Color, 1976, 100 mins. 51 secs.
Directed by Enzo G. Castellari
Starring Franco Nero, William Berger, Olga Karlatos, Woody Strode, Donald O'Brien, Orso Maria Guerrini, Gabriella Giacobbe, John Loffredo
Arrow Video (Blu-ray) (US/UK RA/RB HD), Blue Underground (DVD) (US R0 NTSC), Mill Creek (Blu-Ray & DVD) (US RA HD), Anchor Bay (DVD) (US R0 NTSC), Cinekult (DVD) (Italy R2 PAL) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)
The last golden age spaghetti western directed by the great Enzo G. Castellari (The Inglorious Bastards) turned out to be his best, reuniting him with his Street Law star, Franco Nero, for a stylish, dreamlike, and incredibly dusty mythic saga that helped close out the Euro-oater era in grand fashion. The waning demand for spaghetti westerns at the time and its initial English in a heavily edited version in many territories (sometimes as The Violent Breed or Django Rides Again) kept enthusiasm low for years until its merits were eventually appreciated, with the film now standing as a key entry in the careers of its director and stars as well as one of the decade's essential westerns.
In a foggy, windswept town not long after the end of the Civil War, Keoma (Nero), a long-haired half-white and half-Native American fighter, return to his hometown and, after encountering a witch (Giacobbe) who serves as a sort of Greek chorus, finds the area under the tyrannical thumb of the ruthless Caldwell (O'Brien). Even Keoma's racist half brothers -- Butch (Guerrini), Lenny (Marsina), and Sam (Loffredo) -- are now colluding with Caldwell to keep the townspeople in check by preventing access to medical supplies for the disease running rampant. Only Keoma's father, William (Five Dolls for an August Moon's Berger), pregnant Liza (Zombie's Karlatos), and loyal family worker George (Strode), are willing to team up with him to combat the corruption, which turns into a family tragedy of epic proportions.
It's impossible to talk about Keoma without mentioning its attention-grabbing, very divisive soundtrack by Guido and Maurizio De Angelis, a lyrical and often aggressive folk-psych concoction with multiple internal monologue-style songs by "Sybil & Guy." As much of a matter of taste as the soundtrack may be, it definitely heightens the already strange atmosphere of the film and adds to its stylized approach. That extends down to the use of the witch figure as a sort of narrative linking device, no doubt necessitated by the fact that the original substandard script was chucked out just before shooting with many scenes written along the way by the cast and crew. That largely improvised feeling turned out to be an asset here though as the film ebbs and flows in a truly unique fashion, with the otherworldly opening scene setting the tone that manages to stay consistent throughout the entire film.
Keoma had its first U.S. home video release with DVD and VHS editions from Anchor Bay in 2001, with the former also containing a fine audio commentary with Castellari and journalist Waylon Wahl and "Keoma: Legends Never Die" (9m49s), an interview with Nero about the making of the film including the script issues, his desire to mimic the style of Leonard Cohen on the soundtrack, and his ongoing great rapport with Castellari over the course of ten films. In 2007, Blue Underground reissued the film with the Nero interview, the Castellari commentary, the English international trailer, and talent bios. In 2012, a Blu-ray release appeared from Mill Creek, paired up on the same disc with The Grand Duel and featuring an improved but imperfect HD transfer that featured some obviously filtering that tended to smooth out facial and clothing details.
Easily outclassing its predecessors is the 2019 Blu-ray from Arrow Video, available in both U.S. and U.K. editions with identical contents (and reversible sleeve options including a new design by Sean Phillips). The new 2K transfer from the original camera negative is a major improvement in every respect over both the earlier Blu-ray and DVDs, restoring significant image information on the sides and revealing a considerable amount of extra detail. The foggy and dusty scenes in particular are far more legible, and the color timing looks richer and more natural throughout. Interestingly, some footage that had a sepia or desaturated look in other versions have more of a blue nighttime look here, which seems appropriate. (See the comparison shot below; images in the main body of this review are from the Arrow release.) The Italian or English version can be played via seamless branching with their respective title sequences and soundtracks (in LPCM 1.0 mono), with English SDH or properly translated subtitles. A new audio commentary with those always welcome and reliable spaghetti western nuts, C. Courtney Joyner and Henry C. Parke, is an enthusiastic appraisal and dissection of the film including much discussion of Castellari and Nero's contributions to the genre. They even manage to work in references to Porno Holocaust and Dog Lay Afternoon for good measure thanks to one of the screenwriters, George Eastman. The new Nero interview "The Ballad of Keoma" (21m41s) covers some of the same territory as his earlier one but also touches on some production stories like breaking his hand while punching a horse(!) in one key scene, which posed a problem when he had to immediately start shooting Hitch-Hike. Then Castellari appears in "Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust" (28m53s), explaining how he first got into westerns and how this one evolved under somewhat turbulent circumstances with the public shifting away at the time, while "Writing Keoma" (16m14s) features Eastman (a.k.a. Luigi Montefiori) explaining how the film originated as a Django sequel before morphing through the influence of one of his favorite childhood comic characters. He also recalls the original script, which had more fantastic elements and a spectacularly gruesome origin story for its main character. Editor Gianfranco Amicucci turns up in "Parallel Actions" (22m18s) for an analysis of the innovative techniques he and Castellari brought to this film and Street Law, including an insanely large number of cuts and the use of slow motion to accentuate drama, while "The Flying Thug" (24m3s) with actor Massimo Vanni is highlighted by his raucous stories about doing physically demanding action scenes after being inspired to go into movies by Giuliano Gemma. More on the acting angle is provided in "Play as an Actor" (30m2s) with Wolfango Soldati, who made the move in front of the camera after starting out as a photographer. (And no, his real voice is nothing like the twangy drawl heard in the film!) Academic Austin Fisher offers his own reading on the film in "Keoma and the Twilight of the Spaghetti Western" (18m43s) as a striking, time-twisting take on the genre influenced by the then-recent I Guappi. Also included is an archival video intro by director Alex Cox (5m3s), the Italian and English international trailers, and four galleries: production stills, posters and press, lobby cards, and home video and soundtrack sleeves.
Arrow Video (Blu-ray)
Mill Creek (Blu-ray)
Blue Underground (DVD)
Reviewed on May 8, 2019.