Monday, May 13, 2013

Challenge to White Fang, aka Il Ritorno di Zanna Bianca (Italy/France/West Germany, 1974)

So what if Italian goremeister Lucio Fulci wanted to make a hero dog movie starring Django? These are the kinds of questions I like to ask. Move along people; there's nothing to see here!

Challenge to White Fang is the sequel to Fulci's original 1973 Zanna Bianca. And while I haven't seen that film, I think I can take a pretty good stab at what it's about, since Challenge seems to be that kind of sequel that laboriously reassembles all of the elements of the original and then starts over again at square one. We start with the Eskimo family to whom the wolf dog White Fang belongs being massacred by the gang of a corrupt trader named Forth (John Steiner). Soon thereafter, an old prospector named Tarwater (Harry Carey Jr.) happens to come sledding by and takes White Fang back to his mining camp in the Klondike, where the dog bonds with his young grandson Bill (Renato Cestie).

Back in town, we also meet Sister Evangelina, who is played by famed Italian sexpot Virna Lisi in a reprise of her role from the previous film. Evangelina recognizes Forth, who has made himself a powerful fixture in the town, as the villain from the first film, Beauty Smith, and calls in our hero, Jason Scott, played by old Blue Eyes himself, Franco Nero. Scott is both a famed adventurer and White Fang's erstwhile hagiographer, a sometimes companion to the animal who chronicles its written adventures for an adoring public. Together with his manly trapper pal Kurt Jansen (Raimund Harmstorf), Scott determines to get to the bottom of just what Smith is up to in the town, which, it turns out, is no good. Smith is entering into usurious contracts with the prospectors, taking a lions share of their take in exchange for insufficient rations and supplies, with lost lives the result.

Effete and vicious, Steiner's Beauty Smith strikes one as an especially nasty villain within the nominally family friendly context of Challenge to White Fang, and the performance works nicely against elements like Carlo Rustichelli's somewhat chirpy score and the myriad tear jerking "boy and his dog" moments to rescue the film from the vanilla wasteland. It should also be said that, while there is not a torn viscera in sight, Fulci's darker gifts are not completely wasted, as quite a lot of attention is paid to grim frontier hardship. Over the course of the film, we get prospectors harrowingly freezing to death in the open, two suicides by shotgun, and an emergency amputation. Elsewhere, Fulci's direction, not surprisingly, is professional but not overreaching, leaving the film neither particularly beautiful or homely. The action sequences -- a climactic sled race, in particular -- are handled thrillingly.

As for White Fang himself, for those of us who have read about the stunning natural charisma of an animal actor like Rin Tin Tin -- or witnessed it in the case of a Pedro or Moti -- he doesn't impress all that much, coming off more as the mascot of the film than its star, which is clearly Nero. True, the dog does expose a card cheat in one scene, which is a pretty neat trick. He also at one point defends young Bill from an attacking eagle and is blinded in the process, which proves that not even a dog's eyes are safe from Fulci's abiding obsessions.

But the most egregious eye violence that Fulci wants to do to his audience in this case is to its tear ducts, as evidenced by a last minute Old Yeller moment at Challenge to White Fang's conclusion. Not to deny that putting the director in a box in this manner is somewhat juvenile and reductive, but it's difficult to shake, watching such a moment, that this was a film made in the wake of Lizard in a Woman's Skin and, what is to my mind Fulci's masterpiece, Don't Torture a Duckling. Granted, there is much of well paced, rousing entertainment on display throughout the film, but there are certainly moments during which less sentimental viewers might prefer the splinter.

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