Thoughtful reviews, the Boulder film scene

" I can safely say at this point that we are lost. "
— Heather Donahue, The Blair Witch Project

MRQE Top Critic

Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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These days you know someone must be doing something right when they get marginalized by the powers that be. OK, that’s probably always been true and what’s also true is that eventually time wounds all-powerful heels. Apparently director Alex Cox got sent to the publicity nether-world after making a film in Nicaragua during the Reagan years (Walker, 1987). Along with him went Straight To Hell the film that preceded Walker. Now Straight To Hell might have sunk from sight simply on the weight of its strangeness and remained a cult film along the lines of Zachariah or Greaser’s Palace. But STH should have come roaring back in 1994, riding the coat tails of Pulp Fiction a film that borrows significantly from Cox’s films Repo Man and Straight To Hell. But it didn’t resurface and I blame Walker... and Reagan. After having seen Straight To Hell Returns, I’m thinking that Alex and Straight To Hell time in limbo might be over.

Now with added special effects (mostly extra splatter)
Now with added special effects (mostly extra splatter)

Because Repo Man had a higher profile, lots of people noted the glowing suitcase McGuffin in both Pulp Fiction and Repo Man (and yes, in Kiss Me Deadly too). But from the first moment you see Sy Richardson (as Norwood) in STH you know something has gone terribly wrong in the connect-the-dots department. And what could have been going through Alex Cox’s mind the first time he saw Samuel L Jackson’s “Jules Winnfield” in Pulp Fiction? I’m thinking a big ‘ouch’ and an even bigger sigh.

So here we are 20+ years later and what is this I see moving through the smoke, dust and tumbleweeds like a spaghetti western cowboy given up for dead?.. yes! it’s Straight to Hell Returns! And yes it’s still as incoherent as it ever was but now with added special effects (mostly extra splatter on the blood-shots but also tweaked color). And look at who’s in the cast along with Richardson:. Joe Strummer of The Clash, Courtney Love, Elvis Costello, Dennis Hopper, Grace Jones, Jim Jarmusch and The Pogues. Also appearing are what must be the Cox Repertory Company, Dick Rude (skinhead Duke in Repo Man, also the co-writer of Straight To Hell), Fox Harris (J. Frank Parnell the atomic scientist in Repo Man), Zander Schloss(the hapless Kevin in Repo Man), Del Zamora and Eddie Velez (the Rodriguez Brothers in Repo Man). Fans of Repo Man can make a pilgrimage to STH Returns simply to see their favorites again. But there is a lot more to see and hear in this film.

Joe Strummer is a big surprise as one of the black-suited killers. For a film that’s a farcical mash-up, he does a very good job of playing the role straight. Courtney Love sets a benchmark for Most Annoying Character that is going to be hard to beat. Words fail me as to how annoying she is... you’ll just have to see it for yourself. And check out The Pogues as insane coffee addled spaghetti western banditos... brilliant! And as you would expect from a film that is full of musicans, there is a lot of music. Of note is an a cappella version of “Danny Boy” by most of the cast that is so sweet and so far out of line with the rest of the film that it slaps you up the side of your head with a force you would never expect from such a sentimental song.

But what is Straight to Hell Returns all about? Nominally it’s a homage to spaghetti westerns but after a few minutes it all becomes a blur, and by the time the film ends you find yourself lying in the corner with ‘I.G. Farben’ written in marks-a-lot on your forehead and a ferocious coffee hangover. Clearly Cox and Rude were making this up as they went along (though they claim to have written it in a couple days ... or was that hours .. before they ever started shooting). Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Generally the madness is entertaining and if you like chaos as much as I do, you’ll have a good time.

This DVD was released hot on the heels of Cox’s Searchers 2.0 (2007). I wish I could have seen Straight to Hell Returns before Searchers 2.0 but that was not to be. Nevertheless they make a great double feature and hopefully will put Alex Cox back in a place where we can all see his films again. I was pleased to note that Straight to Hell Returns is, as of this writing, back-ordered on Amazon. Will Walker be next? We can only hope.

DVD Extras

This DVD has some great extras. Notably the making-of documentary Back to Hell ... a 2000+ where-are-they-now study of the surviving cast/crew members of Straight to Hell and footage of the Spanish film site. The real knock-out is a short student film Cox shot in 1977 of the abandoned and decaying sets from his favorite spaghetti western films... including the one that was used in 1988 for STH and later seen in the Back to Hell doc. The commentary track, recorded recently, is by Cox and Rude, and though I thought it not as interesting as the commentary on Searchers 2.0, it’s still required viewing.

Picture and Sound

Picture and sound are apparently much improved from the underground/cult VHS days. Extra scenes cut from the original have been added as have new special effects (see above).

How to Use This DVD

I recommend going straight to the commentary for Straight To Hell Returns... cut to the chase and get the back story up front, then watch it all again in its natural state. Also, have plenty of strong coffee on hand.