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
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?