By the mid 70s, Italian studios were moving onto different trends, like giallo horror, poliziotteschi crime, and macaroni war. For those that still produced spaghetti westerns, the rule of the day was comedy. Yet, some directors weren't ready to hang up their colt pistols. The pictures they made these years were referred to as twilight spaghetti westerns.
Even darker than their 60s predecessors, twilight spaghetti westerns were categorized by their apocalyptic landscapes, graphic violence with higher body counts, Gothic atmosphere and horror symbols (fog, swamps, and ghost towns). They were further defined by their eerie soundtracks, filled more with harmonicas, acoustic guitars, synthesizers and deep vocals, instead of trumpets and electric guitars.
Some may look at the twilight spaghetti westerns as allegories for the end of the subgenre, and to the efforts of studios trying to revitalize it. This can be seen through their common tales of desperate men trying to survive by any means necessary in a nihilistic world. And the only laws that matter are the bullets in your gun. Such subject matter is indicative of the macho-man westerns directed by Sam Peckinpah. The very best example is Keoma, from Italian director Enzo Castellari.
Franco Nero plays the titular character, supported by a cast of spaghetti heavyweights: William Berger, Woody Strode, Orso Maria Guerrini, and Donald O'Brien; assembling like soldiers for the final stand. In its story, Keoma is a half-breed and ex-Union solider returning to his hometown and his father. Upon arrival, he has to rescue a pregnant woman from being quarantined due to a plague. Furthermore, his hometown has been taken over by a ruthless crime lord, with his three redskin-hating half-brothers joining the gang. Keoma vows revenge, while being visited by an old woman who might be a witch, or a figment of his own imagination.
Keoma has been praised for its acting, lyrical visuals, action, haunting vocal music score, and its incorporation of new cinematic techniques of the time (slow motion and close/medium panning shots). Techniques like these often made Castellari known as the "European Sam Peckinpah."
Sadly, such success in its day couldn't help save the spaghetti western trend. Even with other notable twilight spaghetti westerns being released in force, like Four of the Apocalypse (1975), Mannaja (1977), and California (1977), Keoma is today considered the swan song of the subgenre.
Trivia: One of Castellari's movies is The Inglorious Bastards (1978). Quentin Tarantino used the title as an inspiration for his 2009 movie, Inglourious Basterds. The latter is not a remake, but contains many references, including the appearance of actor Bo Svenson as an American colonel.
Though no spaghetti westerns get produced today, the legacy can still be seen in modern cinema. The subgenre changed the Hollywood western, subverting old conventions to create new westerns that were original and influential. The violence was indeed "larger than life" and pushed the limits of censorship. Antiheroic characters, uglier settings, and eerie atmospheres helped take the romanticism out of the western.
Even Clint Eastwood himself has credited spaghetti westerns as an influence to his own westerns: Hang Em High, High Plains Drifter, and Unforgiven. Looking at how the genre is recently rethought in The Hateful Eight, new impressive westerns continue to hit the screen. Some might be hoping for a new age of westerns to awaken in Hollywood, but for now, we're still going through a comic book superhero phase.
Until then, we have these great spaghetti westerns to watch. After Leone, there are so many other spaghetti westerns to cite iconoclastic influences on the modern western; let alone to enjoy the thrill of seeing more cowboys riding into town, shooting up bad guys, and then departing into the sun. This is something we have never gotten tired of since the day Edwin Porter filmed The Great Train Robbery in Milltown, New Jersey, back in 1903.
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