Thursday, 19 February 2009

Five Bloody Graves (1970)

Five Bloody Graves was directed by Al Adamson who also gave us the inspired lunacy of the horror/sexploitation classic Nurse Sherri (which I talked about not too long ago). But Five Bloody Graves is a very different piece of exploitation madness. This is Al Adamson’s shot at an existential western, in the style of the best of the Italian spaghetti westerns, and you can even see it as a kind of precursor of Clint Eastwood’s magnificent High Plains Drifter, with perhaps a dash of Peckinpah as well. The DVD cover art suggests this is gong to be a western with a strong admixture of horror, always a promising combination of genres.

It has a narrator, but he’s not just a narrator. He’s the Voice of Death. He tells us that he’s been riding alongside our hero, Ben Thompson, for a long time. Death in fact is riding alongside every character in this movie, including Thompon’s sworn enemy, the man who killed Thompson’s wife, the renegade Apache Setago. The narrator is there to remind us that we’re not just seeing a western, but an existential western. This might have worked with a Clint Eastwood or a Franco Nero as the star, and with a talent like Leone or Corbucci (or even Eastwood in his more inspired moments) behind the camera. But the man behind the camera is Al Adamson, maker of Z-grade exploitation flicks. The contrast between the movie’s slightly arty pretensions and its ultra low-budget execution actually provides much of the entertainment value! It’s a bit like watching Ed Wood attempting Citizen Kane.

There’s no point in talking about the plot, because it’s thin to the point of almost non-existence. That does give it a bit of an Easy Rider on-a-road-to-nowhere vibe, without the hippie druggie stuff. The fact that the movie fails to provide a profound insight into the human condition isn’t surprising. Adamson was just an exploitation movie-maker working on a budget of almost nothing. The real problem with the movie is that it doesn’t deliver on the horror front. Lacking an expansive budget that would have allowed spectacular action sequences, the film might still have succeeded if it had given us some outrageously cheesy horror, or if Adamson had tried to make the action scenes more over-the-top but entertainingly silly. The movie plays it all a bit too straight. But then perhaps that’s its charm. It really does think it’s A Fistful of Dollars.

And it does have John Carradine as a sleazy preacher, and quite a few old-time movie greats including Al Adamson’s father, the legendary cowboy actor Denver Dixon. And some rather impressive photography, filmed somewhere in Utah I believe, by Vilmos Zsigmond. Who later won an Oscar for a Spielberg movie (and while Five Bloody Graves might not be a masterpiece at least it’s not a Spielberg movie). With all its faults Five Bloody Graves is a fascinatingly off-beat western, and it has a healthy dose of 70s darkness and nihilism. Interestingly enough Ben Thompson was apparently a real person, a gunfighter with a death wish in the real Old West.

The Retro Shock-O-Rama DVD includes two versions of Nurse Sherri as well as Five Bloody Graves and commentary tracks for both films. The very entertaining commentary track for Five Bloody Graves is by Adamson’s business partner Sam Sherman and also includes an interview with star, scriptwriter and co-producer Robert Dix. It gives a great sense of the camaraderie and enthusiasm that kept low-budget movie-makers going. This DVD release is an absolute must for exploitation movie fans. Both movies are in their own very different ways well worth seeing.

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