Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The White Buffalo (1977)

          The further producer Dino De Laurentiis stretched logic and taste in order to emulate the monster-on-the-loose success of Jaws (1975), the more demented his copycat movies became. The producer’s 1976 remake of King Kong made sense because it built upon an established brand and because special-effects technology had evolved since the release of the original Kong four decades previous; similarly, the producer’s 1977 killer-whale thriller Orca made sense because it was about a big fish with big jaws. But The White Buffalo, which is about exactly what the title suggests, is weird as hell from start to finish, not least because it’s hard to imagine De Laurentiis believing that audiences would be terrified by the prospect of a melanin-deficient grazing animal.
          The wackadoodle plot involves Wild Bill Hickcock (Charles Bronson) teaming up with Crazy Horse (Will Sampson)—no, really!—to pursue the demonic white buffalo that haunts Hickock’s dreams. Written by Richard Sale, who adapted his own novel, the story portrays Hickock (traveling under the alias James Otis) as a haunted man who spends much of his time hiding behind wrap-around sunglasses. Many nights, he wakes screaming and sweating because he envisions a white buffalo charging at him, so Hickock travels to the Black Hills on a visionquest. Along the way, he runs into a crusty prospector pal (Jack Warden), who claims to have seen the last living white buffalo and offers to guide Hickock toward the bleached beastie. Once these two venture into the wilderness, they cross paths with Crazy Horse, who has his own reasons for chasing the critter: The buffalo ravaged his village and killed his daughter, so Crazy Horse must kill the monster in order to set his daughter’s soul free.
          None of this makes much sense—especially since director J. Lee Thompson moves the story along so fast that plot twists stack up like the layers of a fever dreambut for aficionados of peculiar ’70s cinema, what really matters is the bizarre texture of this eminently watchable movie. Most of the monster scenes were shot on soundstages, leading to surreal nighttime sequences set in fake snowy forests, and the FX shots of the buffalo are so brazenly fake that they take on a kind of dreamlike power. (The gory sequence in which Crazy Horse’s village gets trampled is particularly disorienting.) Yet the creepiest element of the movie is unquestionably John Barry’s menacing score: As he did with De Laurentiis’ Kong remake, Barry uses sweeping string arrangements and bold horns to give a silly story gravitas. When the movie is really cooking, Barry’s rattling music and Thompson’s swerving camera moves add up to something quite potent. That said, it’s a shame the middle of the picture gets bogged down in subplots, with the titular terror kept offscreen for far too long until resurfacing during the epic climax.
          The oddness of The White Buffalo is accentuated by all-over-the-map acting: Bronson is characteristically grim; Sampson offers as dignified a performance as he can given the circumstances; and supporting players including John Carradine, Kim Novak, Slim Pickens, and Clint Walker contribute salty flavor. Thrown together, the disparate elements equal a truly strange film, even by the high weirdness standards of De Laurentiis’ other ’70s monster mashes. (Available as part of the MGM Limited Collection on

The White Buffalo: FREAKY

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