Since its grand opening at the beginning of 2016, The House Of Freudstein has effectively been a spaghetti western-free desert. I was just pondering how to remedy this regrettable state of affairs when Arrow beat me to the draw by sending screener discs for their monster “Complete Sartana” limited edition box set…
There’s a widespread misconception that Django is the most prolific pistol-packin’ pasta cowboy character but in fact Sergio Corbucci’s Franco Nero-starring classic from 1966 didn’t garner an authorised sequel until Nello Rossati directed Nero in Django Strikes Again, 21 years later. All of the alleged Django vehicles between those two were bandwagon jumping rebrandings for foreign markets or domestic rereleases… so Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012) is true to the opportunistic spirit of those, if not exactly to that of Corbucci’s original vision.
No, the spagwest anti-hero who racked up the most legit screen appearances, by my reckoning (and I’ll happily stand correction on this) is Sartana… and we’re not even counting the bogus outings spawned by the runaway success of Gianfranco Parolini’s Gianni Garko-starring If You Meet Sartana… Pray For Your Death in 1968 (Alberto Cardone’s 1966 effort $1000 On The Black, in which Garko also appeared, re-emerged as simply “Sartana” and there would be countless more luridly titled cash-ins, including several team ups and showdowns with assorted bootleg Djangos).
Garko, who had amassed a respectable resumé prior to the spagwest craze, suddenly found himself in great demand due to his passable resemblance to Clint Eastwood… stick a hat on his head and a cheroot between his teeth and he could squint menacingly with the best of them (though to be fair to him, Garko took all of his roles seriously and it’s clear from the films in this set how he tried to develop the Sartana character each time out).
IYMS… PFYD also introduces his ongoing facility with gadgets, booby taps and elaborate stings, in an evident attempt to keep up with the Bonds. Under the eccentric directorial hand of Gianfranco Parolini (“Frank Kramer”), the caped Sartana’s inaugural outing also becomes permeated with a gothic sensibility which predates that of Sergio Garrone’s Django The Bastard (aka The Stranger’s Gundown, 1969), often cited as the template for Clint Eastwood’s wraith-like High Plains Drifter (1973).
In this one the seemingly indestructible Sartana and his trademark four-chambered pistol contend with kill-crazy William Berger, Sydney (son of Charlie) Chaplin, Fernando Sancho in one of his patented greaseball gargoyle roles and Klaus Kinski (his knife-throwing character is itself effectively thrown away), all feverishly striving to double and triple-cross each other (you’ll need a score card to keep up with the succession of twists) in pursuit of purloined gold. Throw in a few implausible sharp-shooting feats, a garrulous grave-digger and a gold-digging whore or two and you’ve basically got the formula. Piero Piccioni’s pleasing OST features bubbly Hammond organ to the fore and between them, Parolini and DP Sandro Mancori contrive some arresting visuals, including some memorable (pre?) De Palmian split focus set ups.
After Parolini’s opening effort he was kicked off the series (don’t feel too bad for him, though, he immediately initiated and continued with the even more eccentric and similarly successful Sabata saga) and the four subsequent, increasingly floridly titled episodes of Sartana’s adventures were handled by Giuliano Carnimeo.
1969’s I Am Sartana, Your Angel Of Death (1969) underplays the goth aspects, doubling down instead on those improbable (highly so, given the unreliability of firearms in the Wild West) feats of marksmanship and Sartana’s card-sharping expertise (he puts his deck to more deadly uses than even Wink Martindale could ever have imagined). Here he’s falsely accused of robbing a bank and sets out to identify the actual robbers, not so much to clear his name but from the conviction that if everybody believes he stole the loot, he might as well have it anyway.
Contending with him for it we find Sal Borgese, Ettore Manni, Klaus Kinski (as the effeminately dubbed bounty hunter Hot Dead… you heard me, Hot Dead… whose story line again peters out abruptly) and the ill-starred Frank Wolff. Even Peplum standby Gordon Mitchell pops up briefly, as if there weren’t already enough people shooting each other’s hats off. The film’s score, courtesy of Vasili Kojucharov and Elsio Mancuso, hinges on a musical motif that’s strangely reminiscent of Santa Claus Is Coming To Town and just in case that’s not weird enough… did they really have fruit machines in the Old West? Just wondering.
The first two Sartana movies did sufficiently well at domestic and overseas box offices to garner no less than three further efforts, all shoehorned into a particularly frenetic Italian release schedule during the second half of 1970. Garko, possibly due to his stints in Rafael Romero Marchent’s non-canonical cash-in Sartana Kills Them All and / or Sergei Bondarchuk’s blockbusting Waterloo, was temporarily unavailable so George Hilton stepped into his increasingly dapper duds for Sartana’s Here… Trade Your Pistol For A Coffin. With a penchant for munching boiled eggs equal to that of the cop in Mario Landi’s flesh-creeping Giallo A Venezia (1979), this Sartana’s prowess as a marksman are risibly overstated (he dispatches opponents with guns secreted in books and even sandwiches!), enabling him to make short work of the allegedly deadly Fossit brothers, the mean Joe (Federico Boido) and his slobbering retard of a kid brother, Flint (Luciano Rossi). Sartana has his more of his work cut out dealing with Erika Blanc (from Bava’s Kill, Baby… Kill!, 1966, etc) as good time bar room girl Trixie (“Our main activity here is keeping out of the graveyard”) and Charles Southwood’s perfumed, sartorially poncified and – dare I say it? – ever so slightly camp Sabata. Go West, indeed, young Pet Shop Boys.
“What’s the West coming to?” one bemused shit kicker asks another as they witness Sartana’s foppish foil riding into town under a pink parasol. Sabata, in Parolini’s parallel series, would be played by macho hombres Lee Van Cleef and Yul Brynner… it’s hard not to imagine that Carnimeo or somebody else was having a dig, good-natured or otherwise, at Parolini here but such arch touches were undoubtedly also attempts to stop the formula from getting… too formulaic.
Garko’s back (with blond locks and a fruity moustache) for Have A Good Funeral, My Friend… Sartana Will Pay, which makes further feeble concessions towards shaking up the mix. This time our man’s not contending for a pot of gold but the deeds to a patch of land, under which there are… deposits of gold! Writers Roberto Gianviti and Giovanni Simonelli must have stayed up all night devising that little plot wrinkle. Sartana faces down a gun man by throwing cards at him, gets two floozies for the price of one (Helga Liné and Daniela Giordano) and his main adversary is a seemingly indolent, Confucious-quoting Chinese saloon owner (George Wang) who reveals unexpected kung fu expertise at the climax. Like its predecessor, this one boasts the cinematography of Stelvio Massi. It’s scored by OST legend Bruno Nicolai, so whatever its shortcomings (it’s probably the least compelling of the five titles in this set) it looks and sounds marvellous.
Nicolai hung around for scoring duties on Light The Fuse… Sartana Is Coming (1970). This, the most sadistic of the series, opens with a corrupt sheriff and his goons violating a girl then shooting her father. Sartana guns down the bad guys then, in expiation of this “crime”, turns himself into a desert penitentiary run by career slimeball Massimo Serrato. The strict regime in this joint involves pissing on the inmates and showering them with acid, but Sartana’s got a good reason to check in, i.e springing his former cohort Piero Lulli (as “Grand Full”!), who possibly knows the whereabouts of the inevitable purloined gold… turns out it’s stashed somewhere in Mansfield (?!?) In the course of his ensuing encounters with Luli, Serrato, dodgy dame”Susan Scott” (Nieves Navarro) and the mandatory chorus line of madly gurning Mexicans, Sartana must figure out exactly where by piecing together their various conflicting accounts of the original heist, before the official series closes in appropriately nutzoid style, our man mowing down his assembled enemies with a pipe organ that’s been pimped into a multi-purpose artillery piece.
The aforementioned Rashomon pinch gives the whole film a “whodunnit aspect” that demonstrates just how smoothly the spagwest production line was retooling for Italy’s next box office craze, the giallo. Several Sartana stalwarts, of course, would secure profitable employment on the new yellow frontier… Carnimeo directed Why Are Those Strange Drops Of Blood On The Body Of Jennifer? (1972), Garko appeared in Enzo Castellari’s Cold Eyes Of Fear (1971), Gianfranco Piccioli’s The Flower With Petals Of Steel (1973) and Lucio Fulci’s marvellous Sette Note In Nero (1970), while Hilton became one half of the genre’s golden couple, canoodling with Edwige Fenech in any amount of spaghetti slashers. Eat Your Heart Out, Gringo… Sartana’s Bonking Edwige Fenech. Now that would have been a title to conjure with…
The features have all been nicely restored in 2K from original elements and extras wise, this set packs quite a wallop, with commentary tracks from Mike Siegel, C. Courtney Joyner and Henry Parke plus scads of illuminating interviews with Angel Of Death and Light The Fuse co-writer Ernesto Gastaldi (who offers fascinating insights into the workings of the Martino dynasty), Carnimeo and actors Garko, Hilton, Erika Blanc, Sal Borgese, Robert Dell’Acqua and Tony Askin. There’s a new video essay running down the series’ most familiar thespian faces, plus all the packaging and collector’s booklet stuff that we never get to see here at THOF.
This set’s crowning glory though, worth the (not inconsiderable) price of admission on its own, is the lengthy interview with Gianfranco Parolini, from which you quickly glean why his movies were so batshit bonkers… seriously, this guy makes look Lucio Fulci look like an introverted stuffed shirt, free associating through subjects ranging from the highlights of his wild career to the challenge of dealing with his wife’s dementia. Filmed shortly before his death on April 26th this year, this agreeably crazed galoot was still hustling – at the tender age of 94 – to get the money together for a new peplum. Argento’s Sandman be damned… this is where you crowd funding bucks should have gone. Too late for that but the most appropriate tribute you could now make would be to shell out for this box set. You won’t regret it.