Saturday, 16 July 2016

Gallowwalkers

Director: Andrew Goth
Writers: Andrew Goth, Joanne Reay
Producers: Brandon Burrows, Courtney Lauren Penn
Cast: Wesley Snipes, Kevin Howarth, Riley Smith
Country: UK/USA
Year of release: 2013 (eventually…)
Reviewed from: UK DVD

Gallowwalkers does not come with a good reputation. Eleven per cent on Rotten Tomatoes. Average 3.6/10 on IMDB. Average 2.5 stars on Amazon. Most people who have expressed an opinion on it seemed to have been pretty negative. Received opinion is that the film is a clunker.

Well, I’m here to fly in the face of received opinion. I’ve watched Gallowwalkers and while even I hesitate to say it’s great, nevertheless it has undeniable elements of greatness. It also has undeniable flaws – what those are and why they exist I’ll come to in due course – but they are more than compensated for by the film’s positive aspects. I enjoyed it enormously.

Bear in mind that I also appreciated Andrew Goth and Joanne Reay’s previous film, Cold and Dark, which I described in Urban Terrors as “a curious but not unenjoyable melding of police procedural with weird horror.” That film has also been poorly regarded by most critics and punters. Maybe I’m just in tune with what these guys are trying to do.

Gallowwalkers has been described as a ‘zombie western’ but that’s misleading. Films like Cowboys and Zombies and Devil’s Crossing simply place a standard zombie scenario into a Wild West setting. Gallowwalkers is set in something approaching the 19th century American frontier and features characters who return to life, but there any similarities end. This isn’t just a horror film, certainly not just a western. It’s a mystical film, playing on the tropes of the more extreme end of the western genre, beyond Sergio Leone, beyond the old Django movies. Where some westerns are defined simply by iconography – Stetsons, six-shooters, steers and saloons – the real heart of the western genre lies in the themes it explores. Divorced from both the urban and the rural, divorced from both history and modernity, the best westerns are about isolation, struggle, identity, a quest for something undefined, perhaps even unreachable. Great westerns use the frontier of civilisation as a metaphor for the frontiers inside the protagonist’s mind and soul. All great westerns have a mystical element to them, however low it may be in the mix.

Occasionally a western comes along which ramps up the mystical element to eleven. The most famous example of that – and the most obvious comparison for Gallowwalkers, just in terms of its startling imagery and adamant non-realism – would be El Topo. Like Jodorowsky, Andrew Goth uses the western genre and some of its tropes to explore bigger, weirder, stranger ideas – just as he used the police procedural genre in Cold and Dark.

Does it always work? We’ll come to that.

So here’s the surprisingly straightforward plot, as eventually revealed through assorted flashbacks and revelations. Yer man Wesley Snipes is Aman (“a man” = everyman?), who swore revenge on the bastards who raped and murdered the girl he loved. He tracked them down to a jail and shot them in their cells but, in escaping, was himself shot by one of the jailers. His adopted mother called on the Devil to save her son and was granted her wish. But in returning Aman to life, the Devil decreed that those he killed would also return to life.

So those particular bastards are once again walking and talking, led by the thoroughly amoral Kansa (my old mate Kevin Howarth: The Last Horror Movie, The Seasoning House). Or at least, most of them are. Kansa doesn’t know how or why he and his men were reanimated, and hence he doesn’t know why his son wasn’t. Aman is on a quest to kill Kansa and his men, aiming to make sure they stay dead by ripping their fucking heads off. Kansa meanwhile is on a quest to find some mystical nuns whom he believes will be able to restore his son to life.

That’s it in a nutshell but there are all sorts of excursions to the plot, not all of which go anywhere in particular. What matters, more than the plot, are the individual scenes and the truly extraordinary imagery within those scenes. A combination of Goth’s direction, Goth and Reay’s screenplay, Henner Hofmann’s cinematography, Laurence Borman’s production design, Pierre Viening’s costumes and a make-up department overseen by the hugely experienced Jackie Fowler (with designs by the legendary Paul Hyett) – all of this creates a film for which the phrase ‘visually stunning’ would seem a tad half-hearted. Gallowwalkers will blow your mind visually. Christ alone knows what this would be like if watched on drugs. You’d never come down.

Snipes has dreadlocks, a dab of grew in his beard, a black hat and flared trousers. Kansa, whom we initially meet bereft of skin like Hellraiser’s Uncle Frank, takes the face and hair of an albino man and then favours a long, purple coat. One of his men wears a sack on his head, another has a heavy metal helmet covered in spikes, a third prefers grafting lizards’ skins onto his head. His dead son is carried everywhere, swaddled in a wickerwork crucifix. As a child, Aman lived in an orphanage until sent out into the world aged 12, whereupon he was adopted by a lady who singlehandedly runs a slaughterhouse. That woman’s daughter was the lover who was raped and murdered. The slaughterhouse and its owner are still there, with a new child apprentice, also an albino. In fact there is a whole community of albinos…

There are a lot of extreme long-shots in this film, emphasising the emptiness of the desert within which this all takes place. There are no ‘western streets’, no saloons and undertakers. Buildings stand in isolation, and sometimes individual figures do too. In an early scene, a long, straight, single-track, narrow-gauge railway leads from nowhere to nowhere. Three static figures dressed in red (looking distractingly like any one of them could shout “No-one expects the Spanish Inquisition!”) approach from far, far away on a hand-trolley powered by a single Chinese coolie. They take a while to arrive, to even become identifiable for what they are. It’s very David Lean.

The closest that Gallowwalkers gets to a town is that small settlement of albinos, though it’s little more than a few randomly arranged huts and a large, newly built gallows where a row of criminals are collectively hanged with a single pull of a lever. There are tall, somewhat wobbly, horse-drawn prison carts. There are cages on the sand. Everything in this film is ‘real’ in the sense of being raw, wooden, hand-built – but equally unreal in seeming a little arch, a tad deliberate, and deliberately so. These sets, these props, these costumes, this make-up – everything has been designed and created for visual effect and the ideas it provokes, artistically designed for both reality and unreality but certainly not for realism. Therein lies much of the film’s power.

To be honest, it’s not even clear if we’re actually mean to be in the Old West; there’s certainly no reference to any real locations in the dialogue. Gallowwalkers was filmed in Namibia (specifically just outside Swakopmund) where there are great expanses of desert that don’t really look like the southern USA. Huge sweeping dunes are an African thing more than an American one and, after El Topo, the next most obvious visual reference is probably Dust Devil. The one cow we ever see in the slaughterhouse – pretty much the only animal on screen apart from horses and a few goats – is very obviously an African zebu, not a North American steer. There is even a brief cutaway shot of a sidewinder at one point, and you certainly don’t get those in Nevada! Such inclusion of anomalous fauna must be deliberate and serves, like the famous armadillo in the 1931 Dracula, to emphasise the otherworldliness of the setting. Dracula couldn’t actually be set in Europe, despite all the evidence, and Gallowwalkers can’t actually be set in North America.

There’s also maybe something of a Japanese influence in the film. Characters spend a lot of time standing still, eventually moving suddenly, like in the best samurai films. Parallels between the western genre and the samurai genre are legion, so perhaps this sort of comparison is almost inevitable in a film this stylised. While we’re at it, Kansa and his cohorts will put you in mind of the Mad Max films. So that’s an Australian influence too. All this in a British film with an American star shot in a former German colony in southern Africa. Gallowwalkers really is set everywhere and nowhere.

In respect of all the above Andrew Goth’s third feature is a truly cinematic experience. Some people, suckered in by the ‘zombie western’ idea, might understandably have been disappointed to find that this isn’t just Dawn of the Dead with spurs. That’s fair enough. But what surprised me the most when leafing through online reviews and comments was how many people complained that they couldn’t follow what was going on. Some people apparently didn’t realise that the scenes of Aman killing Kansa and his gang in jail are flashbacks. Even though Snipes looks completely different (no dreads, no beard, no hair, with tribal markings painted on his face) and the cinematography is notably different too.

This really isn’t a hard film to follow. As evidence of that: I can follow it, and I’m not renowned for grasping the intricacies of multi-level plots. Yes, there are flashbacks. Yes, the story is revealed to us piecemeal instead of in a linear, chronological fashion (or a walloping infodump). That’s cinema folks. If you can’t follow this, good luck with Memento or Pulp Fiction

More justifiable are complaints from some who have seen this that chunks of the film don’t seem to make sense, serve a purpose or connect to anything else. It’s full of dead ends and unexplained introductions (not necessarily in that order). As criticisms go, this is entirely justified.

For example, there’s a group of prisoners whose guards are shot. Aman takes one young man on as a sidekick. But among the other prisoners are a feisty showgirl/thief and a presumably corrupt priest. These two make other appearances but don’t seem to tie in to the main narrative in any significant way. It’s like they’re meant to be major characters, but aren’t. The opening scenes with the railway, the three guys in red and a guy with a distinctive neck-brace, don’t really make much sense, even after we discover much later that the three ‘cardinals’ are part of Kansa’s gang and Neck-brace was the guard who shot Aman. Did I mention that the lead cardinal has his lips sewn together, but is somehow still able to talk? I suspect some of the ADR on this film may not match with what the characters were originally saying (or attempting to say)…

In fact, if there is one thing that is abundantly clear when watching this film, it’s that the movie has had some serious changes made in post-production. Numerous reviewers have complained that the ‘script’ doesn’t make sense but this is so obviously not what was originally written. Full disclosure: from previous correspondence with Joanne Reay I am aware that the finished film is not what Goth and Reay intended and they’re not exactly happy with what was released. But Jesus, even if I didn’t have that email, I’d be able to work it out. Even allowing for the hallucinatory, trippy nature of the story, settings and characters, there are so many anomalies here – so many things missing and so many things present but in the wrong order – that this simply can’t have been what was intended. Like Strippers vs Werewolves, like The Haunting of Ellie Rose, what you see when you sit down to watch Gallowwalkers is very definitely not the director’s cut.

Yet, while this is evident (to anyone reasonably awake who has seen more than three films in their life), it doesn’t matter as much as some reviewers (and possibly the film-makers) believe. The nature of the film, the stylish, stylistic and symbolic, the mystical, metaphorical and metaphysical, the non-realistic, non-linear but non-arbitrary nature of the artwork that pins our eyes open (and ears: music by Stephen Warbeck and Adrian Glen) is sufficiently ‘out there’ that these lacunae and non-sequiturs blend right in. We don’t really need an explanation for the albino colony any more than we need justification for the anomalous snake and cow. This is a film that wants you to free your mind.

The quality of a really good movie can shine through a lesser cut. Even the shortest edit of The Wicker Man is still a classic. The imposition of narration on Blade Runner didn’t stop it from being instantly recognised by many people as a brilliant film. Even the BBFC-trimmed version of Curse of the Werewolf can be seen for the superior Hammer chiller that it is. The fact that the censors chopped so much out of the ending doesn’t lessen the quality of what precedes that butchery, and the fact that it is externally mandated butchery of the film is screamingly obvious. One would be a fool to blame Terence Fisher or Anthony Hinds for the sudden, arbitrary ending of that cut of Werewolf, just as one would be foolish to blame Anthony Shaffer or Robin Hardy for apparently not establishing Sgt Howie’s character with some sort of prologue. (Or indeed lambasting David Peoples, Hampton Fancher or Ridley Scott – or even Philip K Dick! – for relying too much on the crutch of film noir-style narration and tacking on a happy ending.) Christopher Lee always maintained there was a much better version of The Wicker Man in landfill under a motorway somewhere. Maybe there is, but it must be bloody fantastic because what we have is pretty damn good to start with.

How far does the released version of Gallowwalkers deviate from what Goth and Reay wrote and set out to make?  We just don’t know. They have been understandably reluctant to discuss the film. Does a finished version of what we might term ‘The Director’s Cut’ actually exist? Might we ever see it and make a comparison? To be honest, that seems unlikely. People clamoured for a more artistically true, less obviously commercial version of Blade Runner and The Wicker Man, creating a market for revisions and reversions. I’d love to watch Goth’s prefered cut of Gallowwalkers but not many people have seen the film in the first place and I suspect very few of those are hankering to see it again. Which is a shame.

Gallowwalkers wasn’t always called Gallowwalkers. It started life as a script called The Wretched which was set to star Chow Yun-Fat of all people! Which is interesting because the use of a Chinese protagonist in a Wild West setting harks back to – no, not Shanghai Noon! – back to 1970s TV series Kung Fu. You recall: David Carradine played Kwai Chang Caine, a shaolin warrior travelling through the Wild West, back in the days when you could cast a Caucasian actor as an Asian character and nobody batted an eyelid  (except all the Asian actors who couldn’t get decent parts). In terms of the ‘mystical western’ subgenre, Kung Fu is definitely the original text and its (indirect) influence on Gallowwalkers is clear.

On the subject of race, it’s interesting that absolutely no reference is made in the film to Aman being black. It’s immaterial. That in itself contributes to the non-realism and other-worldliness of the setting. For a more historically accurate depiction of how race was viewed in that time and place, try watching Blazing Saddles. (Aside from Snipes and the actor playing young Aman in flashbacks, there is one other black actor in the film although he is so heavily made-up that you probably won’t recognise him. Mosca, the guy working for Kansa who prefers to cover his head with lizard skin, is played by the living legend that is Derek Griffiths! He’s come a long way since Play School…)

The promotional website for The Wretched still exists, including a detailed synopsis. Chow Yun-Fat’s character is named Rellik and the sidekick he takes on (called Fabulos in the finished film, played by Riley Smith: Voodoo Academy) is named Twenty-One. (Although not stated in the synopsis, this is because he has six fingers on one hand.) Remember what I said about how difficult I find it to follow complex storylines? Well, the synopsis for The Wretched has me beat. I’ve no idea what’s going on. What is obvious, however, is that not only is it very, very different to the released version of Gallowwalkers, it’s so utterly different that it must also be very different to Andrew Goth’s intended cut of the film. There are a handful of recognisable moments/elements and one consistent character name (Skullbucket, the guy with the big metal helmet) but apart from the basic premise – gunman hunts down resurrected dead bad guys in the Old West – The Wretched and Gallowwalkers are essentially different films.

Under the shooting title Gallowwalker (singular) the film was shot in the Namib Desert in October 2006 with an announced budget of $14 million. Snipes was a big star at the time, just a couple of years on from Blade: Trinity, so it was quite a shock when he was charged with tax evasion. The production had to be put on hold for a while so that he could fly back to the States and arrange his bail. The film wrapped just before Christmas and all the props and costumes were sold off. Somebody in Namibia got Kevin Howarth’s awesome purple coat.

…which was slightly inconvenient because in May 2009 the production restarted for pick-ups and some reshoots in America (either Mexico or the southern USA). Snipes was trying to cram all his various acting commitments into a limited time before heading off to pokey for three years so there was only a couple of weeks to get everything together. Fortunately production manager Carol Muller was able to track down all the required props and costumes and either buy them back or rent them.

I would imagine that these reshoots are where the film diverged from Goth and Reay’s original vision as the press report I’ve seen doesn’t mention Goth at all. So it’s entirely possible he didn’t even direct these bits (whatever they are). Interestingly, this press story is also the only mention I’ve come across of Gallowwalker(s) being conceived as the first part of a trilogy. Although Rudolf Buttendach is the credited editor, Peter Hollywood (Elfie Hopkins) gets an 'Additional Editor' credit which looks suspiciously like an acknowledgement that he was hired to cut together the new version, especially as on his FilmandTVPro page he cites the production company as Boundless Pictures. (Boundless, headed by Brandon Burrows and Courtney Lauren Penn is credited prodco on the film, although the credit block just reads 'Jack Bowyer presents...'.)

Before these reshoots there had been talk of a 2008 release, with Tim Bradstreet allegedly creating a prequel comic-book. A trailer was released in 2008 using comic-book-style graphics to link images. I think all the trailer footage is in the finished film but the lips-sewn-together guy definitely has a different voice. Note that the credited prodcos are not Boundless or Jack Bowyer but Sheer Films (Goth and Reay's own company) and Intandem Films. The absence of Intandem's Gary Smith from the final list of executive producers on the film is quite telling.)

Eventually, six years after it was made, Gallowwalkers finally - and very suddenly - appeared. Its world premiere was on 6th October 2012 at Grimmfest in Manchester (not Frightfest as the Inaccurate Movie Database claims, although it was screened as part of a Frightfest all-nighter in October 2014). I’d like to quote the Grimmfest synopsis here because this guy hits the nail right on the head and should have been plastered all over the DVD sleeve:

The Bastard Love Child Of… BLADE and DUSTDEVIL
Achieving a degree of infamy as the film Wesley Snipes was shooting when he was busted for Tax Evasion, this startling, surreal, supernatural Spaghetti Western combines the visual panache of Sergios Leone and Corbucci with a wild, weird and woolly narrative that plays like something Garth Ennis, Alejandro Jodorowsky and Joe R. Lansdale might dream up between them over several bottles of mescal. Part violent revenge drama, part metaphysical quest, with its tongue partly in its cheek, a morbid quip on its lips and a gun always at the ready, this is destined to become a massive cult favourite. And you saw it here first.

The first home release was the US DVD from Lions Gate in August 2013, followed by discs in Germany (August 2013), the UK (May 2014), then France, Japan, Italy, Mexico, Brazil and maybe some other territories too. What looked like it might become a ‘lost film’ is now widely available.

But people look at this movie and think well gee, if it took six or seven years to get released straight to DVD then it must be terrible. Especially if the star got arrested halfway through production. So viewers are prejudiced before they even put the disc in the machine. They don’t know what to expect, they don’t know the background or the context. Hopefully this review will go a little way towards re-evaluating Gallowwalkers in the perception of horror fans.

Alongside those actors already mentioned, the cast includes Tanit Phoenix (no relation to River) as Aman’s lover, Patrick Bergin as a lawman, Steven Elder (also in Cold and Dark) as the priest, Simona Behlikova (also in werewolf-free British werewolf picture Lycanthropy) as Kansa’s woman, wrestler ‘Diamond' Dallas Page as Skullbucket and hell yeah, Derek Griffiths. DG is The Man as far as I’m concerned. Give him an honorary Bafta right now.

Goth and Reay followed this with the science fiction movie DxM (previously Deus Ex Machina) which likewise premiered at Grimmfest. After finishing his sentence for tax evasion, Snipes set about picking up his acting career including a gig on The Expendables 3.

I’ll wrap up with the only words I can find from Andrew Goth about his film, which were quoted on a poster that said the film was in post (so presumably 2007):

“With Gallowwalker [sic] we are creating a new hero in a mythic western world. Like the best of the spaghetti westerns, Aman’s story is one of blood and vengeance, but his nemesis is unlike any that we have seen before. Kansa was a bad man when he was alive and now he’s back from the dead and relishing his supernatural prowess. Their story plays out against vast desert landscapes that underscore the epic state of their battle. We shot on 2-perf, as Sergio Leone did, which gives  super-wide scope. This retro feel is being enhanced by the latest digital capabilities, which allows us to colour the film in a surreal way and creates a graphic novel feel.” – Andrew Goth, director

MJS rating: A-

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