Empire and Charles Band always had a knack for creating Westerns, but the type of Westerns that just were not as traditional as you might think. They had every opportunity to deliver us a normal western, and yet they went the odd route delivering creative amalgams like 1994’s “Oblivion,” and mediocre fare like “Ghost Town.” Richard Governor’s “Ghost Town” watches more like an extended episode of a mediocre anthology horror show, and when you get right past the whole supernatural tropes, it’s another ordinary western that we’ve seen a thousand times over. It’s not a gem of the Empire/Band library, but it’s a unique diversion.
If there’s anything more I love than post apocalyptic films, its post apocalyptic films with substance and meaning to them. “The Rover” is a slow boil drama thriller set in Australia where the continent has now economically collapsed. Set ten years after an apparent apocalypse, Australia is the Wild West where law is so corrupt that its citizens have zero respect for those in blue. Director David Michôd thrives on ambiguity by introducing a cast of characters with their own moral codes that conflict with everyone else’s. “The Rover” garners nothing but slime balls and the amoral, but that doesn’t stifle the utterly compelling storyline.
What I love about Kathryn Bigelow’s “Near Dark” is that it doesn’t glamorize vampires. It doesn’t paint them as pop stars, millionaires, or aristocrats. In reality the group of vampires that roam the South here could be mistaken for dangerous transients. Their lives are a series of contradictions that paint them as despicable but somewhat empathetic villains. They have immortality, but burst in to flames in natural sun light. They have fantastic powers, but they have literally no choice but to roam the world looking for new prey. “Near Dark” is very much an eighties relic like its lighter counterpart “The Lost Boys,” and still hasn’t shown its wrinkles. Draped in glorious shades of blue and gray and given a haunting score from Tangerine Dream, “Near Dark” is a vicious vampire film about a young man trying to maintain his soul and keep his humanity in tact.
I bet Seth McFarlane would love to fancy himself this generation’s Bob Hope, or perhaps even Mel Brooks. With the hollow smile of a car salesman, and the appeal of a commercial pitch man, in reality, McFarlane comes off as just another really desperate fan boy whose love for music, dancing, and comedy doesn’t equate to entertainment. The end result is a movie that holds our hands through every joke, and then holds our hand through the expected reaction. I imagine if McFarlane directed a remake to “Blazing Saddles” eventually someone would point to Sheriff Bart, look at the audience breaking the fourth wall, and mutter “But he’s a black man! And this is the old west!”
You have to give credit to Mel Brooks for being so ballsy. In today’s day and age, a movie like “Blazing Saddles” would never get off the ground and become a mainstream comedy. Even with its material, Brooks runs the risk of becoming low brow, but thankfully manages to create the best comedy of all time. It’s my favorite from Brooks, edging out “Young Frankenstein” if only for the lead performance by Cleavon Little. “Blazing Saddles” satirizes the Western sub-genre, while also mocking its inherent racism, setting it in the middle of the slave era. Though the film is biting in its social commentary, it still manages to be incredibly funny, sidestepping the mockery of the slavery, and instead poking fun at the Caucasian characters.
The Full Moon space western “Oblivion” certainly is one of the most creative films to come out of Charles Band’s imprint. Surely, it can be silly and hard to follow, but it works well as a space western, and a western without the science fiction conventions. I was surprised this even had any monsters or aliens, as “Oblivion” works as a typical Western. Sans the giant man eating scorpions, of course. I digress. “Oblivion” is written by comics scribe Peter David and is admirably ambitious considering its obviously low budget.
Lee Van Cleef is a man who makes it look easy to dominate the screen with his presence, no matter what the film. “The Big Gundown” is purely a western thriller for the Lee Van Cleef fans that want to indulge in the sheer finesse and charisma of Van Cleef when he takes turns as the hero. Or in this case, the anti-hero. Van Cleef takes on the role of John Corbett, a man who is not afraid to gun down people that threaten him, but is never trigger happy. He is one of the best bounty hunters in the west, and is a man devoted to his duties. As Corbett, he’s asked by an aristocrat to hunt down a vicious criminal named Cuchillo. He’s wanted for raping and murdering a young girl, and is currently on the run in the west, giving the law a difficult time of finding him.
From Mill Creek comes the complete collection of the Steve McQueen star making television series “Wanted: Dead or Alive.” Easily one of my favorite Western action series of all time, Steve McQueen plays the complex and often swift anti-hero and bounty hunter Josh Randall. Brandishing his trademark sawed off shotgun named “The Mare’s Leg,” Randall travels across the country capturing his latest bounties and being forced to often travel alongside them.