The Hellbenders Review
Generally, there is a good rule of thumb to apply to Spaghetti westerns - if the director's name is Sergio, the film is usually worth your attention. The holy triumvirate of Leone, Sollima and Corbucci is a source of rich pickings for genre fans, and in the latter's case you have the director of possibly the greatest of Spaghetti westerns and also of the most influential, The Great Silence and Django. Corbucci's westerns are more often than not tales of social struggle and disability. In The Great Silence, the mercenary hired to take on the evil bounty hunters is a mute who befriends an ostracised black widow; in Django, the lead character is disabled by the corrupt soldiers and landowners around him; and in Minnesota Clay we have the tale of a gunfighter up against terrible odds and the onset of blindness. Corbucci's heroes are usually outnumbered, disadvantaged and fighting great oppression. For this leftie director to focus The Hellbenders on a gang of confederates robbing Yankee money to re-establish the racist south is quite a departure, and little effort is made to give these central characters sympathy in the audience's eyes.
The Hellbenders follows a father and his sons as they plot an audacious and bloody ambush of Yankee troops and then travel with their ill-gotten gains back to their homeland. The father, Joseph Cotten, is accompanied by his three sons who are respectively a sexual sadist, a callous murderer, and the bastard son of his presumed carousing with a Native American. Borrowing a trick from Django, the gang hide their loot in the coffin of a supposed dead war hero and consequently require a female member to play the grieving widow to maintain the illusion. When the first player of this role double crosses them, they find themselves in need of a replacement and find it the shape of cardsharp, Claire. Blackmailed into the gang and aware of her limited usefulness Claire has to be as tricky as the father and his sons to survive. Throw in some rowdy Mexicans, some chasing Yankees, some innocent Indians, a posse or two and stir for 90 minutes.
Very much a formulaic western, The Hellbenders does sound as if it has a lot to offer. Regular brawling, an old gibberish spouting pioneer, horse chases and morbid humour could create quite a heady brew, but the film suffers from too much attention to pleasing its audience and not enough originality in the basics of the plot, character and action. Largely this is down to a screenplay full of empty set-ups and phoney devices that once we get past the initial blood-letting creates little in the way of surprise bar a brilliant reveal at the end of the film. On countless occasions, the running time is padded out by tense scenes which are resolved in questionable and perfunctory changes of mind or fortune. When things flag, fights break out because they should do and because there's been too many talky bits. Centrally the story is too slim and elaboration is offered in the way of false starts and cliché to peak the viewer's interest. Corbucci fails to create any pathos or understanding for Joseph Cotten's determined rebel, and with the exception of his son, Ben, the remaining characters exist only as action stooges and gun fodder. Corbucci refuses motivation for his cast and the result is simply animalist caricature.
Good as it is to have another Corbucci film available, I rather wish that the attention had been focused on Il Mercenario rather than this minor effort. The Hellbenders is not bad, it is simply stodgy and unimpressive. Its political message, if there is one, seems to be that the wealth and power of America is based on the massacres of Mexicans and the iniquities endured by the Native Americans. This point only comes at the very end of proceedings when the slim story has faded away not unlike the performance of Cotten. This is one of those late career turns where physical infirmity limits what the lead can offer. When Cotten is involved in action scenes you will find yourself wincing for his old bones, and when he tries for lasciviousness with the female cast you will doubt whether any of them are under serious threat from this frail gent. Of the rest of the cast, only Norma Bengell stands out as the ballsy bright heroine with a mean streak and a smart wit to keep her ahead of the men's schemes.
The Hellbenders is an adequate film raised by an intelligent polemical ending. It's worth a watch for Spaghetti Lovers but Corbucci fans won't discover a film of the quality of the other fine movies mentioned here.
Anchor Bay present the film with an anamorphic transfer and an English dub which preserves Cotten's voice. The transfer is largely a digital clean up with contrast and colour boosting which leaves the image looking sharp if not with a lot of definition – the sky looks a uniform shade of blue throughout. The colour balance is not perfect and some scenes are far too dark. The print it comes from shows signs of age and has regular specks and occasional hairs upon it. There are moments where the frame looks cropped to me, but I can't say for sure. The English mono track is again not perfect with a moment of audio dropout and occasional pops and overall dullness of the track.
The only extras are a well written bio of Corbucci and a theatrical trailer -”a carnival of killers intent on a hell bent adventure!”. The disc comes with a chapter stop insert and some rather fine poster art on the box cover. The menus are rather unimaginative created still art which look cheesy.
An ok presentation of a battered print, scarce extras and a somewhat ordinary movie. The Hellbenders would like to be a genre great like other films of Corbucci but it is mediocre, I am afraid.
Last updated: 19/04/2018 02:45:36