EL DIABLO is a mediocre 1990 made-for-cable western that I watched because it’s based on an old John Carpenter script. As a Carpenter-once-removed movie I thought it would make a good followup to yesterday’s ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 remake review.
The original script was written in the ‘70s, and was reportedly set to be Carpenter’s directorial followup to THE FOG, but he got nervous about doing a western. I couldn’t find any mention of the project in John Carpenter: The Prince of Darkness by Gilles Boulenger, but the last question in that great interview book is about why he never directed a a straight western. “There is a part of me that worries about making a western, that worries about the horses, that worries about ending up in a film I wouldn’t understand,” Carpenter said. “I don’t know why. I can’t explain that. Maybe people who had made westerns intimidate me. I don’t really want to compete with them. Perhaps I’m a coward, but I feel more at ease competing in the horror genre than competing with Howard Hawks or John Ford or any of the greats.”
Apparently director Peter Markle (HOT DOG… THE MOVIE, WAGONS EAST) had no such qualms, so he dug up the old script and made it for HBO. It’s credited to John Carpenter & Tommy Lee Wallace and Bill Phillips. I would assume the “and” means Phillips came on years later to rewrite Carpenter & Wallace’s script for Markle, but he happens to be the guy who wrote CHRISTINE for Carpenter, so I don’t know for sure. Also, Debra Hill and Carpenter are credited as executive producers on the final movie, for whatever that’s worth. Anyway, whoever’s responsible, this is not what I expected from a John Carpenter western, because it’s a comedy.
Anthony Edwards (DELTA HEAT) plays Billy Ray Smith, a dorky, bespectacled school teacher obsessed with the supposedly-true pulp adventures of some cowboy called The Durango Kid. One day he’s reading them to his class when a gang led by El Diablo (Robert Beltran, NIGHT OF THE COMET) attacks the town and kidnaps Billy Ray’s student Nettie Tuleen (Sarah Trigger, who later co-starred with Edwards again in PET SEMATARY TWO). He tries to Durango up and help but gets knocked on his ass, and when the actual professionals go after them only the sheriff returns. And his tongue has been cut out.
Billy Ray has white knight delusions from reading all that adventure story bullshit, so he announces he’s gonna go find Kid Durango to help him rescue Nettie. He just has to ride to the town of Millennium and find J.D. Shones, the sheriff, who supposedly knows Kid Durango. I enjoyed the part where Billy Ray’s about to leave on his quest and a guy says, “Sheriff brought you this note,” unfolds a paper, reads, “Don’t go,” then folds it back up.
Also funny: as Billy Ray is awkwardly riding out of town his horse rears up and dumps him off, and when he hits the ground his gun fires and kills the horse. So he takes the train.
He shows up in Millennium just in time to witness the guy he’s looking for, J.D., being buried. He strikes up a conversation with another onlooker at the funeral who says, “Well, I’m the new sheriff, maybe I can be of some assist—“ and suddenly a bullet goes through the guy and he falls, dead, into an open grave. And everybody runs off except Billy Ray, who stands there like a dummy as the shooter rides right up to him.
I thought this was gonna be the introduction of a villain, but in fact it’s the introduction of the co-lead and highlight of the movie, IRON EAGLE’s Louis Gossett Jr. as crotchety weirdo gunslinger Thomas Van Leek. He asks if Billy Ray is related to the guy he just killed, then thanks him for distracting the guy.
“You just shot him in the back!” Billy Ray says.
“His back was to me,” Van Leek explains. And then he says that was the guy who killed J.D.
So he kills bad guys. Van Leek also indicates he knows Kid Durango, convinces Billy Ray to hire him, and steals him a horse, though he regrets it and temporarily ditches him when he finds out he’s after El Diablo.
My biggest problem with this movie is that Edwards and many of the other actors are playing it just a half a click too broad for much of the humor to work on me. And most of the supporting players are doing silly accents. But Gossett is pitch perfect, with his usual intense charisma, but more gravely-voiced than usual, and slightly crazy. Van Leek’s ragged jacket makes him look like kind of a hobo, and he has little quirks like putting cotton in his horse Rio’s ears and apologizing to him after he fires his gun (he says Rio doesn’t like loud noises).
Billy Ray is useless as a partner, so Van Leek recruits a team to help – his old blacksmith buddy Bebe (M.C. Gainey, ONE TOUGH BASTARD) and two guys he rescues from the gallows, Bob Zamudio (Miguel Sandoval, DO THE RIGHT THING) and Pitchfork Napier (David Dunard, FREDDY’S DEAD: THE FINAL NIGHTMARE). Unfortunately Napier soon uses the n-word, so Van Leek puts a noose around his neck and knife to his throat and demands he apologize.
I’m not sure if he was gonna, but when he suddenly gets hit by an arrow he chooses to use the slur again as one of his dying words. Fuck that guy. Just as Van Leek shot that sheriff out of nowhere and then walked right into the movie, we now meet Napier’s killer, Dancing Bear, played by prolific action movie supporting player Branscombe Richmond (COMMANDO, NEVER TOO YOUNG TO DIE, BEST SELLER, THE HIDDEN, ACTION JACKSON, CAGE, HARLEY DAVIDSON AND THE MARLBORO MAN, ACES: IRON EAGLE III, BATMAN RETURNS, DEATH RING, THE SCORPION KING) wearing badass face paint.
They all watch dumbfounded as he walks up and scalps Napier right in front of them. The reactions mae it funny, except they had to go and make Billy Ray faint. Comedic fainting rarely works for me.
Dancing Bear explains that Napier slept with his wife and also stole his people’s gold and enslaved many of them (I would’ve led with that last part, honestly) so it’s all good and he joins the team as they go find a cache of buried dynamite and plan their attack. But Van Leek blows Billy Ray’s mind and illusions by bringing him to a saloon and introducing him to Truman Feathers, a.k.a. Kid Durango, played by Joe Pantoliano (CONGO) unfortunately trying to do a snooty accent. It turns out he’s just some doofus who writes his supposedly autobiographical books based on the things that happen to Van Leek. Van Leek says it’s because white people won’t read books about a Black hero, Truman says it’s just “dramatic license.”
Of course, UNFORGIVEN did a way better version of the author-of-exaggerated-western-tales-gets-in-on-the-action thing a couple years later, but I’ll give EL DIABLO credit for this racial component that parallels the way westerns themselves whitewashed the Old West. To this day every time a new western has Black cowboys there’s some contingent of bozos saying it’s historically inaccurate, because their “history” comes from old movies and TV shows that took the same “dramatic license” as Truman Feathers.
Van Leek likes to say he’s not as fast as he used to be, but he cheats. This is true. He defeats one of El Diablo’s henchmen (Luis Contreras, “Biker #2,” PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE) by sniping him from a distance while Billy Ray pretends to have a quick draw duel with him. Truman is impressed by Billy Ray’s courage and is inspired to join them on their mission. Unfortunately when this exploitative stolen valor doofus dies and whispers to “complete the story, Billy Ray” it seems like we’re supposed to be moved by it.
When they finally get to El Diablo there’s a twist that Nettie is now going by “Rosita” and acting like El Diablo’s girlfriend. Billy Ray says she’s not being herself, and after some battling and heroics brings her home on the back of his horse, but we never get to hear what she thinks about any of this. Edwards absolutely plays it like Billy Ray has a thing for Nettie and is jealous of her showing affection to El Diablo. Other characters assume this but he explains “I make it a policy not to get involved with my students.” Oh – oh, good. You make it a policy. Okay, phew. Good for you too, by the way. That’s very brave to make that a policy.
Yeah, I know, I agree – it’s fiction, characters can do bad things, this takes place when beliefs on that kind of stuff were different, and at least the actress is an adult even if the context treats her as a kid. I just think it’s funny when the movie seems oblivious to how it comes across, that’s all. I get the impression we’re supposed to think his crush is cute because he doesn’t act on it. Maybe I’m being hard on him because I don’t like this kind of character where it’s comical that he cluelessly narrates the whole thing and does shit like correct outlaws when they say “who” instead of “whom,” but later is supposed to be genuinely heroic when he lectures Van Leek for thinking stealing gold is “more important than saving the girl.” (They always say “the girl.”) That makes it seem like we’re supposed to get off on it as wish fulfillment for us nerds. It would be way funnier to just keep him a delusional asshole like Chris Elliott, Danny McBride or Bruce Campbell might play.
This subject of a geek dreaming of being a western hero caused me to finally look up and watch The Resurrection of Broncho Billy, which Carpenter worked on as a film student at USC, and which won the Academy Award for Best Short Film in 1970. Director James R. Rokos just went on to produce TV specials about snakes, magic and mud wrestling, but it was shot by future-Shape Nick Castle and edited by Carpenter. Those two share writing credits with three other people, and Carpenter did the music (a catchy acoustic guitar and whistling jam).
For its 23 minutes the film follows a dude (former Mouseketeer and The Rifleman child star Johnny Crawford) obsessed with cowboys. It’s shot in sepia tones and he wears a full on period western costume, vest, kerchief and all, but we know it’s modern day when we see the western movie posters on his bedroom walls. He gets chewed out by his landlord (cartoon voice actress Nancy Wible) for being behind on rent and wasting his money on movies, and then goes to hang out with an old man (Wild Bill Tucker) who rambles about famous old gunslingers he claims to be related to and/or knows how to rattle off trivia about. If this is not a real guy who really talks about that shit all day then it’s an amazing performance.
I guess since he had to stop and hear stories he gets to work really late, and is fired. So his day is free to walk around the city doing cowboy poses. It feels a little Travis Bickle or ending-of-DEATH-WISH when he makes eye contact with some businessman across the street (Billy Lechner) and then mimes like he’s reaching for his gun as he passes him on the crosswalk. The guy notices and is freaked out.
But then some tough guys see him, make fun of his get up, call him a homophobic slur, kick his ass and steal his prized pocket watch that was a gift from the old timer. It’s hard out here for a cowboy.
The climax is the best part of the film. Hanging out in the park, he sees a good looking woman (Kristin Harmon from Ozzie and Harriet) making a sketch of him. She shows him that she saw his outfit and wanted to draw him in an Old West setting, and she seems genuinely curious about him until he starts cowboysplaining her ear off about the various historical inaccuracies of her drawing and how John Wayne always wears accurate hats in his movies so she should take a look at that but not Gary Cooper he wears different hats, blah blah blah. Harmon does an almost documentary-accurate rendition of a woman realizing a guy is not gonna shut up and hitting the emergency eject button. Then he sits alone thinking about it and angrily snapping a twig. This was made before I was born and I’ve seen this behavior. It’s timeless.
But he gets to have a day dream where he rides up on a horse and impresses her, she gives him his stolen watch and rides away as a theme song praises him. I don’t think he earned a happy ending, but I guess he’s not gonna accept anything else.
The short is on Youtube and it includes a clip of producer John Longenecker (who made it as his senior year project) accepting the Oscar from Sally Kellerman and Jim Brown. He’s totally goofy and says “Congratulations” to Jim Brown. He was the youngest ever producer to win an Oscar, at 23. His mother Ruth Hussey (who has a voiceover in the short) had been nominated for a supporting actress Oscar for THE PHILADELPHIA STORY. He later was a dialogue coach on THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK and cinematographer for some music videos and commercials.
I’m used to movies about horror fans taking things too far – everything from FADE TO BLACK to SCREAM. But westerns were somewhat of an archaic artform by the time I was growing up, so it’s interesting to see this “what if a guy was too into westerns” idea. It’s been a long time since you could easily imagine meeting a guy like that. Billy Ray in EL DIABLO actually lives in the Old West but he’s kind of the same – fantasizing about following in the footsteps of his larger-than-life heroes. He manages to make it work, though. Broncho Billy can only do it in his mind. But neither of them ever figured out how to talk to women.
February 9th, 2023 at 12:47 pm
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