggesting the project’s limited budget), but I don’t think anything justifies the genre as a whole like this neglected, wild movie.

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