When I was 11 years old, I conned my mom into taking me to see “Comin’ At Ya” in the theater. I knew it was rated R, but I neglected to mention that in the pitch I gave when I asked her to take me to see it. I knew the game back then, and i knew how I had to play it. I had to convince one of my two parents that they NEEDED to see whatever movie it was that I wanted to see. If not them, then someone else who resembled a responsible adult enough to take me to see the film. Uncles, aunts, older brothers of friends… anyone was fair game in the “I want to see that R-rated movie” sweepstakes.
In this particular case, all I cared about was “3D” and “Western.” I was determined to get into the film, and I forget how I managed to convince my mother that it was something she wanted to see as well. What I do remember, quite clearly, was being yanked out of the theater by my arm, my mother positively livid as she yelled at an usher about the content of the film, and I remember that we ended up seeing the Dudley Moore comedy “Arthur” instead. Because there’s nothing more appropriate for an eleven-year-old than non-stop hilarious intoxication.
In the years since then, I’ve often wondered what it was that set her off, what image was so insane that she couldn’t take it. My mom sat through plenty of crazy films over the years that I talked her into, and she sat through some pretty strong imagery that she never would have picked if left to her own devices. But for some reason, “Comin’ At Ya” was the film that set her off, the line in the sand that she couldn’t cross. And now, having seen the film from start to finish as part of a special restoration screening at Fantastic Fest 2011, I’m still baffled about what happened.
Tony Anthony is the star, producer, and writer of the film, and in one way, “Comin’ At Ya” is pure vanity project. Imagine if Kevin Pollack decided he needed to make a Clint Eastwood movie for himself to star in. That’s pretty much what “Comin’ At Ya” is, and by hiring Ferdinando Baldi to direct the film, he guaranteed that it would feel authentic. The script was co-written with Wolf Lowenthal, Lloyd Battista, and Gene Quintano, who takes the co-starring role as the bad guy, Pike, who goes head to head with Anthony’s character, H.H. Hart. It is a catalog of moments from other Westerns, but having said that, I’m also willing to bet that “Comin’ At Ya” was one of the movies bouncing around in Quentin Tarantino’s head when he was building “Kill Bill.” There’s a wedding here that’s interrupted, and although the “Kill Bill” sequence is better and bigger, there are some stylistic touches, including some of the Panavision widescreen framing, that positively resonates in Tarantino’s work. It’s wild.
The film is very simple. H.H. Hart is going to be married to the beautiful young Abilene (the beautiful young Victoria Abril), and some bad dudes bust up his wedding and shoot him and take her and disappear. H.H. Hart does some healin’. He gets hisself some guns. And he goes after her, determined to kill every single sumbitch between him and his girl. And for a while, he does. And then he gets close to them, close to Pike and his gross brother Polk (Ricardo Palacios, or as I like to call him, The Mexican Paul L. Smith), and it becomes a back and forth battle of revenge. First H.H. Hart gets some revenge. Then Polk gets some revenge. Then H.H. Hart gets some more revenge. And then Pike tries to get some more revenge. It’s a little exhausting, frankly.
What makes the film worth seeing theatrically is that it might be the most aggressively 3D movie I’ve ever seen in 3D, and although this was shot with a dual-camera anaglyph system and projected in whatever way they could jerryrig in theaters around the country, there’s been an extensive restoration and digital transfer spearheaded by Tom Stern that resulted in the new print that we saw at Fantastic Fest. It looks great, and it’s positively giddy at the idea of things lunging out of the screen. This is the old school of thinking about 3D, and in the Q&A afterwards, it’s obvious that both Anthony and Stern think very little of modern 3D and what directors are doing with it. This is 3Dsploitation, pure and simple, and even the opening titles are done as live on-the-set shots that push things right out into the audience with the various opening titles written on them. It’s hilarious, and the entire film is so earnest that it’s hard not to laugh. It’s just fun and ridiculous and so blatant about the 3D stuff and so adventurous in terms of things it tries that I ended up really won over by it. I expected either a terrible movie or a really explicit movie, and it’s none of those things. It’s so over the top spaghetti western fetish perfect that I couldn’t even be upset about the blatant borrowing or the bizarre jumps in logic. The final confrontation is so absurd and so bizarre that I think it ends up being sort of accidentally brilliant.
“Comin’ At Ya” is not what I would call a good movie, but it’s a great experience. It is exactly what Tony Anthony wanted it to be, a 3D showcase, a demo reel that makes you think anything is possible if a director is crazy enough to try it. If they do find a distributor willing to take this film back out in a real theatrical release, I would strongly encourage you to see it theatrically. Take a lot of friends. Get irresponsible. It’s one of those, and it not only satisfied a 30 year old curiosity on my part, it also turned out to be genuinely entertaining, even if I’m not sure it’s entirely intentional. As stiff and uncomfortable on film as Anthony is (and he is), Victoria Abril is ridiculously sexy in the film, and she almost sells the absurdity of much of what she’s asked to play. This was way before she became an Almodovar regular in films like “Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down” and “Law Of Desire,” but she was already a hard-working Spanish actress, and better than the material here.
Great call by Lars Nilsen, who also hosted a great and respectful Q&A with Anthony and Stern after the film. It was a highlight of Fantastic Fest, and proof that the revival screenings can be just as thrilling as the new films in terms of discovery.
PS — I love the bats. Love. Love. Love.