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June 6, 2012

MOVIE OF THE DAY: Straight To Hell (1987)

The Film: Straight To Hell (1987)

The Principles: Sy Richardson, Dick Rude, Joe Strummer, Courtney Love, Dennis Hopper, Elvis Costello and The Pogues. Directed by Alex Cox. Written by Alex Cox and Dick Rude.

The Premise: A group of three incompetent killers and a pregnant girl screw up an assassination attempt and rob a bank, escaping to the desert where they hide their briefcase full of stolen loot and seek refuge in a surreal little town populated with an assortment of colorful characters. But they soon find themselves at war with a crazed family of coffee-addicted outlaws known as the McMahons (played entirely by the punk group The Pogues). Desperate, deranged, jittery and consumed by sexual tension, their destinies will all soon collide in a bloody showdown of violence, vengeance and caffeine.

Is it good: Well, I’d say that this movie is not one of Alex Cox’s best, like say Sid and Nancy or (my favorite) Repo Man, but it is definitely one of his more interesting messes. It’s a beautifully shot spoof of the Spaghetti Westerns of the 60’s and 70’s and I’m going to make a bet that Quentin Tarantino probably watched this one a few times before writing Pulp Fiction, because there are a lot of subtle aesthetic influences that I spotted, especially in the character of Norwood (Sy Richardson) who bears a striking resemblance both in appearance and attitude to Sam Jackson’s Jules Winfield. The humor is really offbeat and often quite cruel, delivered in a Jarmush-like deadpan style. Speaking of which, Jim Jarmush makes a cameo as a bad guy named Amos Dade.

The cast is quite an eclectic mix in itself. You’ve got Sy Richardson (Repo Man) as Norwood, a cold-blooded killer with a moral code of ethics. A baby-faced Courtney Love as the annoyingly pregnant gun moll Velma, who’s got Norwood’s love bun baking in her oven. The Clash’s Joe Strummer as Simms, who uses gasoline and a switchblade comb to grease his hair and develops a steamy affair with the wife of a jealous shop owner. Dick Rude (also from Repo Man) as Willy, the always-agitated sidekick who is often the only voice of reason. The entire punk band The Pogues play the McMahons, a family of Mexican bandito costumed killers who travel with their own espresso machine to fuel their voracious addiction to coffee. Cameos include the aforementioned Jim Jarmush, Dennis Hopper, Elvis Costello and Grace Jones.

This is one of those films that you either get or you don’t. I’m not completely sure that I do, but I love it anyways. I myself find something new to laugh at every time I see it, however none of the humor is that bent over, gasping for breath kind. It’s much too nihilistic and dry for loud guffaws, except for Karl’s Disco-Weiner Dog song, which is just about the funniest thing ever filmed in any movie I’ve ever seen. The problem is that it’s the weirdness that’s holding this film together. Once you get past the Sergio Leone aesthetic mixed with the eighties punk style, it’s really just a collection of vignettes, one-dimensional characters and a very thin plot. But then again, it’s that “Fuck it! Let’s just make a crazy movie with our friends!” attitude that sells this flick for me. The homages are all in the right place and it feels like a film that was a shit-load of fun to make, although it was probably just the opposite.

Is it worth a look: Definitely! It’s worth it alone just to get a gander at a pre-Hole Courtney Love who shows that she had a genuine screen presence as well as a natural acting ability long before she ever became known as the First Lady of the 90’s Seattle grunge scene. Sy Richardson’s Norwood is also a beautifully drawn and articulated character to behold that re-imagines the Clint Eastwood gunslinger as a badass pimp motherfucker in black suit, skinny tie and (occasionally) a dew rag. The music is by The Pogues and Pray For Rain and it’s a straight up riff on Ennio Morricone, including a really clever visual/audio gag involving the use of the iconic harmonica cue. This movie is too weird to be called a simple parody of Spaghetti Westerns. It seems to take place in its own alternate punk/rockabilly/cowboy/gangster universe. If you’re a fan of dark offbeat humor, then there’s a lot to like about it.

Random anecdotes: This film was shot in Almeria, Spain where many of Sergio Leone’s famous westerns were made. It used the same set that was constructed for the film Chino starring Charles Bronson.

This film was made when a proposed concert tour for The Pogues and various other punk bands failed to get funding. Realizing it was easier to get money for a movie, and with all the musicians having their schedules free, it was produced instead.

The jingle that plays when the coffee addicts are getting ready to fix is from a Maxwell House coffee commercial from the 60’s and 70’s.

Martin Turner is listed as the Sex and Cruelty Consultant in the opening credits.

In the end credits it reads: KARL’S DISCO-WEINERS now on sale in the foyer.

At the very end of the credits a title comes up that reads: COMING SOON… BACK TO HELL. This sequel was never made.

Cinematic soul mates: Repo Man, Pulp Fiction, From Dusk Till Dawn, The Good, The Bad and The Weird.