From the In Box of Dr. Freex, July 7, 2000:
From your Dracula vs. Frankenstein review:
"Director Al Adamson has shown himself to be a crapmeister of the first water. We shall hear from him again in these pages. You have been warned!"
Unless I'm forgetting something, you haven't reviewed another Adamson film since DvsF, two years ago. Is there any chance whatsoever you'll review another of Adamson's films?
Luc "Does 'Blood Heart' sound like a horror title to you?" French
And the response:
No, not a chance in hell. Al Adamson shall never darken this doorstep again.
... Ha Ha! I am KIDDING, of course. I'm contemplating a month's worth of Bad Western reviews, and what have I sitting in my review box? Not one, but TWO of Adamson's westerns.
Be careful what you wish for.
-fX ....'cause I wind up feeling the pain!
so you see, you can blame Luc French for this. I know I do.
Not that Five Bloody Graves is necessarily a bad movie; of all the Al Adamson movies I've yet seen, it's the best looking and has a damn near coherent plot - but it's still an Al Adamson movie.
I could probably end the review right there, but what the hell.
First, let's meet our hero, Ben Thompson (Robert Dix), a former lawman who currently wanders Goblin Valley in Utah (although the story is set in Arizona), hunting down and killing Yaqui Indians. The Narrator informs us that this is because the Yaqui chieftain Santago killed Ben's wife, so Ben rides the Vengeance Trail.
This is as good a time as any to mention the Narrator, who introduces himself as Death (Gene Raymond). Death will crop up over and over again throughout our story, referring to Ben and other vengeance-driven men as "my earthly messengers" and telling us how he rides alongside them "on my pale horse". Like the wildly inappropriate, jazz-laden library music score, Death does not know when to shut up (though, really, who's going to tell him that?), jumping in at every lull in the conversation, attempting to wax philosophical. You're going to get just as tired of Him as you are the rest of the characters.
So. Ben first saves a man and a woman riding on a single horse, pursued by Yaquis. They are Joe Lightfoot (John "Bud" Cardos) and his squaw, Little Fawn (Maria Polo). Joe is Santago's half-brother, and the renegade wants Joe's wife for his own; thus they are trying to escape. The two men bid each other vaya con dios and part ways, so Ben can arrive in the nick of time to save Nora (Vicki Volante) from an attack by a lone Indian (whom I believe to be director Adamson).
Ben challenges the Indian to a knife fight with the taunt, "Yaqui has body of a woman," which, in Indian sign language, is signified by moving the hands up and down in a curvaceous manner normally only seen in cartoons. One dead Indian later, we find out that Nora's husband, Dave Miller, Went To Town and left her at their homestead alone. Ben stands guard on their front porch overnight, until the man of the house returns the next day, and boy, what a winner he is..
Dave doesn't like Ben. Knocks the coffee out of his hand and says not only has he never had Indian trouble, but he doesn't want Ben's type around here, now git. Ben hangs around long enough to warn Nora that she should get back to town until the Indians calm down - but Dave strikes out to check his traps instead. How many out there figure Dave and Nora will be dead inside the next five minutes? Alright, hands down, you are all correct. Extra points to everyone who figured that we would also see an Indian holding some wigs aloft in the vain hope that we would think they are bloody scalps.
We should also meet two disreputable types, Clay (Jim Davis) and Horace (Ray Young), who are the scumbags running guns to Santago and his band. After their latest shipment, the Indians pay off the thugs, then inform them they have two days to get out of the territory or wind up supper for ants ("Ants for supper?" wails the rather slow Horace, establishing him as the picture's attempt at an Odious Comic Relief).
Ben comes upon the wounded Joe Lightfoot, who was hunting for supper (not ants) when he was jumped by two Yaquis ("They ain't around no more," says the wounded man, smugly). Ben yanks the arrows out of Joe, then patches him up after he's fainted. Once he's revived, the men head to Joe's camp to rejoin Little Fawn. They really should hurry, since Santago found the woman and staked her out on the ground, spread-eagled - the "supper for ants" everybody keeps talking about - and her luck is about to turn infinitely worse as she is discovered by Clay and Horace.
The brothers Holcomb, in their late, lamented Webzine Wild Picture (boys, I miss you!), make a good case in their Al Adamson article that the director's films are defined by their "cruel moments", moments meant to shock or outrage the audience. Moments meant to stick in your memory, because they're so... well, cruel. This scene certainly counts as one, as Clay first rapes (done entirely with sound and close-ups of faces), then shoots the helpless woman to death before Horace can have his turn. Even when the slow-witted Horace tries to steal Little Fawn's silver necklace, Clay takes it from him as a keepsake (and you just know that's an error on the bad man's part).
Ben and Joe arrive back at camp far too late, and as Joe carries the body of his wife away to bury her, Death informs us that he's just picked up a new earthly messenger, yadda yadda yadda, ride my pale horse, blah blah blah. Time to get to our next bunch of cannon fodder.
Um, characters, I meant characters.
Oh, hell - cannon fodder.
A covered wagon pursued by Yaquis overturns, and it was an apparently crowded wagon, as it disgorges preacher Boone Hawkins (John Carradine! Yay!), pimp Jim Wade (Scott Brady - an actor for whom I have genuine affection, so I could not help but think of him as Scott Brady - Frontier Pimp!), his whore, the high-strung Lavinia (Julie Edwards), madam Kansas Kelly (Paula Beast from 20,000 Fathoms Raymond) and her whore, Althea (Darlene Lucht), who is rather more high-minded. And a few cowboys who are just there to be shot. Intruding on the post-crash gunfight is Ben and Joe, who quickly turn the tide.
All these survivors proceed to walk to Tombstone - the women riding Ben's and Joe's horses. They run into Clay and Horace, and Clay cements his rep as the more despicable of the two by informing Ben that he gives up his horse for "no man or woman". Horace, however, gladly gives up his horse for Althea.
During a rest stop, the drunken Clay sneaks up on the bathing Lavinia and attempts to trade Little Fawn's necklace for some R-rated sex, but only winds up getting slapped around by Scott Brady - Frontier Pimp! After Scott Brady - Frontier Pimp! harshly tells Lavinia to put some clothes on and stop making a spectacle of herself, she catches an arrow in the back. Scott Brady - Frontier Pimp! immediately blasts the offending Indian into oblivion, and then has a good cry over Lavinia's body. Oh, and Joe sees Little Fawn's necklace in the unconscious Clay's hand. Told ya it was a mistake.
Later, when Ben is out scouting or exercising Death's pale horse or some damned thing, Clay drinks himself into insensibility, and Horace tries to slap him awake. This fails, but Horace finds he likes slapping Clay, leading to Althea's cry of "You're going to kill him!" Is it possible to kill somebody by slapping them? Have my tax dollars been used to determine this yet? In any case, Joe intervenes and slugs Horace. Horace, not appreciating this, takes Althea as a hostage and demands Joe disarm. He's about to shoot the half-breed when Boone - John Carradine, remember? - informs him that can't be allowed. And after reading from John 3:16, he blows the varmint away with a derringer concealed behind his Bible.
Clay wakes up, reads the writing on the wall - or on his dead partner's carcass - and rides off, the vengeful Joe in hot pursuit. After a flying tackle from horseback knocks Clay out, the scoundrel awakes to find himself tethered to the ground, just like his earlier victim, as Joe brandishes the necklace in his face and taunts him with the "supper for ants" speech which seems to be very much in vogue that year. Joe's triumph is cut short by a Yaqui bullet in his gut - which leaves a gaping and surprisingly round hole in his shirt - and in a cruel moment which is of a piece with the earlier one, rather than be cheated of his vengeance, Joe stabs the bound Clay to death, and is then skewered himself by multiple arrows.
Ben gives up waiting for Joe's return and starts climbing up some geological formation - God only knows why, perhaps it's a shortcut - which sets up the winnowing down of the rest of our cast. Boone catches a Yaqui arrow for Kansas Kelly, who grabs the preacher's derringer and shoots his killer (this is obviously the Magnum of derringers, it has such range) before she herself is stabbed in the back. Next is Scott Brady - Frontier Pimp!, who threatens to haunt Ben if he's "stupid enough to waste time buryin' me". The top of the mesa is reached, and it's time for Althea - who was sweet on Ben, and it might have been getting reciprocal, but the script is not exactly clear on that point - to die, and time for Ben to shoot this last Yaqui, so a dummy can be thrown off a cliff.
This brings up the best story about the filming of Five Bloody Graves, as referenced in David Konow's book, Schlock-O-Rama. Brief as the shot of the dummy falling may be in the final cut, that dummy was a rental. Rather than pay the full price for the dummy, Adamson climbed down the cliff, and then back up with it. It's a sheer damned cliff - the man wuz awesome serious 'bout saving money.
Well this finally leaves only Ben and his quarry, Santago. All throughout the picture, Santago has been sitting on nearby hills or plateaus, pointing to his warrior's next target, or grimacing mightily. If this seems like a leisurely way to lead a band of renegade Indians - or an attempt to associate Santago with that other disaffected figure in the picture, Death - all these might be true. But the real reason Santago hasn't joined the party until this point? He, too is played by John "Bud" Cardos. Well, they are supposed to be half-brothers...
There's a big, nearly exciting knife fight that ends up in a stream, and Santago is washed away to his doom or something. Ben buries his friends (in defiance of the last wishes of Scott Brady - Frontier Pimp!, but that's okay - Ben has now killed everyone in a five mile radius) and, as he rides away, tips his hat to the ... ahem ....four.... graves. I could probably come up with a rationale for the title, but I have my limits. The end.
The major problem with Five Bloody Graves is not, for once, the fact that Adamson made the movie piecemeal over a number of years - no (although Adamson's usual bits-and-pieces style is still evident), I fear the blame must be laid upon the script by star Robert Dix - a conglomeration of Western clichés presented with very little drama. Dix exhibits only a rudimentary grasp of the concepts of rising and falling action, foreshadowing or any of the other niceties one wishes for in a film.
Employing a Narrator to simply advance the story is always a warning sign of trouble ahead; if that much additional glue is needed to add structure, someone is not doing their job. Making Death the Narrator supplies the movie perhaps its only claim to originality, but it is a Narrator nonetheless; as Ben moons over the grave of his wife, Death tells us of the tragedy that made the lawman who he is today - a severe violation of dramatic law that is never even remedied in a flashback. In other words, a character's defining moment happens offstage. It worked in Greek Tragedy, but that is a dead art form. (except Aristophanes. Aristophanes rules.)
Curiously, Ben is also alluded to in a number of instances in ways that make him seem a driven, embittered individual - the doomed trapper Dave Miller even sneers that he doesn't "want his kind here". Most curiously because Ben never seems less than a kind, stand-up feller with a facility for gunplay (not that it does anybody else any good). Well, sort of kind... there is that moment when Scott Brady, Frontier Pimp! is slapping the hell out of Lavinia (until he is comically coldcocked by Kansas Kelly crashing crockery on his cranium). When Althea expresses dismay at the mistreatment of the prostitute, Ben smiles and says, "He's always doing that. Most women like it." Which no doubt immediately won over every female in the audience (and Lavinia's shocked cry of, "You better not have hurt him!" only improved matters, I'm sure).
Characters are introduced, broadly painted, and then killed in the setpieces which are the reason for the film's existence - setpieces that are executed without bravado, and which contain people that we have no reason to root for or care about. No character actively changes - an essential part of any story. The best-developed characters are the odious villains Horace and Clay - they are each allowed to exhibit more than one emotion - and when they die, the wind goes out of the picture, the killings proceeding in a pretty much desultory manner until we run out of movie. And characters.
Another oddness is the fact that everybody seems to know everybody else, a cheap way of implying backstory without actually providing backstory. It seems highly improbable that so many of our characters should know each other under this wide open sky, and it has the additional problem of dropping the audience out of the story as they ponder how all these people met, what their history might be... things about which the script is not forthcoming.
Sad, too, as the movie boasts a fine B-movie cast - the pre-Dallas Jim Davis, Paula Raymond, John Carradine (doubtless suffering a Stagecoach flashback or two), Scott Brady (still looking like a woodshop teacher who walked into auditions by mistake) and Adamson regulars Vicki Volante and John "Bud" Cardos. Cardos is especially good as the half-breed Joe, leading one to wonder why we haven't seen more of him as the years went by (he's also got a very interesting and varied IMDb filmography).
Still, I said the movie had a (rather) coherent plot and was good looking, didn't I? This is one of the movies that benefited from the recently-immigrated Vilmos Zsigmound's camerawork. This, and the truly magnificent scenery on view - there is not a single interior shot in the movie (didn't have to rent lights that way) - lend it a more assured look than many of Adamson's other impoverished productions. It's also admirable that they managed to pull off the burning-down-the-homestead bit for a measly couple hundred bucks. But as adept as he was at zero-budget filmmaking, Adamson as a director was not strong enough to force the script into a more individualistic work; he could not supply the glue to patch together many disparate chunks into an entertaining whole.
The character moments, where we're supposed to see inside the characters, are played at the same level as the action scenes. Every single piece of film was probably used, as many of the connecting shots are apparently footage of the stuntmen sauntering their ponies back to position one. Cardos obviously shot one whole day of nothing but reaction shots in Indian makeup to be used as needed - rarely do they match the action or even time of day of the scenes into which they are inserted. Some directors can be given lemons and make lemonade. Adamson tended to simply put the lemons on display.
Though Five Bloody Graves lacks the unintentional humor of Dracula vs. Frankenstein, that's not wholly a good thing - without that, what we are left with is an uninspired western that at least tries to to be exploitatively mean-spirited, but it turns out to be a case where the spirit is unwilling and the flesh is weak.
Murder, rape, and revenge somehow made... boring.
- September 10, 2000