I. Fulci the Kid Rides into TownLucio Fulci is famous for a series of four incredibly gory horror films he made between 1979 and 1981. Many, maybe even most viewers are repelled by the explicit gore of these films, and it's very difficult to appreciate a film's technical merits while you're struggling to hold on to your lunch. Others who can stomach the graphic bloodshed complain about what they consider the overly-derivative nature of the movies' scripts, or the stories' incoherence; or, worst of all to some viewers, Fulci's typically languid pace. On the other hand, there are people like me, who find Fulci's gorefests compelling cinema with much more going on in them than many people realize. Like me, viewers who enjoy Zombi 2, City of the Living Dead, The Beyond and The House by the Cemetery often find themselves curious about Fulci's other movies. But even the most sympathetic viewers are likely to be put off by the mediocre-to-downright-awful films the director made after 1981, and many reviewers have come to regard those four milestone films as something of a fluke.
Fulci seems to have fallen in love with the idea that he was a horror auteur, in the wake of the controversy surrounding his gore films. He tried to go off in new directions to keep up with his notoriety, at the same time that budgets fell off dramatically for genre film production. His most successful mid-80's effort, Ænigma, was an imaginative and surprisingly humane horror film, but it was crippled by its low-budget effects work. Even the best of his other late films come off as poor compromises between ideas and resources. In the meantime, his ego had alienated some of his most talented collaborators. Trying to make up for the loss of their creative input, he made some catastrophic decisions about his scripts and filming techniques. In particular, he started using special filters that gave his late work a particularly slick, glossy look, which contrasted badly with the clarity of his earlier films.
If the work Fulci did after 1981 does little to refute the idea he was just a hack with some good connections, there is a handful of films he made before his "Red Period" that will probably take his detractors by surprise. Some of these -- the gialli Don't Torture the Duckling and A Lizard in a Woman's Skin, for example -- are becoming better-known, while others, including the film Fulci thought was his very best work, Beatrice Cenci, have only been seen by truly dedicated Fulci fans. One of the most interesting of Fulci's "forgotten" films is also one of his earliest: Massacre Time -- not a slasher flick, as its title might suggest, but a Western1. It may seem a little off-topic for this web site, but its lack of outré horror elements or show-stopping gore effects will allow me to demonstrate just how capable a director Fulci really was.
Massacre Time came out in 1966, just after Sergio Corbucci's immensely popular Django, and shortly before Sergio Leone's epic conclusion to the "Man with No Name" trilogy, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly2. It's interesting to note that all three movies are concerned with the uneasy relationship between three very different men. Like Django, Massacre Time's hero, Tom Corbett, is a stranger who isn't really a stranger; he finds himself in a once-familiar town that's been corrupted by a monster. His single-minded pursuit of his goal leads to suffering and death for those closest to him. Furthermore, Tom is played by Franco Nero, who had played Django, and his costume in Massacre Time is very similar to the dark clothes he wore in Corbucci's film. But Massacre Time is concerned with the struggle of three individuals, rather than one lone man and two opposing factions, as in Django, its inspiration A Fistful of Dollars, and even Sergio Leone's inspiration, Kurosawa's Yojimbo. Like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the heart of Massacre Time's story is the partnership between the hero and his reluctant ally, while a sinister third party works both for and against him, depending on what's most useful at the time. But these superficial similarites aside, Fulci's film stands on its own as a very successful spaghetti Western, with a distinctive approach to its material. It does not suffer by comparison to either of the seminal genre films that bookended its release -- even though unlike them, it completely lacks a political subtext.
Up until Massacre Time, Fulci had established his reputation as a writer and director of light comedies and musicals. This brutal, hyper-violent Western must have come as a shock to audiences familiar with Fulci's early work. What's most astonishing now, though, is seeing how much of Fulci's mature style is evident in the film. There are those who insist that credit for Fulci's most famous films belongs more to his partners, like writer Dardano Sacchetti or cinematographer Sergio Salvati, than to Fulci himself (Sacchetti himself, for example, has stated views like this in several interviews). But in 1966, Sacchetti was just starting to get involved with film, and Salvati was working as a cameraman on The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Nevertheless, the camera work, the screen compositions, the pace and the whole tone of Massacre Time are all very similar to the best films of Fulci's later years, proving that Fulci really did have a distinct personal style.
In fact, the consistency of Fulci's style is both a strength and a weakness. Maybe if he had made art films, audiences would have accepted his idiosyncracies more readily. But Fulci stayed exclusively a commercial director. He was completely, aggressively uninterested in making movies as art, though he brought tremendous knowledge of art-film and theatre to his genre films. Unfortunately, mass audiences weren't always ready to accept his deliberately fragmented time-lines, or the naturally slow pace of his films.
Of course, this is not to suggest that Fulci didn't make some really crappy movies... his worst are so bad they're almost unwatchable. There's also some justice to the charge that Fulci got lazier as he grew older, and tended to rely on overdoing what others had done before him... Sergio Leone being an obvious inspiration: Leone had a technique of building tension by cutting to ever-tighter close-ups of his actors. Fulci developed the habit of pulling in so close that the panned-and-scanned versions of his movies showed only the bridges of the actors' noses.
But in this early film, Fulci is not being lazy: his widescreen compositions are carefully executed and complex. Unlike Leone, whose compositions are usually organic, Fulci delights in calling attention to the artificiality of his shots. Fulci will often deliberately set the action between foreground, middleground and background at odds with each other. For example, when Tom Corbett walks into a saloon, the camera tracks his movements in the middleground, while the actions of the saloon patrons continue in the extreme foreground and background... the action in the foreground being deemed so unimportant that it is shot out-of-focus. The soundtrack, however, concentrates on the foreground; we hear snippets of meaningless conversations being carried on by the blurry shapes just in front of us, even though our eyes stay riveted on the figure of Tom in the middle distance. Fulci uses this same technique when Tom approaches the infamous garden party, this time entering the frame from the deep background. It's not at all a naturalistic effect -- but it forces the audience to pay attention to the entire depth of field, and helps set up the vividly choreographed action scenes that follow. In another obvious instance, a sweeping panoramic shot of a lone rider on the horizon is suddenly interrupted by a rifle that swings down in the extreme foreground, changing not only the focus but the whole meaning of the scene. In yet another example, when two riders disappear behind a ruined house, the camera slides along the burnt-out façade, zooms through an empty window all the way through the house and catches up with the horsemen on the other side. But even when Fulci's not going for a bravura effect, he manages to make very effective use of space and motion through the whole film.
II. «Artaud», dis-tu?Fulci himself referred to Massacre Time as Artaudian; that is, influenced by the early twentieth century avant-garde artist Antonin Artaud. Artaud believed that theatre in Western culture (that's Western as in "hemisphere"), like Western civilization itself, was debased and mostly worthless. He wanted to bring about huge reforms in the Western notion of theatre, using ancient and non-Western traditions as an inspiration... and machine guns if necessary. Artaud wanted theatre to free itself from what he considered the tyranny of literature: plays which were meant to be read, he thought, were not plays at all. He believed that action needed to replace the written or spoken word as the focus of the performance, and that Western culture's preoccupation with realism, psychology and character/story-arcs needed to be replaced by a sense of myth, ritual and spectacle. He called his nascent theatre the Theatre of Cruelty, not necessarily "cruelty" in the sense of barbaric bloodshed, but more in the sense of unflinching artistic discipline.
Of course, it's a bit of a stretch to consider a spaghetti Western truly Artaudian, though frankly I think I'd rather see a spaghetti Western -- any spaghetti Western -- than anything produced according to French avant-garde theoretical standards. But Massacre Time, with its themes of family conflicts, lost identity and the return of the warrior, really does evoke connections to ancient myth, so much so that the characters seem much better drawn than they are. Fulci also lets the action tell the story at several key junctures: in the very opening, when we're provided with a spectacle that would be right at home in any "Theatre of Cruelty"; as an interlude in an amusing barroom brawl; during a fight between the hero and his brother; and during almost the entire final gunfight. There's no attempt at realism, to the point where Fulci invites the audience to marvel at the techniques he's using... and yet, even though nothing is real, much of it feels true (well, not literally true, but right; satisfying; meaningful without having or needing any specific meaning attached to it).
In bringing up Artaud, Fulci related Massacre Time to his later, more justifiably "Artaudian" film, The Beyond. Anyone expecting Fulci's Western to be as truly bizarre in its every aspect as his zombie masterpiece will be disappointed: the real relationship between the two films is in their approach to their material, and the degree to which the story and the technique of telling the story assume equal weight. Though the two films are very different in content and tone, they both establish a sense of mythic importance that the movies' content doesn't really support.
If you're beginning to get the impression that Massacre Time has absolutely nothing to do with the real American West, you're absolutely right. The story itself could have been played out in ancient Greece with beefy guys in togas, or in France with musketeers, or in some far-off galaxy, rather than in the American West with unshaven gunslingers... and it would still have made perfect sense. And honestly, it has little to do with Artaud either: based on his notes for his epic performance The Conquest of Mexico, and his frequently-expressed views on the barbarity of European/white-American culture, we have a pretty good idea of what Artaud's take on the real story of the American Westward expansion would have been (imagine The Master Gunfighter on peyote). It certainly wouldn't have been a relatively intimate tale of three damaged cowboys and their bloody path to destiny.
III. A Man AloneThe first of the three main characters we meet is the thoroughly vile "Junior" Scott. Junior is usually referred to as "Jason" in information related to the movie, though he's never referred to by this name; "Jason Scott", oddly enough, is the name of the hero of Jack London's White Fang, a character Franco Nero played twice for Fulci (in Zanna Bianca/White Fang  and Il ritorno di Zanna Bianca/Challenge to White Fang ).
Junior and his leering cronies are having a hunt as the movie begins. They are all dressed up in fine clothes, as though they are pretending to be English aristocrats... somebody even has a hunting horn. But their quarry isn't fox, and they don't intend to do any shooting. Junior's weapon of choice isn't a gun, anyway: it's a whip, which he uses to goad his prey into starting the chase. His prey, in case you hadn't guessed, is human, and though Junior and his friends are armed, it is his pack of starving dogs who will be doing the killing.
Nino Castelnuovo, who plays Junior, had also played the romantic lead opposite Catherine Deneuve in Jacques Démy's musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg... but after seeing him in the role of Junior, I may never be able to watch Démy's film again (in fact, I have the perverse desire to schedule a triple feature: Massacre Time and Repulsion, followed immediately by The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, like a nice swig of orange juice after you've finished brushing your teeth). Castelnuovo's Junior is completely insane. His head is always drooping lazily to one side or the other, and his shifty, squinting eyes rarely make contact with anyone -- unless he's about to do something horrible. He always dresses in white, while the hero Tom Corbett dresses all in black... skewering the American Western tradition of identifying the hero and villain by their colors. Castelnuovo gives an appropriately over-the-top performance, which succeeds in making Junior a truly frightening (and above all, disturbing) villain.
Junior's dogs catch up with the fleeing victim as he tries to ford a stream (a scene which Fulci echoed in his later film Beatrice Cenci, when the bandit Il Catalano is murdered by soldiers while crossing a river). Junior watches slouched on his horse, panting slightly, with a hideous smile on his lips. The camera follows the spreading cloud of blood in the water, moving downstream as the opening credits begin...
Now, if there's one thing that really makes a spaghetti Western enjoyable, aside from the operatic violence, it's the customary Inane Title Song that plays over the credits. Django offers a classic example: over the image of Django pulling a coffin through the mud in the pouring rain, we're given a wickedly catchy song how much his life really sucks. The lyrics just go on and on for two verses about how utterly miserable Django is. Then, with Django still slogging through the mire, the song blathers:
"When there are clouds in the sky,
You really expect Django to turn around and shoot out the soundtrack.
The Inane Title Song in Massacre Time isn't as hilariously inappropriate as Django's, though the singer, Sergio Endrigo, has a lot more trouble with the English lyrics. I think what he's singing is this:
"You left to find a pot of gold.
Then the music gets all slow and maudlin, and the lyrics actually get worse:
"You went away forever;
(I've done a quick MIDI version of part of the music, so you can have it playing in your head for days afterwards.)The lyrics have very little to do with the content of the film. Tom Corbett is indeed far from home, working as a prospector -- the gradual crawl downstream from the bloody water ends up where Tom is panning for gold -- but he's actually doing well for himself. His problems begin in earnest when he does "come back home". Still, the general pessimism of the song is appropriate, not only for this film but for Fulci's entire mature output...
... or, as some less charitable people would suggest, for Fulci's entire career.
Ahem. Where was I?
Fulci introduces a false scare by having a sinister intruder attempt to sneak up on Tom. We get our first impression that Tom is more than a simple prospector when he senses the movement behind him, and overpowers the other man without even turning around. But the intruder turns out to be an old friend of the family named Vincent, and he's sneaking because he's on an errand he doesn't want to perform. He's brought Tom a note from a lawyer named Carradine, who's asked him to come back home at once. There's no explanation for the summons; Vincent runs off without explaining any more, except to say he intends never to go back there again.
"Home" for Tom is the family property in Laramie, New Mexico4, where his brother Jeff and their old Mexican maid Mercedes (pronounced "MER-se-deez") live. Tom's mother had been widowed while he and Jeff were still small children, and on her death she had left Tom well provided for... on the condition he leave Jeff the house and property, go away and never return. So the first thing homecoming suggests to Tom is that he needs to clean his pistol.
Tom is in for a shock when he gets to Laramie. His family's house and grounds are in ruins, and are being used as a pig farm by a crowd of people Tom's never seen before. Tom interrupts a dice game between two belligerent ranch hands and asks them if they know where he could find the Widow Corbett's son. They brusquely inform Tom that he's on Scott land now, and he'd better clear off it unless he's been invited. They point out the entwined "TS" symbol that serves as Scott's brand. One of the less obnoxious ranch workers tells Tom that Jeff works for an old Chinese blacksmith in town, so Tom heads back into Laramie with the taunts of the rancheros ringing behind him.
Back in Laramie town, Tom hitches up his horse and goes looking for his brother. The Chinese blacksmith hasn't seen him, which is apparently nothing new. The blacksmith avoids being an offensive ethnic stereotype by the thinnest of margins. He's always beginning his statements with "Confucius say...", but then what he has to say usually has nothing to do with Master K'ung. This time, he insists his information on Jeff's whereabouts is worth twenty cents. Tom demurs; the old man replies, "Confucius say: if you want to live a long life, try to be ignorant and know nothing. But in this town, you have to know a lot of things if you want to live a long life. Twenty cents, please!" We will gradually find out that the old man represents the entire working infrastructure of the town... everything that isn't owned directly by Scott and his gang of roughnecks is done by this one man.
Tom then sees a band of horsemen come riding down the main street. From the attitude of the townspeople, Tom realizes that something's up: it's Scott himself, with Junior and his entourage. Scott is played by the distinguished actor Giuseppe Addobbati, billed here as "John MacDonald"; he's given a lot more to do here than he had been given in the thankless rôle of Jonathan the butler in Mario Caiano's Nightmare Castle the year before.
A little boy playing the harmonica freezes in mid-melody, with the instrument still at his lips, as Scott et al. ride in. All at once, from the opposite direction, an old man and his family come riding in on a heavily-loaded wagon. Scott stops them, demanding to know where they're going. The old man responds timidly that they're leaving town, since it's impossible for them to stay. Scott tries to convince them to go back home, pointing out how much land there is to farm, but the old man's son speaks up: it's Scott land, he spits, and as long as it's Scott land, there will be no hope for them here.
But how, protests Scott, can he and his family just get up and leave their home, the place where their dead are buried? The old man replies that none of his dead are buried here... whereupon Junior pulls his gun and shoots the old man's son dead5. "One will be now," he drawls.
It's at this moment that Scott, Junior and their sinister-looking Indian henchman Sonko catch sight of Tom. They don't seem pleased to see him; the elder Scott in particular looks unnerved and upset. He gestures to the others, and they ride off, leaving the old man and his family to grieve over the dead boy. "New customer!" says the old Chinese man to himself, getting out his top hat and hearse...
Tom rides out to a shabby little adobe hut outside of town. As he arrives, the old Chinese man passes him in the other direction on his hearse, with the dead boy in the back. "Long life to you!" he calls to Tom... which, considering his situation and what he told Tom in the previous scene, is a surprisingly nuanced line.
Tom's brother Jeff (George Hilton) is sprawled, drunk, in the little hut. The family reunion is less than warm: though old Mercedes is happy to see him, Jeff wants him gone. As the brothers sit to share a meal, Jeff lets loose a long belch and offers Tom his first attempt at polite conversation: "When are you leavin', Tom?" Jeff has no idea why Carradine would have called him back, but he advises Tom to forget all about it and go. As Tom gets back on his horse and rides back to town, Jeff catches sight of Scott's men watching from the overhanging ridge. Ignoring them (for the moment), he goes back to his tequila.
Night has fallen by the time Tom gets back to town. Ignoring the hostile glances of Scott's men lounging in the streets, he wanders into the local saloon for a drink (where we discover that the old Chinese blacksmith/undertaker is also the saloon piano player). Scott's men trail in after him, with feigned disinterest. Suddenly, much to Tom's surprise, Jeff comes staggering in, demanding tequila. Behind him come the surly ranch hands Tom met earlier at the old family home. It's evident that these thugs are new to Scott's employment; they don't mix with the other henchmen, and they throw their weight around in a swaggering sort of way that the real Scott enforcers don't bother with.
One of the bullies demands a light from the inebriated Jeff. Jeff turns to him, taking a drag on his cigar, and replies: "I... don't... smoke." He then blows a cloud of cigar smoke right in the man's face. The bully responds by knocking Jeff across the room. Jeff picks himself up with an apologetic gesture, plucks a lit cigar out of another patron's mouth, and makes as though to light the bully's cigarette... but then "accidentally" grinds the lit cigar into the other man's face. This is the signal for inevitable barroom free-for-all. Jeff does some pretty good "drunken kung-fu", though it's clear all he really wants is to be left alone with his tequila. Unfortunately, Scott's underlings keep stepping between the man and his bottle. The old Chinese guy helps out occasionally with a tiny blowgun he uses to keep the peace, but eventually the gang turns out to be too much for Jeff to handle. Seeing things go bad for his brother, but probably remembering the cool reception he's received, Tom decides it's about time to wade into the battle... but not before taking one more drink.
By now, we're getting the impression that Jeff is a genuine drunk, depressed by the way his fortunes have gone bad. We also get the impression that he doesn't try to feign helplessness in order to stay safe in Scott's town; rather, he's as obnoxious as he dares to be without crossing too many lines. This seems to make him safer than if he had attempted to hide behind his drunkenness. Still, we get the feeling there's something dangerous about Jeff. But now, it's Tom's turn to get tough, as he steps in and makes short work of Scott's men. As things start to go badly for the thugs, one of them pulls a gun on Tom, but Sonko suddenly steps forward and pulls the man's arm aside. Sonko makes a gesture, and all Scott's men file out silently.
Tom is dumbfounded. While he tries to make sense of what's just happened, the old Chinese guy steps up and asks him for two dollars for the two blowdarts he used to help Jeff ("I'm putting it away for my old age!" he explains). Tom pays him, and the old man goes back to his piano and his tankard of milk.
The whole saloon scene is excellently staged and shot. Fulci uses space and motion very well, in building up to the brawl as well as during the commotion. This is also one of the rare instances in Fulci's "serious" films where he displays the comic timing he evolved earlier in his career.
Jeff thanks his brother for helping him by telling him once again to get the hell out of town. Tom shrugs him off and goes off to see lawyer Carradine.
Carradine and his family -- his wife and two young daughters -- are sitting down to say grace over dinner when Tom shows up. Carradine hurriedly ushers him out to the barn, explaining he can't speak in front of anyone else. But the pair never make it all the way to the barn. Midway across the yard, the sound of shots comes from the main house. Carradine attempts to rush back to see what's happened, but is himself gunned down before he can get there. Horsemen ride off... Carradine has time to gasp, "Scott's men!" before he dies.
Rushing back to the house, Tom finds Carradine's entire family lying dead on the dining room table, awash in their own blood. Looking up, he sees the impassive face of Sonko at the window. Something in the Indian's expression keeps Tom from killing him right there...
Next, we see Sonko standing before old man Scott, who is visibly distressed. This is not what he had in mind. Junior lurks around a corner, wondering how he can avoid his father's wrath. He lurches over to a harmonium and begins playing a mournful tune, as his father storms in. Junior ignores his anger, pointing out that the piece he's playing is his father's favorite... a piece which he taught him as a child, sitting side by side at the organ. Junior asks his father is he still loves him: "Are we still one?" he asks, putting his arms around his father's shoulders in a gesture that's partly manipulative, partly desperate and sincere. It's more obvious than ever that Junior's a complete mental case.
Junior moves back to the harmonium and continues to play. Scott clenches his fists in helpless fury; but what can he do with this child of his, whom he both loves and hates, who is both his charge and his master? Scott's fists slowly unbend; he moves over to the harmonium and begins to play along with his unbalanced son.
IV. "Hey, gentlemen!""They don't want to shoot me," muses Tom; "But why?"
Jeff is, as usual, disinclined to give Tom any help, even after the news of the slaughter of the Carradines... especially since Tom is convinced the only way he can find out what Carradine wanted to tell him is by confronting Scott directly. "If you want a hand, I'll give you one," drawls Jeff. "I'll go and get your horse, so as you can leave!"
Everybody in town knows where Scott lives, but no one wants to be the one to tell Tom. Tom ends up at the blacksmith's shop, where the old man is busy building caskets for the Carradines. "Confucius say..." says the old man, "burying the dead is a gratuitous and meritorious task. But Confucius, of course, didn't live in this town. Burial takes up much of my time, and I confess I have to make it profitable. Confucius will surely forgive me if I say that the Carradines' funeral costs $3 a coffin, which comes to... comes to, ah, twelve."
Tom hands the old man the money, and asks about Scott's location.
"Have you a million dollars?" asks the old man. Tom is confused. The old man explains: "Confucius, he also say: there is no amount of money that equal the earthly life of a man, even if he is very lowly. And I am very lowly. But for this once, I heartily agree with Confucius!"
Frustrated, Tom walks back out into the street, where he comes across Jeff... sprawled by the road hypnotizing a chicken. Jeff finally agrees to take Tom to see Scott. As he points out, as long as he stays with Tom, he should be safe.
The two men ride off into the wilderness outside of town. They are soon stopped by six horsemen, who appear out of nowhere and inform Tom that nobody gets to see Mr. Scott unless they're invited. As Tom and Jeff ride slowly away, Jeff asks Tom how anxious he really is to see Scott. Would he be willing to take responsibility for the deaths of those six men? Tom agrees; Jeff whips his horse around, and calls after the retreating guards: "Oh, gentlemen?" Jeff gallops at full speed toward them. He hoists himself over until he's leaning precariously off the side of his horse, and using his horse as both a shield and a distraction, he shoots all six men before they have a chance to draw.
Moving on into a valley, Jeff cautions Tom that there are several more guards waiting in a ruined house. "Oh, gentlemen?!" he calls again; when the men come out to see what's going on, Jeff shoots them down. Disappearing into the ruined house for a moment, Jeff comes back with a fresh bottle in his hand. He takes a swig, but spits the liquid out: "Whiskey's no good for me," he says. He tosses the bottle into the air over his shoulder, and without even looking back, fires his pistol over his shoulder. The bottle explodes in mid-air.
Jeff refuses to go any further, telling Tom that as far as anyone needs to know, it was he, Tom, who's shot his way into Scott's territory. So Tom goes alone up to the Scott ranch, where the old man is having a party. Junior is there, entertaining the crowd with his keyboard playing; many of the guests are dressed in white like him. Scott's scruffy henchmen contrast with the well-dressed guests.
Fulci again uses extreme contrasts between foreground, middleground and background as Tom walks slowly into the courtyard. The effect is to emphasize how alone and out-of-place Tom is. As Tom approaches Scott, the guests around him fall silent; the surly henchmen follow him with ill-disguised loathing.
Scott seems very uncomfortable seeing Tom here, but it's Junior who confronts him. Tom responds with his fists... but fists aren't Junior's weapon, any more than guns are: he grabs two whips from the wall and tosses one to Tom. Before Tom can grab the whip, Junior has lashed it away with his. Junior proceeds to thrash the living tar out of Tom... though Tom fights back gamely as long as he can. At one point Scott, nauseated by the brutality, tries to intervene, but Sonko stops him: "No, Mr. Scott," he says; "he [Tom] must get up by himself." Eventually, after Tom has been whipped raw and has fallen into the barbecue fire, Scott and Sonko step in and restrain Junior. "I'll be back," gasps the battered Tom; as he staggers away, he collides with one of the horrified party guests, leaving a smear of bright red blood on his spotless white jacket.
V. Massacre TimeJeff is more amused than upset when Tom comes back a bleeding mess. As he collapses on the floor, Mercedes pleads with him to take the hint and get out while he still can. As she goes to get water to bathe his wounds, the camera pulls back to reveal more of the room, including the deep darkness of the kitchen window. Uneasy about the window? You should be: through this window come the sudden shots which kill Mercedes instantly. Jeff hits the floor just in time to avoid the bullets that come after him; the gunman, evidently assuming he's killed both his targets, rides off in the night.
Jeff is staggered by the loss. Finally, something has got beyond his drunken swagger. He picks up Mercedes' crumpled body tenderly and places it on the table. Tom, who is in lousy shape himself, picks himself up painfully and tries to comfort Jeff, but Jeff rejects his sympathy. It's time for revenge.
Hmm. It occurs to me that this "review" is long on synopsis and short on analysis. Rather than go into too much detail about the last act, and spoiling the whole movie for those who haven't seen it yet, I just want to point out one or two more things. First, it's probably pretty clear what the town secret really is; but rather than reveal it, let's just say that at this point in the story Jeff gives Tom a few broad hints. Jeff has a long-standing grudge to settle with Scott, but he's kept his peace because of Tom. This time, though, Scott's gone too far, and nothing will dissuade Jeff from taking his long-desired revenge. Tom says he'll ride with him.
But Jeff's got a wicked sense of humor. It's not until Tom has the unarmed Scott in the sights of his pistol, and must decide whether or not to shoot him in cold blood, that Jeff quietly tells him the rest of the secret. While Tom is still reeling from the impact, Scott attempts to explain what's been going on and his role in it... but before he can provide this vital information, someone shoots him.
Tom immediately blames Jeff, and turns on his brother -- and this is the neat part: the whole conflict between the brothers is played out without a single line of dialogue. Jeff manages to get the upper hand in the struggle. He pulls his pistol on Tom to keep him at bay; then, grinning, he flicks up his wrist and dislodges the wheel. One by one, the bullets from his gun fall to the ground... six in all. Tom understands immediately. It was very wise of Fulci and his screenwriter, the respected Italian action-film writer Fernando di Leo, to let the action speak for itself in this scene.
In fact, a large part of the rest of the film, including the Grand Finale, unfolds wordlessly -- except for Jeff's sportsmanlike cries of "Oh, gentlemen?!" just before he outwits and outguns his enemies. And the final gun battle is indeed massacre time, as Tom and Jeff launch a spectacular attack on the Scott ranch. The fight spans all levels of the ranch, from the ground to the roof. At one point, Tom rides an empty carriage straight at his foes, crashing into their barricade, somersaulting over their heads, grabbing the pistol of a fallen henchman and shooting the others before they have a chance to pick their jaws up off the ground. As for Jeff, he proves yet again that he's the brains of the operation, always staying several steps ahead of the hapless rancheros. Once he fights his way to the liquor cabinet, he becomes almost unstoppable. Fulci even distorts Jeff through a fish-eye lens as he sneaks through the building, reminding us that Jeff fights best when he's drunk.
Unlike the finale of Django, there's never any serious doubt who's going to win the battle. Nevertheless, the gunfight provides a much more satisfactory conclusion than the brief cemetery shootout that closed Corbucci's film. Junior's ultimate fate looks ahead to a similar scene in Don't Torture a Duckling, made six years later. Fulci wastes no time once the battle is over: once all the Bad Guys are disposed of, the Inane Title Song comes back one more time, and the movie ends.
I've probably given away too much here, but I have several reasons for doing so. First, Massacre Time isn't easily available in the United States at this time. There are 2 DVD releases that I know of: one is an all-region disc from Hong Kong which is uncut and widescreen... but looks like a crappy bootleg tape (it's also ridiculously expensive for such a lousy print). The other is a Region 2 Japanese version, which is probably much better, but which is even more ridiculously expensive. Until Anchor Bay or Blue Underground or somebody comes up with a better alternative, I want people to know as much about the movie as possible, so they can decide whether or not they want to make the extraordinary effort to track it down. For those who will not be able to see the film until the options get a little more favorable, I want to give them a little something to tide them over. After all, though some people may disagree with me, I really don't think this is the sort of film that can be "spoiled" by revealing the plot. I'm also anxious to stress how good the story is, since Fulci's films are usually attacked for their poor plotting. Sure, there are some holes in the story you could drive a wagon train through, but for the most part it holds together really well.
Fulci made two other Westerns after Massacre Time (not counting the two "spaghetti Northwesterns", White Fang and Challenge to White Fang). These were The Four of the Apocalypse and Silver Saddle. I haven't seen Silver Saddle... yet... but The Four of the Apocalypse is another remarkable achievement in the Western genre. The Four... is based on stories by Bret Harte, including his most famous story, "The Outcasts of Poker Flat". Its main problem is that it is highly episodic, with some episodes working better than others. In particular, the sequence set in the mining camp in winter is some of the best footage Fulci ever shot. Unfortunately, the string of beads that constitues the story of The Four... is strung together by a truly horrible musical score, by the usually-reliable team of Bixio-Frizzi-Tempera. An endlessly repeated 70's soft-rock song recaps every single development in the plot, and then goes over it again, in case we didn't get it the first two times...6
The Four of the Apocalypse has the advantage of being readily available in the U.S., thanks to its video release by Anchor Bay. But in my opinion, Massacre Time is the better film overall. Those who have reservations about Fulci may be relieved to know that in spite of all the violence, Massacre Time is actually less overtly bloody than Django, and considerably less giblet-strewn than Fulci's later work. People get shot point-blank, it's true, and there's always that nasty whipping scene, but at least in Massacre TIme there are no explosions of blood and entrails. In a sense, it's the perfect Fulci film for people who don't like Fulci films. My hope is that it will be given a wider release in the U.S. before long: Massacre Time helps put Fulci's later work in different context, which could win his best films more friends than those problematic last films ever could.
1. The full Italian title is Le Colt cantorono la morte e fu... tempo di massacro (The Colts sang death, and it was... Massacre Time!), a title that contains an untranslatable musical pun.
2. When Massacre Time was distributed in the United States, it was renamed The Brute and the Beast, and its trailer went so far as to label George Hilton's character "The Brute" and Nino Castelnuovo's "The Beast"... just as the three principals had been labeled at the beginning and the end of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. This was a ridiculous attempt to latch onto the fame of Leone's film, since it entirely neglected the role of the central character, Tom Corbett (Franco Nero).
3. OK: my past as a lyricist comes back and haunts me... What's particularly odd about the lyrics is that the only true rhyme comes across stanzas and on an odd line: anywhere:prayer. The way:day rhyme is weak, not only rhythmically, but because it repeats literally in both verses.
4. Well, it's a Laramie, if not the Laramie. The famous Ft. Laramie is in Wyoming, two or three hundred miles north of New Mexico.
5. The boy on the sidelines with the harmonica gasps involuntarily, and a discordant note from his harmonica accompanies the shot.
6. An excerpt from this awful song is playing on the radio in the bar in City of the Living Dead, where it makes the ensuing zombie rampage seem almost merciful.