Friday, March 10, 2017

Past Misdeeds: Riders of the Whistling Skull (1937)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

The archaeologist father (John Van Pelt) of a gal named Betty Marsh (Mary Russell) has disappeared on an expedition to find a lost Indian city in the American South West. Just when Betty and a few friends of her father's - all Professors of something or other, it seems - are beginning to set out on a search expedition for him, Professor Marsh's partner in archaeology stumbles in and gasps something about having located and hidden (read: stolen from the native people it belongs to) a gold treasure guarded by "the whistling skull", and him and Marsh having been captured by a "cult of Indians". Before the man can get into more details, somebody extinguishes the lights in the windowless room all this has taken place in and knifes him in the back with a sacrificial dagger. Looks like not everyone in the room is a friend of Professor Marsh. But hey, at least the dead guy was carrying a coded map to the good Professor's place of captivity.

Betty isn't too impressed by one little murder and decides to go through with her search expedition anyway. She also has found some steadfast friends to help her through any physical troubles, three upright - or as upright as a group of people that includes a guy traveling with a ventriloquist doll can be - cowboys known as the Three Mesquiteers (Robert Livingston, Ray Corrigan, Max Terhune). Now, there's only the knifing traitor among the expedition and the small problem of the evil cult to deal with.

I'm not too experienced with the B-westerns of the 30s, so you'll have to find someone else to put the brilliantly titled Riders of the Whistling Skull into the broader context of its genre at the time, or explain to you who the hell the Three Mesquiteers were besides the heroes of a series of (popular, it seems) Republic western movies, or why one of them is moonlighting as a ventriloquist. What I am experienced with are genre mash-ups that try to make up for their low budgets by enthusiastically throwing elements of different genres (here: Western, adventure and weird menace) together to give an audience in search for cheap thrills - usually the best sort - their money's worth. After all, I have seen my share of lucha movies. Fortunately, Riders is exactly a genre mash-up of the sort that Mexican popular cinema would roll with a few decades later. If they'd replaced the three cowboys with Mil Mascaras wearing an astonishing assortment of eye-gouging fashion, this could be part of any of my favourite series of lucha films.

As the lucha movies I'll just imagine it has inspired, Riders suffers from some typical b-movie problems. The unthinking racism of the culture of its time in the portrayal of the Indians is quite annoying (all Indians are evil, "half-bloods" even more so, etc.), and just applying a little thought will also let one realize that the heroes of the piece are morally in the wrong, stealing other people's gold treasures and all. I can't take this sort of thing too seriously in a film like Riders that isn't really arguing for racism as much as unthinkingly reproducing the morals of its time, though, and so have no problems just letting these evils slide, which is probably one of the luxuries of not being a Native American myself.

Furthermore, the acting - especially of the minor characters - is rather stiff, with some of the assorted Professors being the worst offenders. To my complete surprise, none of said Professors is used for comic relief; Riders has other characters to do this dirty work, and they are as unfunny as every comic relief character in the history of cinema, ever. On the positive side, the film is so short - with a running time of just 53 minutes - that its comical interludes are never longer than thirty seconds in a row. The "comedy" is still causing quite a lot of pain.

However, that's all the negative aspects I can find in the movie. Everything else is golden, at least if one is willing and able to make one's peace with the clichés and traditions of popular cinema of a bygone era. If you are at least willing to try - I obviously do - you might find in Riders of the Whistling Skull a film that is trying its darndest to make liking it easy for you.
The film's sprightly pace makes it easy to overlook its not always logical plotting. There is hardly a minute going by in which nothing with entertainment value is happening, be it shoot-outs, energetic bouts of fisticuffs or the sort of "weird ritual" you can stage on a five dollar budget. I'm quite fond of director Mack V. Wright's use of some fine dusty canyons, mountains and hills. The landscape is well enough photographed to make a cheap movie look that much more impressive. Sure, these locations might be for minor westerns of the 30s what Bronson Canyon is for cheap horror films of the 50s, but I haven't seen enough of the former to have much of a problem with that.

Cheap and fast entertainment is what Riders of the Whistling Skull promises, and cheap and fast thrills is what the viewer gets. Honestly, what more could one ask of a film like it?

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