Oriole and Acacia, two beautiful sisters played by Cristina Raines and Hilary Thompson, live on an isolated farm in Nebraska in the 1920s. Their late father made sure that the serious-minded Oriole can do the work of a man, and that includes fiercely looking out for flighty Acacia. When a gang of WWI vet bikers led by Keith Carradine forcibly decides to stay at the farm, Oriole is reluctantly hospitable until one of them (Gary Busey, wearing his original skull) tries to rape Acacia. Oriole uses magic learned from her father, who was a native American mystic, to dispatch the bikers in nasty ways.
Hex has some terrible reviews online, especially on IMDb, but that’s never stopped me from watching something before, especially if it means I get to gaze upon the visage of Cristina Raines (billed here as Tina Herzao) for 90 minutes. And what do you know, I liked this movie. It is typical of the weird sensibilities in American films of the late 60s/early 70s, like a mixture of Easy Rider and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Hex has psychedelic horror elements, in particular a scene in which Carradine’s biker mama (Doria Cook-Nelson), after a fight with Oriole, goes insane and hallucinates among other horrors that she is sinking into quicksand as the frame changes colors between purple and blue. But the film mostly comes out on the side of the “weird west” genre more than anything else.
I think the reason people find this bad or confusing, and the reason I like it so much, is that it feels like a misguided attempt at an art film. My suspicions are supported by the fact that the two of the writers were involved in such offbeat productions as Brewster McCloud and Band of the Hand. Also, I automatically read any late 60s/70s movie about veterans as being a comment on Vietnam, just as Robert Altman’s MASH was. For example, the bikers have varying degrees of worry and horror at the deaths of their cohorts, until the two who are left alive at the end of the film don’t seem to care at all; I’m sure this is some kind of statement about the war and/or post-war America and the troops’ psychology, but either it isn’t made very clear or I’m not smart enough to put my finger on it.
But this film, with its odd kazoo-laden soundtrack, and scenes of 1920s people picking wild marijuana and smoking it, not to mention the scene where a cow actually gives birth on film, is definitely about some greater theme or statement than what it literally depicts. It is not lost on me that the women are half-Native, which is probably intended as a comment on America’s imperialist ways. There is also a group of marauders from the town (led by Dan Haggerty!) who pose a possible threat but then are written out of the film without a resolution; they may represent civilization against nature, with the two women representing nature as women often do.
Most of all, the scenes of endless grasslands, and of the tough Oriole butchering her own meat, awakens in me, as many westerns do, a longing for a homesteading life and something more raw and hands-on than what my 21st century technological cocoon demands of me. One of the last scenes of the film shows two characters riding away on a motorcycle, headed for California to see what’s out there, as four fighter planes fly in formation overhead. The juxtaposition of the 20s farm life, where the women still travel by horse and carriage, with the war planes, makes me want to scream at those two characters to stay back there on the farm, in the idyllic, mysterious past. That I can’t be sure if the film agrees with me on anything I read in it is the trouble with this film. It doesn’t stop me from liking it, though.
How about you? Anyone seen Hex, also known as The Shrieking and oddly, on the DVD release, as Charms? What did you think? Do you have any favorite weird west films, or lesser-known “hippies in search of America” films?