Combustible Celluloid
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With: Sy Richardson, Joe Strummer, Dick Rude, Courtney Love, Zander Schloss, Dennis Hopper, Grace Jones, Jim Jarmusch, Xander Berkeley, Miguel Sandoval, Jennifer Balgobin, Sue Kiel, Fox Harris, Shane McGowan, Edward Tudor-Pole
Written by: Alex Cox, Dick Rude
Directed by: Alex Cox
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 91
Date: 01/01/1986

Straight to Hell (1987)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Bullet Proof West

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

When Alex Cox's Straight to Hell opened in 1987, viewers may have expected something along the lines of Cox's previous features, Repo Man (1984) and Sid and Nancy (1986). Instead they were treated with a deliberately weird, nonsensical modern-day Western; most people turned up their noses, or ignored it altogether.

I admit that I was one of them. I tried to watch it on VHS as soon as it was available in 1987 or 1988 and couldn't figure out what to make of it either. Looking at it again, it has the benefit of time and lowered expectations, but it's still weird and is not going to win over any new fans. However, this time I enjoyed it more... I didn't exactly laugh, but I was constantly interested. It made me wish I could have been on the set, which is something.

It begins as four bumbling big-city bank robbers get away with several suitcases full of cash (although they keep dropping them, sending the bills flying in the wind). They are: Norwood (Sy Richardson), Simms (Joe Strummer), Willy (Dick Rude), and the pregnant Velma (Courtney Love). They wind up in a remote Western town where everything is dirty and weird. The people drink lots of coffee, and everyone picks on a hot dog vendor called Karl (Zander Schloss, of the Circle Jerks). A huge family known as the McMahons run the town. Shane McGowan (of the Pogues) plays one of them, and Xander Berkeley plays another, a preacher.

Everyone just sort of bides their time until the eldest McMahon is murdered, which leads to a huge shootout at the end (now with more blood!). Lots of recognizable characters turn up, sometimes in small parts, such as Dennis Hopper and Grace Jones, Elvis Costello (apparently, though I missed him), and director Jim Jarmusch. About half the cast of Repo Man is here, too, including Richardson, Rude, Schloss, Miguel Sandoval, Jennifer Balgobin, Sue Kiel, Fox Harris, and more. For some reason half of the cast are musicians of some kind, and there's a rumor that says the movie started out as a concert; funding fell through and they decided to make a movie instead.

Half of the movie has Cox paying homage to the things he loves, such as music and Westerns, and the other half looks like he's merely trying to come up with something to do. It's a very weird vibe, and it requires one to not only accept, but also embrace, boredom. If the movie has one theory, it's this: if you stare long enough at a certain spot, something weird and cool is bound to happen.

In 2010, the film was released in some theaters in a director's cut called Straight to Hell Returns. It's a similar idea to Apocalypse Now Redux, but on a different scale. It's the same as Straight to Hell (1987), but Cox did a little editing and added some more blood. Microcinema released this movie on DVD for 2010 (no Blu-Ray), with lots of cool extras, including a "where-are-they-now" featurette. Cox and co-writer Rude provide a commentary track, and there's some vintage footage of a tour of the set. We also get trailers.

In 2018, Kino Lorber released a Blu-ray version that includes the 91-minute director's cut (though I'm not entirely sure it's the same cut as Straight to Hell Returns. It seems to include most of the same extras from the 2010 Microcinema DVD, although a 23-minute behind-the-scenes featurette appears to have been added. The picture is wonderfully grainy, looking more and more like a vintage Spaghetti Western, and it includes a 2.0 and a 5.1 audio mix.

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