Of all the cheeky, winking faux-exploitation movies which followed Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse double bill in 2007 (being Tarantino’s Death Proof and Rodriguez’s Planet Terror), among the most worthwhile and sturdy on its own merits is Eisener’s Hobo with a Shotgun. It’s second only to Death Proof in terms of quality, and certainly far better than anything with Machete in the title.
Professionally grizzled man Rutger Hauer is the titular Hobo, arriving via boxcar to the ironically named Hope Town (renamed ‘Scum Town’ by the residents), hoping to settle down, earn some cash and buy himself a lawnmower. Some things, however, just aren’t meant to be. Unable to overlook the rampant crime and horror of Scum Town, after defending an out-of-her-depth hooker (Molly Dunsworth), the Hobo finds himself on the wrong side of local mob boss The Drake (Brian Downey) and his sons, Ivan and Slick (Gregory Smith and Nick Bateman). One brutal beating and branding later, and the Hobo trades in his lawnmower dreams for… you guessed it, a shotgun. And so the Hobo takes to the streets, delivering justice… one shell at a time.
So successful is Hobo With a Shotgun in its depiction of Technicolor ‘70s-era video nasty, that you’ll meet many a person who’ll swear it an authentic relic from that period (hi Dad!). Look no further than its canny casting of cult star Rutger Hauer, making the most of the actor’s penchant for playing rough, transient types during his heyday (see The Hitcher, Blind Fury, and even Blade Runner). It’s this casting which grounds Hobo with a Shotgun and makes it surprisingly relatable, Hauer playing the Hobo with staggering heart and emotion – in addition to the snarling vengeance and spat profanities one might expect. It’s a film steeped in playful artifice and stylish flourishes, but by approaching the Hobo like a real person, this ensures that it feels like a real movie also… and not just an extended joke trailer, à la the disappointingly vapid Machete.
It too started life as a fake trailer; Eisener’s short being the winner of a competition to promote Grindhouse, even without Hauer as its Hobo. As a grindhouse piece, the trailer is even more ‘authentic’ than the finished film, being genuinely cheap, grubby and badly acted. There’s that semi-iconic black and yellow font, though, and the very recognisable bones of a story about a Hobo who just wants to buy a lawnmower and start his own business. Fun fact: original Hobo David Brunt also cameos in the finished product as a cop.
‘I’m tired’ reads the Hobo’s scrawled sign, and it’s hard not to feel for the man, forced to suffer painful indignities as he’s ridiculed and brutalised by the local cops, and made to take part in ‘bum fights’ to earn cash for the lawnmower he dreams of. Tragically, the precious mower is all but within his grasp when the city finally pushes him too far – witnessing an armed robbery at the pawn shop; the Hobo decides that enough is enough. Enter Blind Fury-mode Hauer. A moment, incidentally, which is cribbed wholesale from Eisener’s original faux-trailer, from the initial robbery to the bloody montage which follows.
Robbers, rapists and even a paedophile dressed as Santa Claus are all in the Hobo’s sights; blasted away during an initial killing spree that recalls Death Wish by way of Maniac Cop. Inevitably, The Drake and his kid hoodlums don’t take too kindly to this, coming at the Hobo with ice skates, a baseball bat covered in razor blades and – in the film’s darkest, nastiest, yet most hilarious moment – a flamethrower, school bus full of children, and The Trammps’ Disco Inferno playing on the boom box. Not a film for everyone, then. As sympathetic and human as Hauer is as the Hobo, the evil and hatred of Scum Town and its denizens are even worse.
Hobo with a Shotgun is a film that, like The Drake, delights in its gore and cruelties - a level of splatter rarely witnessed outside of Peter Jackson’s Braindead. This is dialled up to such an extent that it is, thankfully, impossible to take too seriously; certainly not in scenes such as its opening murder, in which a man’s head is pulled from his body with the assistance of a car, a manhole cover, and a rope; resulting in the sort of arterial spray that so often plagued Bruce Campbell in Evil Dead 2. All refreshingly ‘real’ and free of CGI, it’s a less disjointed experience than Machete, more authentic than Planet Terror, and more action-packed than Death Proof, expertly managing the right balance between modern and retro. And, even better, no dodgy cameos from Eli Roth or Tarantino.
If anything, the acting is too good for the film Hobo with a Shotgun pretends to be, with Hauer delivering one of his best ever performances (alright, it’s no ‘Tears in Rain’ monologue, but it’s certainly up there with his Hitcher, and miles better than bloody Van Helsing) and Downey chewing the scenery as the malicious, quacking crime lord. Smith and Bateman are also enjoyable as his dim sons; the deaths of whom provide the film with its most satisfying moments.
From its opening credits (the music by Michael Holm lifted from the ‘70s Udo Kier horror film Mark of the Devil), onwards, the film is perfectly pitched, never letting up on its game. Everything from the music to the costume design and purposefully-aged cinematography is expertly designed – an all-too-believable world that hooks you in and doesn’t let go right up until the brutal, bloody, and upsetting end.
Rutger Hauer shooting bastards will only take you so far though, and the film is forced to up the stakes with the introduction of its sci-fi-esque bounty hunter psychopaths The Plague – a pair of armour-clad demons (who may or may not have been responsible for the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and, uh, Jesus) named Rip and Grinder. This gives way to a gory, if fairly silly, climax in which the Hobo’s hooker friend loses her hand and (spoiler alert) stabs The Drake with what remains of the bone. Still less stupid than Planet Terror and its machine gun leg, though. Even this feels in keeping with the film’s established anything-goes tone, a semi-natural escalation of events that wards off accusations of Hobo with a Shotgun ever feeling like a one-note movie trailer dragged out to feature-length.
It may be the ultraviolence and the splatter that sits highest on the film’s agenda, but that’s not to say that Eisener and writer John Davies don’t have other things on their mind too. In our age of rampant destitution, poverty, and anti-homeless spikes, scenes in which the public are encouraged to go around murdering hobos feel depressingly apt. Thankfully, Rutger Hauer is more than capable of looking after himself, even if his fellow bums do take a lot of the flack for his actions. This social commentary is fleeting – it’s more interested in fountains of blood – but certainly relevant.
And, of course, that writing also gets us one of the finest jokes of this decade: the newspaper headline ‘hobo stops begging. Demands change.’ Gets a laugh every time, and the script remains thoroughly quotable, whether it’s Drake philosophising on life to his sons (“when life gives you razor blades… you make a baseball bat covered in razor blades”) or the Hobo threatening goons (“I’m gonna sleep in your bloody carcass tonight”) and standing up for the modesty of poor Mother Theresa (“A goddamn saint!”).
Since Hobo with a Shotgun, director Eisener has returned to keeping it short, with Y is for Youngbuck in the hit and miss The ABCs of Death (the sequel is much better) and the amusing Slumber Party Alien Abduction in V/H/S 2 (the much better sequel). His 2011 feature being one of the best exploitation thrillers in recent years, let’s hope he returns to the fray sooner rather than later. Those craving their Hobo/Shotgun fix can also seek out the tie-in Hobo with a Shotgun comic book and side-scrolling shoot ‘em up smartphone game (also available to play online, and far too difficult), or simply look to their local town centre, for a veritable army of the destitute.
The pretend grindhouse, meanwhile, shows no sign of stopping. It’s been a while since Tarantino and Rodriguez released their vision upon the world, but the retro ‘em up subgenre continues, with Machete Kills in 2013 (better than the first… barely) and its sequel Machete Kills in Space reportedly still in the works. David Sandberg’s 2015 short Kung Fury pits a ‘80s kung fu cop against Hitler, while a spiritual follow-up (of sorts) to Hobo with a Shotgun can also be found in the charming, almost-as-gory Turbo Kid.
He just wanted to buy a lawnmower.
Horror Channel screen HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN on September 9th.
Sky 319 / Virgin 149 / Freeview 70 / Freesat 138.