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Written by Italian cult cinema stalwart Fernando Di Leo (The Fernando Di Leo Crime Collection), The Brute and the Beast was horror maestro Lucio Fulci's (The Beyond, City of the Living Dead) first Spaghetti Western and it remains his best. Seemingly predicting the kind of twisted psyches born of bizarre familial relations that would populate the emergent giallo genre, the Scott household's unorthodox approach to father-son relationships has seen old man Scott indulge his offspring to such an extent that Junior's anti-social, sadistic and psychopathic tendencies know no limits. True to form, Fulci relishes and exploits every opportunity that Junior's deviant nature grants him, resulting in a succession of violent set-pieces appearing onscreen: Tom is almost bull whipped to death at Scott's garden party, Junior hunts down and dispatches a local man using a pack of rabid dogs, a vicious barroom brawl seems to go on forever, numerous innocent farmers fall victim to Junior's penchant for casual violence, etc.
Franco Nero (Don't Turn the Other Cheek, Companeros, Confessions of a Police Captain, Mafia) is on good form here as Tom, who is a little different to other genre characters played by Nero. Tom is introduced to us as a solitary and introspective gold prospector who is surprised to be summoned home after being away for so long. His subsequent efforts to repair his long-strained relationship with Jeff and make sense of the family's reduced circumstances -- and his desire to surreptitiously find out what the Scotts are up to and how he figures in their plans -- adds a sense of depth to both Tom's character and the show's narrative. George Hilton (Salt in the Wound, They Call Me Hallelujah) mostly impresses too but he overplays things a little in a couple of sequences that depict Jeff in a state of inebriation. However, the show is stolen by Nino Castelnuovo (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) who provides an outstanding and completely convincing turn as the dangerously psychotic Junior. He's definitely one of the genre's more disturbing villains, sharing a taste for snazzy suits and extreme cruelty that aligns him with the likes of Jack Palance's Curly in A Professional Gun and Klaus Grunberg's Adam Saxon in The Grand Duel.
There are a number of unusual elements present here that help this show to stand out from the crowd, the most obvious being Tchang Yu's turn as an elderly and eccentric Chinese emigre who assists Tom and Jeff when he is able to. Working simultaneously as a blacksmith, an undertaker and a saloon's piano player, Yu's character often offers garbled pearls of wisdom to our heroes before demanding some kind of small but symbolic payment in return. As the film winds towards its end, the reasons for old man Scott's interest in Tom and Junior's resultant jealous streak are slowly revealed but most viewers will have already guessed the nature of the narrative twist that links old man Scott and Tom by this point. The film ends with a pleasingly choreographed, suspense-laden and violently executed gun battle, which sees Tom and Jeff taking on Junior and his henchmen in a manner that brings to mind the finales of genre entries such as For a Few Dollars More and Death Rides a Horse.
The Brute and the Beast might have been put together on a relatively low-to-middling budget but it's a great looking and -- at times -- stylishly presented show. Indeed, Fulci and cinematographer Riccardo Pallottini present some expertly framed and angled shots here and the show's action scenes -- which feature quite a lot of flashy stunt work -- are particularly well staged. The film's costumes are also very good: Franco Nero in particular sports a striking outfit that is essentially an amalgamation of items previously worn by Django and the Man With No Name. Lallo Gori supplies a soundtrack score that is made up of suitably dramatic and emotive cues while the singer Sergio Endrigo channels Scott Walker when delivering the film's title song, A Man Alone, which remains one of the genre's best lyrics-based offerings. This is a great little film that fully deserves the special edition treatment that Wild East have bestowed upon it here.
The picture quality of this release is near enough excellent. In terms of audio tracks, two options are presented: the 'US English language dub' and the 'International English language dub'. I made use of the 'International English language dub' track and the quality of that track's sound was very good. The extra features include a Lucio Fulci interview and a really extensive image gallery.
El Rojo is a pretty low budget affair that is built around a fairly generic revenge storyline but it remains a really fun little film. It's also quite unusual in as much as its four main bad guys are self-serving cowardly types for the most part. Instead of provoking machismo-driven postures of defiance, the threat posed by Donald and the rogue Indian prompts Lasky, Wallace, Navarro and Ortega to hide themselves away in unusual places and surround themselves with the toughest bodyguards they can find. This narrative contrivance results in one of the film's most pleasing aspects: Donald is forced to cook up some ingenious and entertaining ruses in order to get close to his intended targets. The inventive nature of these deceptions helps the show to establish something of an identity of its own.
Beyond the inventive ruses, further novelty elements can be found throughout the film. Donald himself is actually quite an unusual genre hero: he charms information out of local ladies by giving them sugar cubes and sketching their portraits! And the embittered ex-Reb Hank supplies some interesting weaponry: a super pistol with a silencer attached and a special rig that allows him to fire several rifles at once. Also watch out for the sudden, machismo-fuelled appearance of the mysterious gun-for-hire Black Bart who is able to silence cocky tough guys by simply removing the ominous-looking mask that obscures the lower portion of his face. Bart's unsettling presence adds a horror show-cum-gothic element to the film and there's more macabre oddness and intrigue to be found elsewhere here. Navarro's eventual demise at a Mexican carnival is particularly noteworthy: the scene employs Mario Bava-esque lighting strategies to illuminate quirky bits of business involving the symbolic sacrifices of life size straw men on blazing bonfires.
In spite of its low budget the film manages to perform well enough at a technical level. Richard Harrison's (The Invincible Gladiator, Churchill's Leopards) overly impassive turn here isn't his best Spaghetti Western performance but he remains effective enough to get by. By contrast, the supporting cast -- which is chock full of familiar faces -- contribute spirited performances that add much to the show's fun factor. Predictably cast as villains, genre stalwarts Piero Lulli (Django Kill, Kill, Baby... Kill!) and Franco Ressel (Sabata, From the Orient with Fury) are on good form here but the show is almost stolen by Raf Baldassarre (Revenge of the Resurrected, Arizona Colt Hired Gun, Eric the Conqueror) who plays their suitably cocksure and nasty chief henchman, Ramon. Fan-favourite Nieves Navarro (The Big Gundown, The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion) pops up intermittently as Lasky's saloon singer girlfriend. An element of suspense and intrigue arises when it becomes apparent that she and Donald know each other but there's not really a great deal for the popular actress to do here.
While it lacks the sense of style and panache associated with the Spaghetti Westerns directed by the likes of Sergio Leone, El Rojo remains a competently assembled affair for the most part. The show's reasonably solid if unremarkable cinematography and logical and coherent editing (taken for granted elements that are not always guaranteed to be fully functioning in low budget Euro genre flicks) just about get the job done. And Benedetto Ghiglia's lively soundtrack score manages to rise above the level of standard generic fare on a couple of occasions. The inclusion of a Native American character (which is quite an unusual feature as far as Italian Westerns go) serves to add further interest to this picture. Indeed, El Rojo's overly quirky but ultimately fun content is precisely the kind of offbeat stuff that leads to minor genre entries like this one acquiring bona fide cult film status.
Picture quality here is reasonably good given that El Rojo is a particularly obscure genre entry. There's a touch of mild motion blur present in a couple of scenes and one or two nighttime sequences play a little on the dark side but there's very little in the way of print damage here. The presentation's sound quality is very good.
It should be noted that this release sports an extra feature that would be worth the asking price of this DVD on its own. Shot at the film festival that was held at the Los Angeles El Portal Theatre on the 19th of March 2011 and clocking in at one and a half hours in length, the 2011 Los Angeles Spaghetti Western Film Festival feature has the editor of Westerns All'Italiana!, Tom Betts, interviewing genre stalwarts Robert Woods, Mark Damon, Richard Harrison, Jack Betts (Hunt Powers), Brett Halsey (Montgomery Ford), Michael Forest and Dan Van Husen live on stage. Everybody present is generally good-humoured and the gathered genre stars each recount some great anecdotes.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
El Rojo rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.
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