Monday, April 5, 2010

MASSACRE TIME (1966)

Lucio Fulci will go down in history as a horror director, remembered most either for Zombie, the definitive Italian zombie film (i.e. the one with the shark) or for The Beyond, which Quentin Tarantino promoted in a 1990s revival. But like most of his peers in Italy, Fulci worked in whatever genre was popular. In the mid to late 1960s that meant westerns. Le Colt cantarono la morte e fu ... Tempo di Massacro (later imported to the U.S. by AIP and dubbed The Brute and the Beast -- whatever they thought that meant) was his first shot at the genre.

Franco Nero (above) and George Hilton (below) in Massacre Time.

The surprising thing about the film is the way that Franco Nero, fresh from his international triumph in Sergio Corbucci's Django, is almost completely upstaged by George Hilton in an "ugly" role. Nero is Tom Corbett, a miner summoned back to his home town, which he finds under the brand of the Scott clan. The Scott monogram -- a dollar-sign like S and T design, marks nearly every building in Laramie Town. We know they're a bad brood because a prologue showed the Scott scion Jonah (Nino Castelnuevo) hunting humans with dogs who maul a man to death. One disappointment about the movie is that this prologue made me anticipate another hunting scene with Nero and/or Hilton as the prey, but that never happens. Instead, the Scotts seem determined to make life miserable, or short, for almost everyone Tom encounters, though they keep their hands off Tom himself.

Tom reunites with his brother Jeff (Hilton), a master of drunken gunfighting. Jeff is a one-man barroom brawl, battling a bevy of Scott minions with an alcoholic desperation (he's fighting to reach a bottle of tequila at the bar) and the tenacity of a punch clown. Knock him down and he's back up at once to sock you. Numbers tell at last, however, until Tom intervenes. A half hour has passed before Nero perpetrates any violence, and he continues to take a back seat to Hilton as the film progresses. While Tom eventually proves his prowess with firearms, Jeff is clearly the superior gunman. An hour goes by before Nero shoots anybody. By then he's been worsted in a whip fight with Jonah, with a face full of scars for his trouble, and he's also learned why he was summoned to town. Tom is the Scott patriarch's secret son, and the old man wants him to take over the ranch instead of the unstable Jonah. Nothing of the sort is going to happen, of course, until Tom and Jeff deal with the white-clad whipmaster, who also plays a mean organ....

Jonah gives Tom what-for, which is all the churl deserves for violating the dress code!

Like any proper spaghetti western, Massacre Time is good and violent, though you shouldn't expect violence or bloodshed on the level of Fulci's zombie films. The action is well staged and gives Fulci opportunities to show some style. In once scene Nero and Hiton hole up in a ruined house awaiting a parley with Scott. Fulci films them setting up shop through a broken wall and an empty window frame. Later, he employs a frame within a frame as Nero fires his gun in one shot, and in the next we look through a window next to Hilton and see a rider fall from his horse. In the same sequence Hilton gets a nice bit of business that demonstrates the "show, don't tell" principle. Nero suspects him of having shot someone he shouldn't have and knocks him around a bit. It won't do for Hilton to just say, "I didn't do it!" Instead, he proves his case by opening his weapon and letting the bullets drop, one by one, until we see six on the ground and know he's innocent -- this time.

Written by Fernando di Leo, later to become a master crime film director, Massacre Time is a spaghetti that, despite the setting, isn't really about America. The Scotts, Jonah especially, seem less like an American cattle dynasty and more like the depraved aristocrats of European gothic fiction. Class-conscious Italian audiences probably responded the way Fulci and di Leo intended, recognizing their own oppressors in the villainous clan. But the rich-are-shit message is undercut a little by the fairy-tale aspect of the story that makes Tom the true heir to the Scott empire. Also, any sense that this is a left-wing movie is hurt, by modern standards, by the inclusion of a Chinese undertaker and barroom pianist who uses "Confucius Say" aphorisms, but this character (played by Tchang Yu) is individualized enough (he disagrees with Confucius a lot) to be fairly inoffensive. Overall, Massacre Time might have a mixed message if it really had a message. It doesn't. It's no genre classic, but it's a reasonably entertaining action film.


Here's a dialogue-free Italian trailer, uploaded to YouTube by LindbergSWDB:

And here's a US TV spot for The Brute and the Beast, uploaded by mtraty

1 comment:

Rev. Phantom said...

I absolutely love Hilton in this, and you're right--he does upstage Nero. The movie is nothing too spectacular, but I enjoyed it. Really hope it gets a remastered edition DVD soon.