A Quick Guide to Universal Monster Movies


The widow’s peak and opera cloak. The flat-topped head and neck bolts. The angry mob of pitchfork-wielding peasants. The hunchbacked assistant. These things are iconic to the point of cliche when it comes to monster movies but they all originated in the horror output of Universal Studios in the 1930s and ’40s; an era that left a defining legacy on cinema and pop culture in general.

Lon Chaney as the Phantom of the Opera

Lon Chaney in The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Right from the early days, Universal Studios was known for dabbling in the horrific and the macabre. Lon Chaney starred in two silent horror pictures for Universal; The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). His grotesque (and self designed) makeup appalled and thrilled audiences and earned him the title ‘Man of a Thousand Faces’. Further silent chillers from the studio included The Cat and the Canary (1927) and The Man Who Laughs (1928) which was based on Hunchback writer Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name. 1928 was also the year that Universal Studios’ founder Carl Laemmle Sr. made his son, Carl Jr. head of production as his 21st birthday present.

Carl Jr. was more of a risk taker than his father and as well as building a chain of theaters he pushed Universal’s move into sound production. He also recognized the lucrative potential of horror movies and, much against the advice of his father, pursued the rights to Dracula for the studio’s first horror ‘talkie’. Based on the stage play rather than Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula (1931) starred Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi in a career (not to mention character) defining performance as the count. Due to its massive success, Universal quickly went into production on a second horror picture. Frankenstein (1931) was originally conceived as a vehicle for Bela Lugosi, but it was to be Boris Karloff who would eventually play the monster in a remarkably sympathetic portrayal. It wasn’t just the flat-topped head and neck bolts that Frankenstein left as its legacy. The sparking electrical effects and fizzing Tesla Coil became the standard for Frankenstein movies as did the hunchbacked assistant (who does not appear in Mary Shelly’s novel). The film was another hit for Universal and Karloff quickly overtook Lugosi as the studio’s leading horror icon, appearing in the following year’s The Mummy. Universal went down a more comedic route with The Invisible Man (1933) which blended slapstick and groundbreaking special effects. Then they created the first real werewolf movie in Werewolf of London (1935). The same year, Karloff and director James Whale returned for a sequel to Frankenstein. Bride of Frankenstein is widely regarded as a masterpiece both in terms of style and characterization and is often quoted as a rare example of a sequel superior to its source.


Elsa Lanchester and Boris Karloff in Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

draculas_daughter_-_poster_1936Despite the popularity of its horror niche, Universal Studios floundered in the late 1930s. Carl Laemmle Jr., known for his wild spending, went against his father’s rule of never borrowing money and took out a loan of $750,000 to finance a lavish remake of 1929’s Show Boat with the Laemmle family’s controlling interest in the studio as collateral. Show Boat (1936) was vastly over budget and, although a commercial success, it was too little too late. Out went Carl Jr. and his big budget monster movies with him. Dracula’s Daughter (1936) was the first Universal monster movie to be made as a b-movie. While successful, it wasn’t enough to revive Universal’s monster trademark and the genre remained untouched until the end of the decade. The re-release of Dracula and Frankenstein as a double-bill in 1938 was immensely popular and encouraged production on a new movie. Son of Frankenstein (1939) starring Basil Rathbone as the titular son and Bela Lugosi as the hunchbacked assistant Ygor, did very well and revived Universal’s monster formula for a new decade.


Lon Chaney Jr. in The Wolfman (1941)

1940 saw the release of three low-budget horror movies keen to carry on Universal’s horror brand. Rather than being a direct sequel to the original, The Mummy’s Hand swapped Karloff’s intelligent if decrepit villain for a shambling bandage-wrapped corpse murdering at its master’s whim which became the blueprint for most future mummy flicks. The Invisible Man got two sequels that year – The Invisible Man Returns and The Invisible Woman – the latter of which was a definite comedy rather than a horror film. 1941 gave the world one of Universal’s most influential monsters. Lon Chaney Jr. (son of the Man of a Thousand Faces) followed in his father’s footsteps and became a horror icon in The Wolfman; an atmospheric second take on the werewolf movie which Universal had previously attempted in 1935’s Werewolf of London.

frankenstein-meets-the-wolfmanThe rest of the decade was dominated by low-budget sequels to Universal’s earlier hits. Kharis the mummy lurched across screens three more times in The Mummy’s Tomb (1942), The Mummy’s Ghost (1944) and the The Mummy’s Curse (1944) while H. G. Wells’s concept was continued in Invisible Agent (1942) and The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944). Lon Chaney Jr. tried his hand at other roles and starred as the monster in 1942’s The Ghost of Frankenstein and as the count himself in 1943’s Son of Dracula. But the Universal monster formula was about to change. Allegedly inspired by a cynical joke, Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943) finally featured Bela Lugosi as the monster and Lon Chaney Jr. back in his most famous role. This ‘monster mash-up’ idea was continued with House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945), both featuring Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolfman and Dracula in convoluted plots involving cures and revivals.


‘Gill Man’ from Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

By the late ’40s, Universal’s monster appeal was, once again, starting to wear thin. Their once terrifying creatures were now foils for the slapstick antics of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello who starred in three comedic riffs on the studio’s monster hits. The world had changed too. With the developing Cold War the horror film had begun to incorporate the space race and the atom bomb. UFOs and radiation were considered far more terrifying than vampires and werewolves and in 1954, Universal gave us their last great classic monster. The ‘Gill Man’ in Creature from the Black Lagoon presented a more science based monster to keep with the times and appeared in two sequels; Revenge of the Creature (1955) and The Creature Walks Among Us (1956). While some consider the likes of the big-brained alien mutant from This Island Earth (1955) to be a continuation of the Universal monster, there can be no denying that by this point the classic age of Universal’s movie monsters was over.


Famous Monsters of Filmland was a magazine that ran from 1958 to 1983 and captured the rise of monster fandom.

Universal’s monster movies have had a huge influence on pop culture. In 1957, a package of 52 Universal horror movies were released for television syndication. Hosted on various stations by horror hosts like Zacherley, as ‘Shock Theatre’, the package introduced Universal’s monsters to a new generation who took them to heart. From the Munsters TV series in the ’60s to the Aurora model kits, Sesame Street, Ben Cooper Halloween costumes and Count Chocula breakfast cereal, the Universal monster legacy has never died.

the_mummy_2017_teaser_posterUniversal Studios have ever been reluctant to let their monster franchise die. Imhotep was revived for a new version of The Mummy in 1999 (spawning two sequels). Its director, Stephen Sommers, took another crack at the monster menagerie in 2005 with Van Helsing; an action adventure that pitted Hugh Jackman against Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolfman. The Wolfman itself was remade in 2010 and Dracula got an origin story in Dracula Untold (2014). Currently there is talk of a shared Universal Monster Movie Universe after the fashion of Marvel’s superheroes, the first installment of which is The Mummy starring Tom Cruise due for a 2017 release.

1942-complete-cover-2My most recent novel – Curse of the Blood Fiends – is an homage to the monster movies of the 1940s as well as Film Noir. It’s an action-packed mystery-horror novel set in 1942 and deals with a virus spawned by a military research project in the Amazon that threatens to turn all of Los Angeles into blood-hungry monsters. I included many nods to Universal’s legacy including vampires, werewolves, reconstituted corpses, a hunchbacked scientist and even a mummy.


A Quick Guide to Jack the Ripper

JACK THE RIPPER Jack the Ripper – the personification of shadowy evil in Victorian London and gruesome murder done in gloomy, gaslit streets – has become so ingrained in popular culture, appearing in movies, graphic novels and video games, that there are many today who are unaware that he was in fact a real serial killer and not a fictional product of writers. But real he was and perhaps his morbid appeal over a hundred years since his killings has something to do with the fact that he was never caught and never unmasked to spill his secrets. He remains so mysterious and chilling because we have absolutely no idea who he was or why he killed.


Annie Chapman – The second of the ‘canonical five’ victims

The Whitechapel district of Victorian London was one of the worst slums in Europe. Murder was nothing uncommon in those dim alleys but in the late summer of 1888  a series of killings connected by a modus operandi drew the attention of the police and the press. On 31st of August the body of prostitute Mary Ann Nichols was found in Buck’s Row, a backstreet in Whitechapel. Her throat had been slit twice and her abdomen cut deeply. Some newspapers concluded that a brutal gang was terrorising the working girls of Whitechapel as the body of another prostitute named Martha Tabram had been found stabbed thirty-nine times that same month and yet another prostitute died after being assaulted and robbed by a gang back in April. But on 8th of September another murder took place that suggested that something much more sinister was going on in Whitechapel.

Punch cartoon by John Tenniel, 1888.

‘The Nemesis of Neglect’ – Punch cartoon by John Tenniel, 1888.

The body of Annie Chapman was found in the back yard of 29 Hanbury Street, her throat slit and her intestines pulled out. Part of her uterus was also missing. The nation sat up and took note. It appeared that a single man was committing the most gruesome crimes with no motive but to sate his own blood lust. Theories ran wild. Perhaps he was a deranged doctor as the removal of organs hinted at surgical knowledge. Perhaps a butcher or a tanner? Suspects were arrested andreleased without sufficient evidence. An angry mob attacked the Commercial Road police station. A Whitechapel ‘vigilance committee’ was set up which offered a reward for the apprehension of the killer. There were attacks on Jewish businesses as the killer was rumored to be a Jew fulfilling some arcane ritual. In short, fear led to madness.

A further layer of mystery was added to the case by the receival of a letter by the Central News Agency allegedly penned by the killer. Written in red ink and addressed ‘Dear Boss’, the letter boasts of the killings, taunts the police and claims that “The next job I do I shall clip the ladys ears off and send to the police officers just for jolly wouldn’t you.” It was signed ‘Jack the Ripper’. On 30th of September two more prostitutes were slain. Elizabeth Stride was found in Dutfield’s Yard with her throat slashed but was otherwise unmutilated. Later, that same night, the body of Catherine Eddowes was found in Mitre Square, throat slashed, face mutilated, intestines pulled out and kidney and uterus missing. Had the killer been interrupted during his murder of Stride and, thus unsatisfied, gone in search of another victim? An exciting clue was found several streets away in the form of a bloodstained piece of Eddowes’s apron discarded beneath a chalk graffito at the entrance to the Wentworth building (a predominantly Jewish tenement) that read; “The Juwes are the men that will not be blamed for nothing.” Coincidence, or a message from the killer? This mis-spelt scrawling with its double-negative has been a source of much debate and it’s very meaning is hard to discern. It’s generally seen as a proclamation that the Jewish population of Whitechapel refuse to take any responsibility. The work of an anti-Semite with an axe to grind? Or done by the hand of a Jew who grows tired of blame being laid at his door? If so, then why the bloody rag? The decision of Police Superintendent Thomas Arnold and Commissioner Warren to wash the graffito off before it could be photographed for fear that it may spark yet more anti-semitic feelings and the poor transcribing of the words (resulting in differing versions) mean that this particular mystery is unlikely to ever be solved. 640px-FromHellLetter

Alarmingly within 24 hours of the killings (before the papers revealed them to the public) another letter from ‘Jack the Ripper’ was received by Scotland Yard. A postcard this time, the double-event is referred to and that there had not been time for him to get the ears as she ‘screamed a bit’ (although part of Eddowes’s ear had been detached by the killer’s facial mutilations). The writer also refers to himself as ‘Saucy Jacky’. The knowledge of the murder details before they were made public may make the letters appear genuine but journalists and locals knew these details more or less immediately and the letters are generally dismissed as a hoax or a publicity stunt by the press. One further letter however, was much more macabre as it enclosed a box containing part of a human kidney preserved in ethanol. Addressed ‘From hell’ the letter was clearly done by a different hand than the previous correspondence and was sent to George Lusk, head of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee. It read; “Mr Lusk Sor I send you half the Kidne I took from one women prasarved it for you tother piece I fried and ate it was very nise. I may send you the bloody knif that took it out if you only wate a whil longer. signed Catch me when you Can Mishter Lusk“. There is still debate over whether this or any of the letters are genuine.

The killer’s most gruesome act was yet to come. On 9th of November the hideously mutilated body of prostitute Mary Jane Kelly was found in her single room at Miller’s Court. Within the privacy of a house it seems, the killer had ample time to go to work. Kelly had been killed by a slash to the throat. Her face was mutilated beyond recognition. Her breasts had been cut off. Her abdomen cut open and her organs scattered around the room and her thighs cut down to the bone. And then, the killings appear to have stopped. There was a murder of a Whitechapel prostitute in July 1889 but that is generally regarded as a copycat killing due to a different implement and less ferocity used in the attack. As for the real ‘Jack the Ripper’, he seems to have vanished without a trace. So what happened? He may have died or been incarcerated for some other offence. The increasing brutality of his crimes point to a mind that was becoming more and more demented so perhaps he was placed in a mental asylum by concerned family members or he may have been one of many mentally ill drifters and vagrants the police had incarcerated in places like Colney Hatch Mental Asylum, forgotten while his crimes went on to spark theories and debate for the next hundred years.


Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale

One of the more outlandish theories was outlined in Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution by Stephen Knight and published in 1976. The basic idea is that Queen Victoria’s grandson – Prince Albert Victor – had an affair with a lower class Catholic girl called Annie Elizabeth Crook whom he secretly married. The witness at the wedding was Crook’s friend Mary Jane Kelly. When the Queen and Prime Minister found out about the secret marriage (and resulting child) they ordered Annie placed under the care of Sir William Gull (the Queen’s physician) who certified her insane. The child remained in the care of Mary Jane Kelly whose friends – Mary Ann Nichols, Elizabeth Stride and Annie Chapman – got the idea to blackmail the Royal Family. William Gull and his coachman John Netley thus butchered the girls according to Masonic rituals as part of a coverup by the Freemasons. Catherine Eddowes’s killing was a case of mistaken identity. Despite being largely discredited due to inaccuracies, hoaxes and downright wrong information, variations on the Royal Family/Freemasons/William Gull theory have remained a fascinating idea ever since and form the basis for several fictional accounts such as the BBC’s Jack the Ripper (1988) and the From Hell graphic novel and 2001 film adaptation.

jtr-truthA more compelling theory is presented by true crime writer Martin Fido in his book The Crimes, Detection and Death of Jack the Ripper (1987). In it he claims that the killer was in fact known to the police and was even in their custody at one time! Memoirs and notes of high-ranking police officers at the time including ex-Superintendent Donald S. Swanson reveal the suspect to be a Polish Jew called Kosminski who was brought to a seaside home to be identified by a witness. Although identifying Kosminsky, the witness refused to give evidence as he was a fellow Jew and the police were forced to let Kosminski go, although they kept a close eye on him. Kosminski, a violent woman-hater, was soon sent to Colney Hatch Mental Asylum where he died “a short time after”. For a long time the mysterious Kosminski was generally thought to be Aaron Kosminski, a simple-minded but docile Whitechapel hairdresser who was admitted to Colney Hatch in 1891, over a year after the Ripper killings stopped, but didn’t die until 1919. Fido didn’t believe that this was the same Kosminski mentioned by the police and suggests that Kosminski was mistakenly named in Swanson’s notes instead of a Nathan Kaminsky, a Polish bootmaker in Whitechapel who had been treated for syphilis and vanished after 1888. There is no Kaminsky in the Colney Hatch records, but there is a David Cohen who, Fido argues, may have been a ‘John Doe’ type of label for any Jewish man who couldn’t be identified. Cohen was a violent inmate and died in 1889 and is altogether a better fit for the elusive ‘Kosminski’ mentioned by Swanson. Fido’s theory is that the killer was Nathan Kaminsky who was captured, identified and then released only to wind up in Colney Hatch under the placeholder name of David Cohen. Years later, the retired superintendent Donald S. Swanson, mistakenly recalled the killer’s name as ‘Kosminski’ which coincidentally was the surname of a harmless simpleton who also lived in Whitechapel.

Theories and speculation ramble on. Due to the length of time since the events and the poor records we have of all that occurred, it is unlikely that the truth behind the Whitechapel murders will ever be known. Jack the Ripper, whoever he was, is dead and his secrets died with him leaving us with nothing but our imaginations to fill in the gaps. My own novel Onyx City, while far from presenting a serious theory on the killer’s identity, uses the Whitechapel Murders as a backdrop for a Steampunk detective story. It is influenced by the notion that the production of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (which was on at the Lyceum Theatre at the time of the killings) was somehow connected to the strange case of Jack the Ripper.

For an excellent resource for all things Ripper visit Casebook: Jack the Ripper

A Quick Guide to Mummy Movies

mummy movies

Mummies feature in my novels Curse of the Blood Fiends and Silver TombIn writing them I drew on mythology more modern than ancient. Although the concept of reanimated mummies are never mentioned in Egyptian sources, the writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were fascinated by the creepy possibilities they posed as plot devices. With the rise of cinema, mummies were every bit as suitable for celluloid terror as vampires and other monsters and there were several silent mummy-themed movies like The Eyes of the Mummy (1918, released in the U.S. in 1922). However, few of these films actually featured a reanimated mummy. Most dealt with reincarnation and some were comedies in which a character wraps himself up as a mummy in order to scare people.

7204978_f520It wasn’t until 1932 that the definitive mummy movie would make it onto screens. Universal Studios, fresh from their success with Dracula and Frankenstein (both 1931) were looking for a vehicle for their new star, Boris Karloff. They landed on Ancient Egypt, still popular thanks to the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb ten years earlier and all the associated talk of curses. The Mummy tells of Im-Ho-Tep; an Ancient Egyptian priest who was mummified alive for blasphemously attempting to bring back to life his deceased lover, Ankh-es-en-amon using the Scroll of Thoth. Accidentally reanimated by a young Egyptologist involved in uncovering his tomb in 1921, Im-Ho-Tep gets a new lease on life and promptly vanishes, leaving the young scholar to die raving in a madhouse. Ten years later, an expedition of British archaeologists are led to the tomb of Ankh-es-en-amon by a helpful (although decrepit) Egyptian called Ardath Bey. Bey turns out to be none other than Im-Ho-Tep, now mostly restored to human form, who is still looking to reanimate his lost lover. When he encounters Helen Grosvenor – daughter of the governor of the Sudan – he sees in her the reincarnation of Ankh-es-en-amon and decides that she will do instead.


Universal’s 1940 follow-up – The Mummy’s Hand – was less of a sequel and more of a remake with the mummy this time around being Kharis, buried alive for attempting to restore his lover, Princess Ananka, using the sacred ‘tana leaves’. Far from being an independent thinker restored to some semblance of his former self like Karloff’s Im-Ho-Tep, Kharis remains under wraps (so to speak) and is under the control of the Priests of Karnak, ordered to kill at the behest of the insideous sect. Kharis is much more of a traditional lumbering monster than Karloff’s articulate and intelligent character and remained so in the three sequels that followed. Set thirty years on in (supposedly) 1970, The Mummy’s Tomb (1942) sees Kharis and his new master travel to the United States to wreak vengeance on the Banning family who desecrated Ananka’s tomb in the first film. The Mummy’s Ghost (1944) is also set in the ‘future’ of 1970 and has a further disciple of the Priests of Karnak (now called the Priests of Arkam, inexplicably) revive Kharis and attempt to return him to Egypt. The final entry in this series – The Mummy’s Curse – was also released in 1944 and is set twenty-five years later, (presumably 1995, despite the hats and spats on show). In this one an engineering company inadvertently dredges up Kharis and his bride, Ananka, from the swamp where they perished in the previous film. The old tana leaves are brewed up once again by a new disciple of the Arkam sect for a final lurch across screens. As with most other Universal monsters, the Mummy got the Abbott and Costello treatment in Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955) which was to be the comedy duo’s final movie together.

mummy_1959_poster_01Hammer Film Productions – the British heir to Universal’s horror mantle – had already found success with remakes of Dracula and Frankenstein in 1958 and naturally dusted off the Mummy for their next full color outing. The Mummy (1959), starring Hammer stalwarts Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee as John Banning and the mummy respectively, was a remake of The Mummy’s Hand rather than Universal’s 1932 original, although Hammer dispensed with the tana leaves idea and reverted to the ‘Scroll of Thoth’ as a plot device. Hammer borrowed elements from the other Universal mummy movies like the pursuit of John Banning to his homeland (this time Victorian England) by Kharis and his master and the use of a local swamp as both the site of resurrection and eventual fate of Kharis.


Hammer’s other mummy movies bore no relation to their 1959 version or to each other. The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (1964) had a by-the-numbers plot involving three archaeologists who bring the mummy of Ra-Antef back to 1900s London, only to have it come back to life while on tour. The Mummy’s Shroud (1967) parallels the alleged curse of Tutankhamen in that the mummy of a boy pharaoh, Kah-To-Bey, is discovered by a British expedition in 1920. After bringing the mummy to the Cairo museum, the archaeologists soon find themselves hunted down by the reanimated mummy not of the boy-king, but of the devout slave who mummified him and had subsequently been discovered and kept in the Cairo museum. Hammer’s final mummy movie – Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1971) – did not include a mummy per se, but rather the reincarnation of Queen Tera, being a loose adaption of Bram Stoker’s 1903 novel The Jewel of Seven Stars. The queen – found in her tomb perfectly preserved by Professor Fuchs – is brought back to London and kept in an eerie shrine. As in the novel, the professor’s daughter Margaret finds herself gradually possessed by the spirit of the ancient sorceress.


Unlike vampires, zombies and werewolves, mummies did not prove much of a box office draw in the following decades and were relegated to low budget grindhouse movies like Dawn of the Mummy (1981) which is more of a zombie movie with an Egyptian theme. A rare exception is the Charlton Heston starring film The Awakening (1980), another version of The Jewel of Seven Stars. Going direct-to-video in the US, Tale of the Mummy (1998) – also available as a directors cut called Talos the Mummy – has Christopher Lee playing the doomed archaeologist this time, unearthing the tomb of Talos in 1938. Fifty years later his granddaughter strives to continue his work, awakening Talos in the process. 1998 also gave us the direct-to-video feature Bram Stoker’s Legend of the Mummy; yet another version of The Jewel of Seven Stars, its title clearly trying to continue the legacy of the Copploa-produced Bram Stoker’s Dracula/Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein double-punch of 1992/1994. A sequel followed in 1999 (also known as Ancient Evil: Scream of the Mummy) which traded Egypt for an Aztec theme.

The-Mummy-movieposterdbIn 1999 the mummy movie came back in a big way. Universal Studios decided that their original Boris Karloff feature was due for a remake. But this CGI-filled adventure extravaganza was more reminiscent of Indiana Jones than the atmospheric 1932 chiller. Set in 1926, librarian and Egyptologist Evelyn Carnehan hires mercenary Rick O’Connell to take her to Hamunaptra where, due to the unwise reading of the Book of the Dead, the mummy of disgraced priest Imhotep is brought back to life. Imhotep sees in Evelyn the reincarnation of his lost love Anck-su-Namun and brings with him several spectacular plagues in Biblical style. The Mummy was vastly popular resulting in two sequels; The Mummy Returns (2001) and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008) which ditched Egypt for China and saw the O’Connell family
(including their fully grown son) fend off a resurrected Chinese warlord, yetis and an army of reanimated terracotta warriors. Universal is set to redo the mummy yet again as the kick-off of their anticipated monster ‘shared universe’. Starring Tom Cruise, The Mummy is expected to hit screens summer 2017.


1942-complete-cover-2My newest novel – Curse of the Blood Fiends – is an homage to the monster movies of the 1940s. As well as vampires and werewolves, there is a mummy and a nod to the Universal mummy films in the nefarious Tana Inc. – a research company that unwittingly releases a virus that threatens to turn all of Los Angeles into blood hungry monsters. Blending genres, the novel is also a noirish detective story as PI Rosa Bridger trails a drug-addled starlet into the dark shadows of the City of Angels and uncovers something much more sinister than the hoodlums and hop-pushers she is used to dealing with.



A Quick Guide to Spaghetti Westerns


There are countless resources online for those interested in the history of the Spaghetti Western (I recommend The Spaghetti Western Database) so this isn’t a comprehensive look at the genre, more of a quick overview of what has been an inspiration during my writing of Golden Heart and On Rails of Gold.

Originally used as a derogatory term for Italian-helmed westerns by Americans who felt that Europeans made cheap, inaccurate movies about a treasured period in their county’s history, the Spaghetti Western ushered in a new take on the genre that has remained ever since. Violent, gritty, lurid and featuring protagonists who had questionable morals, the Spaghetti Western was a refreshing take on the genre that John Wayne had made famous with his clean-cut all-American heroes. This was the western for the counter-culture generation.

fistfulSergio Leone’s ‘Dollars’ trilogy is on the tip of everyone’s tongue whenever the genre is mentioned and stands as the benchmark of the Spaghetti Western. Beginning in 1964 with A Fistful of Dollars and continuing with For a Few Dollars More in 1965 and resulting in his masterpiece; The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in 1966, the loose trilogy made a household name of TV star Clint Eastwood as ‘the man with no name’ (despite actually having a name in all three films – Joe, Monco and Blondie, respectively). These movies created a blueprint for the genre which most Spaghetti Westerns that followed stuck to. Many were filmed in nearby Spain partly because it was cheap and partly because it made a good double for the American west. Most featured an American in the lead with Italian bit players dubbed for English speaking audiences. The psychedelic credits sequences, the creative scores by Ennio Morricone, the harsh landscapes and uncompromising characters became the norm for the genre and more than made up for their cheap production values. These were westerns with style.


The framework of a lone drifter wandering into a town ruled by corruption and walking out of it at the end leaving a wake of bodies behind him was copied by many films to follow. A fine example is Django (1966), which introduced a character so popular that his name was used in the titles of over thirty unofficial sequels (despite the films themselves often having nothing to do with the character) the most recent example being Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012). The Return of Ringo (1965) and Death Rides a Horse (1967) introduced a revenge element which became a staple of the genre. The bleakness of the Spaghetti Westerns and their refusal to portray their characters as upright defenders of justice and the American Way made them popular with the baby-boomers as well as earning a fair amount of controversy. Snowbound Utah-set film The Great Silence (1968) was so controversial with its brutal message about the ineffectiveness of justice in the face of profit that it was denied an American release.


In the late sixties a sub-genre emerged within the Spaghetti Westerns known as the Zapata Western. Named after the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, these westerns tended to be set during the Mexican Revolution of 1913 and were more often than not soapboxes for leftist European directors to spout their Marxist ideology. Many directors of Spaghetti Westerns had lived under the brutal rule of Mussolini and were politically motivated to make films that romanticized revolutionary ideals. The Big Gundown (1966) isn’t the only film to portray the Mexican government as a fascist regime and it also took a swipe at capitalism into the bargain by revealing the true villain to be the money-motivated businessman instead of the lowly Mexican peasant he tries to frame. A common theme in movies like A Bullet for the General (1966) and Compañeros (1970) was the working-class Mexican teaming up with an American or European specialist who is motivated by money rather than revolutionary ideals. These were often stand-ins for America’s involvement in Vietnam and Latin America in a critical portrait of U.S. foreign policy. Even the great Sergio Leone made his final contribution to the genre a Zapata Western with the 1971 Duck You Sucker! (AKA A Fistful of Dynamite) which is widely seen as a satirical take on a genre he was growing increasingly tired of. 


Leone’s last western was preceded by his crowning glory. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) was supposed to be Once Upon a Time in America; Leone’s vision of the gangsters of prohibition era New York (that film wasn’t to be made until 1984), but studios persuaded him that another western was the way to go. The film was a masterpiece in a genre that had quickly become an ironic self portrait. Spaghetti Westerns had taken on a comedic element in the final years of the decade. Sabata (1969) attempted to create a James Bond type of western and the incredible popularity of the slapstick They Call Me Trinity (1970) heralded the end of the brutal, brooding and violent westerns of the sixties.