Sunday, September 12, 2021

Gunfight at Dry River : Co-Starring Michael Moriarty

You might be surprised how many westerns were filmed in Spain, particular a number of classics generally described as being of the “Spaghetti” variety rather than “Serrano.” In this case, the action ostensibly takes place south of the border, but it was indeed filmed in the old Spanish country. In its decrepit village, water is more precious than gold, but the villainous Ryles family is still looking for the latter anyway throughout Daniel Simpson’s Gunfight at Dry River, which is now available in theaters and on VOD.

Technically, it is more of a dry well than a dry river, but that wouldn’t sound as good in the title. Regardless, the Ryles family, gunslinging Verne, Cooper, and Reid, along with their Bible-thumping mama Etta, have taken over this nameless town and strictly limit the locals access to the well. That would be the well Alonzo Murrieta’s grandfather dug, so the Ryleses can immediately tell it will be bad for business when he rolls into town to reclaim his abandoned ancestral home.

Murrieta and the Ryles Brothers warily eye each other for what feels like forever, while he patches up his grandfather’s old roof and they continue to dig up the town in search of lost gold supposedly buried by a Spanish priest. However, conflict is sure to heat up when Murrieta starts flirting with Clarissa Hawkins, whom the crude Cooper also lusts after. At least her gringo father, John Boone Hawkins, is played by the great Michael Moriarty, giving us someone to watch, but this film is not the best vehicle for his talents.

The crumbling mission-style buildings and the parched landscape make for an effective western setting, but Etta Ryles’ hypocritically moralizing quickly becomes abrasively annoying. Even weirder, Fe Valen’s screenplay suggests the Ryleses are Northern Unionist sympathizers, who are concerned by threats of a Confederate patrol. Hey guys, you remember the Union Army were the ones against slavery, right?

Admittedly, that is a minor, but awkward issue. More fundamentally,
Gunfight is just too slow in its slow-burning for its own good. Without question, this is a more stylish and ambitious film than Simpson’s prior horror movies, Hangar 10 and Spiderhole, but its didactic point-scoring against old-time religion and its molasses-pacing undermine the viewing experience.

Of course, Moriarty is always compulsively watchable as Hawkins and Ann Mitchell hams it up entertainingly as the sinister Mother Etta. Morgan Symes also brings some interesting dimensions to the twitchy Reid Ryles. However, Joshua Dickinson does not register strongly as the prodigal Murrieta (whose name will immediately recall the celebrated and notorious Joaquin Murrieta for many).

A lot of people still think westerns are dead, but there are new ones getting produced and distributed all the time. The problem is a lot of them are just okay and often rather underwhelming. That is certainly true for Simpson’s western. Despite some nice visual flair, we can’t recommend
Gunfight at Dry River for paying customers (or pan it with much outraged gusto). It is now available on VOD.