Before the big horror and poliziotteschi boom of the mid 70s and 80s, Italy’s number one genre export was the immortal spaghetti western. Violent, cynical, and churned out by the hundreds, spaghetti westerns we the genre for mercenary Italian directors to shoot. Considering their often cruel tones and gory scenes (An ear-removal scene in Sergio Corbucci’s Django caused the film to be banned in the UK for 27 years), it should come as no surprise that if you look deep enough into any given horror maestro’s filmography, you’re bound to find at least one film packed with spurs and six-guns.

Seriously, everyone was working on these. Dario Argento, Sergio Martino, Bruno Mattei, Ruggero Deodato, Antonio Margheriti, Mario Bava – all of them worked on some of the most notable spaghetti westerns of all time, as screenwriters, second unit, or even just plain and simple directors. But while the genre is packed to the brim with big names in horror, none of them took advantage of the genre trappings quite like Lucio Fulci. Sure, Martino’s A Man Called Blade and Margheriti’s And God Said to Cain have heavy shades of horror to them, but Fulci’s spaghetti bloodbaths took it to the next level – and as the spaghetti western rose and fell, over the course of 12 years and 3 films, Fulci became the Italian Godfather of Gore we know and love.

Massacre Time, released in the US as The Brute and the Beast, is not only Fulci’s first western – it’s his first violent genre film. While the prolific director had dabbled with war-themed comedies before trying his hand at the western (How We Got into Trouble with the Army, The Two Parachutists, Oh! The Most Secret Agents), he hadn’t yet dabbled in the wanton violence and cruelty that would come to define his career. Massacre Time changed everything.

Released in the height of the genre’s popularity in 1966 – the year of Navajo Joe, A Bullet for the General, Django, and most importantly, The Good, the Bad, and the UglyMassacre Time was very much a product of the trend. The film focuses on Tom Corbett (Franco Nero), a prospector who is recalled to his hometown by a family friend. Unfortunately, when he arrives, he finds the town is now under the iron grip of the Scott family, wealthy landowners who have bought up the town and are driving the poor farmers out of work, killing any who organize against them. As violence rises and Tom finds himself lacking people to trust, he must team up with his drunkard brother Jeff (George Hilton) to make things right.

The strangest thing about Massacre Time s that right off the bat, the pacing doesn’t quite feel like a western. For the first hour or so, very few bullets are ever fired, and when they are, the trigger is being pulled by shadowy assassins. Instead, the film focuses on Tom’s investigation of the town and the Scotts, complete with wild twists, secret family ties, and the pacing resembling one of Fulci’s later gialli much more than a Corbucci bloodbath.

Of course, just because Massacre Time is slow, doesn't mean it's boring. Nero, hot off the heels of the box-office busting and career defining Django, is at the top of his game as Tom, giving a performance somewhere between Django’s tortured gunfighter and the more playful pistoleros seen in The Mercenary and Companeros. Hilton, on the other hand, is very much in-element as the comedic drunk, playing the same type of protagonist he’d play for nearly his entire spaghetti western career. Not that there’s a problem with that here – Hilton and Nero’s banter makes every dialogue exchange enjoyable, even if the man in charge of dubbing Nero isn’t quite up to snuff.

Like many westerns of its era (For a Few Dollars More, Day of Anger, Death Rides a Horse), Massacre Time has something of a preoccupation with family. Beyond the brothers, nearly every character in the film ties into the recurring motif of family bonds, by relation or otherwise. This is especially apparent in the villainous Scotts, consisting of the wise, calculated Jason Scott (Giuseppe Addobbati) and his son, the unpredictably violent ‘Junior’ Scott (Nino Castelnuovo). Out of every character in the film, Junior is the most recognizably Fulci – he’s a big ball of sexual frustration and sadism, leading to the most horrifically violent acts in the film.

Unfortunately, Junior not only holds the distinction of being the most sadistic character in Massacre Time – he also has the dubious honor of rivaling only Jack Palance’s Curly in The Mercenary as the most discomfortingly gay coded villain of the genre, lusting after his elderly father in between delicately plucking a rose and caressing his revolver in a manner that recalls the infamous pistol-for-penis allegory of Bonnie and Clyde more than anything else. It’s an unfortunate archetype that stems back to Old Hollywood, but at the very least, Junior’s screen time is mercifully more focused on other characters than him.

While spaghetti westerns were no stranger to cruelty, it should come as no surprise that Massacre Time rests comfortably behind Django and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly as the most relentlessly sadistic genre offering of 1966. It’s clear that even nearly a decade before his more conventional horror offerings, Lucio Fulci had a thing for violence. Even before the opening credits roll, Junior has sicced hunting dogs on a poor man, which graphically pounce on him and maul him in a shallow lake, the water running red with his blood. This just about sets the standard for the scenes to come, which are filled with increasingly gruesome levels of gore.

However, the real highlight of Massacre Time is hinted at right in its title. Yes, the film contains a massacre, and yes, it’s a sight to behold. The film’s final twenty minutes may not have the masterful editing and high stakes of a Corbucci, a Sollima, or a Leone, but it compensates by delivering a proto-John Woo shootout, packed to the brim with roaring guns, crumpling bad guys, ridiculous acrobatics, and yes, even doves. Perhaps most surprising of all is Massacre Time’s inclusion of squibs when bandits are gunned down – not even in Django was there any blood to go along with collapsing bodies. Sure, the squibs may not quite be Contraband level (After all, what is?), but they give the shootouts a unique Hong Kong flavor that few westerns possess.

After Massacre Time, Fulci would take a break from the spaghetti western in favor of gialli (A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, Don’t Torture a Duckling) and raunchy comedies (Operation San Pietro, The Eroticist). But in 1975, long after the spaghetti western boom had died down, he returned to the Italian west with one of the finest films of the genre’s dying days – Four of the Apocalypse.

A loose adaptation of Bret Harte’s acclaimed short stories The Luck of Roaring Camp and The Outcasts of Poker Flat, Four of the Apocalypse follows Stubby (Fabio Testi), a card sharp who rides into the town of Salt Flats and is immediately greeted by an arrest. While in jail, he finds himself sharing a cell with three other colorful characters; Bunny (Lynne Frederick), a pregnant teenage prostitute, Clem (Michael J. Pollard), the town drunk, and Bud (Harry Baird), a man who believes he can communicate with the dead. Unfortunately for the four, they just so happen to be locked together the night that a squad of hooded vigilantes decide to clean up the sinners of their town with a hail of bullets, and the next day, they’re sent out into the wilderness without a penny to their names, and terror lying in wait.

Right off the bad, the most fascinating aspect of Four of the Apocalypse, in context of both Fulci’s filmography and the spaghetti western as a genre, is how shockingly beautiful and humane a good chunk of the film is. The titular four may not always get along, but Ennio De Concini’s script makes sure they always look out for each other, and the actors (Particularly Testi and Frederick) do a great job at capturing the warmth of their characters as they tend to and care for each other out in the harsh wilderness.

Even when the characters aren’t directly interacting with each other, there’s a quiet beauty to the journey thanks to stunning cinematography by Sergio Salvati. Four of the Apocalypse may have been the first collaboration between Salvati and Fulci (He would later shoot Silver Saddle, Zombi 2, Contraband, The Black Cat, and the entire Gates of Hell trilogy), but it’s clear that they’re already on the same wavelength – all of the duo’s signature visuals, from close-ups of handguns to even tighter zooms on eyes, Four of the Apocalypse looks distinctly Fulci while still capturing the beauty of the American wilderness.

Of course, the beauty of the landscapes and the kindness of the characters only makes the film even more heartbreaking when tragedy strikes in the form of Chaco (Spaghetti western superstar and Don’t Torture a Duckling actor Tomás Milián), a savage bandit who tags along with the group, and plans to torture and rob the four when they let their guards down. Chaco is hardly Milián’s best role, but it’s him at his most sadistic, reveling in the pain and suffering he causes without resorting to comical laughter or cartoonish monologues. The carnage is enough.

Boy, what carnage it is. While Massacre Time was violent for its time, Four of the Apocalypse is downright unpleasant even for modern sensibilities. Not only are Massacre Time’s tiny squibs now meaty spectacles of flesh, blood, and bone, but Chaco’s sadism gives Fulci a chance to experiment with the upsetting imagery that would define his career. Chaco flays men, he pins tin stars under their skin and into their heart, he graphically guns down unarmed men, women, and children for their meager money and supplies. He’s a demon made flesh, a monster of the highest order, and his presence casts a long shadow over every scene in Four of the Apocalypse, regardless of if he’s even in it or not. Because a world that lets men like Chaco thrive is no world for our kind protagonists and innocent villagers. Yet, they fight on, doing their best to keep their humanity in a world where the worst in men can’t help but bubble to the surface.

That’s the beauty of Four of the Apocalypse. It’s a film of stark contrasts – snowy mountains and arid deserts, lovable preachers and detestable bandits, beautiful humanity and shocking cruelty. It’s not an easy act to balance such conflicting scenes and tones, but Fulci does it, only slightly stumbling with a poorly paced third act. Still, it’s clear that Four of the Apocalypse is the work of an artist entering his golden age – despite being tonally different from the films that put him on the map, it’s still covered in his authorial stamps, and told every bit as well as his non-linear, structure-shattering later films. it’s a beautiful work from a brilliant director, and a perfect testament to Fulci’s mastery of the craft beyond gore and terror.

Silver Saddle, on the other hand, is not. Fulci’s final western isn’t quite the post-Trinity farcical comedies that killed the genre, but it’s not too far from it. The film follows Roy Blood (A Pistol for Ringo star and genre icon Guliano Gemma) a bounty hunter with a grudge against the wealthy Barrett family. So when he learns of a bounty on one Thomas Barrett, he accepts the job without hesitation – until he learns that Thomas is a young boy. Roy saves his life, and in seconds, finds himself thrust into a convoluted kidnapping conspiracy. Also surrogate fatherhood.

Here’s what’s so weird about Silver Saddle; it’s a film stuck in a proverbial limbo between two inconsistent tones and styles. Yes, Four of the Apocalypse jumps between gory horror and heartfelt melodrama, but the overall texture is always very adult. Sadly, Silver Saddle has no such consistency. Is it a grimy, operatic spaghetti western like the Gemma-starring Return of Ringo? No, because too much of the film is spent on slapstick shenanigans between Roy and Barrett. So it it a fun, family-oriented western? Well, it can’t be that either, because the film’s explicit, bloody shootouts are among the most graphic set pieces of the genre’s late period. So Silver Saddle just sort of ‘is’, lacking any scene-to-scene consistency, making it a bafflingly torturous watch.

For what it’s worth, Silver Saddle at least looks quite pretty. Salvati’s cinematography is arguably even better here than it was in Four of the Apocalypse, with sweeping camera movements, snap zooms, and some clever examples of characters entering and leaving the frame in creative ways. Plus, the color palette’s a lot more vibrant than the rest of Fulci’s spaghetti westerns – especially in the opening scene, which has an odd, washed-out watercolor look to it, complete with dull greens against a pink sky.

Honestly though, there isn’t much else all that impressive in Silver Saddle. The action set-pieces, while well choreographed and well shot, are filled with nearly-comedic asides that feel all sorts of wrong in between men getting burned alive and bullets tearing people apart. The performances aren’t anything to write home about either – the supporting cast (Consisting of about six more characters than necessary) is mostly annoying, and I got serious ‘Bob from The House by the Cemetery’ vibes from the young Barrett. Even Gemma, the old faithful, is clearly tired here, not unlike Lee Van Cleef in his later western performances, and it’s no surprise that Silver Saddle was his last film before hanging up the six guns. There’s no way around it – as far as Fulci’s golden era goes, Silver Saddle is easily his weakest film, and certainly his least memorable.

While Silver Saddle was Fulci’s last spaghetti western before he went on to direct his infamous Gates of Hell trilogy, he never quite left the spirit of the genre behind. Western iconography has become a defining part of Fulci’s aesthetic, from Zombie’s opening shot of a cocked revolver to Contraband’s many shots mimicking visuals from Four of the Apocalypse to his legendary use of Leone-esque hyper closeups of eyes. Visually speaking, his horrors are westerns and his westerns are horrors. And they’re all unquestionably, beautifully Fulci.

Next: Crypt of Curiosities: Pits and Pendulums – A Look Back at the Film Adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe’s Seminal Short Story