Directed by Sergio Corbucci in between his two masterpieces, Django and The Great Silence, 1967's The Hellbenders (also known as The Cruel Ones) takes place in a post-Civil War America. Here we meet Colonel Jonas (Joseph Cotten), a haggard and world-weary Confederate soldier who doesn't intend to give up the fight so easily. When he gets his hands on a whole lot of stolen money after he and his sons slaughter some Northern soldiers, he decides to travel with the money hidden away in a coffin to New Mexico where he feels he can put it to good use. He tells would-be snoopers that the coffin contains the body of Captain Ambrose. To help keep up appearances, Jonas' three sons tag along for the journey: Ben (Julian Mateos), Jeff (Gino Pernice) and Nat (Angel Aranda). With them is a woman he hires to play the grieving widow on the trip. After the woman is killed en route, they hire a prostitute named Clair (Norma Bengell) to take her place.
The point of all this is, of course, to start the Civil War anew, but their journey proves fraught with enemies both internal and external as some of the local Indians, a gaggle of Union troops and even Jonas' own sons start to cause trouble for the man. As the Union men get ever closer, Jonas remains as determined as ever, all of which leads to the inevitable showdown we all knew was coming…
The Hellbenders is good stuff! At times it plays out more like a road movie than a traditional spaghetti western film but Corbucci and is his team are savvy enough to make sure we get enough action throughout the film to keep things interesting. The cinematography from Enzo Barboni, who shot scores of westerns including the aforementioned Django and who also got behind the camera for the gothic horror classic Nightmare Castle, does a great job of setting the right tone here and capturing all the grit and grime of the dusty locales. On top of that, we get another typically excellent score from the prolific (and brilliant!) Ennio Morricone that helps bring out more of the tension and suspense inherent in the plotting.
The story is interesting. There are very few ‘good' characters in the picture, and Jonas in particular is a right bastard of a man. Cotten plays the role well, really looking the part and dominating most of the scenes that he's involved with without ever chewing the scenery. He treats the part with the utmost seriousness and that suits Jonas' character well. Ben and Claire evoke some sympathy from the audience and Mateos and Bengell do decent work here in that regard, while Pernie and Aranda play their parts close to Cotton, they're pretty despicable. At the same time, even if we don't like most of these people or are ever asked to side with them at all, the movie makes sure we at least want to know what happens to them.
If this is an atypical western, and it is, so be it. The deliberate pacing might put some off at first but it's a movie worth sticking with, a quality emphasized by well-written and nicely fleshed out characters. Corbucci brings things to a full boil as the picture moves towards the finish line. The film isn't as gripping as Django or as poetic as The Great Silence but it is a very intelligent film that deals not in cliché black and whites, but areas of grey, leaving things up to the audience to think about when the end credits roll. It's smart, plenty entertaining, and very well-made.
Kino Lorber brings The Hellbenders to Blu-ray in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer framed at 1.85.1 widescreen on a 50GB disc. Taken from a brand new 4k restoration, the transfer here is quite nice. There's a bit of print damage here and there and a few shots were contrast runs a little hot (this seems baked into the elements rather than an issue with the transfer) but otherwise things shape up quite well. The image is generally pretty clean and shows really nice, strong detail as well as good depth and texture. Skin tones look nice and black levels are pretty solid too. There are no noticeable problems with compression issues, nor are there any problems with noise reduction or edge enhancement. This is a very solid transfer, quite a nice upgrade over the older DVD release from 2007.
English audio tracks is provided in DTS-HD 2.0 format with optional subtitles provided in English only. The audio is clean and nicely balanced and the dialogue is always easy enough to understand. No problems with any hiss or distortion to report.
The main extra on the disc is an audio commentary track from filmmaker and spaghetti western expert Alex Cox, the author of 10,000 Ways to Die: A Director's Take On The Spaghetti Western. If you've heard Cox's other spaghetti western tracks, and he's done a few of them at this point, you'll know what to expect. He lays down all sorts of facts about the making of the picture, provides plenty of details about the cast, the crew and the locations. He gives us info about Corbucci's career, delves into some of the politics of the film and all along the way offers his own insight into what makes this such a great movie. Cox's enthusiasm is a wonderful thing and this track is definitely worth taking the time to enjoy.
Additionally, the disc includes a theatrical trailer, bonus trailers for other Kino Lorber properties, menus and chapter selection.
The Hellbenders is a moody, tense and exciting film, one of Sergio Corbucci's best pictures. It's stylish, well-acted and it features a great score from Morricone. Kino Lorber's Blu-ray release looks and sounds excellent and the commentary from Alex Cox is a welcome addition to this release. Highly recommended!