When an American cowboy stumbles upon a gypsy family in a wind-swept ghost town, they offer him a fortune to escort a princess back to her home in Spain. But this silent Stranger finds himself in over his head (and strung up by his feet) when he gets caught in the middle of an epic battle involving Vikings, the Moors, brutal barbarians, evil spirits, a raging bull, and a diabolical Shakespeare-quoting hunchback. Tired of their never-ending attempts to kill him, the cowboy arms himself to the teeth with guns, dynamite and a special surprise. Now, it’s the Stranger’s turn to get mean! (From Blue Underground’s official synopsis)
Luigi Vanzi’s The Stranger trilogy began life so unassumingly. The first film in the series, A Stranger in Town (aka: Un Dollaro tra I Denti, A Dollar Between the Teeth, 1967), is a standard-issue pseudo-adaptation of Sergio Corbucci’s Django (1966) with shades of Sergio Leon’s Fistful of Dollars (1964) and a couple of other mega-popular early spaghetti westerns. It’s well made, but difficult to discern from the pack. The first sequel, The Stranger Returns (aka: Un Uomo, Un Cavallo, Una Pistola, A Man, a Horse, a Gun, and Shoot First, Laugh Last, 1967), begins as a near-spoof of the spaghetti clichés (similar to the Terrence Hill/Bud Spencer movies) before transforming back into a typically brutal revenge story. It was at this point that the title character started to evolve into a more sardonic, born-loser type. He also acquired his trademarked four-barrel shotgun and his trademarked black horse (named ‘Pussy’). In the third film, A Stranger in Japan (aka: The Silent Stranger, 1968), the Stranger travels to Edo era Japan to collect a bounty on a contested ancient scroll. It marked the first time a spaghetti western was aligned so literally with its samurai/ chanbara roots (recall that Fistful of Dollars was an adaptation of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo). Terence Young’s UK/French/Italian/Spanish co-production Red Sun (1971) and Sergio Corbucci’s farcical The White, the Yellow, and the Black (1975) both brought samurai to the west, but cowboys rarely travel to Asia again at least not until Sngmoo Lee’s The Warrior’s Way (2010) and RZA’s The Man with the Iron Fists (2012). Aside from removing the Anthony from his familiar southwest setting, A Stranger in Japan also introduced occasional play-by-play narration and delved further into comedic absurdity. Mugging and pratfalls aside, it’s a pretty satisfying blending of genres.
Anthony and Vanzi stopped collaborating after A Stranger in Japan (in an interview on this Blu-ray, Anthony claims Vanzi had a major mental breakdown and ended up in the hospital for a year), so the star/co-writer of the franchise turned to Texas, Adios (1966) and Django, Prepare a Coffin (aka: Preparati la Bara!, 1968) director Ferdinando Baldi for his first Stranger follow-up – Blindman (1971). Blindman is arguably superior to any of the Valeri films and was the second loose spaghetti western adaptation of the long-running blind samurai-themed Zatoichi series, following Corbucci’s Minnesota Clay (1964). The Anthony/Baldi team-up culminated in an extravagant, 3D American co-production, Comin’ at Ya! (1981), a movie popular enough to spawn a series of 3D exploitation and horror in the 1980s. But, before that, they made one more mostly official entry in the Stranger series simply and effectively entitled Get Mean (1975). Also known as Beat a Dead Horse (rimshot) and Time Breaker, a better title might have been The Stranger Gets Stranger, because, boy, oh boy, is it a strange movie.
Get Mean doesn’t have the satisfying climatic oomph of the best serialized movie series, but, like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, it is the exaggerated extension of its predecessors. Like Stranger in Japan, it opens in the thick of the action, though, this time, the Stranger isn’t walking into trouble – he’s being dragged behind his horse. This sets the stage for the even more bizarre and dangerous ordeals he’s force to stumble through, like the sequence in which he is presented on a platter, surrounded by fresh vegetables, trussed up onto a barbecue spit, and slow-roasted for information. Despite these outlandish quirks, Get Mean still follow the Fistful of Dollars/Django template Vanzi set with A Stranger in Town (the apocalyptic climax of Get Mean is basically a spoof of the climax of Fistful of Dollars with cannons and dynamite replacing rifles and revolvers). The title character just keeps finding himself in the middle of territorial disputes where he has to play both sides against the middle. If they had made a fifth film, I imagine he would’ve joined up with robots fighting space aliens in the year 2020. After three movies, this narrative crutch becomes an amusing story burden on the filmmakers, as if they felt compelled to recycle the formula at any cost. Baldi and Anthony sort of acknowledge the problem, too, though not as directly as the people behind the Die Hard movies. In fact, the repetitious framing devices and the Stranger’s poncho & hat ensemble are just about the only things that tie Get Mean to the spaghetti western tradition.
But what’s really interesting here is how much Get Mean has in common with Sam Raimi’s Army of Darkness (1992, which happens to have a Blu-ray re-release scheduled for the same day as Get Mean). Both films are comedic adventure hybrids in which an unlikely, quintessentially American hero wanders into an ancient war he’s not interested in fighting, then finds himself volunteering for a supernaturally-tinged trail of courage (involving cackling, abusive skeletons), and then demanding restitution for his efforts. Anthony’s oddball adages and catch-phrases have multiplied as well, drawing linear comparisons to Bruce Campbell’s perpetual loser demon-hunter, Ash Williams, while the flamboyant villains (especially the barbarians) are definitely reminiscent of the Deadites in Raimi’s film. Both the Stranger and Ash eventually manage to save the day with modern weapons, including similarly destructive ‘boom sticks.’ There are incidental similarities, too, if you want to look for them, like characters being dragged into castles in bonds by a procession of soldiers on horses and explosive arrows with short fuses. The major difference, I suppose, would be the fact that Ash falls through a time-warp into Medieval England, while the Stranger takes a boat ride to a fictional version of 1860s Spain where time and history have no real meaning.
Baldi’s direction is top notch throughout, elevating the weird concepts of the episodic and often spotty script with a smorgasbord of genre conventions. The scope is impressive, despite what I’m sure was a comparatively minuscule production budget. When not filling his widescreen frame with hoards of horseback-riding extras that would make David Lean proud (according to Anthony, Baldi was an assistant on the 1959 Ben-Hur) or staging explosive action set-pieces, he’s evoking the surreal pseudo-horror of Giulio Questi’s nightmarish Django Kill (aka: If You Live, Shoot!, 1967) and even the straight horror of Lucio Fulci’s gothic horror movies (minus the gore, of course). Many viewers will be put-off by the swift turns from spooky and melodramatic to pure slapstick. The sting of some of the action scenes is cut short by yodeling banjo music and the most categorically horror-themed scenes (the previously discussed supernatural trial) end with the Stranger in blackface (for some reason). I like to think of it as an acquired taste in comedy that you don’t need to have acquired to completely enjoy. At the very least, you have to respect Baldi’s effort to make a comedic western-barbarian-supernatural-horror movie that will please fans of every genre.
Get Mean isn’t only an oddity in the spaghetti western canon – it’s a rarity, too. The film has barely been seen in North America since its initial release and, unlike Blue Underground’s last obscure spaghetti western Blu-rays, Man, Pride and Vengeance, there doesn’t appear to be a German or Italian counterpart. In fact, Get Mean is about a half-step away from an honest to God ‘lost film,’ as I understand it, so this 2.35:1, 1080p Blu-ray is definitely cause for celebration. It’s also a pretty outstanding effort, all things considered. Details are sharp, patterns are complex, shapes are nicely separated, and there are few signs of the super-problematic telecine machine noise that has plagued too many Italian-based, catalogue Blu-ray releases (including Man, Pride and Vengeance). The problem has not been entirely avoided, as a sheen of digitally-based noise does affect certain scenes (mostly towards the end of the film), leading me to believe that this transfer was culled from multiple sources. Thankfully, the issue doesn’t appear to persist and isn’t nearly as distracting as Django or Man, Pride and Vengeance. There are also few signs of DNR or digital scrubbing in general, as fine, film-based grain persists throughout the print. There is minor print damage, but little greater than flecks of white and a few vertically scrolling lines. Some scenes also pulse a bit and can briefly appear discolored. Speaking of color, some viewers may be suspicious of the modernistic color grading and dynamic gamma levels. Skin tones and neutral browns/tans definitely appear more yellow than expected from a 1975 movie and some of the nighttime scenes are a tad on the teal side. Fortunately, the grading does not effect the less neutral hues. Reds, deeper blues, and greens are all vivid and delicate in equal measure. There are some ‘magic hour’ and day-for-night shots that appear quite dark. The hard black shapes and increased grain levels crush some of the detail and I suspect that the aforementioned more modern contrast levels have inflated the occasional crush of these sequences. Fortunately, these are the exception – the hard blacks fit most scenes and even help to boost textures, all without notable haloes.
Get Mean is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 original English mono sound. There are no alternate sound options, but, as is the Italian tradition of the era, the entire movie was shot without sound, anyway. Often, an English cut is preferable, because it allows the more familiar, English-speaking stars dub their own voices and, in fact, a number of the Italian and Spanish-speaking actors tended to dub their own English tracks as well (though this is far from a ‘rule,’ as something like Django is better in Italian, because Franco Nero did not dub himself in English). And, unlike some more celebrated spaghettis, the script was even written in English. The vocal performances here are strong and the vast majority of the cast is very clearly dubbing themselves. An Italian track might have been fun, but isn’t necessary in this case. Despite the single channel mixing and expectations set by a number of similar Italian mono releases from the era, this is a relatively rich and well-rounded track. The absolute busiest sequences (mostly large-scale battles) include some tinny, high end distortion, but the overall depth of the track is impressive. Spooky gusts of wind, the rumble of hundreds of galloping horse hooves, clanging swords, bountiful explosions, and the echoing cries of the supernatural trials all sound fantastic. The music is credited to Franco Bixio, Vince Tempera, and Fabio Frizzi, all of whom are probably best known to genre fans as composers that worked with Lucio Fulci. The score is all over the place – from dramatic symphonic cues, to creepy strings, and bouncy banjo themes – and it all fits the movie’s mix-and-match approach.
Commentary with producer/co-writer/star Tony Anthony, co-writer/star Lloyd Battista, and executive producer Ronald J. Schneider, moderated by Blue Underground’s Gregory Chick – This group track is charmingly free-wheeling and alternates between screen-specific discussion, self-deprecating jokes, gentle ribbing between friends, and some pretty deep back-story on the production that doesn’t pop up on the other special features. Chick helps keep the discussion moving and there are very few downturns in momentum or blank spots.
The Story Of The Stranger (23:10, HD) – This new interview with Tony Anthony covers the producer/co-writer/star’s long career making movies, leading up to the advent of the Stranger series. Anthony has loads of anecdotes about the hardships of the Italian film industry (mostly money related) and discusses the many hardships, ideas, and choices that made the series so odd. This featurette also includes trailer footage from the other Stranger movies and footage from the LA premiere last year.
Looking For Richard (11:20, HD) – Another new interview, this time with co-writer/co-star Lloyd Battista. Battista was a longtime friend of Anthony and appeared in Stranger in Japan, Blindman, and Get Mean. Spoiler alert: his Get Mean character turns out to be King Richard III (or at least a guy that thinks he is), for no other reason than it gave him an excuse to open up a can of Shakespeare during the climax.
Beating A Dead Horse (9:50, HD) – Executive Producer Ronald J. Schneider, nephew of super-producer Allen Klein, discusses his place in his uncle’s empire and the time he spent working with Anthony on Stranger in Japan and Get Mean (he also produced Gimme Shelter between Stranger movies). There’s quite a bit of technical industry jargon that Blue Underground has politely explained via text-based title cards.
Tony & I (8:20, SD) – This appears to be an older interview with director Ferdinando Baldi and, based on how much he discusses Comin’ At Ya! and Treasure of the Four Crowns, I’m assuming it was recorded for a different Blu-ray release (perhaps Comin’ At Ya!’s 2016 3D Blu-ray release?).
Deleted scenes (8:30, SD) – There’s no mention of it on the Blu-ray’s menus or box art, but I believe these were recently discovered by a fan of the film. I’ve also read that they were deleted by the American studio against Baldi and Anthony’s wishes. They are presented in VHS video quality (including tracking lines).
US and French trailers
Poster & still gallery
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