Color, 1969, 99 mins. 1 sec.
Directed by Sergio Garrone
Starring Anthony Steffen, Paolo Gozlino, Luciano Rossi, Teodora Corra
Synapse Films (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)
One of the many, many unofficial cash-ins on the global phenomenon of Sergio Corbucci's Django was this dark, ethereal contribution that serves as a vehicle for Anthony Steffen, a stoic leading man who had been floating around since Robert Aldrich's Sodom and Gomorrah and had already appeared in a number of spaghetti westerns before moving into gialli with The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave, Tropic of Cancer, and Crimes of the Black Cat. With the Django name carrying little weight in the U.S. as opposed to the rest of the world, the film took its time heading to American theaters where it was picked up by the colorful Herman Cohen (the showman behind Horrors of the Black Museum, Konga, and Berserk) for release in 1974 as The Strangers Gundown (sans apostrophe).
One night in a desolate and dusty town, a stranger (Steffen) clad in a black hat and coat wanders in and and plants a spiked wooden cross in the middle of the main street bearing a sign, "Sam Hawkins Died November 13th, 1881." That dramatic gesture doesn't go unnoticed among the populace, especially since Sam happens to still be alive... and it's the 13th. Sure enough, Sam quickly goes down and the town of corrupt residents is thrown into upheaval as death crosses keep turning up indicating the next death. As it turns out, the motive extends back 13 years to a Civil War act of treachery tied to the town, particularly its most powerful and nefarious resident, Rod Murdok (The Witches' Gozlino), and his unhinged wild card brother (Death Smiles on a Murderer's Rossi).
Downright eerie at times and possibly even supernatural, Django the Bastard may not be a title you'll regularly see on any top 10 spaghetti western lists; however, it's very nicely mounted courtesy of some inventive scope photography (often using the extreme periphery to fine effect) and is easily one of the best films from writer-director Sergio Garrone, who's otherwise known for the Klaus Kinski oddity The Hand that Feeds the Dead and a couple of particularly scuzzy Nazisploitation films. Also worthy of note is the evocative score by Vasili Kojucharov and Elsio Mancuso (who also pulled duties on The Devil's Wedding Night), which offers something a little different from the standard Morricone-aping approach and nicely suits the more somber, unearthly tone of the film.
As with numerous other spaghetti westerns, this one was tweaked a bit on its way to English-speaking theaters with a reportedly longer edit playing in Italy with a nocturnal flashback sequence originally placed at the very beginning. The English version has been in circulation for years in various gray market editions, but it's never looked even remotely close to the quality on display in Synapse Films' edition released on Blu-ray and DVD (as separate discs). The transfer from the negative of the export version is a very pleasing experience with extremely fine detail that truly makes this feel like a different film, and the colors appear to be dead on. The DTS-HD MA English 2.0 mono track is also in good shape, with optional English subtitles provided. Only one extra is included, a new audio commentary by Troy Howarth who offers a fleet-footed guide to the various players in the film (at least those who can be identified given the dearth of useful credits), the ties to other westerns of the era, the impact of the Django cycle and Sergio Leone, and the camera trickery used here including a watery glass gag beloved by Mario Bava. Of course, he also notes the very striking similarities between this film (and the Antonio Margheriti film And God Said to Cain) to a pair of Clint Eastwood films, High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider, so plan your double or triple features accordingly.
Reviewed on August 13, 2019.