It takes some imagination to do something with the Western genre, and there’s a lot of imagination in El Diablo, a nutty, risk-taking TV movie. It stars Anthony Edwards as Billy Ray Smith, a timid schoolteacher in the Old West. With his soft, pudding face and round glasses, Edwards looks like a young Harold Lloyd. When one of his students is kidnapped by a gang led by a vicious outlaw named El Diablo (Robert Beltran, legendary as Raoul in Eating Raoul), Billy Ray is moved to strap on a holster for the first time in his life and track down the bad guys. Along the way, he meets up with a hard-bitten gunslinger played by Louis Gossett Jr. It’s easy to imagine what’s going to happen — the old pro will take the callow kid under his wing — but that’s about the only predictable development in El Diablo.
The tone of this movie shifts constantly. One minute there’s a well-staged holdup, tense and exciting; the next there’s a gently comic scene about Billy Ray adjusting to the life of a hard-riding man out for vengeance. He is, for example, the only cowboy in the world who says, ”Forward” to his horse instead of ”Giddyap!”
The movie was written by Tommy Lee Wallace, John Carpenter, and Bill Phillips. Carpenter wrote and directed movies like Halloween and Escape From New York, but El Diablo has none of those films’ horrific touches or pumped-up suspense. Instead, it’s full of quirky details. Gossett’s character is a sullen misanthrope, for example, but he loves animals: He puts cotton in his horse’s ears so the creature won’t be disturbed by the noise of his master’s gunfighting.
El Diablo isn’t afraid to use its cable status to push the boundaries of good taste: A scene about a man having his tongue cut out is played for laughs, and the audience is apparently supposed to chuckle when Billy Ray climbs onto his horse and his gun goes off, killing the animal.
But when it comes to TV, questionable taste in the service of originality not only is forgivable, but might even be encouraged. Subtle and slapsticky at the same time, El Diablo is one of summer TV’s better surprises. A-