Less of a newly remastered version of Straight to Hell than a spruced-up second director’s cut of the film, Straight to Hell Returns is the same sketchy jallopy director Alex Cox unloaded on hapless viewers 23 years ago, except this time it’s got a fresh coat of paint and a few new accessories too. Even now, after the addition of a handful of scenes formerly left on the cutting room floor, and some new “blood-spurting” special effects, Cox’s acid western remains aggressively strange and affably silly. A bizarre homage to spaghetti westerns, especially Django, Kill, Straight to Hell was made on a lark, as Cox explains in “Back to Hell,” a rambling documentary featurette included on the film’s DVD. Cox banged out a script in three days with star Dick Rude in order to make a film that would help them to raise money for a concert tour through Nicaragua (touring bands would include Elvis Costello and the Clash). They then trekked out to a broken-down husk of a set in Almerila, Spain, which, according to Joe Strummer, was formerly the set of a nonexistent spaghetti western starring Charles Bronson called The Savage Cowboys, and shot Straight to Hell there in a little more than three weeks and in 110-degree weather. It was a fittingly fast and dirty shoot for a film that’s only as funny as it is exhaustively strained.
Cox, on some level, knew that. As in the majority of his other films, the comedy in Straight to Hell Returns stems from the fact that there’s no plot, the characters don’t know what they’re doing, and events violently spiral out of control on a regular basis. Straight to Hell‘s setup is the only simple thing about the film’s derelict plot: Three hitmen, Willy (Rude), Norwood (Sy Richardson), and Simms (Strummer), botch a job, rob a bank, and flee with Norwood’s pregnant wife (a pudgy and thoroughly unpleasant Courtney Love). The small town they escape to is a hellhole that’s the western equivalent of the swamp in Stever Gerber’s Man-Thing comics; it’s the unofficial center of the universe so all the local bandits converge on it at some point or another, including a gang led by Dade (Jim Jarmusch), the coffee-addicted McMahons (the Pogues, among others), and last, but not least, mini-mart mogul IG Farben (Dennis Hopper), named after the inventor of the gas chambers used in Auschwitz, and his girlfriend Sonya (Grace Jones). This is how Cox unwinds after making a film like Sid and Nancy, apparently.
Finding a way to make sense of the film’s plotless trajectory is hard, but if you see Farben’s character as the film’s real focus, you can kind of, sort of, maybe get what Cox is doing. Farben descends on the town when nobody’s looking and destroys it without effectively doing anything; he just drops a bandolier of ammo and a big gatling gun into Willford’s lap in the expectation that he’ll destroy the town’s inhabitants and help Farben make room for a new mini-mart. Farben’s the boogeyman, the singular spectral threat to everything Cox loves about the place. The nameless town is meant to be haunted by men that don’t know why they’re there, how to leave or do anything but shoot, torture, and molest each other. Poor weiner vendor Karl (Zander Schloss) is the primary target for all three recreational activities: A couple of the added scenes in Straight to Hell Returns simply consist of Karl being picked on some more, including a scene where Simms shoos him away by whipping a switchblade out and snarling, “Don’t ever talk to me again.” The newly added CGI blood similarly flows more freely in Straight to Hell Returns than in its preceding cut. Now you can catch a glimpse of Courtney Love’s pregnant skeleton burning in a car that’s just plunged off of a cliff. These new features are probably the most pointlessly excessive, but at least they’re perversely satisfying—as in the case of Love’s death scene.
The town, in that sense, is possessed by the ghosts of the spaghetti westerns that were filmed there. It serves as a kook magnet that only attracts caricatures of the already stick figure-like villains and antiheroes that used to call Almeria their old stomping grounds. Farben threatens that way of life and succeeds in eliminating it because, well, only a madman like Cox cares enough to revisit it. Farben isn’t a real threat because there’s nobody really threatening to destroy the memory of these disposable entertainments. They were made on the cheap and summarily forgotten. At least in making Straight to Hell Returns Cox has rescued his contextless objet de scat from a similarly unkind fate.
Straight to Hell Returns's biggest innovations are its newly restored 5.1 stereo soundtrack and new color scheme, supervised by cinematographer Tom Richmond. In other words, a lot more effort was put into the restoration process of the film than in actually making it the first time around. The film stock is more uniformly filtered through a sepia-toned palette, and now there's no grain to mar Richmond's lush wide-angle photography. The soundtrack is as good as it's ever going to get, a well-balanced mix that nicely foregrounds the peals of howling wind that often threaten to swallow up the film's protagonists.
Though there are only three special features on Microcinema's new release of Straight to Hell Returns, they're all charming in their own way. "Back to Hell" is an informative and rather tongue-in-cheek look back at the cast, what shooting the film was like according to them and where they are now. It features a number of funny, snarky, and memorably insincere anecdotes, as when Zander Schloss complains about being kicked around throughout the shoot or when two actors recall how their peers complained bitterly that they didn't get any of the mountains of cocaine clueless film reviewers erroneously insisted were being passed around on set. Alex Cox and Dick Rude throw together a characteristically smart and essential audio commentary track. Cox talks about the film's production history in such great detail that he often makes you wish the film he were talking over were as good as the one he's describing. Black Hills, a short student film Cox shot while still at school in 1977, is likewise pretty exciting, if only for the way it shows you what a young Cox was thinking when he first saw what would later become the sets for Straight to Hell.
A very well put-together repackaging of Alex Cox's ode to disposable entertainments, Straight to Hell Returns is a screwy and unsound blast.