Written by: Michael Den Boer on August 18th, 2005
Theatrical Release Date: Italy, 1968
Director: Giulio Petroni
Writer: Luciano Vincenzoni
Cast: Lee Van Cleef, John Phillip Law, Mario Brega, Luigi Pistilli
DVD released: August 15th, 2005
Approximate running time: 110 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Rating: 15 (UK)
Sound: Dolby Digital Mono English, Dolby Digital Mono German, Dolby Digital Mono French, Dolby Digital Mono Italian, Dolby Digital Mono Spanish
Subtitles: English, German
DVD Release: MGM (UK)
Region Coding: Region 2 PAL (UK)
Retail Price: $23.95
Synopsis: Fifteen years after his family was massacred, a young man searches for the four men who murdered his family.
Giulio Petroni only directed a handful of films over his twenty-year career as a director. And after the success of Sergio Leone’s, A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More, the western genre would soon take over the Italian film industry over the next few years. Of course, this would lead to countless imitators and by the end of the 1960’s there was an over-saturation that would contribute to the demise of the Italian western. During the peak of the Spaghetti western genre in Italy Giulio Petroni would direct three Spaghetti westerns, Tepepa, A Sky Full of Stars for a Roof and Death Rides a Horse.
One of the reasons why Death Rides a Horse works so well is its brilliant screenplay. Which was written by Luciano Vincenzoni, a screenwriter who was no stranger to the Italian western. He wrote or co-wrote For a Few Dollars More, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, The Mercenary and Duck You Sucker.
From the film’s opening sequences, it is obvious that Death Rides a Horse is not your typical Spaghetti western. With its depiction of raping and killing woman and children. And though this film has underlying tone of violence that drives the story. There is also a distinct line that is drawn between the good and the bad guy, which is something that makes Death Ride a Horse stand out from its contemporaries that often dealt in the gray areas and never established the hero form the villain.
Lee Van Cleef (The Big Gundown, The Grand Duel) is one of the Spaghetti westerns most iconic actors. And his career was resurrected after his appearance in Sergio Leone’s For a Few Dollars More. In Death Rides a Horse, he is self-assured and always looks cool, even when things aren’t going his way. The character Ryan has many similarities to the Frank Talby character that Van Cleef portrayed in Day of Anger. Most notable, both of these characters are mentors to younger gunfighters who seek revenge.
In the lead role of Bill Meceita is John Phillip Law, who is most remembered for his roles in the films Danger: Diabolik and Barbarella. At times John Phillip Law looks to wooden and when he tries to look angry, his eyes betray the rest of his body language. Despite his shortcomings John Phillip Law, still manages a few really great moments, like when he is buried in the ground with nothing more than his head above ground and when the Ryan character arrives in time to rescue him. The look on his face is priceless, when Ryan takes his sweet time to dig him back out of the ground.
All of the best Italian westerns are blessed with strong supporting cast that offset the leads. And Death Rides a Horse, is a virtual who’s who of supporting players like Luigi Pistilli (Bay of Blood, Your Vice is a Closed Room and Only I Have a Key), Mario Brega (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), Anthony Dawson (Dial M for Murder) and José Torres (Run, Man, Run).
Visually Death Rides a Horse takes full advantage of the widescreen frame. And nowhere is this more evident, then when it comes to its use of blood red during flashbacks. Another key ingredient in the film is composer Ennio Morricone, who would write all the Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti westerns scores. His score for Death Rides a Horse sees him continuing to experiment as a composer. And some of the music in Death Rides a Horse would be used thirty-five years later in the film Kill Bill Volume 2.
MGM presents Death Rides a Horse in anamorphic widescreen that preserves the films original aspect ratio. After being reduced to washed-out pan & scanned budget label versions through the years MGM finally gives fans of the film its first ever widescreen release on DVD. The image looks sharp as black levels remains strong through out. Colors look vivid and flesh tones look natural. There are no problems with compression and edge enhancement is kept to a minimum. Another positive about MGM’s single layer DVD it is progressive scan. The print used is in amazing shape and outside of a few nicks or specs of dirt it is virtually flawless.
This DVD comes with five audio options English, German, French, Italian and Spanish. All five are presented in a Dolby Digital mono. For this review I listed to the English audio track. The audio is razor sharp as it is always easy to hear and follow. The music and effects sound evenly mixed as they never drown the other out. There are no problems with hiss, distortion or any of sound defects. Overall this film sounds outstanding considering its age and mono limitations. The German and Italian audio tracks when I sampled then are in very good shape and on par with the English audio track. The French and Spanish audio tracks are not in as good as shape as the other as there is some noticeable hiss and distortion. French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch and Finnish subtitles have been included. This DVD also comes with English and German closed caption subtitles for the hard of hearing.
This DVD contains absolutely nothing in the extras department not even the films original trailer. While this is a film that begs for a special edition DVD I am just happy to finally hold in my hands a pristine looking widescreen transfer. One thing about this release that I found annoying was that there is a forced preview about piracy that cannot be skipped over and has to be watched every time you load the DVD. Also besides lack of extras the menu is very simplistic and if it wasn’t for MGM’s name on the DVD I would have thought an amateur made the menu. The difference in time between this release and the U.S. releases of Death Rides a Horse is solely due to PAL being 4% faster then NTSC and this release is completely uncut. Overall Death Rides a Horse is arguably one of the ten greatest Spaghetti westerns ever made and until a proper special edition DVD comes along MGM’s release is a welcome addition.