DVD Round-up, 1 July 2010: Cult Spaghetti Westerns, Cargo, The War Lord, Profound Desires of the Gods

Taking their inspiration from more traditional US Western films, Spaghetti Westerns (so-called, if the name doesn’t give the game away, because they were filmed in Italy) began in earnest the early 1960s, though there were Westerns filmed in the country as far back as the silent era.

Though Clint Eastwood’s legendary Man With No Name trilogy has overshadowed much of Italy’s output, this new Cult Spaghetti Westerns set from Argent Films looks to raise awareness of some other titles which deserve reappraisal, namely 1966’s Django and A Bullet for the General alongside 1976’s Keoma.

The plots are suitably torrid in each: Django sees the title character, played by Franco Nero, appear in a small town dragging a coffin containing a Gatling gun, where he finds himself at the centre of a war between Mexicans and racist white men; Bullet is set during the Mexican Revolution and follows El Chuncho (GianMaria Volonte) as he tries to buy weapons to aide General Elias; Keoma features Franco Nero again, this time as a man returning to his hometown only to discover it has been commandeered by an evil gang. Keoma decides to take on the bad guys with all the strength he can muster.
Made with energy and passion, all three films are superb examples of the genre, where heroes are brave and baddies will stop at nothing to get their way. There’s no Hollywood sheen here, just plenty of mud and bullets and a certainty that anything can happen to anyone at any time. Django may be a cult favourite, and its hero is iconic, but it’s Bullet for the General which is standout here: director Damiano Damiani has crafted a complex story which looks and feels real.

Also in this impressive set are a trio of introductions from director Alex Cox in the style of his old Moviedrome series, alongside interviews with Nero, Damiani and Keoma director Enzo G Castellari as well as trailers.

We move from the old frontier to the final frontier with Cargo (Optimum), a Swiss science fiction flick from 2009 which is set in the year 2267, when the Earth has been abandoned as the presence of humanity finally destroys the ecological balance.

Luckily there is hope in the shape of a paradise planet, Rhea, which is the destination of Dr Laura Portmann (Anna-Katherine Schwabroh) who plans to head there to be with her sister…if she can first complete an eight year deep space mission aboard a cargo ship.

When she wakes up to carry out a tour of duty on the ship, she becomes convinced there’s someone else with her, causing her to reawaken her colleagues so they can search for whoever, or whatever, has stowed away with them…

Looking far more expensive than its undoubtedly meagre budget suggests it should, with high quality CGI depicting the ship’s exterior and a dark and dank interior taking focus away from the sets, Cargo is a creepy little thriller with impressive performances from Schwabroh and Martin Rapold as Samuel Decker (a Blade Runner reference?).

Though the music is frequently overbearing, trying too hard to tell you how tense it is rather than letting the director show you, it’s still a fresh take on the ‘spaceship-under-siege’ genre that has been done many times before.

Medieval England is the setting for Eureka’s release of 1965’s The War Lord, starring a pre-Planet of the Apes knight called Chrysagon who decides to conquer a Normandy castle and the nearby town, his subsequent decisions attracting the ire of the locals.

While the film’s morals may be suspect – Chrysagon demands the right to sleep with brides-to-be the night before their wedding and his men seem happy to help him – and the plot isn’t the most exciting, there’s still a strong performance from Heston and a handful of action sequences which reward the viewer’s attention.

The War Lord looks impressive, with the widescreen version on this disc looking suitably epic in scale. This is also the first time the film has been released in the UK on VHS or DVD, so it’s something of a “new” film for fans of Heston.

Finally, perhaps the most interesting title this week is Eureka’s Blu-ray-only release of Profound Desires of the Gods, a 1968 Japanese “super-production” which took 18-months to make but which remains largely forgotten in the annuls of the countries cinematic history.

The film takes viewers to Kurage Island, a place where the Futori family have brought shame upon themselves thanks to a tendency for in-breeding – the daughter is having relations with her brother – while an engineer has arrived from Tokyo to oversee the implementation of a new well for the islanders.

To explain this nearly three hour long film succinctly would be difficult, but thrown into the mix are a number of odd (and very funny) sequences, a focus on the wildlife of the island, and a look at what it is that makes us tick.

The fact that it was almost forgotten in its home country for many years, and that this is the only hi-def version of the film to be released anywhere in the world, means that this is an important release and its a fascinating exploration of a forgotten culture that might take some getting in to but which deserves to be discovered by a wider audience.

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