A storm is coming to town and Kinski is coming with it! And God Said to Cain is one of those films that manage to defy almost all of their genre conventions. Directed by Antonio Margheriti, a man better known for his gothic horror films it comes as no surprise that this film is every bit horror as it is a western, in fact the film leans more towards the former. The film is full of all the things you’d expect from Italian gothic horror, cobwebs, burning houses, dutch tilt angles, sparse lighting and a severe overdose of fog.
Innocently sentenced to life in a prison camp protagonist Gary Hamilton (Kinski) finds himself pardoned after only 10 years. What follows is the usual trail of revenge, with Kinski returning to his home town to kill the man who set him up and took his girl. The film is quite similar to Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter in its simplicity and weirdness. Although the film sounds like the usual Spaghetti Western tale of revenge the film differs in many ways. After the first twenty five minutes we hardly ever see the ‘hero’ or at least not clearly, nor do we don’t see a ray of sunlight, and aside from the Django style opening theme the traditional spaghetti western style music is replaced with organs and strings.
Margheriti is in his element here. The nature of the Italian film industry often forced directors in to genres that they found themselves uncomfortable in, usually with tragic results (see Bava’s westerns), but Margheriti manages to adapt to the genre perfectly without sacrificing any of his trademark gothic style. Part of why the film is a success is because it’s a film that just could not have been made by any other director working in westerns at the time. The doors slam, fog engulfs the town, the priest sits playing at his organ as the carnage goes down and the church bell mysteriously continues to ring (with a truly gothic pay off). From the hour mark onwards you’re in true Italian horror territory.
I knew about the film’s reputation before I saw it, but even so nothing could have really prepared me for the experience of this one. I thought Four of the Apocalypse and Django Kill were gothic and this beats those two hands down on that front. Once night falls the violence and killing never lets up as Kinski picks off the townspeople one by one. The film is pretty much unconcerned with subplots. Kinski does meet up with two former friends from the old days but aside from that the film is pretty much an unrelenting attack from the half hour mark to the finish. Much of the samurai influence from Yojimbo is left behind. Kinski doesn’t care to fight fair or out in the open, nor does he care how he kills people, his only goal is to kill everybody hired by the man who framed him.
The set design as with most spaghetti westerns is top notch. Italy around this period truly had the best set designers around, managing to transform the same sets over and over with a minimal budget. Kinski’s costuming choice however is most certainly odd. He shows up in the town in a long Djangoish looking coat and truly looks like death incarnate. But then in the last half hour he loses the coat and runs around in a red shirt (truly a bizarre choice). I’m not usually one to complain about something as small as a costuming choice but in a film like this I feel it doesn’t do as much for the atmosphere as the black coat would have. However when my biggest complaint about a film is something as inconsequential as how long the lead wears his coat you know the film is good.
Thankfully Kinski is given very little dialogue as I was less than impressed with the dub job. Not that there was much wrong with the guy doing his voice, but hearing someone as recognizable as Kinski with a straight up American accent coming out of his mouth really helps to kill the mood. Fortunately however after the first half hour or so the character disappears in to the shadows and we don’t see him talk much at all throughout the rest of the film.
Unfortunately like many of the great spaghetti westerns this film remains very hard to see in the UK and US but it’s definitely one to hunt down even if you hate westerns. Its films like this that make Italian genre cinema special. Just when you feel like you have a genre’s conventions pinned films like this and The Great Silence pop up and throw you a curveball. And God Said To Cain has everything great cult movies are made of.