It opens with an atrocity, a gang descending upon a modest home and massacring a family. The masked men shoot down the father and rape the mother and daughter before blowing them away. In their fury they neglect the youngest child, a son, who sees the nightmare unfold in fragments from under a table. He catches random details that'll prove crucial later: a tattoo; a scar; a spur for an earring. But he might have died in the house when the gang set it afire except for a faceless figure wearing a skull pendant who takes him out and sets him under a wagon.
The boy, Bill, grows into a self-trained gunfighter (John Phillip Law), but before he even begins his mission we're introduced to a rival avenger. Ryan (Lee Van Cleef) rode with the same gang but was cheated out of his share of a job and framed for it. We see him released after 15 years on the rockpile, his gun implausibly in perfect working order after sitting in the wardern's desk drawer the entire time. The gang is waiting for him, but he eludes an ambush. Petroni cleverly avoids violence here, having Ryan cut the men's saddles so they can't ride after him, delaying the moment when hell breaks loose. As well, he and co-writer Luciano Vincenzoni immediately get us thinking that whatever else Ryan is, he could be one of the men who killed Bill's family.
The ingenious idea of Death Rides a Horse is its concept of rival avengers. Bill and Ryan fall into "Good" and "Ugly" columns, Bill fueled by years of rage, Ryan more of a Parker type (as in Point Blank) concerned with getting what was rightly his. Their paths cross repeatedly, beginning with Ryan's visit to the graves of Bill's family. Each wants first crack at the old gang members and finds ways to trick the other or leave him behind without a horse. As long as Bill doesn't suspect Ryan of being one of the killers and Ryan doesn't think Bill's after his money, theirs is an almost friendly competition, Ryan at times acting as Bill's mentor or backup in gunfights. But as long as they remain rivals they're at a disadvantage against a gang whose members, some of whom have settled into respectable or semi-respectable occupations, are not entirely stupid. In turn, their enemies will get the upper hand on each man, framing Ryan for a new robbery until Bill breaks him out of jail, simply overwhelming Bill and burying him to his neck to torture him. If the antagonists are stupid, it's because they don't see fit to kill either of their pursuers outright. But as plenty of people will tell you, spaghetti westerns are about cruelty, not common sense.
Petroni takes a final turn into Magnificent Seven territory as Ryan, while rescuing Bill from that last predicament, liberates an oppressed village the gang had made their territory, and the two men lead the villagers' defense against the returning remainder of the gang. Only at the brink of the final assault does Bill learn the truth about Ryan -- but whatever his responsibility for the past, can Bill indulge his rage when he and the village needs Ryan's gun? And will Ryan live up to his promise not to run from a final accounting afterward?
Death Rides a Horse was Van Cleef's first film after The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and while he shares the show with Law the veteran character actor proves himself a star capable of commanding a film. He gives the film the gravitas his Col. Mortimer lent to Sergio Leone's For a Few Dollars More while portraying a quite different personality. In his best Italian westerns, Van Cleef infuses the sometimes superficial subgenre with the sterner spirit of the classic American "adult" or "psychological" westerns of the 1950s where he so often toiled as a minion. At his side, John Phillip Law is appropriately earnest above all, though Bill isn't entirely humorless. Part of the film's suspense is the way Bill gets caught up in the game he's playing with Ryan, tempting us to forget that he could find cause to kill the older man -- if he can -- at any random moment. Law has moments of almost childish rage that remind us of how emotionally dangerous he is; a standout moment is when he slaps a suddenly-drawn derringer out of an enemy's hand with a kind of infantile fury and a grunt expressing something between dismay and disgust, as if the man had shown him a dead bird or a severed finger as a joke. Law's volatilty counterbalances Van Cleef's stoic self-interest throughout, making them one of the better spaghetti teams for this one joint outing.
Carlo Carlini's cinematography is tremendous, from the horrific opening in a nighttime rainstorm to gigantic outdoor vistas. Morricone's main chorus is awe-inspiring: you can understand how that music would inspire fantasies in a creatively impressionable mind like Tarantino's. Petroni and Carlini had impressed me visually with their follow-up western, A Sky Full of Stars For a Roof, but the story here has the latter film beat by a mile. Death Rides a Horse is readily available on public-domain discs, and is sometimes shown in pan-and-scan form on the Encore Westerns channel, but definitely see it on a proper widescreen disc or on the Netflix stream if you can. Watch this spaghetti western and you'll understand why people make homages to the genre.