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Alex Cox caught a lot of flak for his 1987 Straight to Hell, from critics that wanted him to conform to their ideas of what a hot counterculture director should do. It's true, the momentum built up from the one-two punch of Repo Man and Sid and Nancy didn't carry over to Cox's next couple of movies, which either became more political (the pro-Sandinista Walker) or indulged his pre-Tarantino fondness for spaghetti westerns. Newly restored, augmented with cut scenes and garnished with bloody digital effects for some of its gunslinger showdowns, Straight to Hell has been newly re-tooled as Straight to Hell Returns. It's important to make that clear, because the movie itself promises a never-made sequel, "Back to Hell".
Straight to Hell Returns chronicles the trigger-finger adventures of a trio of bank robbers in modern day Mexico. On the run and dropping loot left and right, they happen upon a little town ruled by The McMahons, a violent and anarchic outlaw clan obsessed with quality coffee. Norwood (Sy Richardson, from six Alex Cox pictures) and his pregnant wife Velma (Courtney Love of Sid & Nancy) adjust to the bloodthirsty local routine, which includes harassing the poor put-upon street vendor Karl (Vander Schloss of The Circle Jerks & contributor to many Cox soundtracks). Sims (Joe Strummer of The Clash) has a hot affair with a married local, Fabienne (Jennifer Balgobin, 3 Cox films) right under the nose of her husband (Miguel Sandoval, 6 Cox films). Willy (Dick Rude, the original "Duke" in Repo Man) goes for Louise (Michele Winstanley of Sid & Nancy). The new boys become welcome guests when they gun down some bounty hunters after one of the McMahons; leader Frank McMahon (Biff Yeager, 5 Cox films) throws a party that includes bizarre music solos ("Delilah") and group dancing. But the murder of the clan patriarch throws the town out of kilter, leading to a series of cruel killings, and then a whopper of a big gundown.
The movie is a joke played straight, riffing off the assembled works of Leone, Corbucci and company. Most everybody in town is a psychopath with an itchy gun hand, but the McMahons also take regular breaks from their debaucheries to enjoy a fine cup of coffee. Put two guys together and they'll start laughing like hyenas at nothing in particular. People of course get shot for no reason at all, but nobody utters a single cuss word. Our three intruders manage a formidable silent-but-strong act. Wearing black, with a leader who's black and wears a hair cap, they seem like Quentin Tarantino characters four or five years before the fact. A little familiarity with the twisted world of Alex Cox is a definite aid to understanding. The tone is crazy, but droll. The jokes amuse without succumbing, as we say, to a case of the cutes. It's not for all tastes, but it is consistent & fresh.
Director Cox clearly runs a revolving-door guest gunslinger policy. Xander Berkeley (3 Cox films, 24) is a menacing town preacher. Elvis Costello distinguishes himself by playing a butler. Stepping in for a few laughs, and to duck a few bullets, are Dennis Hopper (playing a developer named I.G. Farben), Grace Jones and deadpan director Jim Jarmusch. A party scene or two dissolve into Robert Altman-like mass chaos, but Cox always finds something to keep the screen alive. More often than not it's another joke on genre expectations -- Sims and Fabienne leap at each other hot & heavy right in her husband's presence, and he never notices a thing.
What we've got here is a pastiche of spaghetti westerns filmed on Almeria locations familiar from the classic Italo oaters from twenty years previous. Alex Cox reportedly contracted with a long list of his favorite musician buddies to go on a performing tour, and when that fell through, used the open weeks on their schedules to make a movie instead. Straight to Hell is therefore an in-joke party picture than can bear comparison with the Rat Pack movies of the Sinatra/Martin clan. The show is about 50% parody-worship of the genre, and the rest a Hellzapoppin' parade of rock 'n' roll personalities having fun playing dress-up and gun-down.
As a general rule, the anything-goes ethic is not particularly conducive to good moviemaking. When self-indulgence reaches critical levels, the celebrities stop being funny and the enterprise collapses. Anybody remember the "Laugh-In" Salt & Pepper spin-off movies? Another good example is the Bond spoof Casino Royale, a collage of disconnected gags. There's also not much of a tradition of "hip" rock stars making successful westerns. Yes, Elvis did okay in Love Me Tender and Flaming Star, but perhaps you remember Roy Orbison's dreary movie with the guitar-rifle, or the tedious psychedelic western Zachariah.
Straight to Hell Returns avoids those pitfalls by the fact that (a) writer-director Alex Cox receives maximum cooperation from his stars, (b) he tells enough of a coherent story to keep non-music fans interested, and (c) he's quite a good director. Cox clearly loves playing games with cowboys and six-guns and there isn't a lazy frame in the whole picture.
The blood spurts digitally added for the Returns version are surprisingly well done and not over-used; Cox may love nihilistic shows like the Django series but he doesn't go in for overly gross effects. Arbitrary killing, smiling treachery and bodies being blasted into their own graves is enough for him. A flip fantasy western, Straight to Hell Returns doesn't strangle on its own hipness, and proves a fun playtime lark for several-score rock 'n' rollers of the '80s ... if that combination appeals, chances are you'll like it.
Microcinema International's DVD of Straight to Hell Returns is an excellent transfer and encoding of this reworked party picture. The packaging tells us that the color has been "redesigned" by the cinematographer Tom Richmond. A new 5.1 mix billboards the soundtrack contributions by The Pogues, Pray For Rain, and Joe Strummer.
I haven't seen the original cut from 1987 so I can't say which outtake scenes have been added. This version of the movie has a number of Tim Burton-ish stop-motion animation gags, involving animal and human skeletons; I don't know if they've been augmented or were always there. Cox reports that cameraman Richmond returned to shoot a few new shots as well. 1
The show contains a cast round-up documentary called Back to Hell in which everybody contacted seems eager to jump in and shoot a belated sequel. Alex Cox's student film "Black Hills" turns out to be a 1977 glimpse of the western town used to film Straight to Hell. Cox and his co-writer contribute an amusing, pleasant audio commentary.
Always outspoken and refreshingly candid about his career ups and downs, Alex Cox is a fine individualistic director who maintains his integrity: I'd have liked him to do the Mars Attacks and RoboCop 2 projects but don't begrudge him his choices. The producers and artists I know who have worked with him speak nothing but praise; he's clearly a guy one can depend on... not that anybody could get me to rush off to work in a Central American war zone (!). That's a main reason why Straight to Hell Returns reflects so well on Mr. Cox -- any director who can keep that many musicians on task must generate impressive loyalty!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Straight to Hell Returns rates:
1. It looks like my guess on the stop-motion animation is correct: for more interesting (and more accurate) facts about Straight to Hell Returns, see Allan MacInnis' amusing interview with Alex Cox at the site, Big Takeover.com.
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T'was Ever Thus.