Death Rides a Horse Blu-ray Review: Revenge Riders of the Dust Storm

In Death Rides a Horse (1967; dir. Giulio Petroni), Bill (a stiff but watchable John Philip Law) is a young, blue-eyed farmer who can shoot real good. He teams up with the mysterious Ryan (Lee Van Cleef), an older, hawk-eyed gunfighter who, just out of prison, hunts down the goons who framed him. The same goons who slaughtered Bill’s family 15 years ago. The questions you should answer for yourself are: 1) if you’re a fan of the Spaghetti Western genre, is this movie worth trying out?; and 2) if you give it a shot, will it match the quality of the classic Spaghetti Westerns that maestros Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci directed?

Buy Death Rides a Horse (Special Edition) Blu-ray

My take: Death Rides a Horse is just shy of a great Spaghetti Western. (In its day, the movie was an Italian hit. Only in more recent decades has it gotten more critical acclaim. Cineastes will spot the tribute director Quentin Tarantino gave it in the Kill Bill films.)

With a moody, sinister opening scene (the stormy massacre of Bill’s family), Death Rides a Horse gets off to a great start. The movie captivates instantly. And Van Cleef and Law make an intriguing pair. Law is not a great actor; but he makes his character’s wide-eyed (trauma-informed) awkwardness work for him. And it’s offset by the steely resolve of Van Cleef’s character. Van Cleef lifts the picture.

Yet without the other talent, the movie wouldn’t be as memorable.

Luciano Vincenzoni, the primary scenarist of Leone’s For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, scripted the film. Death Rides a Horse is in the same vein as those movies. Like Dollars, it’s got revenge on the brain. With playful, distinctive touches (e.g., a rainy, horror-inflected start; a dusty shootout at the climax; a half-burial and a mouth crammed with salt; baddies recognizable by certain physical attributes; and some tips of the hat to classic Westerns), Vincenzoni riffs on the American Western; he plays with the form in a way that avid fans of the genre may appreciate. Like Dollars, Death Rides a Horse is a flick spiced with uneasy alliances; with red-tinted flashbacks (done with a smash-zoom, no less). Like both films, it has an indelible rogue’s gallery of faces (among them, Van Cleef, Anthony Dawson, Luigi Pistilli, and Mario Brega), an above-par Ennio Morricone soundtrack. As shot by cinematographer Carlo Carlini, it makes great wide-screen use of stunning Spanish landscapes (Almeria, Tabernas), places right out of the Leone sandbox. Also, the set decoration by Rosa Cristina and production design by Franco Bottari has both a gritty and baroque feel that is familiar to the Leone west.

On its own terms, Death Rides a Horse satisfies. It’s longer than it needs to be, and it lacks the absurd magnificence—the operatic, stylistic flourishes—of the Leone oaters. While it’s dark, it’s tamer than Corbucci’s bleak, violent Westerns. Still, Van Cleef is in fine fettle, Petroni shows a good eye for action (he keeps things moving), and the script makes some colorful choices.

For those curious about what else the Spaghetti Western genre offers, besides the Leone and Corbucci films, Death Rides a Horse is a keeper.   

The Kino Lorber Blu-ray does justice to the movie’s visuals. It’s never looked better. The Blu-ray primarily has two features, a fun commentary by director Alex Cox and (accompanied by trailers for other Spaghetti Westerns) the movie’s theatrical trailer. 

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Jack Cormack

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