José Manuel Martín
Carlos Romero Marchent
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Cut Throats Nine (1972)
27th Aug 05
Tagline: 8 men & 1 woman. They were the MASTERS of TERROR. No man stopped them. SHE DID.
Promoted on its original release with ‘terror masks’ (!) for grind house viewers to shield their eyes during the gruesome moments (yeah, right…) and infamously described by schlock film bible the Psychotronic Video Guide as ‘possibly the most violent Euro-western ever made!’ Cut Throats Nine enjoys a tremendous cult reputation, especially amongst horror devotees. Ostensibly a gothic western replete with the usual druggy staples of early ‘70s entries in the genre (loopy camerawork, pointless zooms, flashbacks and really ugly actors with impressive beards) its word-of-mouth rep is founded on its relentlessly cynical, exploitative tone and occasional bursts of comically over-the-top sub-Fulci carnage. This film is a rancid slice of pure pulp exploitation - completely nihilistic and mean-spirited - that manages to outdo its Italian counterparts in the sleaze stakes while falling somewhat short of the very best of that genre overall. For CT9 (aka Condenados a vivir) is not, as some have tagged it, a Spaghetti western. It is in fact a primarily Spanish production – a Paella western, if you will.
The premise is magnificent - seven dangerous prisoners, all chained together, are being transported across snowy mountain terrain to a more secure station. A terse hardboiled voiceover alerts us to just how badass these dudes are. There’s Dick Patterson; “Committed forever and dying – doctors’ say ‘forever’ is actually around 6 months”, Joe Farrell; “Ruthless, bloodthirsty, ICE.” Slim; “a backstabbing snake”, Ray ‘The torch’ Brewster ”A master arsonist” and John ‘the weasel’ McFarlane who has “one good quality…he’s insane…”
Prime responsibility for transporting these headcases falls to a bunch of Union soldiers, including the embittered Sergeant Brown, accompanied - perhaps somewhat unwisely given the circumstances - by his beautiful daughter!
Anyway, quicker than you can say bastardo, the rickety horse/wagon combo is hijacked by some pikey rustlers who are convinced there is booty on board and they don’t mean Brown’s daughter. They’re right too, although on first glance it’s not apparent quite where the cachet of gold they’ve been tipped off about actually is. Turns out the chains that are binding these reprobates together are actually made of gold - a sneaky ruse on behalf of the soldiers to smuggle it cross-country.
Carnage ensues - the coach is destroyed and the horses maimed - with only Brown and his daughter Kathy left alive to remain in charge of all seven convicts. The stage is set for a desperate journey across unforgiving terrain. The sergeant has vengeance on his mind y’see - as one of the convicts was responsible for the rape and murder of his wife. The dudes themselves are all still shackled to one another – and any feelings of solidarity swiftly evaporate when they realise just exactly what those chains are made of….
A killer set up, then. But it would be fair to say that CT9 has enjoyed a reputation that far outweighs its actual merits. This ain’t no Wild Bunch….
Part of the problem I think lies with the director (deep breath) Joaquín Luis Romero Merchant. Not an instantly recognisable name (although he has made one or two other notable westerns and a giallo) Merchant seems unsure of exactly where to take his predominantly dislikeable characters. Subsequently after its impeccable ‘Sierre Madre’ style opening the film all too quickly becomes rather plodding and episodic - as bogged down in the terrain as its protagonists. The pacing - even for a relatively short movie - really slackens in the mid section, with lots of scenes of the gang wandering through the mountains, bickering.
Merchant tries to get things moving with some ‘acid western’ tropes - flashy zooms and freeze frames and throws in a few stylish Leone-esque flashbacks that lead up to a whacked out ending involving explosives that strives for surrealistic effect. He’s aided by some very evocative cinematography by Luis Cuadrano, although at times the print looks as it were salvaged from the wreckage of the stagecoach, and his sterling work is not always visible.
There’s also a sense of missed opportunity in the way that Merchant handles the implicit tensions within the group. By delving further into the dynamic between the sergeant and the convicts, not to mention the burgeoning relationship between the Kathy and one of the men, you feel he could’ve made a richer, darker work. Compared to a film like Sergio Corbucci’s equally bleak but morally complex masterpiece Il Grande Silensio, which utilizes a similarly desolate snowy mountain setting to work through a typical western narrative, Merchant’s film seems hollow.
Where Corbucci’s film benefited from masterful performances from a terrific cast, Merchant’s has a few Spanish genre faces - including the very pretty one of Emma Cohen as Kathy - and a capable but fairly uninspired bunch of bad guys. I found myself wishing that a Klaus Kinski or Gian Maria Volante were on board to spice things up. There’s something a little bit too dour and humourless about the men and there are none of the kind of manic, gleeful bad boy nutters you associate with this period of western.
‘Nuff carping though. Where CT9 scores big is on the twin delights of grotty atmosphere and pulpy violence - with the men turning on each in crude visceral brutal style that is pure comic book - faces are stomped in, throats lovingly sliced from ear to ear, corpses are barbecued, stabbings are executed in extreme close up (complete with intestinal spillage – nice!) and heads are blown open in slo-mo. It’s clear that Merchant, whose brother was apparently something of a specialist in grisly gothic tinged westerns, wanted to take the (by comparison) relatively subdued excesses of Leone and Peckinpah into absurdist territory. He succeeds on that score totally!
He also manages to get in a zombie sequence of sorts - something that no Leone film ever managed that’s for sure.
Ultimately CT9 is an effectively mean and nasty western with an unusually high gore level to pique the interest of horror fans. It is neither pretty, nor clever but there’s enough here to sate jaded gore hounds and cult completists. Watching it again got me thinking it would provide the perfect basis for a remake – perhaps by someone capable of making ultraviolent, cynical, nasty flicks that take their cue from undiscovered cult gems. Anyone know if Tarantino is interested in doing a western?
The disc The film is presented in a reasonable non-anamorphic widescreen print and props to Eurovista for even getting this film out at all. There are a couple of extras including a lobby card, some bios and a couple of trailers (the US one is a classic slice of 42nd st hypola). Until some lunatic bankrolls a spec edition (and can I make an early plea that it comes with a replica terror mask?) this is as good as it’s gonna get. Bin those fuzzy bootlegs immediately.