Camp Town Violence
Straight to Hell Returns, the updated version of Alex Cox’s 1987 spaghetti Western homage/send-up Straight to Hell, includes, according to its distributor, “digitally improved violence and cruelty” along with six missing scenes and a new soundtrack and color design. The film follows three killers-turned-bank robbers — competent enough to steal a couple suitcases of money, but stupid enough to use a getaway car that breaks down in the middle of nowhere. Stranded, the trio — Norwood (Sy Richardson), Sims (Joe Strummer) and Willy (co-writer Dick Rude) — buries the money in the sand and wanders into a seemingly deserted town that’s nothing of the sort. Everything that follows is absurd, bizarrely funny and often campily violent, though nothing’s quite as campy as Courtney Love as Velma, Norwood’s pregnant wife, who mostly squeals and throws herself across the screen.
The story of how Straight to Hell came to get made, and to star an odd handful of musical talent, is as curious as the film itself: Straight to Hell exists because, as Cox explains on his website, “It was easier to raise $1 [million] for a low-budget feature starring various musicians than to find $75,000 to film them playing in a revolutionary nation in the middle of a war.” Strummer, The Pogues and Elvis Costello had recently played a benefit concert in the U.K. for Nicaragua’s Sandinista National Liberation Front, and a plan was made for the bands to tour Nicaragua. When that didn’t fly — Cox writes that in the mid-’80s political climate, they couldn’t find a video company to fund the tour — the musicians had a month set aside and nothing to do with it. So they all made a film instead.
Straight to Hell Returns is as loopy and peculiar as you’d expect from a film that features The Pogues as a gang of bandits obsessed with coffee and Dennis Hopper and Grace Jones as a couple with an agenda and a large suitcase full of weaponry. It was met with less than glowing reviews — Robert Ebert called it “uneasy about itself” — but there’s a giddy allure to all the liaisons and coffee cups, blood splatters and lurid deaths. Last month, Cox told L.A. Weekly that it had been “a struggle to make a film with not really enough money,” adding, “Maybe our mistake was also letting on that it was tremendous fun at the same time.” In the end, the fun is more apparent than the tiny budget. Alex Cox presents Straight to Hell Returns at 8 pm Thursday, Dec. 9, at the Bijou. — Molly Templeton