So, in the second installment of the QT Film Festival’s selected film reviews we find ourselves at the second year’s event, held in 1998. As in the first year’s event, Tarantino included some rare 70s crime films, some exploitation, and other’s just lesser known titles. He didn’t show nearly as many films as the previous year, but the quality of what he did show more than made up for the number of movies shown.
The Dion Brothers (aka The Gravy Train) ‘1974’
Directed By Jack Starrett
Starring Stacy Keach, Frederic Forrest, and Margot Kidder
The Dion Brother’s (listed on IMDB as The Gravy Train) was made in 1974, a fine year indeed for American Crime cinema in particular, rare and otherwise. The Gambler, Bring me the head of Alfredo Garcia, Shoot It Black Shoot It Blue, The Conversation, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and Thunderbolt And Lightfoot all came out in 1974, and with the exception of ‘Shoot it Black, Shoot it Blue’ starring Michael Moriarty, all the other titles mentioned did wildly better than The Dion Brother’s at the box office, and critically, all the above mentioned 1974 movies were given mostly high praise.
But its Tarantino’s choice The Dion Brother’s we’re looking at today. First interesting point to make about this curious 70’s crime movie is that Terrence Malick actually wrote the screen-play under the pseudonym David Whitney (I haven’t looked into the why or wherefores on this issue however). The second bit of interesting information to look at before we go into the film itself is that it’s directed by Jack Starrett whose multi layered career is an interesting one to peer into. Prior to The Dion Brother’s he’d directed a few dark, and strange movies, perhaps the oddest being 1972’s ‘’ The Strange Vengeance of Rosalie’’.
Jack Starrett hadn’t had a ‘hit’ movie as a director when he took the role of directing ‘The Dion Brothers’ but was seemingly very capable when given a good script, a decent cast, and a little bit of a budget, things his previous offerings hadn’t had, or at least not all at once on the one production. Stacey Keach had been acting for 10 years by the time he took on the role of Calvin Dion, brother of Russell Dion (played by Frederic Forrest). Two coal miners with a plan; rob a bank and live happily ever after. They are rebels, although no doubt hard working men, with little time for the soft ‘Liberal’ attitudes left over from the 60s, these men are two country boys looking to make a quick buck. They aren’t supposed to be likable, and to a huge portion of the audience back in 1974, the Dion brothers weren’t liked characters. To give Keach and Forrest all due respect, they didn’t attempt to give director Jack Starrett a hard time to change the script to reflect more likable lead characters, they all went for realism, and that’s what made The Dion Brothers the quality film that it is, and so different from all the other movies mentioned above.
Sure, it’s not all character driven, we get car chases, we get shoot outs, but the main objective here is a movie that had lead characters who were ‘true’ representations of what would be a small but nevertheless dedicated portion of middle Americans anti liberal attitudes were like at the time, and if we’ve learned nothing else about Hollywood, it likes its stars to be Liberal minded, and it’s films to fall on that side of the politically correct fence, and it was just as so in 1974 as it is today. Something that Director Jack Starrett found to his favour when directing his next movie after The Dion Brothers, ‘Race with the Devil’ starring Peter Fonda and Warren Oates as two ‘good guys’ going across country with their equally tolerant wives in a motor home, only to witness a Satanic slaying, and then having the Satanists chase them to silence them by trying to catch and kill them. That movie was an unexpected hit for Director Starrett and it was precisely because it had been the first film he’d directed that had easily definable roles of good Vs bad, and he put it together with a great cast.
The Dion Brothers had the action, had the quality script, and great acting leads, but the films eventual financial failure is simply due to the lack of compromise on the attitudes of its main characters, it’s certainly not due to the coal mining brothers becoming bank robbers (Think about ‘The Hot Rock’, or the excellent ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ both films are from the same period as The Dion Brothers, and both containing calculated armed Robbers, but with likable personalities in terms of ‘The Hot Rock’, and sympathy gaining characters in the case of ‘Dog Day Afternoon’) Admirably, The Dion Brothers kept it real which sadly ensured that the film is now a rarely seen gem of its time.
Next up ….
City of the Living Dead ‘1980’
Director Lucio Fulci
Starring Christopher George, Catriona MacColl, and Carlo De Mejo
As in his debut film festival of screening his own prints of classic movies, Tarantino again included another Italian Horror movie. Would it be Dario Argento’s turn in 1998? Nope not a bit of it. Tarantino continued to support his favourite Italian gore horror Director Lucio Fulci. ‘The City of The Living Dead’ wasn’t quite as brilliant as the first years Fulci entry ‘The Beyond’ but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have whole lot going for it. The first Part of what Fulci called a trilogy of movies, and marketed as ‘’The Gates Of Hell Trilogy, along with ‘The Beyond’ and ‘House By The Cemetery’, this movie, like ‘The Beyond’, deals with hell being unleashed upon earth. This time, it’s caused by the suicide of a priest in the Village of Dunwich. Enter Reporter Peter Bell (played by Veteran American film and TV actor Christopher George) who along with the psychic Mary Woodhouse (played by Catriona MacColl) travel on down to Dunwich.
How both characters join forces is classic Fulci. Psychic Mary Woodhouse is holding a séance (we’re made that it’s being held in New York) where she has the vision of the priest hanging himself. For reasons only known to Fulci, Mary suddenly dies from the shock mid séance, and this is how Reporter David Bell comes to know about the psychics apparent death as he’s turned away from the scene of the séance as he tries to cover the story of the psychics sudden death that day (word travels fast in the News Paper press in this movie.) Bell is actually visiting Mary’s grave the following day, finding it still not quite filled over, he hears her screaming for dear life, grabs a pick axe and proceeds to smash into the coffin missing Mary’s face by less than an inch on several occasions, to break her free.
Then she informs Bell of her vision and how they must get to Dunwich to stop hell taking over the town, and then … the world! There’s lots of gore, death, undead people, and chaos as the movie takes us along on it’s crazy yet brilliantly fun ride to its conclusion, and although the payoff isn’t in the same league as the following years ‘The Beyond’, it’s still fun and worthy of your time, providing you’re in on the gag and understand what to expect from a Fulci movie. It doesn’t surprise me Tarantino owns his own prints of these Fulci movies and his screening them at the 1997 and 1998 Festivals is testament to his love of Italian Exploitation cinema, and of Fulci in particular. Worth seeing if you’ve not happened upon this title before.
By Andrew J. Barclay