Fight Valley

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“Ring around the poses.”

The results of bringing female MMA fighters to the screen have been a bit mixed, shall we say. Gina Carano has looked decent in her films, but Ronda Rousey’s performances have been roundly criticized, and her Mile 22 project appears dead in the water. The performance by the recently retired from MMA Miesha Tate, which is likely the film’s major selling-point, rates… somewhere in the middle. She doesn’t disgrace herself – but that may be partly because there is no shortage of other weaknesses to criticize here. Tate is convincing in her role – yet since she’s playing a mixed martial-artist, it’s hardly proof of any acting ability. But I guess, everyone has to start somewhere, and a thinly-disguised version of yourself is a good place to begin.

The film’s heroine, though, is Windsor (Celek), part of a separated family. She lives with her mother in a well-to-do part of New Jersey; her sister, Tory, lives with Dad in a far more dangerous neck of the woods, and is persistently getting into street brawls. Tory asks Windsor for money and is spurned, only to turn up beaten to death later. Windsor goes slumming to investigate, with the help of Tory’s lesbian lover, Duke (O’Brien), and discovers her late sister was involved in underground fights. In the time-honoured trope of B-grade martial-arts films, Windsor decides to strap on the gloves so she can find and take revenge on Tory’s killer, convincing the reluctant Jabs (and this character is where Tate comes in) to train her for this purpose.

According to the IMDb, the budget here was twenty-seven million dollars. If true, I have no clue quite where that went, because this is absolutely the kind of film that could be churned out for a a million and change. It’s not like there are any name stars here, unless you count the bevy of UFC people who show up in minor roles: as well as Tate, the film also includes Cris Cyborg, Holly Holm and Cindy Dandois, among others. Though despite the poster shown, the non-Tate roles are barely cameos. Certainly, the script consists of little more than a selection of random clichés, as it lumbers towards a conclusion you would have to be legally blind not to see approaching. Hawk’s background in music videos is painfully apparent, and O’Brien is the only person here who comes out with much real credit, playing Duke in a way that is credible and, hence, surprisingly scary. She isn’t someone whose drink you’d want to spill in a bar, put it that way.

What sinks the movie is Celek, who is woeful: thoroughly unconvincing at every step of her implausible journey from Disney princess to hard-as-nails brawler, supposedly capable of going toe-to-toe with Cyborg. If they’d kept the film on the streets, since it does a semi-decent job of capturing a world where everyone operates on a hair-trigger, and had Duke trying to revenge her lover’s death, this might have had a chance of being more than the thoroughly forgettable project, deserving little more than a quick, straight-to-video death.

Dir: Rob Hawk
Star: Susie Celek, Erin O’Brien, Miesha Tate, Cabrina Collesides

All Girls Weekend

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“Why we don’t camp, #173.”

There’s something admirable about a film entirely cast with and directed by women, especially in such a generally male-dominated genre as horror. Unfortunately, all this effort really goes to prove, is that the fairer sex are every bit as capable of turning out uninteresting crap as any man. An ill-conceived cross between The Descent and The Blair Witch Project, this has four old school friends reuniting, along with the workmate of one of them, who tags along because… Well, as with so much in the movie, for no particularly good reason.  There’s friction between the friends, from the moment Nancy (Bernadette) shows up four hours late, forcing their departure to be pushed back.

But it’s when an innocent little pre-dinner hike is suggested that things truly go off the rails. For the workmate falls, and is impaled on… well, let’s be honest, and call it a twig. The party is unable to get out of the woods and find help, finding themselves perpetually going in circles. It’s almost as if the forest itself is trying to keep them from leaving. Turns out that’s exactly the case – not much of a spoiler this – for there was a mill there, which polluted the entire area, and unleashed a curse. Now, in order to regenerate, the earth spirit is now demanding blood sacrifices. So, before you can say, “Hang on – this doesn’t make much sense,” the party are being threatened in different, mostly fairly ludicrous ways. It’s almost like a live-action version of The Gashleycrumb Tinies: “N is for Nancy, pursued by a bear,” albeit where it’s abundantly apparent that Nancy and the bear were never simultaneously in the same zip-code.

Whoever designed the poster likely deserves some kind of award, for making the film look a hundred times more exciting than it is ever capable of delivering. The final 10 minutes can’t make up for the poor pacing and horribly talky nature of what has gone before, Simon appearing to have misheard the cardinal rule of cinema as, “Tell, don’t show.” Hence, we get an awful lot of scenes of exposition and unnecessary back-chat: I mean, do we really care that one of the girls used to be fat at high-school? Does it matter in the slightest? Meanwhile, seems like at least half the deaths take place off-screen, culminating in a staggering moment where it appears someone is found drowned in a pile of leaves. What? No, really: what? About the only positive to come out of this is Bernadette, who gives Nancy more of a character arc than everyone else in the film combined, her character turning a full 360-degrees over its course.

I guess we should at least be grateful that Simon did not make the obvious artistic decision and turn this into yet another “found footage” abomination. It’s one of the few things which would have made this more of a chore to watch.

Dir: Lou Simon
Star: Jamie Bernadette, Katie Carpenter, Gema Calero, Karishma Lakhani

The Ascent

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“Suffers from a mountain sense of disinterest.”

One year ago, the boyfriend of Emily Wilks (Davis) vanished, along with the mountaineering party he was taking on an ascent of the notoriously lethal Devil’s Peak summit. Emily is no mean climber herself, and still works as a trail guide on the mountain. But the group who have booked her services on this day have another motive: finding the legendary stash of gold they believe is hidden on the mountain, which they believe Emily knows the location. Unable to convince them it’s just a myth, she’s forced to lead the gang through the wilderness. Fortunately, it has many, many potential perils which can be used to thin the herd out.

The IMDb contains a (suspicious?) number of reviews touting the merit of the “director’s cut” of this movie, over the officially released version. But with the former apparently unavailable, we can only review the latter – and it’s severely underwhelming stuff. Davis isn’t the problem, however. The makers choose an actress who actually looks like she could be a climber, with well-defined upper body tone and decent muscles, rather than possessing the twig-like limbs, still seen rather too often. Emily exudes a no-nonsense confidence which also fits her character, and is smart enough to know when to use her physical strength, and when not to.

The problem is… Well, more like the problems are, for just about everything else misfires. First of all, the “mountaineering” scenes are almost entirely shot in super close-up, presumably because the participants were dangling no more than three feet off the ground. It is all completely unconvincing and the movie offers absolutely no sense of danger from the terrain, at any point; far from needing a guide, this mountain looks far more like a literal walk in the park. Large chunks of the plot don’t make much sense either, such as the fight with ice axes which takes place in a desert. [This is perhaps because the makers originally intended to shoot in Alaska, then relocated to Texas – apparently, without bothering to revise the script!] The actions of the villains also often appear to fall into the crevasse marked, “Dumbness necessary to the plot”.

I’m reluctant to condemn completely a film which appears to have been the innocent victim of a tussle between the producer and director. But without access to any other version, the audience here are as much casualties as the movie. Who is responsible for the problems with the other elements, doesn’t matter much, in any final analysis from a neutral observer. You can sense where the writer-director wanted to go with this, and as noted above, I genuinely liked the lead. It isn’t enough, with the undercooked script and weak execution draining most of the film’s nascent promise.

Dir: S.J. Creazzo
Star: Josie Davis, William McNamara, Martin Kove, Martin Kove

Cyborg X

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“James Cameron’s lawyer, on line one…”

cyborgxMaybe the makers of this should just have been honest, and called it Terminaliens. For the amount of wholesale theft that has gone on here is really quite staggering. It takes place in the nearish future after a weapons research program goes haywire, and the cyborg results start attacking humans all over the globe. It’s up to a band of freedom fighters to attack the central computer complex and disable the system before humanity is entirely wiped out. Through in an adorable moppet young girl, who falls under the protection of the heroine, along with some crawling through air-ducts, and you’ve got a homage to James Cameron – back when he was good, rather making three-hour epics about doomed icebergs.

The main thread has heroine Lieutenant Spears (Mauro) rescuing Jack Kilmore (Myers), an X-Corp executive who holds the key to infiltrating his company’s former HQ. You may have to resist the urge to yell “He’s a cyborg!” at your television set, but that’s actually just Myers’s style of acting. There’s also Col. Shaw (Johnson), who smokes cigars and yells a lot, while the nerdy Wizkowski (Stormoen), has a name which seems curiously close to being another Aliens rip-off… Finally there’s even a tough Hispanic chick, Lopez, who – in full keeping with the Aliens approach – is played by the thoroughly non-Hispanic Angie Papanikolas.

One upgrade on Aliens is that Danny Trejo shows up for a bit, as another one of the soldiers, which is nice. We love us some Danny Trejo. He would likely have made Aliens  Otherwise, the rampant plagiarism is all a bit of a shame, since some of the other aspects aren’t bad. The CGI drones which are Skynet’s X-Corp’s surveillance system are nothing to write home about, but the more practical effects are solid, with some surprisingly gory moments. One woman gets the front of her head blown off, while later, a man is cut in half, and left to crawl along the ground, his intestines trailing behind him. Meanwhile, Spears manages to kick ass while looking decent doing it, even when yanking a Very Large Bazooka out of nowhere. Fortunately, supplies of beauty products apparently have not been interrupted by this apocalypse.

This wouldn’t be out of place on the SyFy channel, and stands up decently enough against others of its ilk. If you haven’t seen the Terminator series or Aliens, you would probably enjoy this a good deal more – though if so, that does beg the question, why are you watching the SyFy channel? But I just wish the makers had put more effort into creating a plot that was not so tired and over-familiar. If the resources devoted to this had been applied to an original story-line, it could have been a small gem, rather than feeling like a lame rip-off of genre classics.

Dir: Kevin King
Star: Eve Mauro, Rocky Myers, Adam Johnson, Jake Stormoen

The Rowdy Girls

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“If Andy Sidaris directed a Western.”

rowdygirlsThe self-awareness of the film’s own silliness is clear, virtually from the start in which a singing cowboy – referred to in the credits as a minstrel – strolls through the countryside, crooning his ballad of the titular ladies. He pops up intermittently throughout to narrate, and it does a good job of setting the tone: clearly, this is not intended, in any way, to be a serious look at historical life in America. It is, very much, gyno-centric: beyond the leads, this was also written by two women, including India Allen, who was the 1988 Playmate of the Year. Not just a pretty face, then.

The three characters at the center have different stories, that all end up taking them to the same place. Velvet McKenzie (Tweed) has bailed out of her life in a bordello, with a travel-bag full of cash, and is travelling disguised as a nun. Sarah Foster (Brooks) is similarly making a break, fleeing an arranged marriage and heading for San Francisco, on the same wagon as Velvet. But in their way is Mick (Strain), member of an outlaw gang and the leader’s lover; the group rob the stagecoach, taking both Velvet and Sarah hostage. The attack is interrupted by the local sheriff, until Mick slides a knife between his ribs; that just sets his younger brother, Joe Pepper (Varga) on the trail of both the criminals and their captives.

No shortage of curvy nudity here, as you’d expect given the cast, though it certainly qualifies as being at the tasteful end of the spectrum. There is probably more of a plot than you would expect too, with loyalties and alliances shifting over the course of the 87 minutes, and despite its B-movie origins, the production values are better than certain Troma movies I could mention [though I’m not entirely sure about the credibility of some of the costumes, which appear more Victoria’s Secret than 19th-century Western America!] Strain is particularly fun to watch, not least because her 6’1″ frame towers over some of the male cast, and her attitude is equally imposing, but Tweed, well into her forties at the time, is by no means outclassed.

Sure, the makers of this have set their sights low, not appearing too interested in offering up much more than a soft-core exercise in historical inaccuracy. Adopting a tongue-in-cheek approach to the whole thing was thus likely a wise movie, effectively defusing most of the (numerous) critical arguments which could be made against it. Manage your expectations, therefore, and those expectations will be met. For as soft-core exercises in historical inaccuracy go, you could certainly do an awful lot worse. Below, courtesy of Troma, you’ll find the whole thing, so you can judge for yourself!

Dir: Steven Nevius
Star: Shannon Tweed, Julie Strain, Deanna Brooks, Richie Varga

The Frontier

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“A cash and grab story.”

Laine (Donahue) is on the run. From what isn’t immediately clear, but it seems to be something to do with the death of an oil executive. Whatever the reason, she’s staying off the highways and keeping to the back roads. One morning, she wakes up beside The Frontier, a diner/motel owned and operated by Luanne (Lynch), who offers Laine employment, in return for board and lodging. Laine initially rejects the offer, then discovers some other guests are apparently there in the aftermath of an armoured car robbery, which netted them two million dollars. Laine therefore decides it’s in her best interests to stick around, and begins a game of chess with the perpetrators, to see if she can end up walking away with their ill-gotten gains.

Opening in a shot of Laine, lighting a cigarette with her blood-stained hands, the story then unfolds in flashback. The style seems deliberately vague in terms of era; some aspects of this seem right out of the seventies, while others appear to be throwbacks to an earlier, film noir approach. There are definitely elements of David Lynch here – not just in the original title, Thieves’ Highway, also from the dialogue and a sense of lurking evil beneath a thin surface layer of everyday normality. Maybe The Hateful 8, with a group of players of uncertain agenda, forced to interact? You could even claim some Lars Von Trier here, in the way that the movie almost entirely takes place in a single location, often feeling like an adaptation of a play – perhaps one where the buildings are defined entirely by chalk lines, drawn on the stage.

Unfortunately, most of this fails to be as interesting as the sources it’s trying to imitate. The script makes the mistake of thinking that a sheer quantity of duplicity and double-crosses, will somehow make up for there being no particular reason to give a damn about most of the characters. Their obvious lack of honesty, everyone holding the cards close to their chest, makes it hard for the audience to get on board with any of them – particularly Laine, who is clearly intended to be the audience’s focus. Though Donahue, overall, isn’t bad in the role. She delivers an interesting mix of steely determination and street wit that, if not likeable, is always watchable, offering an acceptable twist on the typical femme fatale.

The rest of the cast feel more like standard tropes from that genre: the gruff, brutish thug; the ditzy moll; the fake “gentleman”, and so on, things you’ve likely seen far too often before, and neither the script nor their portrayals do enough to make them come alive. Things meander along to the entirely expected, bloody conclusion promised by that opening shot, and it feels longer instead of shorter than its relatively brisk 88 minute running-time. While there’s some promise here, and signs of talent, it would be a large stretch to say either are fulfilled.

Dir: Oren Shai
Star: Jocelin Donahue, Kelly Lynch, Jim Beaver, Izabella Miko

The Monster

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“Less would be more.”

monsterThere is a time when a film-maker needs to fall out of love with their script, and approach the resulting movie with a cold, critical eye, analyzing every scene with a single question in mind: Is it essential to the story being told? And if the answer isn’t “Yes”, then the scene needs to be ruthlessly excised. If you don’t, then what results is this film, where a good idea, which could have been lean, mean survival horror at its most stripped-down, becomes instead a cumbersome exercise in social drama.

Single mother Kathy (Kazan) is driving teenage daughter Lizzy (Ballentine) to her father, when they hit a wolf that has run out into the middle of the road on a remote country stretch of highway. While injuries are relatively minor, the car is unable to continue, and they have to hang out and wait for a repair truck to show up. However, when it does, and the mechanic is at work beneath their vehicle, the wolf’s corpse vanishes. Lizzy tracks it down in the woods, only to discover it shows signs of having been eaten, leaving her and her mother to wonder: what was bad enough that it could make a wolf run? They’re about to meet the answer.

It’s all the film needs, and when it concentrates on this, Bertino (who directed above-average home-invasion film, The Strangers) crafts a taut, effective work, as mother and daughter have to put aside their differences in the name of fending off the creature. The problem is the film’s insistence on inserting entirely unnecessary flashback scenes. They’re unnecessary because the dysfunctional nature of Kathy is established perfectly well before they have even left the house; everything thereafter is superfluous, and had me suppressing an urge to yell, “Enough, already! We get it!” at the screen.

I also get that the creature is intended to be a metaphor – though whether it’s intended to represent Kathy’s addiction-affected personality or Lizzy’s issues with trust and abandonment, is likely open to discussion. Either way, the mother is the monster in this interpretation; but again, it’s the kind of thing which works best when left for the audience to figure out or not, offering bonus depth if you want it. Here, Bertino seems to prefer whacking the viewer over the head with his subtext, to the point I had to undergo concussion tests.

On the plus side, Ballentine makes for an engaging young heroine, and the monster was laudably done with practical effects rather than CGI; given the relatively small budget, it looks decent enough. If you liked The Babadook – and I wasn’t particularly impressed with that either – then you might look more kindly on this attempt to merge the cerebral and the visceral. Only the latter half worked for me, the former providing more of an annoying distraction than offering any enhancement to the story.

Dir: Bryan Bertino
Star: Zoe Kazan, Ella Ballentine

Calamity Jane’s Revenge

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“Talk is cheap. VERY cheap…”

calamityTwo stars might actually be a bit generous, on an objective scale. But I confess to possessing a soft spot for low-budget films made with passion, even if the results fall short. The most obvious deficiency here is the location shooting. Outside of an opening scene with a few ramshackle houses, the entire film takes place in a forest. Seriously, the closest thereafter we get to seeing any other buildings, is two people leaning up against a fence… in the middle of the woods. Maybe they should have called it Calamity Jane: The Wilderness Years, and set viewer expectations appropriately.

It’s a revenge story, which we join in progress, with the husband of Jane (Ryan), no mean legend himself, Wild Bill Hickok, having already been gunned down. She’s now on the trail of the men responsible, who have split up and need to be tracked down individually. Complicating matters, one of the culprits is now accompanied by a kidnap victim, Fay (Gomez), whom Jane initially attempts to leave behind, but eventually agrees to help out. Additionally, Jane is being tracked by the new sheriff of Deadwood, along with renowned tracker, Colorado Charlie Utter (former WWE star Snow, which was an unexpected surprise). Will she be able to finish her mission of vengeance before the forces of law catch up with her?

And, more importantly, will the viewer be able to finish this movie, before unconsciousness catches up with them? Because the pacing on this leaves a great deal to be desired, without any real sense of building toward a climax. The film instead ambles its way through the trees, giving you two minutes of action, then 15 minutes of chit-chat. Rinse. Repeat. Forest. It’s not actually badly acted: Ryan has some presence, and Snow is certainly no worse than some others from the WWE who have stepped in front of the camera (looking at you, John Cena…). But the paucity of the resources available also leads to action more befitting a school playground, in which when people get shot, they fall over clutching their chest, without ever any apparent injury. Could the budget truly not stretch to a couple of bottles of fake blood?

On the technical side, it’s has its moments, with some impressive drone (I’m guessing) shots, capturing the epic grandeur of the mountains. These do, however, seem somewhat at odd with the static approach taken for the rest of the film. Couto seems to have tried his hand at various genres over the years, from horror to family films; while I guess he’s to be commended for that, it perhaps helps explains why this feels so generic. If you’re short on budget, you need to make up for this in other, inexpensive ways, from imagination to risk-taking. Unfortunately, Couto appears more concerned with playing it safe, and there’s precious little here that will stick in the viewer’s brain past the end credits.

Dir: Henrique Couto
Star: Erin R. Ryan, Al Snow, Julia Gomez, Adam Scott Clevenger

Sudden Death

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“Ms. 12-inch 45”

suddendeathThe star of this rape-revenge film, Denise Coward is a former beauty-queen, who was the second runner-up at Miss World in 1978, representing Australia. She didn’t exactly have a long movie career – this and sci-fi flick Galaxy representing roughly the sum total of it. Watching this, it’s easy to understand why, though it would require a significantly better actor than her to make a silk purse from the sow’s ear of a script and direction she is given here. Coward plays Valerie Wells, a career woman in New York who gets into the wrong taxi one night. For it has been stolen by a pair of low-lifes, who rape their passenger before dumping her unconscious body on the street. The cops, in particular Detective Marty Lowery (Runyeon) are sympathetic but over-worked, and Coward’s fiancé is about as much help as a chocolate teapot. What’s a girl to do?

Obviously, this being an eighties video flick, the answer is: pick up a handgun on a trip to Hilton Head with a friend, then start stalking the mean streets of the Big Apple, acting as a human honey-pot. And woe betide anyone who tries to take advantage of her, as they’ll find themselves being shot by what the press soon terms “The Dum-dum Killer”, named after Valerie’s ammunition of choice. Her ongoing relationship with Det. Lowery, however, poses something of a problem, not least when he comes across a box of those bullets in her night-stand. Meanwhile, it turns out – what are the odds – that the very same scumballs responsible for kicking off Valerie’s vendetta, are planning to rob a courier of bearer bonds, and their intent comes to Lowery’s attention.

In the right hands, this would have worked a great deal better – and, the truth is, that was exactly what was done a few years previously, in Abel Ferrara’s classic, Ms. 45. Coward certainly is not Zoe Tamerlis/Lund, and Shore, a producer on Super Fly, isn’t Ferrara either, with the New York he portrays being invested with nowhere near the same sense of perpetual menace. Instead, this never seems to get out of second gear, and is happy to endorse her vigilante murder, except for one sequence where Valerie ends up showing mercy for one of her targets, despite having just delivered the immortal line at him, “You’re gonna get what you deserve, you rapist!” It’s the only scene which comes even close to approaching the depth of 45.

The rest is more ludicrous than discomforting, probably peaking with Valerie wandering round what has to be the gayest-looking non-gay bar in the city. Otherwise, the highlight has nothing to do with the main plot, being the final foot-chase which is more of a marathon, running through Manhattan (look, kids! Th World Trade Center!), and over a bridge to Queens (I’m guessing), unfolding to the strains of classic 80’s pop tun, I.O.U by Freeez. For somehow, the producers here got hip-hop legend Arthur Baker to produce the music – yeah, I finally explained my choice of tag-line! – and this means you’ll also hear a lot of New Order’s Confusion. But this really only works as a musical time-capsule of the mid-eighties.

Dir: Sig Shore
Star: Denise Coward, Frank Runyeon, Jaime Tirelli, Robert Trumbull
a.k.a. Dirty Harriet

Seven Vengeful Women

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“The good, the bad and the pretty.”

7-mujeresA wagon train on its way West to California is besieged by multiple waves of Apaches. Between attacks, the seven women among the settlers are hidden in a nearby cave, but the next assault proves terminal, and the women are left, alone and deep in enemy territory. The only hope for this band of largely unprepared women, is to strike out across a hostile landscape. They’ll need to cross 100 miles between them and the nearest settlement, Fort Lafayette, while fending off further native attacks.

This 1966 film is an early example of a “Europudding,” being a co-production between Spain, Italy, Austria and Liechtenstein(!). There are three directors credited, though Parolini’s name appears to have been simply to get Italian funding, and Pink was apparently the main man behind the camera. The results are only sporadically effective, being hampered by characters and actions which are often little more than clichés, on all sides. They actually use the line, “Never turn your back on an Indian,” and I literally LOL’d when the settlers formed their wagons into a circle, since I don’t think I’ve ever seen that done in a film, except as a parody.

The star is former Oscar-winner Baxter, who plays Mary-Anne, the de facto leader of the group, and delivers a solid performance. Though as action-heroines, I was probably more impressed with the Grimaldi Sisters, a circus act (played by Como and Adriana Ambesi) whose skills help save the group on multiple occasions – there’s a running joke about these abilities inevitably being obtained from previous sideshow boyfriends. Most of the rest don’t make much impression, and while trying to avoid spoilers, the mortality rate is so low that the Apaches don’t present much of a threat. While there are some dark hints about the women being wanted alive, this was the mid-sixties, so hints are all you’ll get, and the whole thing is rather too gentle for its own good.

That said, the women develop a harder edge over the course of proceedings. The first time they repel an Indian attack, the victim they capture is kept alive, at least until he escapes. By the end, they’re ruthlessly clubbing natives to death with their rifles, in the closest the film goes to a genuinely disturbing sequence [Look, I saw Bone Tomahawk recently. My “genuinely disturbing” scale got entirely re-calibrated, as far as the Western genre goes] Second spot likely goes to the Apache victim whose body is found, mostly for Mary-Anne’s stern instruction that nobody should look under her clothes.

But this is the kind of film where the heroines start off their hundred-mile trek in long skirts. Even for the time, that seems a stretch, and is an unfortunate precursor to the rest of the movie. It’s not a bad idea, and the leads are fine too; the problem here is a script which hasn’t aged well

Dir: Gianfranco Parolini, Rudolf Zehetgruber, Sidney W. Pink
Star: Anne Baxter, Maria Perschy, Gustavo Rojo, Rossella Como
a.k.a. The Tall Women