Original title: La notte dei serpenti
aka Nest of Vipers
Alcoholic gringo Luke (Luke Askew) has been taken in by one of the archetypal gangs of bandits/revolutionaries that dominate Italian Mexico and the border regions of the US to Mexico. The charming people use Luke as their mascot and punching bag. The band’s leader is not completely without morals – even if it’s the sort that’ll not hinder him from killing quite ruthlessly – yet he’s not above lending Luke out as the perfect scapegoat and one-time killer for the plans of the police chief (which means he is his own kind of little violent potentate) of a neighbouring village. That man (Luigi Pistilli) has gotten in on reaping the fruits of a semi-accidental killing, and he and his not quite so willing co-conspirators just need somebody like Luke to either kill a child, or at least take the fall for the deed.
Turns out they couldn’t have chosen a worse alcoholic, for Luke’s mandatory trauma is just the right one to get him to leave off the tequila, take up his gun, and do some very practical things to assuage his guilt.
Just when I thought I finally truly had seen all the good films the Spaghetti Western had to offer and was basically down to Demofilo Fidano films (a fate as worse as death, and probably more painful than most deaths), along comes Giulio Petroni’s Night of the Serpent. I shouldn’t be too surprised, really, because Petroni’s handful of westerns is always at least interesting.
As a director Petroni here fluctuates between competently regurgitating stylistic elements of the genre he’s working in (his fast eye zooms are particularly dangerous there) and breaking them up or in with moments reminding me of completely different things. There are, for example, a handful of scenes staged as if they belonged into an old west gothic, or perhaps an atypical giallo. Particularly the initial murder-by-accident comes to mind here, but there are bits and pieces of this sort sprinkled throughout the film, turning it at times into something stranger or perhaps more personal than your typical Spaghetti Western.
Petroni also adds quite a few other strange moments to the film – there’s for example the mildly perverse subplot about two of the conspirators – the local priest and the local prostitute – and the rather unhealthy thing that’s going on between them. These moments give the film a peculiar mood and demonstrate a good degree of disgust towards your typical bourgeois, towards minor authority figures (and the film is good at emphasising how tiny these people’s authority is in the large run of things) who only ever misuse their little power and then whine about the consequences.
Consequently, the film’s positive figures are a self-destructive loser with something to feel as guilty about as his enemies, the local female shaman peyote popper, and a kid who explains he likes a certain of his relations best because that one doesn’t hit him as hard when he beats him up. Oh, it really is 1969, isn’t it?
Night isn’t quite as cynical (I’m tempted to say noirish, given the philosophical outlook) as some other Spaghetti Westerns, so it finds a kind of happy ending that might actually see the surviving characters grown through the violent proceedings. In another fine twist, it does so not in the traditional manner but by breaking up the climactic show-down through some surprising business I’m unwilling to spoil. Petroni is again playing with the expected formula here and at the very least deserves a smile and a bit of praise for that, as well as for turning what could have been a bog standard example of its genre into something a little different, without ever leaving the formula too far behind.