Straight to Hell Returns

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Reviewer: Jeffrey M. Anderson
Rating (out of 5): ***½

Alex Cox's Straight to Hell Returns, which showed in some theaters in 2010, is along the same lines as Apocalypse Now Redux, but on a different scale. It's the same as Straight to Hell (1987), but Cox did a little editing and added some more blood. When the movie opened in 1987, viewers may have expected something along the lines of Cox's previous original but more straightforward features, Repo Man (1984) and Sid and Nancy (1986). Instead they were treated with a deliberately weird, nonsensical modern-day Western; most people turned up their noses, or ignored it altogether.

I admit that I was one of them. I tried to watch it on VHS as soon as it was available in 1987 or 1988 and couldn't figure out what to make of it either. Looking at it again, it has the benefit of time and lowered expectations, but it's still undeniably odd and not likely to win over many new fans. However, this time I enjoyed the film more... I didn't exactly laugh, but was constantly interested. It also made me wish I could have been on the set, which is something.

The film begins as four bumbling big-city bank robbers get away with several suitcases full of cash (although they keep dropping them, sending the bills flying in the wind). They are: Norwood (Sy Richardson), Simms (The Clash's Joe Strummer), Willy (Dick Rude), and the pregnant Velma (Courtney Love, yes that one). They wind up in a remote Western town where everything is dirty and weird. The people drink lots of coffee, and everyone picks on a hot dog vendor called Karl (Zander Schloss, of the Circle Jerks). A huge family known as the McMahons run the town. Shane McGowan (of the Pogues) plays one of them, and Xander Berkeley plays another, a preacher.

Everyone just sort of bides their time until the eldest McMahon is murdered, which leads to a huge shootout at the end (in this version, with more blood!). Lots of recognizable character actors turn up, sometimes in small parts, such as Dennis Hopper and Grace Jones, Elvis Costello (apparently, though so brief I missed him), and director Jim Jarmusch. About half the cast of Repo Man is here, too, including Richardson, Rude, Schloss, Miguel Sandoval, Jennifer Balgobin, Sue Kiel, Fox Harris, and more. In case you haven't noticed, for some reason half of the cast are musicians of some kind; there was a rumor that the movie started out as a concert, but funding fell through and they decided to make a movie instead.

Half of the movie has Cox paying homage to the things he loves, such as music and Westerns, and the other half looks like he's merely trying to come up with something to do. It's a very weird vibe, and it requires one to not only accept, but also embrace, boredom. If the movie has one theory, it's this: if you stare long enough at a certain spot, something weird and cool is bound to happen.

Microcinema released Straight to Hell Returns on DVD with lots of cool extras, including a "where-are-they-now" featurette. Cox and co-writer Rude provide a commentary track, and there's some vintage footage of a tour of the set. Microcinema will also apparently be releasing more Cox films on DVD.

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