IT’S BEEN FETED as the last spaghetti western, and damned as the final pathetic death spasms of punk rock. To some it’s the postmodern cult masterpiece that patented most of Tarantino’s riffs half a decade before Reservoir Dogs, to others a stunningly incoherent home movie of a million-dollar piss-up in the Spanish desert. Almost 20 years later, director Alex Cox’s sprawling gonzo-punk black comedy Straight To Hell still fiercely divides opinion even among those who starred in it.
“Straight To Shit’s what I call it’ Kathy Burke tells Uncut. “Bollocks.A great laugh, but that’s what the film looked like —‘look at us lot having a laugh But it was fantastic, sitting up on a mountain with Elvis Costello.”
Speaking to Uncut in the late ‘90s, Joe Strummer took a different view.
«A cinematic triumph,” argued the late Clash frontman. “The film’s a bit rough to watch, but what a fucking great time we had! The Pogues, me and Elvis Costello out in the desert — absolutely unbelievable. The stuff they cut out of that film — there’s a shot of Cait O’Riordan, Elvis Costello’s tied in a chair and she’s slapping nine bells of hell out of him! And they cut that out of the movie!”
More than 15 years later, Cox is unrepentant about the booze-fuelled rock’n’roll romp that almost killed his career after the acclaimed Repo Man (1984) and Sid & Nancy(1986). “A good spaghetti western should be chaotic, demented and hard to follow,” the Scouse director insists today. “It wouldn’t be a spaghetti western otherwise, would it?”
CHAOTIC AND DEMENTED doesn’t even begin to describe Straight To Hell. Opening with a bungled assassination, it follows three renegade hit men (Strummer, Sy Richardson and Dick Rude) and their mouthy moll (Courtney Love) as they lie low in a one-horse desert town ruled by the savage McMahon gang — played, in an inspired piece of casting, by punk-folk ruffnecks The Pogues. The two groups establish an uneasy truce, but simmering sexual tension and interference by an American oil tycoon (Dennis Hopper) eventually ignites an orgy of carnage that wipes out most of the cast. Along the way there are homages to Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah, plus moments of Buñuel-esque surrealism, all laced with random torture and cruelty. And, erm, did we mention it’s a comedy?
Named after a track on The Clash’s combat Rock album, Straight To Hell was scripted in three days flat by Strummer, Cox and Dick Rude, Cox’s former LA film-school buddy and Repo Man collaborator. Rude even incorporated scenes from his unfilmed sequel to Repo Man, called Beer Run, into the new screenplay. But the opening image of three bungling hit men was born from a boozy night that Strummer and the film-makers spent together at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1986.
«We were a pretty sorry sight:’ Rude recalls for Uncut. “None of us had a place to stay and Alex was being put up by the festival organisers because Sid & Nancy was there, so we all just crashed out in this one room. There really was no oxygen left in the room in the morning so we all woke up gasping for air amongst the fumes of our drunken sweat, and of course took our hangovers out into the street.”
Cox recruited his cast from the punks comedians, indie filmmakers and rock-star wannabes he knew in London, New York and LA. Kathy Burke, Elvis Costello, Dennis Hopper, Grace Jones, Jim Jarmusch — how many movies before or since can boast such a bizarre guest list of left-field stars? But perhaps the most eccentric casting choice was a chubby-Cheeked unknown called Courtney Love, making her debut in a leading role years before Nirvana and superstar junkie fame. Cox recalls Love as highly ambitious, focused and hard-working. But Rude is less diplomatic about the motives for casting her. “She had a loud, obnoxious voice and a personality to match,” he says. “Alex and I cast her because I think she was the most obnoxious woman we could think of, and we really wanted this kind of nagging, whining, loud, trampy chick to play that role. It was a no-brainer.”
STRAIGHT TO HELL was shot in Tabernas, a cod-Mexican ghost town near Almeria in southern Spain’s desert badlands. It had been built back in the early ‘70s for the Charles Bronson western Chino (aka Valdez The Halfbreed). Strummer, ‘Method’ acting his role, spent several nights sleeping on the set. By the time Spider Stacy flew in with his fellow Pogues, Strummer seemed to be suffering from sunstroke. “Joe got there a few days ahead of us,” Stacy tells Uncut today. “He was sleeping in a wrecked car out on the set. He really got into the whole thing. When we arrived, we were sitting in the hotel lobby. I had my whistle with me and started playing
'Danny Boy'. Joe just started sobbing and sprawled himself out with his head in my lap: 'Don't stop! Don't stop!' He suddenly went all Irish. 'Best fucking foot soldier in the world, the Irish Tommy!'... '
With temperatures topping 110°F, the desert shoot was appallingly uncomfortable. To maintain the film's S&M subtext, Cox employed "sex and cruelty consultant" Martin Taylor to fill the background scenes with torture, whipping and lynching. For an extra twist of sadism, Cox doused several cast members in sugary water to help attract flies.
"It was gruelling," says Stacy. "But it would've been a cop-out if we'd made things easy for ourselves. The heat, the set, the flies — and the Mariachi costumes we were wearing were really tightly buttoned. If you wanted to go to the loo it was a nightmare."
But Dick Rude plays down any bad memories. "I don't think I was ever uncomfortable," he says. "You have to understand I was like a pig in shit. I was 23 years old and I had the opportunity to write out
my fantasy, then go and play that out in the desert with people whose work and music I admired."
Despite the army of famous musicians, winos and junkies on set, Rude insists the making of Straight To Hell was relatively free of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll.
"I didn't notice a whole lot of drug-taking going on, but what happens behind closed doors is nobody's business," he says, diplomatically. "There was a whole lot of drinking going on, that's for certain. But not usually during the filming— more at the end of the day."
Cox agrees: "There was probably quite a bit of sex going on. Everybody drank wine and was stoned, but I imagine it was a lot less druggy than any Hollywood film. Nobody was on coke, nobody was on speed, there was no heroin. There was an innocent out-of-it-ness compared to a studio film."
Come on, Spider. Surely it was four weeks of sun, shooting up and shagging? "Ah, well, that sort of thing happened all the time anyway," shrugs Stacy. "There was just a lot of drinking done, sitting in glaring sunlight, which is a stupid thing to do. And also they had this cheap wine that seemed to be everywhere, which was consumed liberally. And it was horrible."
WITH A NON-STOP, all-night carnival taking place on the plaza next to the hotel for most of the shoot, it was inevitable that Straight To Hell would be soaked in booze. Shane MacGowan was inspired to write much of The Pogues' 1987 album If I Should Fall From Grace With God on set, including the heavily Spanish-influenced "Fiesta", but he was a reluctant movie star "Shane was negative before he even left," recalls Stacy. "But we'd just done another gruelling European tour and all he wanted to do was rest."
On balance, Cox concedes, the Pogues frontman would rather have been drinking than acting. "Shane was incapable of doing the same thing twice," the director laughs. "He's a poet rather than an actor. Elvis Costello is a serious actor —he pays attention and comes up with ideas, so it was interesting, the complete difference, the two extremes. Shane was more like —Why bother? Why am I even here?"'
But everyone snapped in to professional mode when Dennis Hopper arrived for his one day of filming. Even hell-raising, counterculture rock gods know when they are outgunned.
"He came for a day," recalls Cox. "Everybody was incredibly excited. And everybody came on set that day to watch him."
Stacey admits: "I was a bit in awe of him. I was being a complete wanker, really, because I was watching him to see a true professional at work, learning my craft! Ha, Ha! The offers haven't come flooding in. Perhaps I chose the wrong vehicle."
STRAIGHT TO HELL HIT cinemas like a bad smell in 1987. Most critics found it pretentious and jarringly incoherent. Cox went from promising punk newcomer
to off-the-rails auteur overnight.
“I don’t think anyone liked it!” laughs Rude. ‘Most people didn’t feel part of it, it was too self-indulgent, it was us out having a party and filming it. That was the main critique in the beginning. But if you show any spaghetti westerns to the general public they’re going to react in the same way—Hey, what is this about?’”
Hopper’s cameo invited parallels between Straight To Hell and The Last Movie, his notoriously incoherent Peruvian desert adventure from 1970 which killed his post-Easy Rider directing career stone dead. But Cox shrugs off the comparison.
“Straight To Hell isn’t as good as The Last Movie,” Cox argues today, “because The Last Movie is a really interesting piece of work, very complicated and dense, and has all these references to film-makers that Dennis really admired. I think The Last Movie is a profound work. I think it’s safer in a way to intend to be stupid rather than to be stupid accidentally But The Last Movie is a pretentious film which succeeds”.
Straight To Hell didn’t become a career meltdown on a par with The Last Movie, but it was the beginning of the end for Cox as a studio film-maker. The director went to Nicaragua a year later to shoot his sprawling political fable Walker with many of the same cast and crew, scoring another almighty flop that sealed his Hollywood reputation as a dangerous punk maverick. But Cox, ever the optimist, still jokes about the possibility of making a sequel, Back To Hell: I'm waiting for the money to come through,” he laughs.
In fairness, Cox’s demented spaghetti western has enjoyed a healthy cult afterlife, partly because of the rock’n’roll legends involved. The full soundtrack is released for the first time this month and features unreleased Pogues, Strummer and Pray For Rain compositions. And the notion of a blood-splattered
black comedy full of cinematic in-jokes and sharp-suited hit men certainly rings a few bells in this post-Tarantino age. Sy Richardson is a dead ringer for
Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction. Coincidence?
“I don’t think that’s coincidence at all,” argues Rude.“I have to say I was fairly shocked when I saw Pulp Fiction... I imagine Tarantino must have seen Straight To Hell and it must have clicked in his head and that’s the way things go, but who can say for sure?”
Straight To Hell is a landmark cult movie, and one of the best terrible films ever made. But for those involved, it represents punk rock’s last stand, going down with all guns blazing in the Spanish sun.
“All joking aside, it isn’t a masterpiece’ admits Spider Stacy. “But because I was in it and I had a really good time making it, I feel a great deal of affect on towards it. And I would happily sit through it, four or five times a day. every day for the rest of my life.”
The soundtrack for Straight To Hell, available from Big Beat/Ace records and is reviewed on p.112. The DVD is available from ILC films.
THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UNLIKELY
Who’s who in Straight To Hell’s amazing all-star cast…
Joe Strummer plays hot-headed hit man Simms. The Clash frontman also acted in and composed the score to Cox’s 1987 political yarn Walker.
Courtney Love plays Velma, a modern-day Bonnie Parker. Also had a small role in Sid & Nancy. Later formed Hole, married Kurt Cobain and became the grunge Madonna.
Dennis Hopper plays IG Farben, and oil tycoon named after the company that made cyanide gas for the Nazi death camps. Cox initially wanted Hopper for Harry Dean Stanton’s role in Repo Man.
Dick Rude plays junior hit man Willy. Co-wrote the movie but sold his script to Cox for a dollar. Now directs pop promos and long-form videos for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, among others.
Sy Richardson plays Norwood, cool-headed leader of the three assassins. Also a star of Repo Man. Sacked from his bank job when the Straight To Hell shoot overran. Met his wife on set.
The Pogues play the McMahon gang, a murderous bunch of deranged coffee addicts. Went on to chart success but folded in the early ‘90s, partly due to Shane MacGowan’s other addictions.
Kathy Burke plays Sabrina, the schizophrenic psycho-killer of grandpa McMahon. Became a much-loved TV comedienne, stage star and award-winning movie actress.
Elvis Costello plays Hives, stuffy English butler to the McMahon clan. Comes to a sticky end. Married his co-star, Pogues bassist Cait O’Riordan.
Jim Jarmusch plays Amos Dade, a sharp-suited killer apparently working for Farben’s oil interests. Cast Strummer in his 1989 rock’n’roll comedy Mystery Train.
Grace Jones plays Sonya, Farben’s silent sidekick. Spent a day on set after filming Siesta in Madrid. Looks confused. We know how she feels.