Guest Reviewer Lee Broughton is back, with another Italo Western double bill DVD review. Wild East’s ongoing Spaghetti Western Collection continues to grow and this double bill release is particularly welcome since it features two obscure and wholly idiosyncratic genre entries from 1969. Italian Western directors had found it relatively easy to appropriate key plot points and ideas from Sergio Leone’s Dollars films during the genre’s early years but when Leone’s sprawling, mega-budgeted, meta-Western Once Upon a Time in the West was released in 1968 it was clear that this was one genre entry that local filmmakers would not be able to easily emulate.
With scriptwriters and directors now essentially being forced to come up with their own ideas and generic trends, a new wave of Spaghetti Westerns were produced that effectively took the genre in a multitude of new directions. The two films featured here were part of that wave. Wild East have brought Giulio Petroni’s Nest of Vipers and Piero Pierotti’s Tails, You Lose… together under the banner of The Dark Side of the Spaghetti West and this ominous phrasing serves to give a reasonably good indication of the films’ contents and tone. In order to give a hint of how both films measure up in terms of dark themes it has been necessary to include some spoilers.
Guest reviewer Lee Broughton
Nest of Vipers
1969 / Color / 2:35 widescreen enhanced / 106 min. / Night of the Serpent, La notte dei serpent / Street Date December 17, 2012 / 19.95 /
Starring: Luke Askew, Luigi Pistilli, Magda Konopka, Chelo Alonso, William Bogart, Benito Stefanelli, Franco Balducci, Giancarlo Badessi, Franco Valobra, Luciano Casamonica.
Cinematography: Mario Vulpiani, Silvio Fraschetti
Film Editor: Antonietta Zita
Art Director: Franco Bottari
Original Music: Riz Ortolani
Written by Fulvio Gicca Palli, Lorenzo Gicca Palli, Giulio Petroni
Produced by Gianni Minervini
Directed by Giulio Petroni
A corrupt Mexican Federale, Lieutenant Hernandez (Luigi Pistilli), discovers that four miscreant cousins – the innkeeper Ignacio (Giancarlo Badessi), the hen-pecked Luciano (Franco Balducci), the pious Jesus Maria (Franco Valobra) and the prostitute Dolores (Chelo Alonso) – are plotting a heinous crime that will result in them inheriting $10,000. Hernandez cuts himself in on the deal and he buys a dispensable man who can be blamed for the crime from the bandit Pancaldo (William Bogart) for 500 pesos. The patsy is Luke (Luke Askew), a drunken gringo that Pancaldo and his men keep as a pet. However, when Luke discovers the vulnerable nature of the person that Hernandez wants him to kill, he sobers up and casts himself as the intended victim’s protector.
Director Giulio Petroni is well regarded by Spaghetti Western fans thanks mainly to the popularity of his best-known film, Death Rides a Horse. A stylish and expensive looking vehicle for Lee Van Cleef and John Phillip Law, Death Rides a Horse successfully utilized many of Sergio Leone’s regular cast and crew members in order to create a film that looked and felt as if it was set within the same diegetic universe as Leone’s Dollars films. In addition, those fans with a liking for the political “Zapata” Spaghetti Westerns also rate Petroni’s epic Tepepa very highly. Written by Franco Solinas, Tepepa features Tomas Milian, Orson Welles and John Steiner in a tale of conflict that is set during one of Mexico’s revolutions.
Just like those two films, Nest of Vipers has the look and feel of a big budget genre entry too but it has somehow remained an obscure and hard to see title for many years. As such, it might well be the best Spaghetti Western you’ve never heard of. Why the film failed to make an impression when it was released theatrically remains a mystery but its un-generic title, overly dark worldview and atypical storyline surely had some bearing on Nest of Vipers’ fate. Playing more like a dark historical drama than a Western for a good portion of its running time, this show is most certainly not cast in the crowd pleasing shoot ‘em up mould that most people associate with Spaghetti Westerns.
Much like Death Rides a Horse, Nest of Vipers opens with a nefarious act of villainy being committed at night while a thunder and lightning storm rages overhead. But while the former film depicts a callous massacre and robbery that is committed by professional killers and bandits, Nest of Vipers presents an accidental killing by two quite unremarkable men. Partially obscured by the rain that beats down on the window that frames the action, Ignacio and Luciano are seen roughing up the local telegraphist who is intent on delivering an important telegram. When he dies, they steal the telegram and make his death look like an accident.
When Lieutenant Hernandez comes across the crime scene the next day we’re presented with a set piece that looks and plays like an episode from one of Damiano Damiani’s films about the mafia and corrupt law enforcement officers in rural southern Italy. A gaggle of agitated villagers have gathered near the body and the Federales who were first on the scene are happy to deduce and report that the death was the result of an accident brought on by the storm. But the astute Hernandez is suspicious and when he discovers that the telegram is missing, he investigates further. His actions here result in the film taking on the feel of a film noir-like police procedural for a spell.
Rather than being the dedicated upholder of the law that he appears to be, Hernandez is revealed to be a corrupt operator who colludes with bandits. The telegram carried news of a $10,000 inheritance for the next of kin of an exiled Don and Ignacio, Luciano, Jesus Maria and Dolores will inherit the money if they are able to do away with the rightful heir – the Don’s small son Manuel (Luciano Casamonica). This grim and disturbing plot point has two major effects as far as the finished film goes.
In the first instance it demands that the film’s narrative is developed in a suitably sober yet dramatic way and Petroni responds accordingly. There’s very little in the way of traditional Western action during the film’s first hour. Instead Petroni focuses on scene setting, character development and narrative intrigue while allowing events to unfold at an unrushed pace. Secondly Manuel’s terrible predicament, and the monstrous and morally bankrupt natures of the four adult relatives who are intent on killing him for financial gain, imbues Nest of Vipers with a determinedly gothic ambience. Indeed, the film is essentially built around elements of tragedy and travesty that have more in common with the works of Shakespeare and the murderous chicanery associated with medieval court power struggles than Westerns.
We’re on more familiar ground when Hernandez visits Pancaldo and his bandits looking for a patsy. The villainous Mexican stereotypes that we expect to find in Spaghetti Westerns are all present and correct but these miscreants are a particularly nasty bunch. They found the drunkard Luke on the brink of death in the desert and now keep him as a pet for their own sadistic entertainment. Indeed, Pancaldo advises Hernandez that Luke is “Lively enough to kill someone, not alive enough to matter if he dies … You call him with a whistle and send him running with a kick.”
Luke really is in a terrible state. A series of over-stylized flashbacks reveal that he was once a cocky dead shot but he finds it hard to hit a relatively close animal skull when Pancaldo first gives him his old gun back. He’s horrified when Manuel is revealed to be his target and further flashbacks reveal the tragedy that led to Luke’s present state of mind while also explaining why he feels the need to protect the Mexican boy.
But Luke’s chances of sobering up and regaining his shooting skills in order to fulfill that mission appear to be slim. Indeed, a palpable sense of doubt, tension and anxiety is provoked when Luke starts trying to get his act together. Manuel’s only other protector is his stepmother Maria (Magda Konopka), a local witch who gets high on peyote in order to speak to the spirit world. As the film moves into its more action packed final third – wherein Petroni also makes good use of tropes that are more commonly associated with thrillers and mysteries – things begin to look pretty bleak for Manuel.
Nest of Vipers is an important find that should delight fans of dark and offbeat Westerns (Spaghetti or otherwise). I first saw the film around ten years ago and couldn’t believe that a genre entry of such quality had been languishing in obscurity for so long. Nobody had written about the show in books on the genre, I wasn’t aware of any television broadcasts and it was only available in an English language edition via a South African DVD release. For me the experience was almost on a par with discovering Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence via Alex Cox’s BBC television screening of the film at the turn of the 1990s.
Nest of Vipers has a terrific pedigree as far as Spaghetti Westerns go. As indicated at the start of this review, Giulio Petroni was an interesting director who knew how to put a good-looking film together. And Luigi Pistilli was a quality actor who played a commendable range of different genre characters (Groggy in Leone’s For a Few Dollars More, Father Ramirez in Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Pollicut in Corbucci’s The Great Silence to cite just three) and his performance as Hernandez is one of his best. Leone regular Benito Stefanelli is also effective here as Pancaldo’s vicious right hand man Pancho.
William Bogart (AKA Guglielmo Spoletini) is a familiar face who started out as a bit-part player in big budget Spaghetti Westerns that were made during the 1960s before becoming a leading man in the lower budget genre entries that were made in the 1970s. Sultry fan favourite Chelo Alonso oozes confidence, sensuality and sexual aggression in her role as the town’s most desired prostitute. Italian cinema has a tendency to over-sentimentalize any scenario that features children, especially if they are caught up in tragic or dangerous situations, but Petroni doesn’t do that here: Manuel is a worldly and pragmatic child who is fully aware that he lives during dangerous times and young Luciano Casamonica is allowed to play the role in a quite natural way. He consequently does very good work.
A real surprise for many will be the discovery that the cult American actor Luke Askew, who made a splash in US revisionist Westerns from the early 1970s such as Dick Richard’s Culpepper Cattle Co. and Philip Kaufman’s The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, had already starred in a Spaghetti Western. Askew acquits himself very well here and his transformation from a drunken wreck into an expert gunfighter remains convincing enough.
Nest of Vipers’ technical aspects are all of a very high quality. Petroni and the cinematographers Mario Vulpiani and Silvio Fraschetti provide the show with a succession of expertly framed and composed shots while utilizing a variety of stylish camera angles. The film’s costumes and sets are also impressive and good use is made of Almeria’s familiar landscapes during exterior sequences. Genre stalwart Riz Ortolani’s unusual soundtrack score serves to add to the film’s offbeat atmosphere and many of the cues found here are reminiscent of the music that he provided for Carlo Lizzani’s equally eccentric Spaghetti Western Requiescant. Ultimately, the belated appearance of an overlooked gem like Nest of Vipers raises the hope that further undocumented but top quality genre entries might yet await discovery.
This is a fine presentation of an obscure film. The first few minutes of the film, which have the show’s English language credits playing over them, appear to have been lifted from an inferior source. But the main body of the film sports excellent picture quality: colours are strong and there’s next to nothing in the way of print damage present. The film’s sound quality is equally excellent.
Tails, You Lose …
1969 / Color / 1:85 widescreen enhanced / 100 min. / Street Date December 17, 2012 / 19.95
Starring: John Ericson, Sheyla Rosin, Franco Lantieri, Daniela Surina, Dada Gallotti, Pasquale Basile, Franco Daddi, Loris Gizzi, Edwige Fenech, Isarco Ravaioli, Maria Teresa Piaggio, Ugo Pagliai.
Cinematography: Fausto Zuccoli
Film Editor: Jolanda Benvenuti
Art Director: Fabrizio Fisardi
Original Music: Carlo Savina
Produced by Vinod Pathak
Written and Directed by Peter E. Stanley (Piero Pierotti)
The pious female residents of Plata City are of the opinion that Shanda Lee (Sheyla Rosin) and her bevy of sexy saloon girls are turning their town into a den of vice. This results in the local banker Roland Burton (Ugo Pagliai) coercing Shanda into sleeping with him in exchange for protection. When he’s discovered dead in her bed, Shanda is arrested and her girls are tarred, feathered and run out of town. The sheriff (Franco Lantieri) orders his deputies Red (Franco Daddi) and Holt (Isarco Ravaioli) to transport Shanda to Phoenix for her own safety but a seemingly chance encounter with the woodsman Buck (Pasquale Basile) results in the trio hatching a plot to rape and kill her instead. Shanda is left for dead in a desert region but she is found and nursed back to health by the notorious outlaw William Huston AKA the Black Talisman (John Ericson). Huston soon falls in love with Shanda and his feelings for her prompt him to travel to Plata City in order to prove her innocence and kill those who plotted against her.
Piero Pierotti is primarily known for his work as a writer and director of peplums/sword and sandal films. With Tails, You Lose… he also gains the dubious distinction of taking the Spaghetti Western genre headlong into the field of exploitation cinema. Pierotti piles on the sleaze and nastiness here and the end result is another completely atypical genre entry. Indeed, there are a few sequences present here that resemble the type of content that littered the sexploitation Westerns that producers like Bob Cresse and David F. Friedman were churning out in America during the late 1960s.
In order to paint its male antagonists as abusive and sexist pigs, Tails, You Lose… inevitably has to place its female characters in unflattering, dangerous and disturbing scenarios. However, within the skewed logic of the film’s diegetic universe, John Ericson’s Huston is able to function as a redemptory device of sorts. While he’s happy enough to shoot innocent parties when holding up stagecoaches, Huston simply cannot stand misogynists and his vengeance quest ensures that Shanda’s tormentors pay for their despicable actions and chauvinistic attitudes.
Interestingly, at the start of the show the barber-cum-undertaker Miserere (Pinuccio Ardia) confesses to the sheriff that he’s shaking and nervous because “there’s just too many women in town.” In relation to this pointed observation, one very unusual and intriguing aspect of this female character heavy Western is the way in which Pierotti grants a number of its women legitimate possession of the cinematic gaze, which in turn gives them access to meaningful point of view shots.
Tails, You Lose… features an early sequence that gives a good indication of how wild and uneven a ride the film is going to be. The local Minister’s sister, Miss Phillips (Maria Teresa Piaggio), stirs up the town’s angry women folk and they storm Rosebud’s (Loris Gizzi) saloon. A farcical and slapstick comedy interlude ensues in which the women beat male customers with their umbrellas while smashing up the saloon. The sequence feels like the kind of silly episode that might unexpectedly crop up in a John Ford Western.
The subsequent tarring and feathering of the saloon girls is played for laughs too and Pierotti’s lighthearted approach continues when Manuela (Edwige Fenech) cuts and runs in her bloomers, which results in a saucy Benny Hill-style chase through the town. However, things turn nasty without warning when Manuela is caught outside of recently widowed Sybille Burton’s (Daniela Surina) house. Manuela desperately hammers on the front door but Sybille curtly orders her black maid not to open it. The comedic circus-style music that has underscored the sequence up to now is replaced by an ominous sounding fuzz guitar twang and a butch cowgirl strips Manuela to the waist before mercilessly flogging her upper body with a bullwhip.
As the vicious whipping continues, Pierotti reveals that Sybille is secretly gazing out of her front window and becoming sexually aroused by the sadistic assault that is unfolding on her doorstep. It’s a gratuitously violent scene that features nudity too but it does possess the important function of telegraphing the fact that Sybille isn’t the wan, weak and chaste woman that she pretends to be in public. Indeed, by the film’s end Sybille has been revealed to be one of the most callous, twisted and deviant femme fatales that ever rode the West.
Furthermore, Plata City itself is revealed to be the kind of town that David Lynch might enjoy casting a critical eye over. Underneath its veneer of respectability there’s much in the way of unsavory activity going on in town. The bank manager coerces women into sexual relations while the deputies plot rape and murder. One of the deputies subsequently assists in the running of a prostitution racket when the sleazy saloon owner Rosebud captures Manuela and Lily (Dada Gallotti) and forces them to work in a secret brothel at his ranch. The woodsman Buck is a burly sadist-cum-psychopath who mistreats both women and animals (whose blood he drinks).
When Huston starts working his way through those who wronged Shanda, two distinct investigation scenarios are presented by Pierotti: Huston is seeking the name of the person who set Shanda up and ordered her death but the trail of dead bodies that he leaves behind him present a giallo-like mystery for the town’s sheriff to solve. Needless to say, Huston uncovers the guilty party who duly meets a nasty end.
The most recognizable faces here are the Hollywood actor John Ericson and the soon-to-be scream queen of the giallo genre Edwige Fenech. Ericson was presumably attracted to the project by Huston’s noble and self-sacrificing nature but the film marks something of a come down for him after his earlier appearance in Samuel Fuller’s superior Hollywood Western Forty Guns. The attractive and distinctive looking Fenech always provides good value for money and it’s great to have her appearing in a Western.
But even the presence of Ericson and Fenech can’t hide the fact that this is a low budget genre entry that isn’t particularly well constructed or well paced. In fact, in true grindhouse movie fashion, missing reel syndrome seemingly comes into play when a conversation between Manuela and Lily reveals that Lily is escaping from Rosebud’s brothel because an unnamed third party has promised to take her to meet Shanda: Lily is never seen again and Shanda doesn’t mention meeting her. Maybe it was a deadly ruse set up by Buck? However, Tails, You Lose… remains a reasonably interesting and moderately compelling film, if only because its at times jaw-dropping content is so un-generic.
Much of the film’s action takes place on the streets of Western town sets or indoors and the sometimes rudimentary nature of its set designs and art direction give an indication of the show’s low budget. Interestingly, the ghost town that Huston uses as his hideout is also home to two Native Americans, which is an unusual detail as far as Italian Westerns go. Genre stalwart Carlo Savina’s soundtrack score gets the job done but it’s not his best work. The singer Raoul was renowned for crooning impassioned ballads over the front credits of Italian Westerns but the song that he’s provided with here is a disappointing and somewhat indifferent effort.
This is another relatively good presentation of an obscure genre film. Colours are slightly faded in places but there’s little in the way of print damage present here. However, the film’s sound quality fares less well: there are sections where a bit of background hiss is apparent. The IMDb lists a running time of 95 minutes for Tails, You Lose… but Wild East’s version runs to almost 100 minutes. Their presentation does feature a couple of passages where Italian dialogue supported by English subtitles comes into play but I doubt that these would account for a difference of five minutes.
Reviewed by Lee Broughton
Nest of Vipers & Tails, You Lose … DVD double feature
Movies: Nest: Excellent – minus; Tails: Good – minus
Video: Nest: Very Good / Excellent – minus; Tails: Very Good – minus
Sound: Nest: Excellent – minus Tails: Good + plus
Supplements: Nest: image gallery and trailer; Tails: image gallery, trailers for Tails You Lose … and The Vengeance of Pancho Villa
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 18, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Lee Broughton
CineSavant Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson