I'd like to be kind to Paul Matthews. He was clearly trying to make a good western movie. He failed, but these days it's rare to find someone who even makes the effort.
The movie opens with a harrowing scene of Union soldiers attacking and destroying a small Texan town during the American Civil War, murdering the inhabitants indiscriminately. I don't know if anything like this actually happened in Texas, but it's to the credit of the movie that I believed it at least could have happened. The son of a townswoman called Hannah is killed, deliberately shot in the back. Several other women are raped, lose their families, and are otherwise victimized. After the soldiers leave, the women shoot some stragglers who attacked them, but also shoot some officers, including a general, who were appalled at the massacre and, had they been allowed to live, might have brought the soldiers who ran amok to justice. The indiscriminate nature of the women's revenge, their indifference to who suffers for their grievances, is brought out from the start. In keeping with this theme, the women form an outlaw gang and begin robbing banks all over Texas.
Some time later, the hero named Wes and his gang of friends, all former Union soldiers, ride into town to find the bank robbed. Wes is the son of the general whom the gang murdered, and Hannah has conveniently left behind a medal belonging to Wes' father near the scene of the bank robbery. Wes accurately concludes that the bank robbers are the same people who killed his father, and he and his friends Ride for Revenge.
This is a movie that could have worked. Each scene arises logically out of the scene before it. The director does not yield to the temptation to make the outlaw women `cute'; early on, they are shown putting lawmen at their ease with food and hospitality, then ruthlessly gunning them down, exploiting their surprise advantage and leaving their victims no chance at all. The women wear almost no makeup, adding to the rough atmosphere.
There is a real, if thin, effort at characterization and motivation, certainly more than you would expect in a movie whose subject matter looks so exploitative. There is a real and successful effort to make Ellie, Hannah's murderous and psychotically jealous lover, a pitiable figure instead of a totally repulsive one.
There was also a genuine, though unsuccessful, effort at realism. In a nifty early scene there is a gunfight in a saloon. This saloon is a dark and dreary place; the only light is what comes in through the windows, and you can smell the poverty, the bare-bones quality, of the frontier here. Wes and his friends wear their guns with butts forward in genuine cowboy style, a touch of authenticity I have seen in only one other Western (THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE). In a unique shot where Wes ambushes Hannah and shoots her horse out from under her, we see Hannah in close-up with Wes' hiding place several hundred yards behind her; the puff of smoke appears and drifts away in eerie silence, and only some seconds later do we hear the boom of the rifle firing. Kudos to Matthews for trying to pay attention to the physics of firearms.
Unfortunately, Hooded Angels is undone by a number of problems, the severest of which is the poor performance of the leads. Playing Hannah, Chantelle Stander deals chiefly in numb expressionlessness. Perhaps she and Matthews were trying to show her character's inability to feel love, but they overdid it by a mile. Hannah is supposed to be a successful bank robber, and should be confident and alert; when she leads her gang toward the bank with wooden, staring eyes, she looks like she's either dazed or terrified. Paul Johansson as Wes is no better. He is supposed to be in love with Hannah, but he strikes no sparks with her at all; he shows not the slightest tenderness or passion, even when they are having sex. He is more believable when he turns away from her and says, `This is crazy.' Indeed it is, since he never looks like he loves her.
In secondary parts that presumably received less direction, Amanda Donohoe and Juliana Venter do fine jobs; Donohoe upstages Stander so consistently that you wonder why she's not cast in the lead. Venter is over the top, but she is playing the over the top character of Ellie, and restraint was not called for. Also, Donohoe is the only important player who keeps a consistent voice; Stander's and Venter's South African accents come and go wildly.
Also, the movie's efforts at realism failed far too often. With South Africa standing in for Texas, somebody forgot that Texas is hot in the summer. We see these so-called Texans riding around wearing multiple layers of vests and overcoats that wouldn't have been out of place in Montana or Wyoming. In the aforementioned sequence where Hannah's horse is gunned down, we hear the gunshot just BEFORE the supersonic rifle bullet strikes Hannah's horse. Good idea, poor execution. Hannah, who certainly ought to know something about gunfighting after her bank robbing career, leads her gang out of a nearly impregnable position to confront Wes and his friends in the open, with predictably disastrous results.
The photography is mediocre, with TV-ish color and focus. This is not helped by poor use of special effects. Notably, in one scene Ellie sticks a knife through a character's hand. This might have induced horror if it had been just barely glimpsed; instead, we see it in full closeup and think, `Oh, somebody stuck a knife through a fake-looking artificial hand.'
I can't give Hooded Angels a high rating. But I will be on the lookout for Paul Matthews' next work. I think he has a good movie in him somewhere.
Rating: *½ out of ****.
Recommendation: Both Western fans and exploitation fans should avoid it.