Death Rides a Horse (UK - DVD R2)
Gabe draws first on the classic Spaghetti Western, presented here in widescreen...
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Four psychopathic bandits enter a home after a robbery. They shoot the father, then rape and murder the mother and daughter. They kill three innocent people, then burn their house to the ground. But they made one mistake, they should’ve killed four. Surviving the horror is the family’s little boy, who witnesses the slaughter and survives after being pulled from the fire by a stranger. The boy grows into a man bent on revenge (played by the stone faced John Phillip Law), with visions of the killer’s distinguishing features swimming in his mind.
But he’ll have to get in line for his revenge. The man who took the fall for the bandit’s crime has been released from jail, armed with the knowledge of names and whereabouts, begins to hunt the men who framed him. The heroes clash, with one craving blood, and the other monetary restitution, and neither faltering in their perseverant need of atonement.
Death Rides a Horse is a cracking chunk of Spaghetti Western, stewing with all the ingredients necessary for prototypal greatness. Vengeance, scope, manly men, quick-drawing six-shooters, violence, and the music of Ennio Morricone. Vast desert landscapes are juxtaposed with intimate facial close-ups, villains are rotten to the core, and heroes are veiled in dark shades of grey. If you enjoy the stylized adventures of the man with no name, you will most likely enjoy the adventures of Ryan and Bill.
The best thing this film brings to the table is the interplay between stars Lee Van Cleef (as the grizzled Ryan) and John Phillip Law. The majority of the film does drop into the “been there, done that” category pretty easily, but the tough-guy paternal relationship is pretty golden. Our protagonists enjoy each other’s company, but still see each other as opposition, especially Ryan, who can’t collect money from dead men. This relationship culminates in a pretty obvious twist in the end (I’ll let you figure it out just by reading my brief synopsis), but the journey is still an entertaining one.
This is a case of the synopsis selling the film. If the story sounds like something you'd like to see, you'll probably enjoy the film. Death Rides a Horse isn't quite good enough to transcend the personal tastes of the average movie going audience. It is a classic within the confines of the genre, but not in the greater scope of filmdom. Those curious about the many inspirations behind Tarentino's Kill Bill films should move the film to the top of their list, just behind Lady Snowblood. Specifically, QT lifted the red tinted close-ups on Philip Law's eyes when he recognizes one of the killers, which is of course accompanied by loud and angry music.
Here in The States, Death Rides a Horse is available in almost every DVD shop you stop in, in various affordable incarnations, thanks to some kind of copyright deferment. "Why would I go out of my way to get my hands on this R2 release then, Gabe?", you ask, tapping your toes in annoyance. Well, the problem with every single on of these US R0 releases is that they are all presented in the dreaded full-frame, and not the professionally crafted pan-and-scan style either, here we have that old fashion, lop off the edges and hope something important enters the center of the frame, full frame. In keeping with most Westerns from the land of pizza and pasta, Death Rides a Horse was filmed in scope widescreen, and R2 is the only way to see it as intended.
Unfortunately, though widescreen (and anamorphically enhanced to boot), this transfer leaves quite a bit to be desired. The top and bottom of the frame is especially dirty, specifically during night scenes. This dirt and artefacting extends to the rest of the film, but is most prevalent when the lights are out. On the other hand, the majority of the film takes place under the blazing Western sun, so the majority of the transfer is more than acceptable. Ironically, I'm actually guessing that the 2.35:1 transfer might be a little too wide, as headroom is occasionally and unintentionally limited.
The sub par video presentation is more than forgivable, and in some cases even adds to the viewing experience. There's nothing quite like an old tyme Western that looks like it's being played on a college campus reel-to-reel in 1973. Recently, the Spaghetti Western inspired video game, Red Dead Revolver, created artificial versions of tracking lines and film grain to augment the game play. The biggest problem with this release is the awful audio tracks.
I have zero problem with mono sound, especially when it comes to films that were made before the advent of Dolby Digital or DTS. I also have no problem with obvious ADR work when it comes to Italian releases from the era, as the vast majority of them were multilingual and recorded without sound anyway. What I do have a problem with is distorted and muddled soundtracks, especially when those soundtracks cradle the wondrous music of Ennio Morricone at the top of his game. The bulk of the picture contains incidental dialogue, and when characters do speak out, it's usually understandable, but when the music kicks up everything goes to Hell.
Every one of the multilanguage tracks is muffled, and becomes very distorted when the score swells. The worst off of the tracks was actually the Spanish track, so if watching the two leads dubbed in their actual speaking language is less important to you than Morricone's masterful music, I suggest biting the bullet and turning on the subtitles.
There are no extras on this disc.
Though a barebones release, with a stilted transfer and a mangled audio track, this is still the best way to watch this genre classic. Death Rides a Horse is a must have for any Spaghetti Western collector, and a should see for casual fans of the more mainstream titles of the genre, like Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy.
You can purchase this title, and dozens of other Spaghetti Westerns, from Xploitedcinema.com.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Release Date: 15th August 2005
Disc Type: Single side, single layer
Audio: English, French, German, Italian, Spanish Dolby Digital Mono
Subtitles: English, French, German, Italian, Spanish Dolby Digital Mono
Easter Egg: No
Director: Giulio Petroni
Cast: Lee Van Cleef, John Phillip Law
Length: 110 minutes
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