Archive for Four of the Apocalypse….

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

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 8, 2022 by dcairns

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.