Kim Newman on... Hex
RT Obscura 18: Weird Hippie Shit with Gary Busey and Keith Carradine
Eventually, the outcasts -- whose behaviour is mostly milder than that of the bikers in movies like The Wild Angels or Hells Angels on Wheels -- fetch up at an isolated farm run by strange sisters Oriole (Tina Herazo, who later changed her name to Christina Raines and starred in Nashville and The Sentinel) and Acacia (Hilary Thompson). Giblets (Gary Busey) makes aggressive moves against the blonde, na´ve Acacia but suffers for it -- an owl rips his face off, and Oriole won't let his comrades bury him on her property.
It's one of a cycle of Western/horror films (The Beguiled, Shadow of Chikara) where violent men meet their doom thanks to perhaps-witchy womenfolk, and the rest of the film finds Oriole, who has inherited magic powers from her Indian father, working spells which whittle down the gang. Proto-bike mama China (Doria Cook) has an imaginatively-shot bad trip by the waterhole, Giblets' brother Jimbang (Scott Glenn) suffers when a pistol he has personally cleaned and restored blows up as he fires it at his tormentor, and mute 'half-breed' Chupo (Robert Walker Jr) becomes possessed and turns on the gang's leader Whizzer (Keith Carradine). Even the bespectacled, childish nice kid Golly (Mike Combs), whom Acacia warms up to, seems in danger as Oriole gets more and more witchy -- though the last reel turns up several plot reversals that, frankly, don't make sense even as they're perfectly in tune with the what-the-hell tone of the film.
Drive-in audiences expecting something more like the lurid Werewolves on Wheels must have scratched their heads, and elements of the picture (like the twanging mouth organ/jew's harp/kazoo music score) were horribly dated even at the time of release. But Hex is still, somehow, fascinating -- the performances, from future stars and future nobodies alike, are all very strong, with set-piece moments that allow everyone to show off their acting muscles. Keith Carradine (whose father John is reputedly in here somewhere) is a rangy, interesting leading man -- like many protagonists in 1970s cinema, he's a gawky fraud, who claims to have been an aviator in the war when he was actually a grounded mechanic who never shipped out, but still has a knot of mismatched followers.
Scenes between Busey and Glenn are an object lesson in over- and under-acting: Busey does everything but grab the camera and shake it, while Glenn seems to do almost nothing but steals every moment (he's clearly the most dangerous character). Cinematographer Charles Rosher, who went on to work a lot with Altman (including on the last great WHS classic, Three Women) gives the landscape an acid haze that segues naturally into the trippy scenes.
Sometimes, with 1970s cinema, you just had to be there at the time; occasionally, even if you were it doesn't help. Now, the decade is valorised in cinema histories as an era of experiment, of characterisation, of depth -- but to have all that, it also needed a netherworld of fringe cinema like this.