Dig WESTWORLD? Check Out These Western Horrors And Fall In Love
I recently made the move back to Texas from what had become my beloved, but ever increasingly expensive, Brooklyn. The town I moved back to is what used to be a legit Old West cattle-ranching town, complete with saloons, bordellos, and a frontier military fort. Naturally, this kind of town often comes with ghost stories and other terrible tales, and plenty of them. That, along with a recent viewing of Bone Tomahawk, (holy Horror Gods, how had I not seen this sooner?!), had me thinking about my favorite western horror movies. It isn't exactly the largest horror subgenre, and thus a Google search will turn up some not-so-awesome suggestions along with the good ones, so I decided to list some of my favorites here for your enjoyment. I'm going to start with period specific western horror pieces but am also including some films that have more modern day settings, yet still have all the makings of a classic western horror flick. These movies are perfect for a Wild West themed weekend binge. I suggest you pair them with a chicken-fried steak, (if you don’t know what that is, I feel sorry for you) and a Lone Star beer (if you don't know what that is, ehhh, you’ll live), for maximum enjoyment.
Who would have thought that a cannibal movie could have so many fun moments? Well, screenwriter Ted Griffin and director Antonia Bird certainly did, as they prove in the dark comedy of Ravenous. A military Captain (Guy Pearce) recovering from the trauma of the battle he's just survived, is stationed at a small fort which serves as an outpost for travelers. When a lone injured man (Robert Carlyle) shows up at the gate, he tells an awful tale of survival that includes his parties’ descent into cannibalism. Learning he left behind a woman who may still be alive, some of the soldiers aim to form a group to rescue her. Despite warnings from a Native American scout about local legends concerning cannibalism, they set off, and soon realize they may have made a terrible mistake. When Pearce’s Captain returns to the fort, he once again encounters Carlyle's cannibal, but this time he’s in a Major’s uniform, and the Captain fears the Major wants to eat them all. Full of twists and plenty of pitch black comedy, this movie really lets Carlye have a blast with his part, and each clash between terrific actors Carlye and Pearce is either a fabulous battle of stares, words, or darn bloody fun. Apart from examining morality and conscience, this is a movie that also blurs the lines between villain and hero in a delightful way while still speaking to the horrors of Manifest Destiny and American consumptionism.
Wow and wow. This movie flat-out blew me away. Kurt Russell stars as the sheriff of a frontier town who leads a posse into Native American territory when a strange drifter, one of the sheriff’s deputies, and a local man’s wife disappear from the town of Bright Hope. According to a local Native American professor, they have been kidnapped by a nearby ancient, cave-dwelling, particularly savage, and, oh yeah, cannibalistic tribe known only as “troglodytes.” The professor warns them of the futility and danger of the effort and refuses to join the posse. (Pro-tip: should you ever time travel to the old West, if the local Native American scout warns you against an expedition to see any sort of cannibals, probably don’t go). While amazing character development abounds in the dialogue, the actors, particularly Matthew Fox (Lost), Richard Jenkins (The Shape of Water), and Russell really sell it, but there are great performances all around. Masterfully written and directed by a then, almost unbelievably, first-time filmmaker S. Craig Zahler, whose recent hardcore prison exploitation film Brawl in Cell Block 99 deservedly garnered a lot of positive attention, it is also beautifully shot and edited. This is definitely a slow-burn film that bonds you with the characters as it leads you to the insane and violent climax, and the stakes only become higher because it does. It makes incredible use of practical effects, and when you get to that ONE scene, (and you will know it when you see it), depending on what kind of horror fan you are, you might find the need to either stop, rewind, & watch it again, or stop and take a breather. Either way, Bone Tomahawk will stay in your head for weeks.
The Hateful Eight
Ok, ok, so this Quentin Tarantino outing may not be straight up horror, but that could certainly be argued, and this is, at the very least, a thriller, and one with tons of blood and gore to boot, all courtesy of Greg Nicotero and his always amazing FX team. It’s almost like Tarantino said to himself, “hey, what if I could get Kurt Russell and remake The Thing, only without the alien thing, and as a western?” It involves a bounty hunter (Russell, clearly having fun chewing the scenery), his bounty (Jennifer Jason Leigh, in a superbly demented turn), and the odd group that ends up with them in an isolated tavern, seeking refuge from a fast approaching blizzard. What follows is a classic, yet clearly Tarantino, story of mistrust taking seed and growing, and as the group begins to doubt each other in ever increasing amounts, the body count grows and grows. Plus, it has a classic Western score courtesy of Ennio Morricone and positively gorgeous cinematography. Seriously, snow hasn’t looked this chilling since The Shining.
Brimstone is the tale of a mute midwife (Dakota Fanning) in a small town who realizes the new reverend (Guy Pearce, in his second appearance on this list) that has come to her community’s church is a figure from her shadowy past, and the past has come back to haunt her. As he relentlessly terrifies and pursues her family, the film flashes back to just how she knows the reverend, and why he now sets out to destroy all she holds dear. From the beginning, the movie highlights the harshness of frontier life, and the film uses stark and haunting imagery to great effect. Dakota Fanning often speaks volumes with her eyes, but it is Pearce who steals the movie with his terrifying portrayal of the psychopathic preacher who, ya know, if being a decent human being is a criteria for a clergyman, probably should have chosen a different career path. This movie might not be for everyone, as the subject matter is definitely heavy, but it is a smart look at both toxic masculinity and the use of religious justifications for misogyny. Look for small but memorable turns by Game of Thrones actors Kit Harington and Carice van Houten.
From Dusk Till Dawn
I don’t care what anyone says, this 1996 Robert Rodriguez romp will always be a super-fun ride for me. And, although it has a modern day setting, yes, it’s a western, and hell yes, it’s totally horror. It tells the tale of two bank-robbing brothers (Quentin Tarantino & George Clooney) who take a kindly Texas family hostage and stow away in their stagecoach (I mean, RV) to get safely across the Texas border and into Mexico. Once there, they take the family to the place their fellow bad guys want to meet, a saloon (I mean, strip-bar) where, as the night goes on, it becomes clear that the staff just happen to be vampires. It includes what may be the sexiest woman-with-a-snake dance ever (seductively performed by Salma Hayek) and probably the smartest non-intended use of condoms in a horror movie, ever. It's got great cameos and is a campy action tribute to the horror films Rodriguez grew up loving. It is totally fun to watch the survivors band together to try and beat the vampire horde back until daylight, and, as a total bonus, you get to see Clooney with 90’s tribal tattoos. If you are in the mood for something gleefully gory (with more terrific effects by Greg Nicotero) and cool that also doesn’t take itself too seriously, From Dusk Till Dawn is gonna be your jam.
Widely regarded as a cult-classic, this vampire flick made and set in the 1980's never actually mentions the word “vampire.” It begins as a young man (Adrian Pasdar) in the American southwest finds himself drawn to a woman he's just met and, after a little vigorous necking, (see what I did there?), finds himself smoking in the sunlight with a need to feed on human blood. Along with his sexy new girlfriend, he’s also inherited himself a new instant family, (including Bill Paxton, clearly having a psychopathic blast), who happen to be Civil War-era vampires that travel together in a stagecoach, (um, I mean RV, again). Soon, he is torn between his conscience, which keeps him from wanting to feed and kill, and a need to please and belong to his new family, who insist he must kill to do so. But, when his real life family enters the picture, will his need to protect them win out over his newfound lust for blood? This is certainly a movie about vampires, but it is also a movie about the different bonds of family, and further still, it is an allegory for poverty in 80’s America and how many in the Reagan era saw the poor as bloodsucking monsters. Plus, director Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) obviously knew, even from her earliest efforts, how to artistically frame a shot, and she definitely used the Western landscape to a dark, yet gorgeously full, effect.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
Yes, this film is set in a fictional location in modern day Iran, but, it takes place in a wasteland town full of some of the same types that might populate a dangerous Deadwood-type territory in the old West. Even from the title sequence, it looks, and often sounds like, an old-fashioned spaghetti Western, with the harsh desert landscape used as effectively here as in any American-set Western, and the black and white cinematography only enhances the movie. As the film opens, we meet Arash, a handsome young man with a James Dean style, whose father is addicted to heroin and gambling. Then we meet the lovely and mysterious “Girl,” a vampire who walks the lonely streets cloaked in a chador, which often billows behind her much like Bela Lugosi’s classic black cape. At first she appears to be a vampire who preys on those who prey on the vulnerable, but as it becomes clear she is undeniably dangerous, we are left to wonder about her motivations and conscience. With every encounter between Arash and the girl, a magnetic attraction grows, and the two must decide if they can overcome the (often bloody) odds, or if theirs is a doomed romance. While it's an effectively gorgeous and fairly scary vampire movie, the film is also at once both a message of female empowerment - let’s just say the Girl doesn't appreciate men who exploit women - and a lyrical love story.
Well, that’s it, y’all. Now go kick back and enjoy your western horror binge! And seriously, find a way to have that chicken-fried steak, and if, say, you're not in the South, (or near a good Southern restaurant), and therefore nowhere near a decent one, then put it on your bucket list. You will thank me.