A good western is hard to find these days. The genre died a quiet and particularly sad death in the 70’s resulting in studio policy shifting away from genres here in the United States and a saturation of really crappy spaghetti westerns in Italy. Eastwood was making bad ass cop pictures and Bronson found new life playing assassins and vigilantes. And given the sheer volume of weird west legends, from jackalopes to phantom gunfighters, it’s a real surprise to me that even in the western’s heyday there weren’t more crossover genre pictures meshing cowboys, indians and monsters. The two seem like natural pals.
Westerns and horror have come together on occasion but the thing that shocks me is that they never seemed like a natural fit to producers, writers and directors. The Twilight Zone gave it a shot several times and throughout the ages, they’ve crossed paths here and there. Even though it takes place during the 90’s, I’ve always thought that Tremors, one of my favorite monster flicks, had many hallmarks of the western. It also happens to have a lot in common with this western, in particular. Cryptids that dig beneath the ground. They are nigh-unstoppable. They eat people.
I’m also pretty certain that I could map six degrees of separation between The Burrowers’ Clancy Brown and Tremors’ Kevin Bacon.
A search party is dispatched in the Dakota territories when the only survivor of what locals believe to be an indian attack is presumably dragged off into the night. Her boo, a couple of keen, pioneering trackers and a regiment of riders take off across the plains into Sioux Nation territory. When it becomes clear that the regiment has no clue and seems only interested in terrorizing the local tribes, the Irishman, the trackers, a teen on a rite of passage and a freed slave break out on their own. They soon discover, however, that encounters with indians hostile to white people are the least of their worries when injured indians begin to speak in vague terms about what they think is an unknown tribe among the Sioux called The Burrowers but the truth is so much worse.
This is a monster movie, folks. Plain and simple. This is a bald faced monster movie and it is refreshing to see it played so deliberately and effectively. So far, 2009 has been very kind to genre fans who live on the DVD market and you can chalk The Burrowers up as another successful flick. A sophisticated monster movie is hard to find. Many are so heavily concerned with putting their creatures front and center, but The Burrowers takes wild departures from established creature feature conventions, taking the It Came From Outer Space approach by keeping the monsters present but just out of sight for the vast majority of the running time. The final reveal of the creatures becomes that much more intense, but these appropriately nasty monsters have to share the screen with a much more subtle examination of communication and the problems that arise when everyone makes crazy assumptions about others. And this isn’t to say that the white people are all wrong about the indians. Often times the indians are just as antsy and make all the same fatalistic assumptions about the intentions of the white people. No one seems to know what’s going on at any point and no ever seems to give a shit. Preconceived notions about The Sioux tribes who, in fact, just want to be left alone, lead the posse out into the great unknown of the prairie without really knowing if their mark is even out there. By the time that the rituals of The Burrowers are revealed, it’s most likely that the woman they’re searching for was buried not far from her own home. But I digress.
Director J.T. Petty is probably best known for writing a series of video games. Notably, the Splinter Cell titles which pair Tom Clancy real-world circumstances with a character torn straight from a b-movie voiced by a b-movie legend, Michael Ironside, so he’s no stranger to the lower end of the dial when it comes to the movies. Remarkably, though, Petty’s direction is anything but. Seasoned genre buffs will no doubt appreciate the morbid tone, the intense menace of each shot, the monsters and the violence, but the pace is both deliberate and pitch perfect. Rather than take the noisy, typical straight to video approach of wiggling a rubber spider in your face and yelling “BOOGA! BOOGA! BOOGA!”, Petty lights a slow fuse and asks you to examine each frame of his beatifully shot film. The isolation and loneliness of frontier life is so effectively communicated by wide angle shots displaying the last of America’s great wilderness. For the first half of the film, much of the running time is devoted to dialog. Rather than tell you all about the lives and motivations of these characters who are going to wind up food for the strange creatures of the American west, The Burrowers spends much of its time showing you why these guys are doomed from the start. By the time it is revealed that indians from the Ute tribe have been fighting these creatures since their people settled the land, it is far, far too late to do anything about it. White man was screwed the moment they started moving the indians off their land and into reservations.
Great writing and circumstances aside, The Burrowers features a rock solid cast pitting Clancy Brown, a favorite of mine since the first time I saw Highlander and LOST’s William Mapother (LOST fans take note, Doug Hutchison who plays Horace Goodspeed also has a killer role herein) fill out the bold and manly roles of the tracking pioneers. Sean Patrick Thomas, perhaps best known for his role on TV’s The District plays Walnut, the freed slave, a man who faces the greatest odds of all the cast yet seems to be the only one with a reasonable head on his shoulders. Rounding out the main party is relative unknown, Karl Geary who had a role in Petty’s Mimic sequel Sentinel. All together they work well. To cap off a staggeringly impressive package of acting, direction and writing is the outstandingly gory effects work of Robert Hall, who in recent days seems to be making quite a name for himself on the feature circuit. Slimy and bloody seems to be his signature and in spite of some questionable CGI gore and blood, which arcs in defiance of gravity, the practical effects are gross and exciting. It’s not necessarily a gorehound’s paradise but this movie doesn’t call for that degree of make up.
The Burrowers is rock solid horror entertainment. A unique entry into the creature feature pantheon and one for the ages. It begs to be seen and appreciated by a higher grade of horror fan. Beautifully shot, tightly paced and full of oh-shit moments that make you think of where the movie is going and where it has been, this is the kind of horror movie that will thrill you while you’re in it and have you thinking about it later on. It is, under no circumstances, to be missed. Given Petty’s skills with script and camera, The Burrowers lends promise to Petty’s directorial role in the upcoming remake of the cult classic mondo-esque shocker, Faces of Death, said to be an entirely fictionalized narrative picture rather than a reality-based faux documentary. Color me interested at the very least.