El Rojo. Widescreen (1.85:1). Directed by Leopoldo Savona. 82 minutes. 1967. Wild East, USA. Format: NTSC Region 0.
When the expectant Sorensen family are cut down by arrows as they travel to their gold mine near the town of Gold Hill in New Mexico it appears as though they've fallen victim to a random Indian attack. However, when the family's eldest son Donald (Richard Harrison) returns from the Civil War he immediately suspects foul play. After teaming up with an embittered ex-Reb turned medicine show man called Hank, Donald soon discovers that all is not what it seems to be in Gold Hill. Four supposedly upstanding men - Lasky (Piero Lulli), Wallace (Franco Ressel), Navarro and Ortega - have ingratiated themselves with the town's fearful citizens by overseeing the extermination of local Indians. In return, the four partners have been allowed to take control of the town's saloon and bank. Furthermore, they've been secretly using nefarious means to grab nearby settlers' land and the Sorensens' gold mine is also now part of their property portfolio. With both Donald and a rogue Indian (Mirko Ellis) seeking revenge, the four partners go to ground and surround themselves with an army of protective henchmen.
This is a low budget show that is built around a fairly generic revenge storyline but it remains a really fun little film. Richard Harrison's Donald cooks up some ingenious and entertaining ruses that allow him to get close to his intended targets and these inventive narrative flourishes help the show to stand out from the crowd and establish something of an identity of its own. And the film's novel frills don't end with Donald's clever ruses. Donald himself is actually quite an usual genre hero (he charms the local ladies by giving them sugar cubes and sketching their portraits!) while the embittered ex-Reb Hank supplies some interesting weaponry (a super pistol with a silencer attached and a special rig that allows him to fire several rifles at once). And watch out for the sudden, machismo-fuelled appearance of the mysterious gun-for-hire Black Bart who is able to silence cocky tough guys by simply removing the mask that obscures the lower portion of his face. In fact there's enough macabre oddness and intrigue woven into this show for it to acquire some kind of serious cult status somewhere down the line.
In spite of its low budget the film manages to perform well enough at a technical level. Harrison's overly impassive turn here probably isn't his best Spaghetti Western performance but he remains effective enough to get the job done. The supporting cast - which is chock full of familiar faces - contribute much to this show's fun factor. Predictably cast as villains, genre stalwarts Piero Lulli and Franco Ressel are on good form here but the show is almost stolen by Raf Baldassarre who plays their chief henchman Ramon. Fan-favourite Nieves Navarro pops up intermittently as Lasky's saloon singer girlfriend. There's none of the style or panache associated with the likes of Sergio Leone to be found here but 'El Rojo' is a quite competently assembled affair: the show's camera work is basic but solid and it is edited in a logical and coherent manner. And Benedetto Ghiglia's lively soundtrack score occasionally rises above the level of standard generic fare.
Picture quality here is reasonably good given that 'El Rojo' is a particularly obscure genre entry. There's a touch of mild motion blur present in a couple of scenes and one or two nighttime sequences play a little on the dark side but there's very little in the way of print damage here. The presentation's sound quality is very good.
Extras: Image galleries, six Richard Harrison Spaghetti Western trailers and the '2011 L.A. Spaghetti Western Film Festival'. Shot at the film festival held at the Los Angeles El Portal Theatre on the 19th of March 2011 and clocking in at one and a half hours in length, this final extra feature alone is worth the asking price of this DVD. Here we find our very own Tom Betts interviewing Robert Woods, Mark Damon, Richard Harrison, Jack Betts (Hunt Powers), Brett Halsey (Montgomery Ford), Michael Forest and Dan Van Husen live on stage. Everybody present is generally good-humoured and the gathered genre stars each recount some great anecdotes.