Saturday, February 25, 2023

Knife for the Ladies (1974)

... aka: Cuchillo para damas
... aka: Jack the Ripper Goes West
... aka: Knife in the Dark, A
... aka: Lovløs dom (Outlaw)
... aka: Silent Sentence

Directed by:
Larry G. Spangler

Fusion horror westerns go back to at least the 1930s, but this peculiar cross pollination has never really become a formidable subgenre. While horror movies have almost always maintained a certain level of popularity, there's historically been an ebb-and-flow nature to the western's popularity with moviegoers. Meaning, if westerns only come out in small numbers nowadays, then horror-westerns come out in much smaller numbers than even that. Still, there are quite a few interesting and sometimes excellent films to be found here and the occasional film that hits, such as 2015's Bone Tomahawk, which I wasn't overly enthused about but a lot of other people seem to like. Interestingly, in what is considered a genre that mostly appeals to men, two of the very best horror westerns; Kathryn Bigelow's vampire film Near Dark (1987) and Antonia Bird's cannibal-themed Ravenous (1999), were directed by women. Also interestingly, a number of classic westerns which were never considered anything other than westerns are finally being recognized by film historians for their horror content decades after the fact, like the Clint Eastwood films High Plains Drifter (1973) and Pale Rider (1985).

Nearly every horror western I'm aware of has some kind of supernatural or fantastical bent, whether that be ghosts, vampires or monsters, which makes A Knife for the Ladies an anomaly itself. Set in 1882, this one's an even rarer serial killer film / whodunit / proto-slasher. While that was a cool idea in theory for 1974, the execution here is unfortunately rather ho-hum.

Three mysterious murders have rocked the once-peaceful and now-dying small town of Mescal, Arizona, which was once home to a thriving copper mine that is no more. As a result, the town has drastically reduced in population, opportunity and financial stability. The murders themselves may or may not be tied into this, especially seeing how the first victim was Travis Mescal (former NFL cornerback Peter Athas), a descendant of the town's founders who was found viciously stabbed to death. Two saloon gals, employed by the aptly named "Hooker's Saloon", soon followed. Alarmed by the recent slayings, bank president Simeon Hollyfield (John Kellogg) takes a trip to the city to recruit Detective Edward R. Burns (Jeff Cooper) to help. Burns is offered a 500 dollar reward, a recommendation and paid accommodations while in town. Measly compensation, but as Burns notes, "It's poor pay... but a rich challenge." He accepts.

Slovenly Sheriff Jarrod Colcord (Jack Elam), a "two-fisted bear of a man", isn't too happy that Hollyfield is about to bring a "fancy" detective in from the big city to do his job, so he starts slamming back whiskey shots and then organizes a torch-carrying posse of locals to go after Ramon (Phillip Avenetti), who's wrongly blamed for death #4 after a child places him at the scene of the crime earlier in the day. Saloon owner Virgil Hooker (Gene Evans) and a pair of no-good gunslingers; Lute (former Boston Bruins center Derek Sanderson) and Horace (former Oakland Raiders wide receiver Fred Biletnikoff), track Ramon down and then lynch him.

Burns arrives to a hostile reception from both Jarrod and many of the locals. He assigns Jarrod the task of finding Ramon's killers while he starts interviewing locals and snooping around. He pays a visit to the menacing Orville Ainslie (Richard Schaal), who runs the barbershop / mortuary and says things like "Dead is dead, I reckon" and "I suppose anyone's death is bad for business... except for mine." And then there's the widowed Elizabeth Mescal (Ruth Roman), mother of the first victim and now sole heir of the Mescal family dynasty. She believes the townsfolk blame her for the failure of the local mine, which has caused many to relocate elsewhere, and refuses to acknowledge the fact that her murdered son was anything less than pristine, even though he was well known around town for drinking, gambling and paying for the company of prostitutes.

All of the usual trappings of the western are here, right down to the stagecoaches, dusty town, gunfights and a heavy-handed moral getting shoved down our throats in unsubtle fashion (how they soft pedal lecture the little boy after his lies lead to a vigilante killing is more than just a little nauseating!), as are all of the usual trappings of the whodunit, most especially in the way this attempts to establish most of the central cast as suspects.

The end result is watchable, though middling. The murder scenes lack punch (and suspenseful build-up), the mid-section is a slog to get through and the film is visually flat and unimaginatively directed, but the shock finale may be worth waiting for. It's downright jarring and surprisingly perverse considering how tame the film had been up until that point! The performances here are extremely uneven, ranging from pretty good to terrible. Schaal and Roman fare best here, though the relationship that develops between Cooper and Elam's characters has its minor charms, as well. The cast also includes Diana Ewing (known to Trekkies as the memorably-attired Droxine in the 1969 Star Trek episode "The Cloud Minders") in an underdeveloped role as Elam's niece and Henry Kendrick (who also appeared in the 1988 horror western Ghost Town) as a doctor.

Settings are convincing as this was filmed at the Old Tucson movie studio and theme park, which was built in 1939, slowly added to over the years and also served as the setting for a load of other western films and TV shows like Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Rio Bravo, Three Amigos, Tombstone and Little House on the Prairie. Knife was one of over 400 productions shot there over the years. Many of the buildings and much of the movie memorabilia housed at Old Tucson was lost in a 1995 fire, which was rumored to have been started by a disgruntled former employee out for revenge. Attempts to rebuild what was lost were unsuccessful and it finally closed down for good in 2020.

Director Spangler also made The Soul of Nigger Charlie, a blaxploitation western starring Fred Williamson that was also filmed at Old Tucson, The Last Rebel, yet another western and a vehicle for football star Joe Namath (Spangler must have had a thing for pro athletes or something) and, for a change of pace, the hardcore porn film The Life and Times of the Happy Hooker. Co-writer Seton I. Miller had won an Oscar for co-scripting Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941).

This received VHS releases in Australia (Video Classics), Spain (Continental Home Video), Sweden (Svenska Walthers Video) and the UK (Iver Film Services), though I'm not aware of any U.S. home video releases until a TV edit (reduced down to just 51 minutes and re-titled Jack the Ripper Goes West) popped up on some of those cheap budget DVD packs in the early 2000s. In 2018, this finally received an uncut (87 minute) Blu-ray release from Code Red.

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