Ennio Morricone knows more about effectively building suspense than director Giulio Petroni in Death Rides a Horse. Where the camera lingers on a scene two beats too long, the score murmurs, pulses and chants in sort of futile compensation. It joins Superfly among the films where the score is the main saving grace.
There’s a boy, Bill, who watched bandits shoot his father dead and then murder his mother and sister after a gang rape. He only sees the face of the leader, but glimpses tell tale clues for the others: a tattoo of four aces; a spur; an eye scar; an earing.
Lee Van Cleef plays Ryan, whom is introduced as a prisoner who’s not smiled once in fifteen years of incarceration. The part must must not have been written with Cleef in mind as he is the possessor of one of the easiest smiles in cinema. Its not soon after his release from prison that Ryan breaks out a flinty grin. A couple of desperados trail him in his first days as a free man. They’re quickly dispatched, but this catches Bill’s attention as their spurs match those left by his family’s killers.
Still for all its faults “Death Rides a Horse” is very much a Spaghetti Western. The genre plays by a much different set of rules than its Hollywood forbears. Indeed there’s ample cartoon logic, limitless violence, superhuman skill, and even a measure of gross out horror in the form of sun bleached mummies, buried up to their necks in a village square. Fans of the genre will recognize many of the actors here from their meatier roles in Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy.