Das Finstere Tal: The Dark Valley

Some time in the 19th century. A stranger calling himself Greider (Sam Riley) rides into an isolated mountain valley in the Alps harbouring a small village. The man says he wants to stay for the winter that is soon to come when the snow will make it impossible to leave the valley. He pays for his stay in American gold coins and buys a bit of goodwill with the early photography equipment he carries.

The rulers of the town, the nearly confined to his bed Brenner (Hans-Michael Rehberg) and his sons (Tobias Moretti, Helmuth HĂ€usler, Martin Leutgeb, Johannes Nikolussi, Clemens Schick and Florian BrĂŒckner), send Greider to live with a widow and her daughter, Luzi (Paula Beer). Even if the two women wanted, there’s clearly no way to say no to the things Brenner demands, if one wants to stay alive, particularly as a woman. Fortunately, despite a great deal of reserve in his manner, Greider’s a mostly pleasant guest.

Luzi is to marry her boyfriend Lukas (Thomas Schubert) soon, but what would be cause for happiness for most loving couples (and there’s no question these two are very much in love), is cause for a good deal of terror in this place. For Brenner and his boys have invented their own special version of the droit du seigneur (something which probably didn’t even exist during the middle ages, as far as I understand), only that it’s more the right of gang raping women until they get pregnant in their case. People who revolt against the Brenners’ ways don’t tend to live long, and after all, parts of the silence of the villagers insinuate, aren’t they keeping the place safe and prosperous?

However, this winter, during which Luzi and Lukas are to be married, things just might change. Two of the Brenners die of peculiar accidents. The surviving brothers quickly realize the stranger in their midst must be responsible for the deaths in some way. Why, might he be the child of the proverbial one that got away coming back for vengeance?

As regular readers might have noticed, I have regularly expressed my frustration with the near total absence of quality (or for the most part really any) genre movies from German language cinema, and particularly the German parts of it. It’s a sad state of affairs caused at least in part by the German bourgeoisie still hanging onto idiotic concepts of “high” and “low” culture, and a curious coalition of cultural conservatives and a just-as-conservative when it comes to culture left owning the purse strings of film subsidy and TV alike. The only exception to the genre rule have been crap comedies, but I don’t dare speculate why that is so. It’s a situation that makes the situation in, for example, the UK look like a paradise for filmmakers in comparison. During the last decade or so, things have changed a little, and a slowly increasing number of films has drifted into the cinemas nobody would have financed just ten years ago.

By now, things have developed into a better direction so much, Andreas Prochaska’s brilliant Das finstere Tal was even co-financed by two TV channels – the German ZDF and the Austrian ORF – and has basically been drowned in German Film Awards, something that gives me hope for a continuing renaissance in genre film for filmmakers who can’t make their films on crowd-funding money.

Apart from these politics, like quite a few of the examples of new German language genre films I have encountered, Prochaska’s film is just very, very good, the sort of film I can’t imagine could have been created without some actual passion for genre movies on the side of the filmmakers. One might even suggest part of the film’s and its companion movies’ passion is a consequence of the sheer joy of being able to make this sort of thing, long repressed energies asserting themselves. But then, one tends to get overexcited about these things.

Fact is – at least as much as there are facts when looking at art – that Prochaska takes age-old Western clichĂ©s, transplants them into a place closer to his own experiences and his purse strings, and brings them to life. Again, we have arrived at one of my regular talking points, namely that using the local and the specific for your film when you can’t – and perhaps even shouldn’t – fight Hollywood on its own terms brings with it enormous artistic opportunities, and a certain freshness and personality you couldn’t buy by filming your movies in LA or the places Hollywood films tend to be filmed. There’s a reason why even Luc Besson tends to set his films in Europe. In Das finstere Tal, the impressive landscapes of the snow-bound Alps and the things people do to one another in them are a perfect fit, nature mirroring humanity in the clearest way possible without the film turning into a display of too obvious metaphor.

Oof course, you can make use of the local and the specific and your film can still turn out not worth mentioning or watching if you can’t handle the more archetypal elements of your film well. Prochaska has no problems here, knowing the archetypes of the stranger coming to town, the cowering townsfolk, and the power-mad villains of the piece by heart and not feeling the need to change more about them as the Austrian accents, and the Alps automatically change about them. It would be easy to criticize the film for a lack of originality, but Prochaska’s visual language and the strong acting really do make the old feel quite new, even if a viewer is less convinced than I am that showing age-old stories in front of a different background already changes them enough.

And it’s not as if the specific paths of the Western genre (as far away from Winnetou as one can imagine), those of certain of the more political Spaghetti Westerns with Corbucci’s equally snow-bound Il Grande Silenzio an obvious yet too bitter example and US Westerns like High Plains Drifter, Das finstere Tal explores aren’t still worth the travel time. Particularly in a film that is as good at building mood as this one is, be it in its treatment of the gothic horror tones of the village’s darkest side (and it really doesn’t get quite darker than this), the horror the film gets you to feel at the size of Greider’s anger even though it – and probably you-the-audience – does share it, or the tense climactic violence. The only flaw I find in Prochaska’s direction is one utterly horrible moment of bad pop song insertion in the worst possible moment of the film’s big shoot-out. It’s a sure-fire way to drag anyone out of one of the film’s tensest scenes. If you have experience with German TV, where Prochaska has been working for most of his career, you’ll recognize the cack-handedness of the moment. In the context of a film this well-composed and calmly atmospheric, it’s a truly puzzling moment that defies taste in a film that manages to even treat the whole gang rape wedding stuff comparatively tasteful.

There is, of course, also a strong political undercurrent to the film, a real anger at power (perhaps even power as a philosophical concept?) and the way it is used, as well as a real sadness of what power does to its victims, particularly women; utter hopelessness, on the other hand, the film leaves to the nihilists where it belongs.

Denis Klotz contributes a regular bi-weekly film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?

Rider on a Dead Horse (1962)

Before you can even say “wow, a black person in a western made after the race pictures era and before ‘68”, gold prospector and all-around villain Barney Senn (Bruce Gordon) murders his black partner Sam to provide for a more satisfying share of their new-found riches for himself. His other partner, the morally slightly less disgusting Hayden (John Vivyan), Senn keeps alive because he needs the experienced frontiersman to lead him through the territory of a really cranky tribe of apaches. Despite being a bit of a racist prick himself, Hayden didn’t like Sam’s murder much at all and is obviously quite certain his “partner” will kill him once his usefulness comes to an end, but there’s little he seems to be able or willing to do about it.

So Hayden isn’t surprised when, soon after the partners have hidden their gold away on apache territory to get away with their lives in the hopes of returning to fetch it later, Senn shoots him and leaves him in the wilderness. Hayden’s a tough customer, though, and manages to make his way to the neighbourhood of a Chinese railroad labourer camp, where the camp boss’s private prostitute Ming Kwai (Lisa Lu) takes care of him. Ming Kwai decides they will go to San Francisco together, though with a detour to get the riches Hayden quickly tells her about. Too bad Hayden has racist problems with Ming Kwai’s obvious carnal interest in him.

Unfortunately for the project of getting the gold, Senn has thought up an interesting insurance against his former partner and tells the local greedy bounty hunter Jake Fry (Kevin Hagen) a tall tale about Hayden having murdered Sam. Since the law in the area promises a thousand dollars to anyone bringing in any random murderer, and scruples aren’t a concept he’s heard of, Fry doesn’t take much convincing.

Eventually, the whole cast, and the Apaches, will end up stumbling through the wilderness, looking for the gold and trying to kill one another.

What a highly peculiar film this is. I at least didn’t expect to ever see a US western made in the early 60s with a script as much a proto-Spaghetti western script as this one has, nor would I have expected this film to have been directed by 50s low budget monster movie (of wildly varying quality) veteran and part-time TV guy Herbert L. Strock. It’s quite remarkable how close the film’s tone of laconic cynicism is to many a second tier Spaghetti, and how many scenes in it seem to prefigure specific moments you will find Italian westerns repeat again and again.

To drive the resemblance even further, Rider is, quite in style, exclusively populated by characters who are either outright crazy like Senn, or driven by greed and various other unpleasant traits and who tend to fall into the same character types the Spaghetti westerns would explore most often. Even our nominal hero is a racist – and, to my surprise, the film actually seems to have at least a faint idea that being a racist isn’t a great thing, and gives our guy a bit of a turn in a better direction, though not so much of one anyone could call this a redemption plot for him. There’s a strain of pessimism towards the human condition underlying the whole of the film that also came as a surprise to me. In part, this is of course just an element films about people scrounging against each other for gold share in general, but Rider seems particularly vicious about it, putting on a sneer when looking at a heap of dead apaches, and not really seeming to put much stock in any of the characters changing much for the better because of what they went through. Sure, Hayden is somewhat redeemed through the love of a good woman, but that good woman also happens to be an Asian prostitute who likes to wield a knife (though she never gets to actually kill anyone with it), which is about as far from what you’d expect to see in a US western of the era, while also surprisingly accepting of facts of life Hollywood in general wasn’t quite willing to face again at this point, not even in the often emotionally and socially often quite progressive low budget westerns.

I was rather surprised and happy by Hayden and Ming Kwai actually ending up together, instead of her dying a death that somehow redeems him so our white hero doesn’t end up with an Asian girlfriend (oh noes!), as I was by the fact that the film decides to show its sole female character as its moral centre, despite the whole prostitute thing. At the very least, Ming Kwai is the only character on screen who doesn’t take convincing to be interested in anything beyond her monetary advancement. It’s all quite peculiar and unexpected.

Additionally, it’s difficult not to praise a film from this era that actually takes it as a matter of course that there weren’t just white people and white people dressed up as Indians (Native American really isn’t the appropriate term here) in the old west but also black people (though the poor man’s few lines are pretty cringe worthy) and Chinese, and even casts its central Chinese character with an actual Chinese woman instead of a white actress in yellow face.

The film’s problems are lying in its budget and its director. Strock does make a visible effort to shoot around his budgetary limitations that leave him with limited locations, some particularly shabby movie apaches, and not exactly masses of well-trained horses and stuntmen with a style that from time to time reaches a somewhat hallucinatory quality by the virtue of mild oddness. However, as often as Strock succeeds at shots and scenes that are at least interesting to look at, off and odd in ways that again seem to pre-sage second tier Spaghetti Westerns (just watch the various sequences of people stumbling through the desert/wilderness, or think about the way Fry’s love for dynamite is portrayed), at other times, he misses so badly any given scene can easily drift off in the direction of the needlessly cheap looking and boring. I also can’t help but think Strock didn’t quite realize how uncommon and interesting the script he was working from was, and therefore put the emphasis on the more standard western elements whenever possible, where he should have gone really crazy. The film also gets a bit sluggish once everyone’s stumbling through the desert/wilderness.

On the other hand, there aren’t exactly many westerns made in 1962 or before with a mixed race relationship (even with sex – as a weird and uncomfortable pre-coital scene between Hayden and Ming Kwai very clearly demonstrates) this explicit and accepted, or with a script you wouldn’t have any trouble believing as the basis for an Italian western not made by someone called Sergio.

Rider on a Dead Horse07

Denis Klotz contributes a regular bi-weekly film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?

Gold of the Seven Saints (1961)

Trappers and accidental gold prospectors Jim Rainbolt (Clint “The Chest” Walker) and Shaun Garrett (Roger “Master of the Irish accent” Moore) have hit the jackpot in form of quite a lot of gold. Unfortunately, Shaun is forced to pay off a charming gentleman with some of the gold when he attempts to acquire a freebie horse in the closest town because one of their died, something that awakens the interest of crazy – and quite dangerous – bandit McCracken (Gene Evans) and his men.

Soon, Rainbolt (whom nobody ever seems to want to call by his forename despite the absurdity of this surname; it’s less surprising nobody ever cracks a joke about it, for he is played by Clint Walker) – and Shaun find themselves chased through the desert by McCracken’s gang, trying to out-maneuver their enemies with only degrees of success. At least, they meet a helpful alcoholic doctor (Chill Wills) with a nice sharpshooting hand, and later find possible refuge with Rainbolt’s old bandit/rancher friend, the Mexican Gondorra (Robert Middleton). Given the whole “bandit” part of his occupation it is rather the question if Gondorra even is to be trusted at all, but then the kind of men Rainbolt and Shaun are need to take chances.

Until the Internet taught me better, I only knew Gold of the Seven Saints’ director Gordon Douglas as the guy who directed one of my favourite – and possibly the best – US giant monster movies, Them! and who directed the very decent Randolph Scott vehicle The Nevadan. Turns out Douglas was quite the prolific man, working pretty incessantly on genre and B-movies (in the more precise meaning of that term) from 1935 to 1973, working in every genre from Frank Sinatra vehicles to comedies. As I’m told, and Gold suggests to be perfectly true, the director had a particularly fine hand with film noirs and westerns, two genres close to my heart I’m never watching enough films in.

I have seen the film at hand called a lite version of Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The two films might contain gold, betrayal and the desert among their shared plot elements, but are philosophically quite different from one another. Gold is a quite bit more optimistic about human nature, clearly coming down on the belief that certain – manly – friendships are perfectly able to withstand the lure of gold, even though it doesn’t pretend all friendships are of that kind; and where Treasure’s reaction towards a universe with a very bad sense of humour is a rather depressed one, Gold prefers a laconic shrug followed by a little song.

This doesn’t mean that Gold’s view of humanity or the universe at large is naive or toooptimistic – this is after all a film that shows one of its heroes trying to steal a horse (something generally frowned on by all upright western heroes) right at the start, and shows the other one as having no compunctions at all against shooting naked unarmed men when they’ve gotten on his bad side. Gold is just lacking a certain nihilist or an existentialist zeal to pretend only the darkness it very well knows about exists. It replaces that zeal with a sense of humour and adventure. Consequently, despite the philosophical abyss it walks next to, Gold – as co-written by the great Leigh Brackett – generally feels rather companionable and good-natured even when quite a bit of what is going on in it very much isn’t. It is probably a question of personal taste if one likes that approach to the darker sides of adventure; I found myself rather delighted by it.

A part of this delight of course also comes from the pleasant chemistry between Walker and Moore, who sell the old chestnut of the perpetually bickering friends quite well without it getting annoying or too much. It’s quite interesting to see Walker in his natural habitat here, where he is somehow losing the woodenness I dislike about his performances in non-westerns I’ve seen, and replacing it with a persona well able to do violence, yet also soft-spoken and friendly, and really preferring the people he encounters to be that way towards him too. Moore, despite his horrible Irish accent (that appears to start out as horrible Scottish accent for some reason I’m afraid to learn), is also a pleasant surprise, actually hitting the mark of “charming rogue” for once instead of just seeming like a smug bastard as became his wont in nearly all of his films after he started his stint as James Bond. The rest of the cast is doing broad, fun work, with Chill Willis’s semi-comic relief even, against all movie traditions, ending up rather funny and likeable.

The generally sharp and often clever and funny dialogue does of course help with the film’s comedy, too, as does Douglas’s ability to shift the film’s tone from tension to comedy and back again without any visible effort.

Douglas’s direction, supported by the beautiful and atmospheric photography of Joseph F. Biroc, is very fine indeed in other regards too, making excellent use of the threat of large open spaces, and generally tending to unobtrusively meaningful blocking of scenes. Douglas seems particularly enamoured of treating the locations and sets as actual physical spaces with a three dimensionality you don’t always find on the cheaper side of the movie tracks, and certainly not used with as much unflashy excellence as Douglas does here.

Add all this up, and you’ll end up with Gold of the Seven Saints being as fine and entertaining a western as you will likely find.

Denis Klotz contributes a regular bi-weekly film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?

‘X’ploder: Herschell Gordon Lewis’ LINDA AND ABILENE (1969)

Screenshot-Herschell Gordon Lewis-1Contradictory as it may sound, better isn’t always better. Such is the case with Herschell Gordon Lewis’ turn of the decade sexploitation Western Linda and Abilene, best known these days for being one of several low budget features filmed at the Spahn Movie Ranch while the Manson family was in residence. Though more ambitious and both better produced and written than Lewis’ earlier quickie The Ecstasies of Women (also made in 1969), Abilene ultimately suffers for it in so far as its entertainment value is concerned. Where Ecstasies was so hurriedly, horribly manufactured that it could’t help but be fun, Abilene was made just well enough to become tiresome. Indeed, the one significant boon gleaned from the extra time and money involved is of the purely technical variety – where Ecstasies could only manage the in-camera (rd: free) fade-outs common to Lewis’ work, Abilene could afford the added lab expense of proper optical dissolves.

Penned by an uncredited Allison Louis Downe, frequent Lewis collaborator and co-writer of his splatter-schlock classic Blood Feast, Abilene starts out as a sweet, if uncomfortably incestuous, frontier romance. Rural siblings Todd and Abilene are on their own after their parents die of who-knows-what. As the two come together to take care of the family property an attraction builds between them, one bolstered by Todd’s turn as a sneaky bath-watching voyeur and a bit of solo bed-time fantasizing on both their parts. Before long their brother-sister bond takes on a decidedly physical dimension, and Todd and Abilene are coming together in ways that would have dear Mama and Papa turning in their backyard graves.

But alas, as Todd and Abilene take to each other like proper deviants their attention to the daily grind dwindles, and their beloved property falls swiftly into disrepair. With the kitchen overtaken with filth and the lawn in dire need of some tender loving care Todd reaches breaking point, fleeing Abilene to find a more appropriate physical distraction in town. In the saloon he discovers Linda, who is evidently itching for a roll with a farm boy, but while they grow drunk and disorderly local ne’er-do-well Rawhide (seen raping Linda in the ever-tasteful opening credits) takes the opportunity to pay the vulnerable Abilene a visit. When Todd finally returns home Abilene is a shambles, traumatized by Rawhide’s assault and angry at Todd’s abandonment. Todd heads off once more to see that Rawhide gets what’s coming to him, but while he’s away Linda makes an unexpected call, and a new romance begins…

If there’s a single issue that drags Linda and Abilene down it’s that it takes just too damned long to get wherever it’s going, a fact evidenced perfectly by the very first shot (post-credits) of the picture. We see Todd and Abilene dish the last few shovels of dirt onto their parent’s graves, pay their respects, hop into a horse-drawn carriage and wheel away, all captured in a grueling unbroken master shot that tests the audience’s patience for the best part of three minutes. It would almost be funny were it not so dull, and Lewis treats viewers to a nigh-verbatim retread of the same at the film’s attention-defying conclusion. Lewis does do better by the rest of the drama, and while his trademark masters are present and accounted for (with ill-prepared performers drifting in and out of them as always) he at least takes the time to intercut them with a few close-ups to break up the action. It just isn’t enough to help. Abilene repeats itself endlessly, from Todd and Abilene’s multiple encounters (all cut end-to-end) to the endless montage relating their budding affections to an unnecessary repetition of Todd’s stream-side bath time voyeurism. Despite a generally higher caliber of writing one gets the impression that there’s even less story here than there was to Ecstasies, and Abilene‘s 92 minutes really creep.

And what of Abilene‘s star attraction, it’s abundance of nudity and sexual situations (“Hotter than blazing pistols!” went the ads)? Lewis takes a few additional chances here, hinting at oral sex, wrangling Abilene and Todd into a bit of simultaneous masturbation, and even throwing in some gratuitous lesbianism to spice up the finale, but this is still remarkably tame for X-rated fare. Despite any insinuation (“Branded ‘X’ Due to Explicit Scenes” says the poster) the sex here is all of the loud roll-about variety, and one-go actor Kip Marsh (as Todd)  goes so far as to keep his jeans on for all of his scenes with the perpetually disrobed Sharon Matt (Abilene), here appearing for the second time in as many pictures for Lewis. Co-star Roxanne Jones seems to have had more of a taste for the material than the rest and, as Linda, manages to bring some energy to at least her portion of Abilene‘s simulated thrash sessions. Lewis, doubling down once again as both cinematographer and director, sticks to the same gonzo handheld style evidenced throughout his sex and gore pictures. Any eroticism to be found is purely coincidental.

Despite all I’ve said I have to admit that I did’t hate or even really dislike Linda and Abilene. It just bored me, which I suppose is a risk we all take when delving too deeply into H.G. Lewis’ film career – I don’t take it personally. Regardless of how Abilene turned out I’m ultimately just thrilled to have been able to see it at all, and mark one more of the director’s longstanding unseeables off the list.


‘Linda and Abilene’ is out now from Vinegar Syndrome as part of their The Lost Films of Herschell Gordon Lewis Blu-ray / DVD triple feature (which includes ‘L&A’, plus ‘The Ecstasies of Women’ and the mega-rare hardcore docu-sploiter ‘Black Love’). VinSyn’s restoration of the film looks typically lovely (though some compression artifacts here and there do detract a bit), and the release comes highly recommended to those with a taste for this sort of thing.