I like using holiday time to catch up on the pile of DVDs that I never mustered the inclination to watch since they were impulse purchased. It’s not that I never had time — rather that I knew I’d be disappointed on a repeat viewing of each film. 1987’s ‘Straight to Hell’ is a perfect example of a film I want to like. I really, really, really want to like it. I remember the murmurings around it on its release and I recall the critical savaging it got. For every extremely negative critical reaction there’s a cult following in the making.
Surely a western that boasts a cast that includes Joe Strummer, Dennis Hopper, Grace Jones and Shane MacGowan and Jim Jarmusch must be an under-appreciated gem? There’s certain seafood I try to will myself to enjoy. It’s not quite disgusting, but they make for a joyless anti-feast. I feel I should like it. Other people enjoy it, so why don’t I?
I don’t want to spit it out, much as I didn’t hit eject when I put the new ‘Straight to Hell’ redux, ‘Straight to Hell Returns’ in the player. Just as I find myself chewing the fishy offering into a joyless mush that dries out and won’t disappear, this remastered edition’s 90 minute duration feels at least 300% longer than other films. That episodic, willingly madcap narrative is oddly paced enough to evoke one of director Alex Cox’s old favourites, ‘Django, Kill,’ and just as all the king’s horses can’t put that film into an entirely comprehensible cut, the extra CGI blood, wandering skeletons and frugal handful of extra running time still leaves me cold.
The acting can occasionally resemble some kind of enforced young offender’s amateur performance (though Sy Richardson is amazing), but I still respect Mr. Cox’s decision to make it over the ‘Three Amigos.’ He even turned down ‘The Running Man’ to make ‘Walker.’
It’s the backstory, from Cox’s passion for the spaghetti western that makes him an authority on the subject to the aborted Nicaragua benefit that led to the excess of musicians in the cast that draws me back to ‘Straight to Hell.’ The documentary — ‘Back to Hell’ and the DVD’s commentary tell that story enough to make it worth picking up. When Alex is talking over it, this is a far, far better film.
It’s also worth noting that Alex Cox is my guru when it comes to films. He (alongside Kim Newman’s ‘Nightmare Movies’ and Danny Peary’s ‘Cult Movies’ trilogy) put me onto a number of under appreciated films as part of his run on BBC2’s ‘Moviedrome’ spot for several summers between 1988 and 1994. Cox presented double bills, dragged moaning from the BBC library, frequently themed, with comprehensive introductions and a genuine passion for the topic.
Post-Tarantino, everything’s a fucking “cult” film, but for weeks on end, sunday nights from 10am, which would now be filled with a ‘Gavin & Stacey’ re-run, or something equally shit, we got ‘Alligator,’ ‘The Great Silence,’ ‘Dead of Night,’ Two-Lane Blacktop,’ ‘The Hill,’ ‘Assault on Precinct 13,’ ‘One From the Heart,’ ‘Rabid,’ ‘The Parallax View,’ ‘Trancers,’ ‘Q – The Winged Serpent,’ ‘Lenny,’ ‘Grim Prairie Tales,’ ‘Day of the Locust,’ ‘Mishima’ and much more.
Each film made a substantial impact on me, supplementing a prolific diet of the era’s costlier productions. What could be perceived as trash cinema was lovingly contextualized to the point where its scheduling in the same slot as more cerebral, established masterpieces made utter sense. America got the Z Channel from 1974 to 1989 (as documented in the terrific ‘Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession’) and Jerry Harvey’s careful curation. We got Alex Cox — and for that reason I was happy to blindly shell out the coins to grab a DVD I knew I probably couldn’t make myself love.
Moviedrome came back in 1997 with Mark Cousins on presentation duties. The selection seemed to be significantly less obscure (though he gets props for screening ‘The Devil Thumbs a Ride’ and ‘Target), and while I enjoy Mark’s writing and critique, his eerie presentation style made me put my hand over my drink, in case he reached out the screen and slipped something into it. Alex was more of an infectiously enthusiastic oddball. I sent my £4 and got one of the lovingly made Moviedrome guides, which I promptly lost. I respected Mr. Cox’s humility in reprinting a particularly scathing ‘Walker’ review.
The fact Alex has upped guides 1 & 2 as PDFs on his site quells the gloom caused by my mislaid pamphlet and still holds up as a strong collection of must-see cinema. There might be some established favourites in the lounge TV festival’s lineups, but ‘To Sleep with Anger’ and ‘Tracks’ remain depressingly obscure and well worthy of revival. These are mediocre times televisually, and Film4 cannot and will never compete with what Moviedrome gave an entire generation on a weekly basis.
Salute the UK’s champion of the cinematic underdog — himself an underdog (albeit one of his own creation). I recommend everything on the ‘Straight to Hell’ DVD, bar the actual film in its unaccompanied form…
Not even the most fleeting mention of ‘The Parallax View’ can pass without including this video.