THE PHANTOM GUNSLINGER (EL PISTOLERO FANTASMA)
Starring Troy Donahue, Sabrina, Emilio Fernandez, Carlos Rivas, German Robles, Elizabeth Campbell, Pedro Armandariz Jr. , and Billy Frick
produced circa 1967, released in Mexico in 1970
produced, co-written, and directed by Albert Zugsmith
(note: this film is included as second feature on a lovely 3-disc Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack from Vinegar Syndrome, accompanying the Russ Meyer/Albert Zugsmith German-lensed production of FANNY HILL from 1964)
As a fan of both producer (and sometime director) Albert Zugsmith and of actor Troy Donahue, I have been interested in this film for decades, but it seemed to have fallen off the face of the earth. The IMDB mentions a VHS release in Germany in the 1980’s, but films issued on PAL European VHS usually find their way into collectors’ trading circles on DVD-R, and this had NEVER surfaced. A clip was online in the mid-1990’s, and I managed to watch a few seconds of it (not even enough to tell if it was in English or Spanish—-the rumor I’d heard was that it was shot in both) before my dial-up computer crashed. Now, thanks to Vinegar Syndrome (I was a contributor to VS’s initial project, a crowd-funded release of three “lost” Herschell Gordon Lewis sex-oriented films), THE PHANTOM GUNSLINGER is on the bottom of the bill (where it should have played at US drive-ins but, alas, did not) with another Zugsmith project, Russ Meyer’s FANNY HILL, in a handsome 3 – disc set. Clearly, the Meyer film is the drawing card for most viewers, but I’ll leave that to others to review, and indeed, they already have. I’m old enough to have seen Meyer’s 1970’s output theatrically (and some of the late 60’s items such as VIXEN and CHERRY, HARRY & RAQUEL were still playing theatrically in the mid 70’s) and even got to chat with Meyer himself at the Denver “champagne premiere” of BENEATH THE VALLEY OF THE ULTRA VIXENS at the Ogden Theater on East Colfax, where the director himself poured the champagne, so I’m happy that FANNY HILL (a quirky, troubled production that’s not really typical of Meyer’s work….it certainly would not be the film I showed someone to get him/her interested in Meyer) has made it to Blu-Ray/DVD in a sparkling, eye-popping transfer. However, we’re here to discuss the other film on the program.
I first heard of Zugsmith when I was a teenager in the 1970’s. First of all, his “golden age” films, many of which starred Mamie Van Doren, were given extremely low ratings (often “Bomb”) in Leonard Maltin’s film guide, so THAT intrigued me, and also films such as THE PRIVATE LIVE OF ADAM AND EVE never played on TV, at least in the areas where I lived. Second, when I was in high school, a few of us collected odd and obscure 16mm trailers, which we’d splice into reels and then watch in the HS auditorium. We created a school club for this, believe it or not. One of our handful of club members worked at a theater in Blackhawk/Central City and thus he had access to lots of strange trailers, one of which was called MOVIE STAR AMERICAN STYLE, OR LSD I HATE YOU (circa 1968), which was directed by the same Albert Zugsmith who’d made the Mamie Van Doren films years before. It looked to have been shot in black and white but “color tinted” (as with the Filipino sections of Al Adamson’s HORROR OF THE BLOOD MONSTERS) and the parts I saw also seemed to have been shot silent and post-synced with ironic dialogue and commentary (although as the film has not yet re-surfaced, I can’t swear the whole film is post-synced). While today, anyone can see strange z-grade sexploitation films such a Barry Mahon’s SEX KILLER or the various films of Doris Wishman (and hundreds of films a few rungs BELOW those) on DVD, at the time, I’d never seen any grungy z-grade porn or films such as BABY LIGHT MY FIRE or BLONDE ON A BUM TRIP, so MOVIE STAR AMERICAN STYLE seemed edgy and strange. Also, the super-low budget and grimy quality of the film seemed odd coming from someone who’d once worked with Orson Welles and produced films for MGM. Needless to say, that trailer planted a seed in me, and since then, I’ve sought out any 1960’s Zugsmith films I could find, and yes, the ones I’ve seen such as PSYCHOPATHIA SEXUALIS (aka On Her Bed Of Roses) WERE both grimy and very low budget. And edgy, though not in the manner that most would associate with the word. The trailer for MOVIE STAR AMERICAN STYLE is on You Tube, and it’s somewhat the same as I remembered it (though my memory embellished it a bit over the decades). Let’s watch it before we discuss THE PHANTOM GUNSLINGER: http://youtu.be/3DpTmvmz-u4 .
Notice the nods to silent comedy—-the very over-the-top slapstick, the ridiculous sound effects (heard on the cut-up versions of silent films that played television in the 50’s and early 60’s, and which was parodied in Jay Ward’s FRACTURED FLICKERS), the pie fights, etc. It’s kind of like an R-rated, scuzzy version of the kind of primitive gag-oriented humor found in Keystone Kops-era Mack Sennett or the films of Larry Semon….or in the trio A Ton Of Fun….the kind of shorts NOT praised as great art the way Keaton or Harry Langdon are. The kind of humor, minus the sex and the decadent Hollywood vibe, is what Albert Zugsmith pursued and took to the limit in THE PHANTOM GUNSLINGER. Comedy westerns had some draw at the box office (think Cat Ballou and TV’s F Troop) and The Monkees TV series (which seems a BIG influence on Phantom Gunslinger) was both a popular AND a critical hit with its sped-up slapstick and surreal plots and situations, so perhaps Zugsmith felt that a combination of the two would be marketable, amped up and going WAY beyond what anyone else was doing in terms of PURE slapstick, and then taking it lightyears beyond THAT in terms of being self-reflexive and out-cartooning the cartoons. That’s what we’ve got here with THE PHANTOM GUNSLINGER, and say what you will about Zugsmith and his body of work, NO ONE had ever made a film like this before, and no one has made one since.
After his successful run as a producer and then director in the late 50’s and early 60’s, a run that seemed to die out following the release of 1961’s DONDI, based on the comic strip, and 1962’s CONFESSIONS OF AN OPIUM EATER, starring Vincent Price (a pulpy surreal trip of a film that is now available on DVD from the Warner Archive and should not be missed by ANY fans of Price or of the bizarre), Zugsmith seemed to be testing the waters of international production. Films could be made MUCH cheaper in countries such as Mexico or The Philippines, and with Zugsmith’s track record as a successful Hollywood producer to impress the locals in other countries, he probably did not have trouble finding investors and getting support from local authorities. The IMDB lists two shot-in-the-Phillipines Zugsmith productions for 1963, both starring the great George Nader (AFTER his Shannon TV series but before his series of German-made Jerry Cotton crime films), ZIGZAG and THE GREAT SPACE ADVENTURE (ZIGZAG, of course, has nothing to do with the 1970 film of the same name starring George Kennedy). FANNY HILL was made in Germany in 1964, and Zugsmith made a film in Mexico prior to PHANTOM, a strange mystery called THE CHINESE ROOM, that is allegedly based on the famous racy novel by Vivian Connell. CHINESE ROOM can be found among grey-market video dealers if one searches, and it’s a fascinating dream-like film that should be rediscovered. After getting a VHS copy in the 90’s, I tracked down the source novel, and while it’s been almost 20 years since I read it and watched Zugsmith’s film, I remember that very little was taken from the novel beyond the title and some general concepts and a few details. THE CHINESE ROOM shared some cast members with THE PHANTOM GUNSLINGER, so I’m guessing ROOM was made first and that PHANTOM was the follow-up.
I don’t believe THE PHANTOM GUNSLINGER got a US theatrical release, which is a shame because it’s so ODD that had it been dumped on the bottom of the double-bill at drive-ins, the word-of-mouth about it would have made it a cult film years ago. It also does not seem to have ever gotten in American television rotation…I don’t remember it ever playing UHF stations at 3 in the morning. There are Mexican movie posters of it in circulation (see one below) and it’s listed among Mexican film releases, so we know it played there…which leads me to another question. I’d heard way back when (don’t ask me where) that this was available in both English and Spanish versions, as I believe THE CHINESE ROOM was. The Mexican actors used in the film all seem to be speaking English, so perhaps Zugsmith cast the film with Mexican actors and actresses who also spoke English. What’s the Spanish version like, and where is it? Who knows….
In any event, the print used here of the English version is sparkling and widescreen and far better than one would have expected. The best way to describe THE PHANTOM GUNSLINGER is to say that it revels in taking every Western cliche to and beyond the limit AND it’s kind of like a live-action version of a Road Runner cartoon. The fine musical score is pure cartoon, the acting is broad and exaggerated as much as in a Dean Martin or Carol Burnett TV show skit, some characters have their names and/or functions listed on signs which they wear, and the hero, played by Troy Donahue (who was always good with comedy, particularly in his “second career”), gets killed many times and comes back to life just like Wile E. Coyote. I can’t say that I’ve ever seen anything remotely like this before. Director Albert Zugsmith clearly liked the lowest-brow silent comedy (or perhaps the parodies of them such as Fractured Flickers) and knew how to handle Bowery Boys-style rough-housing, and he serves up both for 90 minutes here. And that might be the problem for the average viewer….in some ways this reminds me of those feature films which grew out of Saturday Night Live skits. They are funny in ten-minute doses, but drag when extended to feature length. Considering that silent comedy shorts were either one or two reels and Three Stooges two-reelers ran for 17 minutes or so, it could be that a full feature film of this kind of low-brow physical comedy and absurdist exaggeration of western cliches is too much for the average viewer.
However, those who enjoy the bizarre and who revel in films which are totally uncommercial will undoubtedly savor THE PHANTOM GUNSLINGER. The print is beautiful, the film is full of eye-popping color and attractive western sets, the original musical score by Gustavo Carreon makes you feel like you are at a circus during the clown sequences, and the entertaining all-star cast of Mexican supporting actors and actresses (in English!) along with Sabrina and of course Troy Donahue (looking a bit like Arch Hall Jr.) make things enjoyable to watch….IF you want 90 minutes of cartoon-style Western comedy made in Mexico. I have a feeling that Albert Zugsmith achieved EXACTLY what he set out to with this film…and I’ll take this unique product from the mind of auteur Zugsmith over 99% of what’s playing at the local multiplex.