(Welcome to Videodrome. A recurring column plumbing the depths of vintage and contemporary cinema – from cult, exploitation, trash and grindhouse to sci-fi, horror, noir, documentary and beyond.)
Using most of the standard yardsticks employed for cinematic evaluation, Straight to Hell isn’t a good movie. You could look at it as an indulgent, half-assed waste of time, money and talent — an excuse for a bunch of friends to hang out in Spain, drink wine and play cowboys and bandits. But if you tilt your head ever so slightly, you can also see this haphazard homage to spaghetti westerns as a gloriously bizarre, metatextual experiment wherein some of the greatest artists of the 1980s got together to make a DIY, punk rock movie about coffee, cigarettes and American intervention. It may have a lot of holes and frayed edges, but there are many reasons this movie has maintained a steady cult following for nearly 35 years.
I first became aware of Straight to Hell the same way I became aware of a lot of pop culture as a young teenager in the early 90s: through the back issues of Rolling Stone magazine that were always scattered around the house. In at least one issue dating back to the movie’s initial release in 1987, there was a full-page ad that remains smokin’ hot to this day. It has a sweaty-looking, cigarette-smoking Joe Strummer behind a pair of aviator sunglasses. He’s wearing a white button-up shirt, a black jacket flung over his shoulder, his tie hanging loose, the strap from his gun holster sweeps under his arm, a pack of Commando cigarettes poke out of his breast pocket, and the cigarette between his lips is pointing at us, in the same way his revolver is. Behind him are a bunch of stock characters from western movies — guys in sombreros and cowboy hats and dusters, damsels looking distressed. The title of the film rises in the background with hot-rod flames on both sides. It’s a masterpiece of graphic design and the juxtaposition of the modern-looking Strummer and the western movie motifs had me mesmerized. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the ad also featured a list of people who were in the movie, including Elvis Costello, Dennis Hopper, Jim Jarmusch, The Pogues, and Grace Jones. The tagline read, “A story of blood, money, guns, coffee & sexual tension.” What the hell was this thing?
I admit, I had that ad cut out and taped to my wall years before I ever laid eyes on a frame of the film. It was probably ten years after its initial release when I finally caught up with it. By then, I was familiar with the two movies Cox had done prior — the two evergreen classics: Repo Man and Sid & Nancy. This would be the late 90s, so one of the stars of Straight to Hell, Courtney Love, loomed large in by Nirvana-addled brain. I’d studied the Clash’s discography and had enjoyed the first two Pogues albums. And I was already obsessive about Jim Jarmusch. In other words, I was well primed for the pleasures this film would have to offer. But really, if you want to be primed, all you have to do is look at this photo taken by Clash documentarian Adrian Boot on the set of the film (and while you’re there take a look at the dozens of other star-studded behind-the-scenes photos). Has Strummer ever looked so immaculately badass? Doesn’t matter which way you swing, that is cinematic sexiness personified. The idea of dropping this guy into a spaghetti western still seems like a stroke of genius, even if the actual movie only sorta lives up to that idea.
As the poster hints at, one of the first things you’re likely to notice about the movie is that it features the now-clichéd trope of hitmen dressing in black suits with white shirts and ties. In fact, these images are some of the first you’ll encounter. Sy Richardson, who appeared in each of Cox’s first four films, is one of those sharp-dressed hitmen, and he also bears more than a passing resemblance to Sam Jackson’s iconic Jules Winnfield — the main difference being Sy Richardson is sporting a Jheri curl instead an afro. Today, it seems pretty clear that Straight to Hell was part of the cinematic bouillabaisse that influenced Quentin Tarantino’s first couple of films. But more than that, it’s obvious that Cox, back in 1987, was playing with the same “aesthetics of cool” that Tarantino and other American directors would only begin to toy with in the 90s and beyond. In fact, you could say Straight to Hell is way ahead of the game in some respects, especially as the French cinéma du look, pioneered by the films of Luc Besson and Leos Carax, was barely underway at the time. But then, few movies play the kind of postmodern game this one gets into. And since Straight to Hell can easily come off as little more than a lark to Cox and everyone else involved, audiences stayed away and the critics still haven’t given it much respect, either.
So, while the film has coolness, street cred and style to spare, if you’re judging in terms of plot and story, Straight to Hell doesn’t offer much. It begins in a flurry of hyperactive scenes as our three hitmen (Strummer, Richardson and Dick Rude) mess up a job and immediately decide to rob a bank and leave town before their boss, Mr. Dade (Jim Jarmusch), catches wind of their failure. Nagging and tagging along with the hitmen is Courtney Love, playing Richardson’s pregnant girlfriend. (Love is yet another actor Cox carried over from his previous film, Sid & Nancy — though not in the role of Nancy Spungen, which she desperately pined for.) The four of them, crammed into the type of small red rental that every tourist in Spain ends up in, don’t make it very far before the car breaks down on a dirt road just outside a small ghostly village. In typical criminal behavior, they decide to bury their stolen loot before venturing down into the valley below. At this point, artfully rotoscoped spaghetti western-flavored titles begin to roll (stills photographer Martin Turner is credited as Sex and Cruelty Consultant!) and our four criminals soon find themselves in the middle of a weird scene involving an extended family of coffee-addicted bandits known as the McMahons. They’re introduced celebrating after having captured and dragged home a fancy cappuccino machine. Now this coffee fixation is pretty funny on its own, but there’s another level of comedy here since the McMahons are largely made up of members of the Pogues, with their guitar-playing, java-serving butler Hives being played by Elvis Costello. Also ever-present in the picture is another Cox regular, and Circle Jerks member, Zander Schloss, who plays a pathetic hot dog vendor that everyone likes to humiliate — that is unless he’s singing his beloved hot dog themed song “Salsa Y Ketchup.” As the liner notes to the BFI DVD point out, when the movie literally throws a spotlight on Schloss at around the 30-minute mark, and he nervously strums his catchy song about “Karl’s Disco Wiener Tina Haven” and everyone starts to form a conga line and sing along — at this point, you should know whether or not Straight to Hell is your kind of thing.
Admittedly, the movie is mostly an ungainly jumble of loosely connected comedic scenes that only move the story and themes forward in the most incremental of ways. Some work better than others. After entering the town, we linger for three days as the hitmen mix and mingle with the the McMahons to varying degrees of (as the tagline promises) gunplay and sexual tension. Also in town is a shopkeeper, played by the legendary and invaluable Miguel Sandoval, and his beautiful wife, played by an excellent Jennifer Balgobin. Immediately, Balgobin and Strummer strike up a hilariously aggressive and somewhat vampirish relationship, right under the nose of an increasingly agitated Sandoval. This subplot is easily my favorite of the movie. The weird relationship between these two characters, where they feel compelled to claw and bite each other whenever they’re in close proximity to one another, is one of the few bits of funny strangeness that has an emotional resonance to it. It anchors the film with a small dose of understandable character motivation. You know why the McMahons want the criminals to hang around, since they quickly learn that the strangers have money hidden somewhere nearby. Still, the film never ekes much suspense from this small sliver of a story, and it has trouble explaining why the criminals aren’t trying to leave — that is, beyond the whole sexual frustration angle. Given the crazy chemistry between Strummer and Balgobin, you can understand why he wants to stay. As for Richardson and Rude, their motivations are less convincing.
While it’s not an excuse, there is a good reason why the film is something of a mess story-wise. Before Straight to Hell was written, Cox was already planning Walker, his long-gestating project about the historical figure William Walker, an American who traveled down to Nicaragua and declared himself president. Cox had spent years researching Nicaragua, to the point where he wanted to produce a concert film, with Costello, Strummer and the Pogues, with the proceeds going to support the Sandinista National Liberation Front. For reasons that are not hard to imagine, the concert never came together. That’s when the plan for Straight to Hell was hastily put together. Cox and Dick Rude spent three days coming up with an original script that would mix together the musicians and Cox’s stable of actors. But it was a script that would end up getting rewritten on a nightly basis during the four week shoot in Almería, Spain. There are other films that have been made with a loose story and daily script revisions — Apocalypse Now, Beat the Devil, and Wings of Desire spring to mind — but most have a decent narrative backbone to keep it from falling apart. Not so much here.
However, they did have some pretty inspired ideas going in, like choosing the perfect location. Almería, Spain was home to many of the great spaghetti westerns, including Sergio Leone’s masterpiece Once Upon a Time in the West. In fact, the set they used for Straight to Hell was leftover from a western staring Charles Bronson (either for an abandoned project called Savage Cowboys, or the 1973 John Sturges film Chino, depending on who you ask). Since the set was built for Bronson, who wasn’t the tallest actor in the business, everything was purposely made small. This included doorways reaching just over five-and-a-half feet tall, all in an effort to make Bronson appear bigger on screen. This adds to the strangeness of the movie, but the real bonus is the scenery. There’s no denying that even in the late 1980s, the power of Almería’s landscape is a special effect that can’t be replicated. The work of cinematographer Tom Richmond (who did a string of impressive indie films in the 1990s including Killing Zoe, Little Odessa and The Slums of Beverly Hills) doesn’t disappoint either, as he captures a lot of magic hour beauty.
For about two thirds of the film, Straight to Hell’s strong suit is its willingness to abandon narrative conventions altogether and function as a darkly absurdist meta western comedy. It’s ramshackle for sure, but it’s also gleefully hilarious in places. It’s constantly breaking fundamental rules, reminding viewers that this is a movie that knows it’s a movie. When our hitmen step outside for a gunfight, they spit in unison. It’s all zealously anti-realist. Cox, who wrote his master’s thesis in UCLA on the commonalities between spaghetti westerns and Jacobean tragedies, plays with the conventions and enjoys dropping Strummer and the Pogues into scenes lifted wholesale from sub-B-movies like Django, Kill! More interesting, though, are the many cinematic jokes based on sound and editing. In one perfectly executed bit, Sandoval walks in on Strummer and Balgobin vigorously making out. Sandoval stops and is clearly looking at them for a few seconds while we hear the sloppy kisses going on just off screen. But then a reverse angle cut happens and suddenly Strummer and Balgobin are standing nonchalantly feet apart from each other, their hair and clothes tussled and lips caked with blood. We then cut back to Sandoval, who acts like he didn’t see anything and is none the wiser. It’s a joke that can only works on film, and it gets me every time. A few scenes later, to further torment Strummer, Balgobin volunteers to wash her husband’s motorcycle. Carrying a bucket of soapy water and a sponge, she takes off her coat to reveal a very pink and skimpy 80’s outfit, with the words “HOT PROPERTY” stenciled across her chest. Watching this gratuitous display unfold, the three hitmen continue to act like the stoic, displaced noir characters they are and sadly lament the fact that women have the power to make them do things they don’t want. Yeah, like smoke cigarettes, sighs Dick Rude.
Even if the story is paper-thin-to-non-existent, the dialog is consistently funny in a very deadpan way. This goes a long way to correcting one of the other issues the film has, which is a lack of likable characters. Some characters, like Courtney Love’s one-note shrieking girlfriend, are intended to be abrasive. But most everyone else is cartoonish and buffoonish enough to be enjoyable, even if you aren’t exactly rooting for them. A lot of this comes down to how absurd the dialog is. The way Strummer twirls his gun, deadly serious, and asks a femme fatale character if she watched the world cup. The way Sandoval constantly panics about the other people in the town being “schkitzo.” Then there’s the other fun fact about the movie: it was given an R rating by the MPAA, in part because of profanity and sex, even though the film has neither. Hearing these hard boiled characters say things like “gosh darn it!” has its appeal, especially when it comes out of the mouths of actors like Sandoval and Richardson, legit heavy-duty actors who can raise this material considerably higher than non-actor musicians can. That’s not to put down Strummer’s work. There’s a reason Jim Jarmusch, after his own acting stint on Straight to Hell, subsequently hired Strummer for Mystery Train. Strummer is undeniably magnetic and a natural at playing downbeat, sexually-frustrated, angsty, vaguely-depressed, put-upon characters. But whenever Richardson is on-screen, there’s an exciting energy — you know you’re watching a real actor who can use perfectly measured timing to make a scene come alive.
Speaking of real actors, we need to get to Dennis Hopper. This is definitely a case where even putting Hopper’s name on the poster is kind of overstating things. Both Hopper and Grace Jones only put in one day’s work, showing up in a single scene as an influential business couple. But, in fairness, Hopper’s character is actually the whole point of the movie, even if that point is only revealed late in the final act. Peppered throughout the first two-thirds of the movie are oil rigs. They’re in the background, and unless you’re looking for them you’ll probably miss them. But over the course of the film’s three days, the oil rigs are getting closer. At the start, when the hitmen are fueling their getaway rental car, it’s with Farben Oil. On hour later, Hopper finally walks into the movie, with a casually jaw-dropping Grace Jones at his side, and introduces himself as I.G. Farben (which die hard Cox fanatics might recognize as an alias Harry Dean Stanton uses in Repo Man). Like Richardson, Hopper makes his small time on screen feel electric, even if he’s in smiling, charismatic mode, rather than menacing crazy mode. He makes friendly with the hitmen, mentions that the town should only have one leader, and leaves them with a bunch of guns. This triggers the big climactic showdown, but the thing is, spoiler alert — Farben’s guns don’t work, thereby ensuring that the shootout ends up as a real massacre and Farben can stroll in with ease and plant the Farben Oil flag. At last, we get our American arms dealer and his nefarious corporate scheming as being the real bad guy in the film. This is when we finally learn the town’s slogan, written large on the side of a Spanish bull: La vida no vale nada. Coming so late in the film, the message struggles to register, but this nod to the profit-driven, government-approved arms dealing at the heart of 1986’s Iran-Contra scandal is quintessential Alex Cox.
Cox has always been a punk filmmaker. As such, he’s always been a political filmmaker. It’s why his sensibilities were always so well-aligned with Joe Strummer’s. After Straight to Hell, Cox and Strummer would quickly move on to Walker (both movies were released in the same year) and his ideas about the dark said of American intervention abroad would get far more pointed and purposeful. Few critics will deny that Walker is a legitimate white-hot masterpiece, and that Strummer’s soundtrack is a pitch-perfect classic. Even Cox acknowledges that Straight to Hell was partly a dry-run for Walker, a way to gain the confidence he needed to make a film in a Spanish-speaking country. For obvious reasons, it’s not hard to think of Straight to Hell in musical terms. It’s like the drug-addled, beer-soaked, no-overdubs-allowed EP that a band might release between two landmark albums. It’s the result of some sessions where the band wanted to have fun, get experimental, test out some ideas and work alongside some friends who are passing through town that week. No one will say it’s their best work, but if you accept it on its own terms, it can be a lot of fun.
Lastly, it’s worth mentioning that there’s a remix version of Straight to Hell out there, called Straight to Hell Returns. It’s longer and has added special effects, like CGI blood splatter. Neither of these things should be seen as beneficial. Two major charms the original film had going for it was it’s inventively low-budget, bloodless action and its brief run time (it’s less than 90 minutes!). My advice it to stick with the classic recipe. | s erickson