As a child, Bill witnesses the murder of his family by four robbers. Fifteen years later, he embarks on his revenge...
"Someone once wrote that revenge is a dish that has to be eaten cold. Hot as you are, you're libel to end up with indigestion."
You gotta love it when you discover a great Spaghetti Western. As someone who was born a fan of the sub-genre, I've seen my share of the flicks over the years. I've enjoyed countless hours plugging through the Man With No Name Trilogy and wades through the depths of some of the most incomprehensible films like The Town Called Hell which tried its damnedest to imitate the energy and vigor of its Italian cousins. Far from being an expert on Spaghetti Westerns, I haven't seen everything ever made so I get excited when I finally come across one I've wanted to see for a very long time. Giulio Petroni's 1967 revenge western Death Rides A Horse featuring the legendary Lee Van Cleef and John Phillip Law is a sterling example of the genre with exciting action, great characters, and a sly dry sense of humor.
They call him Bill (John Phillip Law). When he was just a boy he witnessed the brutal rape and murder of his sister and mother at the hands of a gang of bandits. The only clues to the masked men's identities rest in his memories. As he waits for any sign of these men's return, he practices his shooting skills becoming a crack shot who can't miss at any range. Embittered former outlaw Ryan (Lee Van Cleef) has just spent the last decade of his life behind bars after being double-crossed by his former gang. He wants payback for his time in prison and if they can't pay in cash he'll write out the debt in blood. It would seem that Bill and Ryan have a mutual goal as Ryan's former pals were the ones responsible for killing Bill's family -- making the pair the unlikeliest of allies.
When Death Rides A Horse opens, it hits the ground running. The opening assault on Bill's family - while not graphically depicted - is intense and horrifying. The act of barbarous brutality beautifully sets up Bills motivation and lays the ground for a string of clues to the masked men's identities: a tattoo, a scar, a silver spur, and a skull earring. It's handled so perfectly that when the film flashes forward several years and we see a grown John Phillip Law firing away at an assortment of targets with an arsenal of firearms - we know exactly how his character has spent those years of his life. That alone would have been enough to support a solid flick, but then Lee Van Cleef enters the show and helps give a simple revenge action western a little more depth and range as his character has his own set of motivations with a dark history.
That isn't to say Death Rides A Horse is all business and no fun. There's a lot of fun to be had with this flick. As Bill starts to put the clues together we're treated to a hell of a montage with Law's steely eyes in closeup, the picture bleached red, and his memories flash and a burst of violence immediately follows. On top of some great shootouts and action sequences, the film has a devilish sense of humor to cut the tension. Right when you least expect it, the movie trots out a hell of a one-liner. The comedy doesn't pull away from the suspense of action-packed flow but adds a little extra dimension to the fun. At just under two hours, the movie clips along at a cool breeze and never lets up on the action. The great pacing with a fantastic Ennio Morricone score makes sure there's a lot to enjoy from start to finish.
My sad story of trying to see Death Rides A Horse starts around twenty years ago when I tried to rent this on tape. I'd read some article about spaghetti westerns and this one was highly recommended. So when I finally tracked it down at a local rental store I was excited to see they had a copy of it. I put down my $2.50 and sped home. Once I popped it into the player I quickly discovered that the tape had snapped and whoever rented it before me merely respooled it to hide the break and avoid paying a replacement fee. Needles to say I was disappointed. Without another copy available to rent, I soon forgot about this movie as I moved onto other movies on the list. Thanks to Kino Lorber Studio Classics for releasing it on Blu-ray, I finally got to see and appreciate this one. Sure, It may not be the best Spaghetti Western ever made, but damn is it a ton of fun. If you've never seen it, hunt down a copy for yourself. I'm willing to stake a buck or two that you'll have a great time.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Death Rides A Horse arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber Studio Classics. Pressed onto a Region A BD-50 disc, the disc is housed inside a standard sturdy Blu-ray case. Also included is a booklet containing cover photos of other Studio Classics release. The disc loads to a static image main menu with traditional navigation options.
Death Rides A Horse arrives on Blu-ray with a very strong 2.35:11080p transfer. I don't have any information about the vintage of the master, but it looks to be a bit dated. Overall the film is in great shape, an appreciable amount of film grain remains giving the image a nice textured look with strong details. Colors can appear a tad pale here and there, but otherwise, there is a good primary presence with healthy and accurate flesh tones. Contrast is stable and black levels are pretty good. Depth tends to suffer at times, some sequences do showcase an appreciable sense of depth while others can appear a bit flat - but not to a degree that is terrible or a deal breaker by any means. This is still a very strong image presentation with only mild speckling and a couple random scratches being the only notable damage. I didn't spot any banding or other compression issues so that isn't a worry. Obviously, a fresh scan would have been great, but as is, it's in pretty great shape.
Death Rides A Horse rides away with a strong and effective English DTS-HD MA 2.0 audio mix. Thankfully the film's 50 year age doesn't appear to have hampered things as there are few issues to complain about here. As an Italian production, all of the dialogue was recorded in post so there are a few bits with rubber-mouth but nothing out of the ordinary for a Spaghetti Western. Sound effects also have that heightened, canned quality where gunshots enjoy that particular cannon-like explosion with metallic echo. Atmospherics are also a bit flat and heavy-handed as tends to be the norm for this sort of picture. The Ennio Morricone score is in great shape and always a fun listen. There are a few great bits that were later used for Kill Bill, so if you never knew that some of the music will sound a bit familiar. There are a couple moments of hiss and a crackle or two, but nothing serious. Levels are spot on.
Also included with this release is an Italian DTS-HD MA 2.0 mix with English subtitles. This is an interesting way to watch the film if you want more of an international flavor, but it's not my preferred audio experience. Dialogue is just fine and the score and sound effects have the same sort of post-production front heavy sound as the English. That said, I feel the more authentic viewing experience of any Spaghetti Western is the English mix with the heavily dubbed voices. That feels like a signature trait of this sub-genre that goes missing when listing to the Italian mix. Give it a listen if you're curious.
Like most of the Studio Classics releases, the bonus features package supplied for this film isn't the most amazing thing ever, but it's still pretty good. The Alex Cox audio commentary is a solid listen. It's mostly anecdotal material but still pretty good.
Audio Commentary featuring filmmaker Alex Cox, if you want to learn some good history about this flick, it's a solid listen.
Theatrical Trailer (HD 1:33)
For a Few Dollars More Trailer (SD 2:29)
Return of Sabata Trailer (HD 2:08)
Barquero Trailer (HD 2:36)
Navajo Joe Trailer (HD 1:51)
Valdez is Coming Trailer (SD 2:52)
The Mercenary Trailer (SD 1:53)
Death Rides A Horse is a hell of a wild ride. It sports all of the best attributes of a classic Spaghetti Western. It's got action, humor, wrapped up in a solid revenge thriller. With a terrific cast featuring Lee Van Cleef and John Phillip Law accompanied by a terrific Morricone score, there's a lot to enjoy with this movie and genre fans should be happy to add it to their collection. Kino Lorber Studio Classics delivers a strong release of Death Rides A Horse on Blu-ray. While it may not have undergone a recent restoration effort, it does sport a strong and reliably effective A/V presentation. Bonus features may be a bit slim, but a good audio commentary is better than nothing at all. This is an easy release to recommend - especially for this holiday season, I'm sure there's someone on your shopping list who will enjoy having it!