Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: Alpha demonstrates the time that humans first turned wolves into dogs. This relationship has been commemorated in countless artworks; I here present a sequel of an adaptation of one particularly celebrated novel.

The 1973 White Fang was a huge success in its native Italy, and huge successes in Italy had an inerrant tendency to breed knock-offs. Adding in the fact that "White Fang" was a phrase in the public domain, and there was nothing stopping any producer with a sufficient lack of shame to try hopping on the bandwagon, which is why 1974 alone bore witness to three different "sequels", with two more coming out within the next three years. First up was The Son of White Fang, then came White Fang to the Rescue, and last was Challenge to White Fang (or, translated directly from the Italian, The Return of White Fang). All three came from different directors, producers, and studios, and if I were dedicated to truly unpacking the mysteries of the Italian film industry in the 1970s, I can think of few better ways to do it than to compare these three films and their different approaches to cashing on in White Fang's popularity.

Instead, I'm just a Lucio Fulci fanboy, which is why I'm right now only interested in looking at Challenge to White Fang, which is the only official sequel of the lot - directed by Fulci, produced by Harry Alan Towers, released by Titanus, and featuring several of the actors from the original film. Quite a weird little fucker it is, too, simultaneously committed to the idea that a sequel should replicate the beats of the first film as mindlessly as possible and to the idea that a sequel needs to expand and alter the world, and generally adopting an even stranger mix of impulses, though unlike White Fang, Challenge doesn't ever feel like a violent gore-heavy Western trying desperately to burst from the chest of a rollicking adventure film for children. If there is indeed one single way in which Challenge is "better" than its predecessor (and there is, I am comfortable saying, only the one single way), it's that this one is somewhat better as a family film, albeit one where the adorable child protagonist of the first movie is shot dead in the opening sequence.

Aye, and now we get to talk about all the many ways in which Challenge is worse than White Fang, since that's one of the biggest. Picking up a few years after the last movie, Challenge presents the feral German Shepherd White Fang still living happily with Mitsah (apparently still Missaele, appearing without credit, though the onset of puberty has left the actor substantially unrecognisable), the First Nations boy who tamed him. Unfortunately for all concerned, Mitsah and the trading company from his tribe that he travels with have caught the eye of no less than Beauty Smith (John Steiner), who did not die in a torrent of rushing water and collapsing lumber. Instead, he has taken to murdering fur traders in the Yukon wilderness and stealing their wares, which is how Mitsah ends up dying with White Fang plaintively licking his face.

It's a shocking and hugely depressing way to kick off the plot of a kid-friendly adventure - or just about anything else, really - but that's not even the problem with it. The problem is that this has been done for no reason. I mean, of course there's a reason: White Fang has to be freed up from where we left him, so he can interact with the new story, and apparently screenwriters Fulci, Roberti Gianviti, and Alberto Silvestri couldn't figure out a better way to do that than to kill Mitsah. But this swift death by a very likable character at the hands of the returning primary antagonist doesn't inform the remainder of the plot at all. Later on, when we see White Fang, he's lying in a state of depression, on a dock in the trading down where he's been taken by John Tarwater (legendary American Western character actor Harry Carey, Jr.), and all it takes is for John's grandson Bill (Renato Cestiè) to correctly guess the dog's name on the third try for White Fang to perk up and remain a happy dog for the rest of the movie. Sorry Mitsah, you don't matter anymore, we've got a be-freckled white kid now. He can't act worth a shit, but he sure can mug for the camera.

It just so happens that the Tarwaters live in the latest gold rush town that Beauty Smith has turned into his own private kingdom, under the name of Mr. Forth. Once again, he's made a habit out of screwing over local prospectors, overcharging and under-supplying them, and as a result, the local woods are full of frozen corpses of men who ran out of supplies. We know this because at one point there's a long, slow pan across a man's twisted body that then zooms into the face of his barely-breathing partner, caked in chips of ice and moaning out of a blood red mouth in a greyish white face. For while this is more family-friendly than White Fang, it is still not family-friendly overall. At any rate, we're about to meet another familiar face, for Sister Evangeline (Virna Lisi) is still carrying her medical mission from town to town, and when she demands to meet this Mr. Forth and give him what for, she's shocked to discover Smith is still alive and only the worse for the wear in that he is now confined to a wheelchair. Immediately - so immediately that we don't see it - she contacts Jason Scott (Franco Nero), presently bored out of his mind on a book tour in San Francisco, where his book The Story of White Fang has become a smash bestseller, and Kurt Jansen (Raimund Harmstorf) who has been... that's a good question, actually, and the film doesn't bother clarifying it.

I have said that there is only one respect in which Challenge to White Fang is an improvement, but there are actually two: this film also uses White Fang himself more effectively than the original. Or at least more often. It doesn't help that Bill is a largely invisible, uninteresting figure, with very little else to do but look surly when White Fang seems to like Jason more than himself, and get attacked by a golden eagle out in the woods, a gods-be-damned eagle, like even a golden eagle is going to be interested in taking down a human being. It also doesn't help that one of the few ways that Fulci has actively attempted to make this a more family-friendly jaunt than last time is by making White Fang more human in his reactions, including not just the depression scene, but also a moment during a barfight when the dog ducks behind the bar and comes back up wearing a blue enamel pot on its head like a helmet. This latter moment has taught me that in addition to being bad at making children's films, Fulci has a terrible sense of humor.

But I was, anyway, driving at a different point: White Fang has more to do in this film, and this at least feels right for a movie in which he is the title character. The camera work centers around him far more often: in particularly striking shot, the camera zooms backwards to show White Fang isolated as Jason and Bill walk away in opposite directions, and it's a striking, completely effective way to give us some sense of the dog's interior psychology. This is a stand-out moment, but by no means is alone; Fulci is directing and blocking around his dog effectively throughout. Β  While there's still an unresolved tension between the kiddie bits and the Western action element, the film at least feels more or less unified around one plot thread. The problem is that it's not a very good plot thread, marred by a whole lot of very perfunctory gestures that serve to glance backwards to the first movie and not much else. The most notable of these is the very presence of Beauty Smith: the film wastes many precious minutes on positioning him as the boss of the town, and many even more precious minutes on the red herring of his wheelchair, but he ends up barely registering as a character, despite being theoretically the film's main antagonist. This particularly sucks relative to the first film, where Smith and Steiner's performance were both surprising delights: here, there's only one point in Steiner's performance that I entirely admire (his very effective attempt to show how Beauty is worried by seeing Sister Evangeline, while also effectively hiding from her the fact that he recognises her). And he's gone from being a complicated villain to a one-note mustache-twirling baddie, who starves prospectors because he's just so damn evil. Kurt basically just shows up because the film feels compelled to bring back every lead who isn't dead, and his appearance in the movie is completely inexplicable and random, and in general, the film's efforts to set-up its plot are leaden and dreary.

The flipside is that parts of the film are really just spectacularly weird, with plotting that feels far more melodramatic than the norms of the Western call for. There's the matter of Beauty's corrupt policeman LeClerq (Renato De Carmine) and his wife Jane (Hannelore Elsner), who are more pathetic and venal and scared than actually evil, and they're mirrored by a brother and sister, the Liverpools (Donald O'Brien, Yanti Somer), who are kind of the same but with a firmer moral code. There is, once again, an intrusion of bleak violence - that frozen prospector, for example - but it feels much more inexplicable in this film. At one point, White Fang is chased by the townsfolk, who beat him with sticks as he runs; it's upsetting and violent, but not the way the dog fight scenes were in the first movie. It's more sad than sickening.

And then, there's the bit I can't figure out at all: the film resolves, deals with Beauty, everything seems about to clear up, and then the final act begins. It's a strange act entirely on its own terms: a tense race between dueling dog-sledders, something like the chariot race from Ben-Hur on the Yukon snow. It's certainly here that Fulci's directing becomes most energetic and high-stakes, as the camera darts along at ground level with the dogs, so kinetic and exciting that it almost doesn't register that this is a strange moment, and also that Challenge to White Fang had already ended before this sequence started.

The net result is a movie that doesn't feel like it ever comes even a little bit close to cohering: it is a list of scenes, some of which make sense together, some which do not; some of which are exciting, some which are not. The film is, somehow, both dull and startlingly strange at the same time, and that alone gives it a bit of interest. It's a failed film, absolutely, and more a curio for Fulci fans than anything for any other viewer, and I don't have any immediate desire to revisit it; but it's definitely singular enough that I don't regret having visited it in the first place.