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The adventure-seeking, mind-bending 60s soaked into the Spaghetti Western. From the blending of the counterculture ideals into a very popular genre, a new sub-genre was born – the psychedelic or acid western. Movies of this type are similarly structured to the familiar genre, but they portray something that in its day was more relatable.
In truth, the movies do not promote or project any drug culture, nor were the filmmakers apparently using hallucinogens to aid their creativity. They simply adapted the cool style and values of the popular movement of the era. At the same time, many of the usual factors involved with the standard Spaghetti Western are still present.
There are many examples of the Acid Western in cinema. Even into the 90s, the unique and moody Johnny Depp starring Dead Man from writer-director Jim Jarmusch held nuances of the sub-genre. But getting to the root of where these types of movies came from is essential to understanding them. As such, here are six of the best and weirdest acid westerns, movies that act as a time capsule of the experimentation and the fearlessness at the time to create something new.
The Shooting (1966)
This is perhaps the first of the acid westerns. It follows the story of a young woman (Millie Perkins), who hires two men Willett (Warren Oates) and Coley (Will Hutchins) to bring her across the desert to a town called Kingsley. All the while along their journey they are trailed by the mysterious Billy Spear (Jack Nicholson), another bounty hunter employed by this mysterious woman.
Beneath the hot sun, a deep paranoia sets in, and as the film reaches a fulfilling, but puzzling climax, there is a twisting style, reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. It is a daring movie, with dramatic close ups, and a building tension adding to the minimalist setting. The film’s director Monte Hellman may have inadvertently kick started the sub-genre by injecting a style into his movie that captured the vibe of mid-60s society perfectly.
Django Kill… If You Live, Shoot! (1967)
This film may reference Django in the title, but it has absolutely nothing to do with the character created by Italian maestro Sergio Corbucci. Instead, this is a splatter-fest, spaghetti western by another Italian filmmaker Giulio Questi. The plot centres on a stranger (Tomas Milian) who, after a robbery, is betrayed and left for dead by his gang. This stranger manages to crawl from a grave and is found by Indians who help him heal. With powdered gold from the robbery, the Indians make bullets for this unknown gunslinger to avenge himself.
At times Django Kill… If You Live, Shoot! feels unhinged, thanks to some brutal violence and some obscure cinematography. But it is the psychedelic tones throughout, courtesy of some clever editing that makes the movie so stark and often unsettling. The gripping story the viewer is left with is one of greed, the hippy ideals of wealth, and the destruction to achieve it.
Requiem for a Gringo (1968)
Directed by Eugenio Martín and José Luis Merin, Requiem for a Gringo oozes with psychedelic nuances. The movie takes the basic premise of the common revenge story. It focuses on a man avenging the violent death of his younger brother. The protagonist, the leopard-skin wearing Ross Logan (Lang Jeffries), begins to pick away at the gang responsible.
Boasting a gothic style and intense atmosphere which separates it from other movies of its kind, at times, Requiem for a Gringo strays from the very setting of a Spaghetti Western. Also, the nature of Logan, the astrologist turned bounty hunter, and the way he plans to exact his revenge to clash with a solar eclipse, is truly unique. All in all, it’s an enjoyable piece of Euro-Western cinema, one which moves at a pace which makes it addictive watching, if not a little unnerving.
El Topo (1970)
This is the very pinnacle of the sub-genre, a movie that typifies the notions of the Woodstock Western. Directed by and starring Chilean filmmaker, Alejandro Jodorowsky (The Holy Mountain), El Topo remains a highly influential piece of cinema, inspiring everyone from David Lynch to Peter Gabriel, the latter mirroring the movie’s plot when creating the Genesis classic The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway.
The film’s premise is a path to self-discovery as El Topo (Jodorowsky) rides into a town with his son to find the inhabitants have been slaughtered. From here he murders those who did it. However, he then becomes tempted and kills four gunslingers to become the alpha gun master, before being executed and left for dead. After several years he wakes up, born again and enlightened, healed by outcasts.
El Topo is awash with eastern philosophies and religious symbolism. It can at times become overwhelming, and confusing but ultimately though that it is what makes it the height of the acid western movement.
The first (and only) electric Western, Zachariah is terrible, awful, cheesy B-movie, but its music is a winner and in some respects you can see what was attempted. Director George Englund creates a very basic story and then turns it into a surrealistic journey. It involves a wannabe gunslinger in the old west called Zachariah (John Rubinstein). He and his best friend, Matthew (pre-Miami Vice Don Johnson) begin an adventure across the old west where they fall in with a group of idiotic stage robbers called The Crackers (psychedelic rockers Country Joe & The Fish).
The movie is a mixture of gun fights and electric guitars, but the music lends a nostalgic charm. Also, the film boasts the inclusion of the most influential drummer in history, the late Elvin Jones, who appears as the gunslinger Job Cain, along with The James Gang and New York Rock & Roll Ensemble, who all manage to add to the wow factor. Zachariah is a messy film, and makes very little sense, but it still captures the ideals and the time in a fascinating way.
Greaser’s Palace (1972)
This movie takes the surrealistic approach of El Topo and stretches it further. Greaser’s Palace, written and directed by Robert Downey Sr (Putney Swope), arguably journeys too close to the abyss of insanity, just managing to stay within the confines of entertaining. The movie follows a biblical theme, a skewered New Testament parable in an unlikely setting. Here, we learn about Jesse (Allan Arbus), a man with amnesia who finds he can heal the sick and resurrect the dead, his story set against the backdrop of frontier town Seaweedhead.
Our hero-come-messiah literally parachutes into the story on his way to Jerusalem. In a saloon owned by Greaser (Albert Henderson), Jesse performs miracles after bringing the owner’s son back to life. However, Jesse is ultimately betrayed by a woman (Elsie Downey), who sacrifices him to bring back her child (a young Robert Downey Jnr, son of the director). Far out is an understatement in describing Greaser’s Palace. While the premise sounds ridiculous, the movie does occasionally seem to be referencing the cult creations of Charles Manson and the perils of misplaced worship.