Code Red pairs up a couple of vintage westerns for their 'Lawless Land Double Feature' - both of which have been seen on DVD before through various releases of various legality, but offered up here in improved, if imperfect, presentations. Here's a peak at what you'll find...
Widely regarded as the most violent Spaghetti Western ever made, this Spanish-Italian co-production directed by Joaquin Luis Romero Marchent in 1972 definitely holds its own in the blood and violence department. When the film begins, a sergeant named Brown (Claudio Undari) is escorting a wagonload of convicted felons through the snowy mountains of the American west to Fort Greene where they'll be locked up or put to death for their various crimes. Soon after they leave on their journey, a bandit who looks a bit like Bob Dylan and his cronies attack the wagon and tear it apart looking for the gold they've heard was onboard. They don't find it, and send the seven chained convicts inside along with the sergeant and his daughter, Sarah (Emma Cohen), hanging out in back, down a hill, much to the dismay of the horses carrying the heavy load. It crashes, and the bandits take off, leaving our lone lawman and his pretty offspring to hoof it through some rather unforgiving terrain with a band of killers along for the hike.
As the group make their way through the hills, they eventually find out that the gold is in the very chains binding their feet. Of course, once all involved discover this, things start to turn nasty with every man out for himself and the sergeant's daughter starting to look mighty tempting to some of these vile fiends. It's still a long way to Fort Greene and not everyone is going to make it there in one piece...
As much a horror movie as a traditional Spaghetti Western, Cut-Throats Nine is well paced, atmospheric and plenty violent, at times reaching Lucio Fulci-esque levels of splatter. Heads are shot wide open, limbs are severed, corpses are burned and stomachs are sliced open and if that weren't enough, some bizarre and fevered flashback scenes which are intended to give us some background information on the various characters deliver even more gore. Adding to the more horrific side of the story is a dream in which one of the convicts sees himself being attacked by the sarge in zombie form - throw in some rape and just an overall feeling of nastiness and you've got a pretty twisted movie, made even more so by some odd photographic techniques involving slow motion and freeze frame tactics to emphasize certain points.
Outside of the Sarah Brown character, well played by Emma Cohen (somewhat of a regular in Spanish horror films of the seventies given her appearances in Horror Rises From The Tomb and Cannibal Man) there aren't really any sympathetic characters here. Even the sergeant is a bit of a bastard, not above killing men for his own reasons and looking to avenge the death of his wife. It's all well shot and fairly convincingly portrayed despite the obvious dubbing, so it works better than it probably should. Not for those who want their westerns light and happy, but if you dig on grim, gritty cinema, definitely give this one a shot.
The second feature, directed in 1976 by Larry Spangler, stars Fred 'The Hammer' Williamson in the lead role. The story begins when a man named Sam (Henry Kendrick) decides to get himself a brand spankin' new mail order bride (Brenda Venus) but no sooner does she arrive than a vicious gang of hoodlums show up and kidnap her, killing Sam's kindly housekeeper, Martha, along the way. Angered by this, and understandably so, Martha's son Joshua (Fred Williamson) takes it upon himself to track down the gang of killers and avenge his mother's death, freeing Sam's lovely wife in the process. Given recent internal developments with the gang and their captive, however, that last part of his quest might be tougher than it sounds.
Produced by Williamson, Joshua is an interesting mix of standard 'man with no name' vengeance and Patty Hurst style character development that lets Williamson strut around the Arizona locations decked out in a black leather cowboy outfit (this HAD to have been an influence on Mario Van Peebles' duds in Posse!). If you're a Williamson fan, you'll enjoy the film as he basically carries it and does a pretty decent job as the steely eyed man of few words. The film makes great use of its locations and is well photographed - the widescreen compositions are frequently impressive, and the movie zips along at a good pace, but it's not the most original western ever made in terms of story or character development.
That said, there's enough action and intrigue here to keep most fans happy and, as mentioned, Williamson makes the most of his leading man status in this picture. Brenda Venus is also pretty captivating here, the camera loves her and you can't really blame it. She's alluring enough that you can certainly understand Sam's desire to get her back. If not a classic, Joshua is still a pretty worthwhile watch, particularly if you're a Williamson fan.
NOTE: THIS REVIEW IS BASED ON A TEST DISC THAT MAY OR MAY NOT REPRESENT FINISHED RETAIL PRODUCT:
Code Red's 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer for Cut-Throats Nine is a noticeable improvement over the previous non-anamorphic unauthorized release from Eurovista (which was recycled by Diamond when they included the film in a multi-pack of Spaghetti Westerns, also unauthorized, a few years back) but it's got some source related issues. The most noticeable problem is a green haze that shows up along some of the hot whites in the movie, mostly the snow that appears in the backgrounds. Aside from that, there are all manner of scratches and minor print damage issues throughout (this is more noticeable around the reel changes than anywhere else) as well as some color fading. It doesn't look like much restoration work was done here, but again, it does look better than what we've seen before and detail is quite strong here. Joshua fares better than the first feature and looks pretty decent in the 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Colors are better as is detail and there's less print damage to note. This movie has also been given a few grey market DVD releases over the years and Code Red's disc is again an improvement over those, most of which were fullframe and missing a lot of picture information.
Both films get English language Dolby Digital Mono tracks with no alternate language options or subtitles provided. There's some hiss here and there and the occasional pop on the mix for either film at any given time but it's all minor and for the most part the audio is clean enough that you won't have any problems here understanding the dialogue.
Extras are slim on the disc, limited to trailers for Cut-Throats Nine, Detective Belli, Brute Corps and The Black Gestapo, menus, and... that's it. You can play the trailers on their own or use the '42nd Street Experience' option to play them before and in between the two movies back to back as a double feature.
While it would have been nice to see a little more love put into the transfer for Cut-Throats Nine, Code Red does offer up the infamous western in noticeably improved condition compared to what we've seen before and Joshua looks pretty good here. The lack of extras isn't such a big deal when you consider that this is a double feature and the movies themselves hold up well, especially the first feature. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.