Cox’s Orange Pippins: Michael J. Pollard’s ass is a dish best served cold

This piece contains spoilers and in fact they’ve already started.

The Old Testament’s Book of Ezekiel identifies the four horsemen of the apocalypse as Sword, famine, Wild Beasts and Pestilence but in the New Testament’s Book of Revelations their names are given as Conquest, War, Famine and Death. But here’s Lucio Fulci to settle the debate: they are Stubby, Bunny, Clem and Bud. As played by Fabio Testi, Lynn Frederick, Michael J. Pollard and Harry Baird. The judge’s decision shall be final.

We really enjoyed FOUR OF THE APOCALYPSE… (1974). It’s unusual. Alex Cox is fairly dismissive of it, as he is of all post-1970 spaghettis. He points out that with its pop music soundtrack and soft-focus, backlit, long lens cinematography, it strongly resembles a TV commercial of the period. I’d Like to Buy the World a Gun. This is true, and the songs are fairly diabolical, though they do add to the weirdness which is one of the film’s key virtues, and Fulci’s love of diffusion is evident in his horror movies too. Giving a romantic gloss to hardcore prosthetic gore is agreeably perverse.

The violence has a point, which coincides with what I take to be the point of Fulci’s horror films, which aren’t scary but deal with a disturbing idea — human beings are composed of meat. Fulci being a doctor (!), like George Miller (!), he seems to have had a sense of mission in teaching us this valuable if depressing truth. (The sadism in Fulci is clinical and lacks joi de vivre, it’s more squalid and abject.)

The colour-supplement beauty may have a point too, but at any rate for those who don’t enjoy the Leone aesthetic — orange makeup, clogged pores in massive close-up, dust — here’s an alternative. Scenic beauty and spouting rubber appliances.

As with his previous (1966) western, MASSACRE TIME (haven’t seen it yet, but going by Cox’s report), Fulci stages a lot of squib-splatter effects, not otherwise seen much in the Italian west. If he was doing that in ’66 he was really ahead of the curve — ahead of Penn and Peckinpah. I’ll check that one out and report back.

Fiona christened these guys “the notorious Elephant Man Gang.”

This one begins with multiple “explosive bullet hits” spurting red, red vino in an opening massacre largely unconnected to whatever plot the film has (arguably, it has none). While it’s going on, our main characters are spending a night in the jail, which introduces them. Fabio Testi (literally “Fabulous Balls”) is a smooth gambler, Lynn Frederick, soon to marry Peter Sellers, is a pregnant hooker, Michael J Pollard is passed-out drunk (and, in reality, apparently high as a kite) and Harry Baird is a gravedigger who sees dead people. While the town’s other undesirables are being slaughtered by white-hooded vigilantes, and the sheriff stuffs his ears with bread, Fulci crash-zooms in on Baird’s frightened face…

Run out of town on a cart, our ill-matched quartet head for the next town — and never get there. That’s the closest thing to a plot. Also, they meet up with outlaw Tomas Milian, who carves inverted crosses carved under his eyes and is basically a wild west Charles Manson, an idea I suppose someone was bound to explore at some point. Manson’s actually living on a wild west movie set makes it inevitable.

Milian, much less appealing than in DJANGO, KILL! (a Christlike Yojimbo) or THE BIG GUNDOWN (a scrappy underdog), is a horrific villain. His arrival triggers a spate of actual animal killing, in the Italian cannibal movie vein: he’s a one-man REGLE DE JEU hunting party. Getting the foursome high on some ill-defined peyote or something, he stakes them out in the desert and rapes the stoned Frederick. This is staged in a very spaghetti western manner — a lingering build-up with a startlingly sudden conclusion. It’s at once highly exploitative and slightly squeamish, as if Fulci wanted to get the sadists aroused and then leave them high and dry.

The four, having briefly become five, are now reduced to three, two, one. Pollard, a veteran of the European western, having played romantic lead (!) in LES PETROLEUSES/THE LEGEND OF FRENCHIE KING, dies (too soon!) from a gunshot wound. Baird goes fully schizo and serves Pollard’s severed buttock to his friends as a meal, then capers off. ALWAYS ask what the “large animal” your crazy friend found and butchered actually is.

Frederick gives birth, and dies. Her baby, born in an all-male town of eccentric outlaws, is adopted by the whole community, and christened “Lucky.”

“What’s the surname?” wondered Fiona.

“Bastard,” I suggest.

The slender thread of plot running through the latter half has been a revenge quest — Testi gets his revenge, in a messy and unpleasant manner, and walks off, crying.

W.H. Auden said that works of art are not divided into the good and bad (and ugly), but the interesting and boring. This movie is, I submit, interesting. Lots of implausible, childish stuff, but Fulci for once seems to actually care about and like his characters, or at least made us do so. Everyone is post-synched but apart from Testi, their real voices have been used — Frederick’s combination of wild west saloon gal and stage school brat is rather adorable, and Baird just plays it with his Guyanan accent. Revenge is an imperative, but it’s main value is, it seems, to allow the hero to grieve.

The acting is, as Cox might say, “a certain kind of acting.” Or certain kinds. Frederick strives to condense as many facial expressions into as short a space of time as possible. It’s strange to see such a porcelain doll countenance moves so much. Her line readings are frequently incomprehensible, even though she has perfect elocution — it’s that opera singer thing, where everything is enounced beautifully but has no relation to natural speech and so the brain stumbles over it. The protean features, however, are the natural uncontrolled expressiveness of a child, something Frederick never offers in any other performance. Pollard is just out of his face, agreeably so. Baird is given a lot of conflicting stereotypes to contend with (singing spirituals AND cannibalism) but his character’s craziness is benign, and atypical. Rather than being afraid of spooks, he likes them. Testi’s character arc is, on one level, the retrieval of his shaving kit, on another it’s the classic revenge motive, but on some other unstated level it’s an attempt to become involved with humanity. It’s not at all clear if this is a good idea for him.

Maybe the film’s unusual sentiment and humanity comes from the Bret Harte stories it purports to adapt; maybe from Ennio de Concini, co-writer, whose varied credits include DIVORCE: ITALIAN STYLE and Bava’s likeable THE EVIL EYE/THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. Maybe Fulci was in an unusually sympathetic mood: perhaps DON’T TORTURE A DUCKLING had a brief purgative effect on his toxic sensibility.

There is, as usual with Dr. Fulci, a lot of unpleasant imagery, and the prosthetics are as usual gloated over until the seams show. But there is very attractive imagery too. The sense of the west as a nightmarish world of anarchic violence, in which our protagonists are defenceless innocents, is touching and scary and unlike anything I’ve seen. It’s like if you digitally erased Clint from A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS and left the weak and the bad to get on with it. The title is hard to parse, since these four are not powerful destructive forces, and do the 1880s count as an apocalypse? One is forced to conclude that, in Fulci’s universe, the apocalypse is happening ALL THE TIME.

FOUR OF THE APOCALYPSE… stars Zorro; Tatiana Romanoff; C.W. Moss; Big William; Provvidenza; Tatum, the killer; Agente della Pinkerton; and Dr. Butcher.

14 Responses to “Cox’s Orange Pippins: Michael J. Pollard’s ass is a dish best served cold”

  1. Tony Williams Says:

    D.C. A really good review but I wish you’d move on from Cox whose work becomes more dissatisfying as time passes. His book is adapted from a graduate dissertation and the SWDB once had the original version. As I’ve said, Kevin Grant is much better. He combines critical acumen with irritating bias. This was the last Western Milian did and the touching part of the film is THE LUCK OF ROARING CAMP element. Fulci can be less excessive at times and it works.

    also, TIME FOR A MASSACRE was banned in England. I remember FILMS AND FILMING had a photo display but it is not as bad as some of his later gore works although the violence was too much for British censorship at the time. Good performances by Franco Nero, George Hilton, and Nino Castelnuovo as the deranged villain.

  2. We’re stuck with Cox because that’s the book I’ve got. But I find his limitations and errors (never factual, always interpretive) interesting to talk about. I’ll be able to add Christopher Frayling into the mix when the college library reopens. I sent an inquiry about getting a review copy of the Grant book, but no reply.

    When The New York Ripper was submitted to the BBFC, James Ferman not only banned it, he personally escorted the print back to the airport to make sure it left. That’s one movie where I can sympathise with the censor’s appalled reaction, although I think it’s ultimately misguided.

  3. architekturadapter Says:

    Hello Tony,
    I’m still waiting to get my AGCP copie comming from England (Brixit doesn’t make things easier !) tio enjoy the (supposedly) great Grant (I’m indeed very curious to read it !).

    But why so much contempt against Cox 10.000WTD ? He might be wrong sometimes in his jugement, not quoting his sources some other time, but it’s still second best book about “orange pippins” (if Grants book is best).
    He makes interesting connections .
    I have also a copy of the older (or first) version of the book – the dissertation (it was also on his own site but not anymore) – which is very very different : structured by themes and not film by film (pointing the mythes, hero and villain types, etc), more repetition and less clair.
    Anyway, the officiel and avalable version is worth reading.

    Hi David,
    great review !
    In France you could buy some years ago a double DVD with Corbucci’s “Django” and Fulci’s “4 Horsemen ” in one box. I wanted to see “Django” and got the “Apocalypse” as bonus. Quite a film ! – interesting is the right word. Disturbing and weird, but also very intriguing.
    At one point there was only two possibilities to go on with spaghetti westerns : 1) Terence Hill & Bud Spencer farts ans silliness or 2) Charles Manson craziness in Almeria, pointing the zombie / cannibalism storm yet to come.

  4. I’m debating whether to look at Milian in the Morricone-scored Provvidenza films, slapstick circus spaghettis in which he wears an off-model Charlie Chaplin costume and doesn’t carry a gun. Outsize Lego bricks appear.

  5. Tony Williams Says:

    The reason for my critique of Cox is that there are so much better books out there, several of which have not been translated into English. Here is the section from Sebastian H’s key site on this field.

  6. Tony Williams Says:

    David C. The score is superb but when I finally saw the film I found Milian’s Chaplin antics unbearable very much like his Samural in Corbucci’s THE YELLOW AND THE BLACK. You are a completist on Chaplin but be warned. This was about the time Milian was donning wigs, beards and bizarre costumes in some of those poliziotteschi movies! His male lead in Corbucci’s SONNY AND JED with Susan George represents the ugliest male lead in the Western genre but by that time Corbucci was tiring of that field.

  7. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    Linda Lawson died in May.

  8. Thnking about pop songs and revenge as a motive in Spaghetti Westerns, its a pity no-one ever adapted the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band’s song Bad Blood into a film.

  9. bensondonald Says:

    Pollard appeared on Broadway in the musical “Bye Bye Birdie”, playing a hapless teen schlub whose girlfriend was obsessed with an Elvis-esque superstar. In the movie his part went to Bobby Rydell, a generic teen idol.

  10. The Notorious Elephant Man Gang needs to appear in the Dickensian zombie movie, if only as a red herring. I have not been able to determine whether the Thames froze over during the winter of 1857-8 (6 months before The Big Stink) or of 1858-9 (6 months after) but zombies emerging from the ice-bound transport vessel surely needs to happen anyway.

  11. More Bonzo Dog Band movies in general would be a good thing.

    Pollard was amazing. Fat little guy face with spider-thin limbs. He and Bud Cort should’ve played brothers.

  12. Michael J. Pollard was a mighty character actor and a wonderful guy. He was a good friend of a good friend. now deceased, and he had a lot of personal problems. One afternoon he dropped by my friend’s apartment bemoaning his fate. Suddenly he said “I know who can help. I’ll call Warren!” So he called Warren and Warren sent a car for him. His last role was in Warren’s “Dick Tracy” He began on Boadway in “Bye Bye Birdie” as Kim’s neglected boyfriend Hugo. But for the movie they cast Bobby Rydell and turned the whole thing into “the Ann-Margret Show” One of his best later roles was as one of the firemen in Steve Martin’s “Roxanne.” He is greatly missed.

  13. Pollard is one of those greats who Hollywood really let down by not using him more. A natural character who enlivened everything he was in, his increasingly rare appearances coincide with the decline of American cinema.

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