Western Film WTF: Straight to Hell (1986)

Ostensibly a remake of the notoriously brutal Spaghetti Western "Django Kill... If You Live, Shoot!," Alex Cox's "Straight to Hell" is instead an anarchic and unlikley satire. The film is the product of a never-to-be-repeated circumstance in which a punk acoustic tour of Nicaragua fell apart, leaving a window of free time for Alex Cox, who was to direct a documentary of it, along with a number of punk artists.

Somehow they pulled together a tiny budget for a movie, Cox pounded out a screenplay in three days with frequent collaborator Dick Rude, and they headed to Spain to film on an old Spaghetti Western set.

The resulting film is as frenzied and chaotic as you might expect, roughly telling the story of three bumbling hit men who stumble into a gang-controlled Mexican town, and the three days it takes for everyone to kill each other. The hit men are: Sy Richardson, whose black suit and slow-burning cool cause him endless comparisons to Samuel L. Jackson in "Pulp Fiction"; Clash frontman Joe Strummer, who oozes a boyish but bullying charm; and Rude, a live-wire punk. They also bring along Courtney Love as Richardson's pregnant girlfriend, and she screeches every line, which audience are likely to find either irritating or hilarious. I find it hilarious.

The gang inhabiting the town are apparently all named McMahon, are largely dressed in mariachi outfits, and are largely played by the Pogues, who are all addicted to coffee and have Elvis Costello along to constantly pour them cups of the stuff. Their general policy upon seeing a stranger come to town is to cry out "stranger" and execute them on the spot, but they take a strange liking to our hired killers, which doesn't last long.

The film is mostly a series of short, barely related comic vignettes riffing on betrayal, familial loyalty, sexual obsession, and sheer meanness (there is a hot dog vendor, played by Zander Schloss of the Circle Jerks, who only exists in the film to be relentlessly abused by the cast.) The film has all of the manic verve of Cox's other films, which at that point included "Repo Man" and "Sid and Nancy," and it helps to think of the film as a collection of loosely connected punk songs inspired by Western movies, each short, brutal, sardonic, and composed of three chords.

The film was mostly disliked by critics, which is understandable, as, for the most part, critics are dull creatures, but I'm not sure why it's target audience of punks and hipsters didn't take to the film. Cox doesn't seem to know either, opining over the years that the film was just misplaced in time: Spaghetti Westerns had become obscure, and it would be a few years before Quentin Tarantino would jump-start an obsession with cinematic mash-ups starring bad men in black suits.

There might be something to that. Cox put out a remastered and re-edited version of the film a few years ago, and it received much warmed critical response. I'd also suggest that the film's self-conscious coolness rankled audiences — sometimes it seems like Americans are as ready to punch a hipster as a hippie. And so the film's dependence on audiences knowing and appreciating a then-obscure film form, coupled with a cast of rock and rollers and cameos from Dennis Hopper, Grace Jones, and Jim Jarmusch, may have felt like Alex Cox had made the film to congratulate himself on being hipper than the room.

But that sense has faded since the film came out, replaced by a nostalgia for the era that probably predisposes  audiences to feel warmly about the film, and to appreciate the film as a breakneck, manic punk comedy that is genuinely quite funny. The film also benefits from being striking looking — the costume design by Pam Tait feels at once iconic and a bit hallucinogenic, with everyone defined by their costume choices. (Jarmusch's character, a white-suited crime boss, even says "Don't ruin the suit" just before he is shot.) The set itself feels like a strange piece of folk art, and there is an undeniable pleasure to watching black-suited killers and mariachis race across it, spraying machine-gun fire.

But what makes the film genuinely memorable is its accumulation of odd details: A murderer who is also a poet, and never allowed to read his poems; the fact that the police are not allowed guns and so must throw rocks at people; a terrible lounge singer who sometimes wanders in to make sardonic comments; the cast suddenly singing a mournful and genuinely lovely version of "Danny Boy."

One wishes for an alternate past, in which this film had found an audience and encouraged a wave of independent filmmakers to run off to the desert with punk rockers to make their own bonkers microbudget version of Westerns.

This didn't happen, sadly, and so we only have this one weird, magnificent example of an alternate — and more interesting — now. Call it the spaghetti punk alternate timeline, and it never happened, and we are poorer for it.


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