Horror films and westerns are two of cinema’s great mainstays, having established their distinct identities and sets of conventions in the earliest days of the medium. So distinct from each other, in fact, as to seem entirely incompatible – as different as night, the domain of horror, from day, the traditional setting for westerns.
And yet, this is to overlook, or underestimate, the commercial cinematic will to find a way – or to flog a dead horse, no matter how rotting the carcass. While the notion of ‘horror’ conjures up specific images or referents – castles, vampires, zombies, graveyards, summer camps – it is not defined by time or place, nor confined by character type or cultural/historical context. The western may appear to be immutable, certainly by contrast, although stories can slip north or south of the United States border, even into the present day, and remain hitched to the genre. It has never been impermeable, however – hence there are Cold War westerns, noir westerns, feminist westerns (albeit a rare breed), even – Wayne forbid – quasi-Marxist westerns, imported from Italy.
Horror began seeping in, like a virus, in the Twenties, mostly in the form of cloak-wearing villains whose ghostly aura was always dispelled in the end, much like every episode of the old-school Scooby-Doo. The novelty of combining seemingly disparate formulas quickly wore off through overuse (not before it produced The Phantom Empire, a western serial targeted at the Flash Gordon crowd, in which singing cowboy Gene Autry discovers a subterranean colony of ray-gun-firing robots). It was revived in the heyday of drive-in movies and creature features – the anything-goes era – and surfaced in the more baroque European productions, on the back of a gothic-horror revival.
The horror western has never had a ‘moment’, as such. That said, in the past decade a steady stream of titles has capitalised on the renewed popularity both of horror films – especially those centred on the undead – and, relatively speaking, of westerns. Not that we are talking about a golden age – nobody has yet calculated the perfect ratio of one genre to the other. If there is a unifying theme to these more recent films, it is that zombies and bloodsuckers have replaced the Native American as the feared and despised Other; the id that must be scratched (whether the land bordering the frontier belongs rightfully to the dead in the same way it is spiritually bound to the Red Man – at least according to romantic art and literature and revisionist western fiction – is not a notion these films entertain). Beyond that, it is a belief that style takes precedence over substance, and a misconception that references to Leone and Romero are both mandatory and sufficient.
Given the blurring of genre lines, exactly what constitutes a horror-western is not always obvious; there is not, as yet, an algorithm that can be applied to the problem (just what have mathematicians been doing with their time?). With that in mind, this is a subjective selection. The films in this overview all feature something uncanny, or at least allude towards it, and are set either entirely or substantially in the Old West. They must also utilise frontier iconography in a more than perfunctory or decorative fashion. Ergo House II: the Second Story, is omitted, zombie cowboy notwithstanding, as is the playful Sundown: the Vampire in Retreat, a contemporary horror-comedy with a light dusting of western tropes. And as for all those portentous Native American curse flicks – Death Curse of Tartu, Shadow of the Hawk, Nightwing, The Manitou, Scalps, ad nauseam – the bulk of these are not westerns and properly comprise a sub-genre of their own for some future article.
The majority of titles here were prepared for theatrical release, with one or two made for TV. More recent entries reflect the increasing importance – indeed, the crucial role – of home media formats as an alternative mode of distribution, certainly at the cheaper end of the market.
Haunted Gold (1932)
An early example of The Cat and the Canary-type school of mystery film that plays on the fears of its characters and its audience in much the same fashion, exploiting setting and superstition to instil fear of a supernatural, or at least superhuman, presence that turns out to be anything but.
The plot, which centres on disputed ownership of a gold mine, is as creaky as the furniture; as a vehicle for John Wayne, however, then just twenty five years-old and the next big thing in westerns, it is lifted out of the routine by the spooky atmosphere conjured by Mack V. Wright’s lively direction and Nicholas Musuraca’s contrast-rich photography (Musuraca later graduated with distinction to film noir).
Wright utilises the murky environs – ghost town; abandoned mine; dark woods – and old-dark-house clichés – sliding panels; secret passageways; black-robed ‘phantom’ – with verve and imagination (some footage was spliced in from a silent western, The Phantom City, of which this film is a remake). There is relatively little physical action, for a western: the high point, quite literally, is a hair-raising tussle between Wayne and a villain in a mine cart, suspended over a canyon; shortly after, Wayne is saved from doom by the intervention of his horse, Duke – a co-star in at least six of Wayne’s westerns at Warners in the Thirties, and likely the source of the star’s future nickname.
Overall, this is a fair example of what Paul Green, in his Encyclopedia of Weird Westerns, calls the ‘Weird Menace’ sub-genre. The mystery element is unmasked without too much fanfare, but one aspect of the film likely to horrify modern viewers is the performance of the black actor Blue Washington, who plays Wayne’s sidekick as a jittery, bumbling, bug-eyed racial stereotype.
‘Phantom’ was a popular appellation for veiled villains and Zorroesque heroes in mystery westerns of the time. See also: The Vanishing Riders; Tombstone Canyon, in which chunky Ken Maynard discovers, in a typical twist, that the Phantom is his presumed-dead father; The Phantom of the West and The Phantom of the Range, both starring Tom Tyler, who later played a different Phantom in the 1943 cliffhanger serial based on Lee Falk’s comics and The Mummy.
The Beast of Hollow Mountain (1956)
Emerging from a herd of dino-themed creature features – Two Lost Worlds, The Lost Continent, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, The Land Unknown – this ersatz western rouses itself from a prehistoric plot about romantic/territorial rivalry for a rip-roaring climax. For almost an hour, the story of gringo rancher Guy Madison and his dispute with a Mexican landowner – over both cattle and a woman – plods its course, occasionally referring to a legend surrounding the titular mountain, the swamp at its base and a creature “from the dawn of time”.
Madison’s travails as an expat do not provide the basis for an affecting study of cultural dislocation along the lines of 1959’s The Magnificent Country. Rather, they form a flimsy pretext, ensuring there is an American hero on hand to battle the beast once it eventually appears – this he does virtually single-handedly, luring it into the swamp while a group of Mexicans watch from a safe distance (Anglo protagonists were always preferable, and demonstrably superior, to foreigners or racial minorities where the majority of Hollywood westerns were concerned).
The presence of Willis O’Brien’s name among the credits – as writer – may arouse expectations, but unfortunately the animation genius behind the original King Kong didn’t handle the effects here. The stop-motion work is as primitive as the ill-tempered Allosaurus itself, whose first full appearance in model form is preceded by close-ups of rubbery, clawed feet striding manfully into shot. It’s from here that the picture gathers pace – model cows are eaten, cattle stampede, Madison saves his enemy from the jaws of death and performs some Tarzan-like derring-do with his lariat.
It’s generally well photographed – the exception being the rear-projection footage in the dinosaur scenes, which is difficult to distinguish – and no sillier than most other monster movies of the period. Yet without a compelling context – the threat posed by nuclear technology, say – it’s merely average escapism. The premise of cowboys versus dinosaurs was realised in a much more accomplished manner in The Valley of Gwangi.
The Swamp of the Lost Monsters (1957/English version 1965)
This mutant offspring of Creature from the Black Lagoon was dredged from the depths of cinematic obscurity by the opportunistic producer K. Gordon Murray, who scraped together a few dimes and dubbed and retitled a slew of Mexican monster movies for the Sixties drive-in circuit and late-night TV. Over-plotted and under-funded, it ropes in a cowboy detective (Gastón Santos) when the body of a wealthy rancher seemingly disappears from its coffin. The cause of death was a “fishy-eyed ghost” that inhabits the local swamp, but functions equally well on dry land and knows how to use a spear gun – and Morse code.
The time-honoured ‘man in a rubber suit’ technique is more acceptable here in that the creature is, indeed, a man in a rubber suit. His identity is not difficult to ascertain once the dialogue brings in ‘life insurance’ as a plot element. The attempt to fuse matinee-western clichés (a super-intelligent horse; the curse of the comedy sidekick) with monster motifs is haphazard to the point of parody; the addition of melodrama – the dead man’s widow has been concealing the fact she is actually blind – takes it beyond that stage by some distance.
Santos was also a popular bullfighter and was a capable physical actor. He usually appeared on screen with his steed, Moonlight. The fact that the horse Moonlight can dance is not at all out of step with the tone of the film.
Teenage Monster (1958)
Like its most memorable line – “This is no time for hysterics; there’s a killer terrorizing this town” – this drive-in also-ran is one long non-sequitur. The title suggests a conflation of two of the most popular trends in Fifties cinema – juvenile delinquency and science fiction – but what transpires is a primitive creature feature in western duds, with the titular tearaway played by a fifty-year-old stuntman in a fright wig, hairy gloves and bad teeth; a rebel with claws, if you will.
Seven years previously, in 1880, young Charles was injured in a meteorite strike, which killed his father and afflicted the boy with an unexplained mutation. So far, so sci-fi, but the fireball (actually, it would seem, a children’s sparkler) is the extent of the film’s dalliance with the genre. The rest of the plot is taken up with the efforts of Ruth, Charles’ mother, to keep her hulking offspring’s existence a secret, not easy when he repeatedly sneaks out (in daytime) for adolescent high jinks, from killing cattle to throttling passers-by. Then the bitchy waitress Kathy discovers the truth, blackmailing Ruth and manipulating Charles’ undeveloped affections.
If the film-makers were hoping to elicit sympathy for the eponymous man-child and his jealousy of mom’s new boyfriend, the town sheriff, this is dashed by the sheer zaniness of the premise. This has the giant actor Gil Perkins, already burdened by comical creature make-up (this was a bad day at the office for Jack P. Pierce, who had designed Frankenstein’s monster for Universal since the Thirties), communicating in muffled grunts and groans (somehow his mother and the minxy Kathy can understand him), interspersed with the occasional intelligible word. “No Charles, don’t talk like that,” rails Ruth during one of his diatribes, and Perkins probably wished he hadn’t been obliged to.
Appearing in Teenage Monster perhaps hastened the retirement plans of Anne Gwynne, a minor star in the Forties, whose displays of maternal devotion as Ruth are nevertheless persuasive. The real star, in a film, predicated, at least in the title, on youthful petulance, is twenty year-old Gloria Castillo as Kathy, who turns on a dime from demure to devious, ensnaring the love-struck Charles with her doe eyes one minute; flashing them maliciously at Ruth the next. Whether venting her spleen or trilling coquettishly – “You love me, Charles? More than you love your mother…?” – she is far more frightening than the wolfman-like protagonist, who is a far cry from the “teenage titan of terror” proclaimed by the posters.
Curse of the Undead (1959)
Residing somewhere between a B-western and a Z-grade horror film, this mid-alphabet quickie goes for the jugular from the opening moments as the credits, backed by a theremin, roll over images of grave markers and tombstones. Nearby, a girl lies dying, the latest victim of an epidemic whose physical symptoms include puncture wounds on the neck…
It sounds obvious but, were it not for its supernatural flourishes, the plot of Edward Dein’s film would be indistinguishable from countless other westerns about rival ranchers and water rights. Here, in a minor twist, the requisite hired gunman (paradigm: Jack Palance in Shane) is in the employ not of the land-grabbing bully of the piece, but the smaller rancher (Kathleen Crowley) fighting to survive. The major twist, of course, is that the mercenary killer is a vampire, played by Michael Pate, whose attraction to Crowley adds an edge to his rivalry with her intended, Eric Fleming’s town preacher.
Despite issuing from Universal, a studio steeped in Dracula lore, and being released a year after Hammer initiated a Bram Stoker revival, Curse of the Undead draws upon a different cultural tradition. Pate’s character is afflicted by vampirism after remorsefully committing suicide, a mortal sin in Catholicism. He is not evil, and Pate – an Australian expat whose wide-mouthed, leathery features saw him typecast as a heavy – plays him as a lost soul, more human than monster, eliciting greater sympathy than the more conventionally heroic Fleming. “What mercy did [God] show me?” demands Pate, whose woes began when he killed his brother in a red mist. Fleming, sanctimonious throughout, remains utterly implacable. (We might infer a certain amount of jealousy colouring the preacher’s judgement, given Pate’s involvement with the comely Crowley; unfortunately, the script avoids the issue.) When the showdown arrives, Fleming, armed with consecrated ammunition, is smugly assured of victory: “My boss’ll see to that.”
The ending satisfies the punitive demands of both second-feature westerns and mainstream religion, but it is the attention paid to Pate’s predicament that confuses the issue and makes the title, Curse of the Undead, more than just a throwaway concern.
The Living Coffin (1959/English version 1965)
Buckskinned detective Gastón Santos returns, wonder horse in tow, for this variation on the legend of La Llorona, the ‘weeping woman’ of Mexican folklore. (Rafael Baledón, the director of Santos’s earlier Swamp of the Lost Monsters, made what is generally regarded as the best screen version of the tale, The Curse of the Crying Woman, in 1963). The traditional fable centres on a grieving mother reputed to have drowned her children for the sake of a faithless lover; she then spends eternity wailing and searching for them. In this rendition, superstition is rife that the late Doña Clotilde blames others for the death of her offspring in a swamp, and is responsible for a chain of killings. Santos has no truck with such talk, and suspects the location of a gold mine on Clotilde’s property is the root of the trouble.
Although far superior to …Lost Monsters, there are several issues with this Mexican hybrid (originally known as El grito de la muerte – the cry of death). The plot tangents, intended to forestall deductive reasoning, create instead the kind of narrative entropy that often results when the supernatural is employed as a cloak for the mundane. Not everybody will warm to the listless Santos, the equine heroics of his mount (rescuing his master from a pit of quicksand by tossing him a rope; firing a rifle – off-screen, sadly) or the comedic bumbling of his entirely dispensable sidekick, who short-circuits suspenseful build-up on more than one occasion. Nor can one overlook the incompetently choreographed fistfights, with blows that clearly miss by several inches.
Elsewhere, however, director Fernando Méndez (The Black Pit of Dr M) cooks up an oppressive, Poe-like atmosphere of morbidity and dread. Clotilde’s hacienda, where her sister resides in a limbo state, is shrouded in gloomy shadows, from the subterranean passageway, where ghostly señoras flit in the darkness, to the mausoleum, rigged with an alarm system that rings whenever a coffin has been disturbed. The nearby town – consisting, for budgetary reasons no doubt, of a single street and a couple of interiors – is subtly lit and eerily deserted; the lack of extras again points to penny pinching, but is explained plausibly as an exodus of young folk, driven away by the weeping woman’s curse. Clotilde herself (or so it would seem) enjoys some Fulci-esque close-ups, her pale, crusty face lit from beneath and looming from the screen. These gothic pleasures compensate for the periodic silliness and the routine climax – all masks, mannequins and mechanical platforms, in which Santos’s super-steed saves the day once more.
The Rider of the Skulls (1965)
An endearingly preposterous, no-budget mash-up of Zorroesque heroics and monster mayhem, this is grade-Z cinema of the highest – or lowest – order. Seemingly cobbled together from a Mexican TV series, which would explain the discontinuity, it follows the titular masked crime-fighter as he subdues in turn a werewolf, a vampire and a headless horseman, each of whom terrorises the same ugly patch of scrubland, among the same derelict buildings, in otherwise unrelated episodes.
The monsters sport crude rubber and papier-mâché masks that would shame a remedial art class; the Rider’s face-wear resembles a niqab at first, although he changes to a full-head mask after dispatching the werewolf. (Indeed, he seems to be played by a different actor from this point.) Most scenes are filmed day for night, or vice versa – hence the absurdity of the vampire taking fright at the onset of dawn (“I must return to my coffin. Sunlight is deadly to me”) when it is clearly daytime already.
But then, everything about Skulls is ill conceived: exposition from a zombie; talking (patently fake) heads; a grown man who adopts the Rider as his “daddy”… The coup de grace of bizarreness is delivered in the final sequence, when the horseman, having recovered his head, disputes with God, represented by stock footage of lightning, like a child defying parental orders to go to bed.
Criticising a film like this is about as worthwhile as punching a kitten. It is one to watch, or avoid, because of the outlandish anomalies and non-sequiturs, not in spite of them.
The Devil’s Mistress (1966)
A curious little semi-professional chamber piece, which chimes with the strange goings on in the westerns of Monte Hellman. It has a similarly austere, abstract quality to Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting. There are no signposts to the world at large; just a handful of characters isolated in a slowly undulating nightmare, imprisoned in a scorching desert setting.
Framed like a biblical parable – it is bracketed by blood-curdling quotations from Deuteronomy – the story follows four cowboys who encounter a displaced Puritan and his mute wife in a run-down cabin in the wilderness. Two of the men have already described their relish for rape and murder – “It’s more fun if they ain’t [friendly]… Fishin’ ain’t no fun unless the fish bite” – and succumb to temptation, shooting the husband and molesting his wife. Their next mistake is to take her along, and they meet mysterious deaths along the trail. Their companions played no part in the atrocity, but are punished in the same way. What gives?
The Devil’s Mistress is not a coherent picture; that may have been the point. Questions are posed but never answered. The couple have travelled from Salem, “to escape religious persecution” – is the woman, Liah, a witch? Why does the meat they serve their ravenous houseguests taste strange? Is Liah avenging herself by causing the deaths of these men – two of whom she kisses passionately, imparting some kind of fatal malady; another is bitten by a rattler; the fourth dies by hanging – or is she the agent of a higher power: “I will send the poison of the serpent and the mouth of the beast upon them”? The ending is characteristically enigmatic.
The ambiguity nourishes, for the most part, building up the feeling of unease voiced by the cowboys’ nominal leader – “Somethin’s happenin’ to us; somethin’s in the air”. It compensates, just about, for the absence of tension, a consequence of one-time director Orville Wanzer’s (there’s a spell-check error waiting to happen) slackness on the reins. One must also excuse his point-and-shoot technique and basic compositional sense. Equally problematic are the characterisations; in the hands of inexperienced actors – perhaps even non-actors; it is difficult to tell – these are slender to the point of scraggy. Joan Stapleton, as Liah, conveys vacuity more than otherworldliness, gazing into the middle distance at a black-robed figure that follows the group, its identity coming as no surprise when it is eventually revealed.
Nevertheless, there is something here, and it comes back to the quality of ambiguity. If Hellman had made a horror western at that stage of his career, it might have played like this – albeit tighter and more accomplished all round.
Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (1966)
Take generous quantities of ham and corn. Stir. Add marquee-friendly title. Serve to a jaded public. This myth-mash of vampire lore and Old West legend is unfortunatally far duller than its outré title suggests. Its undead villain (he is never referred to as Dracula) preys on a pretty young rancher, posing as her uncle in a plot to make her his mate. He is finally stymied by her sceptical fiancé, one William H. Bonney.
As a western, it is at best perfunctory – there is an indigenous American stagecoach attack, a brief fistfight and not much else. It is equally cursory as a vampire film – Carradine has no reflection, but is fine to walk around in daylight. His entrances are preceded by shots of a distinctly rubbery bat; tongues were avowedly in cheeks, which is just as well.
Director William Beaudine had been making films since the silent era. He earned the sobriquet ‘One Shot’ for his speedy, no-frills technique. This one was made in eight days at the Corrigan Movie Ranch in California, founded by B-western star Ray ‘Crash’ Corrigan. John Carradine responds to the absurdity of the premise with a supremely arch performance centred on the muscles around his eyes, while Chuck Courtney essays perhaps the blandest Billy the Kid in screen history. Nostalgia buffs may note the presence of veteran western players Roy Barcroft, as the slow-witted sheriff; Harry Carey Jr; and Carey’s mother, Olive, who is refreshingly wry as the town doctor, who naturally has a book on vampires among her medical texts.
Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966)
William Beaudine’s swansong – begun just a fortnight or so after Billy the Kid… finished shooting – is as plodding and nonsensically plotted as its companion piece. The title again is misleading: Maria Frankenstein, the eccentric villainess, is actually the granddaughter of Baron Victor, whose work she pursues fanatically. Driven out of Vienna with her lily-livered (and inexplicably much older) brother, she has pitched up at a matte painting of an abandoned mission in Arizona, attracted by the frequency of electrical storms – the better to power her experiments. These have resulted in several dead children, but precious little progress. Then Jesse James arrives (don’t ask – contrived doesn’t begin to cover it), seeking medical help for his wounded friend, the muscle-bound Hank, whom Maria sizes up as a perfect specimen.
As in Billy the Kid…, the western plot – stagecoach hold-up, ambush, double cross – is nondescript, but the finale tweaks the tone to something approaching hysterical. In her lab full of buzzing electrodes and bottles marked ‘poison’, Maria transplants Hank’s brain (the difference is negligible), renames him Igor and turns him on Jesse and Juanita, a Mexican spitfire.
Estonian expat Narda Onyx overplays as Maria, whether disparaging peasants or eyeing Hank lustfully, while John Lupton as Jesse looks bemused throughout. “They were made for fun,” production supervisor Sam Manners said of Beaudine’s low-budget midnight movies, which were targeted squarely at the undiscerning drive-in crowd. Fun (and a quick profit) may have been the aim, but the results are lackadaisical more than anything else.
Django, Kill! (1967)
The most notorious of Italian westerns, this concoction of art-film aesthetics and mordant humour is almost Buñuelian in its dreamlike texture and provocative imagery. Director Giulio Questi approached the project from a position of intellectual aloofness, transforming a standard plot – outlaw seeks revenge on treacherous partners/who’s got the gold? – into a macabre meditation on greed and intolerance, cruelty and madness.
All of this lies just beneath the surface of the nameless town where Tomas Milian’s half-breed outlaw discovers the massacred remains of the men who betrayed him. (His name is not Django; the export title merely traded on that character’s popularity.) The inhabitants of what the local Indians call “the unhappy place” are venal and corrupt, overseen by moral guardians who are murderous hypocrites.
Into the mix comes Roberto Camardiel’s jovial/sadistic Mexican bandit, with his retinue of well-groomed “muchachos” (their identical black outfits were Questi’s spiteful homage to Mussolini’s fascists), who torture Milian, tear up graves and (it is suggested) gang-rape a young Ray Lovelock.
There is splashy gore – scalping, bullet-hole fingering, eviscerated horses – and an infernal ending that paraphrases Roger Corman’s Poe series. The powerlessness of Milian’s protagonist mocks the western’s traditional espousal of macho individualism.
If You Meet Sartana, Pray for your Death (1968)
“I feel as if a ghost were following me…” The protagonist of this baroque, sardonic Euro-western is a gambler-cum-conjuror rather than a spectre, mesmerising and mystifying enemies and observers alike with his sleight of hand (made to look even more impressive by some subtle under-cranking) and powers of evasion. A private investigator of sorts, he is played in sly, suave fashion by Gianni Garko, who reprised the role in three additional films. (Garko played an unrelated Sartana, a villain in that case, in the earlier western Blood at Sundown.)
After surviving an attack on a stagecoach he has been trailing, Sartana unpicks a complicated plot involving stolen gold, blackmail and insurance fraud. Everybody is cagey by default – alliances are formed and sundered in the flash of a gunshot. And why double cross when you can triple cross?
Notwithstanding these narrative perturbations, which became a hallmark of the Sartana series, it is the central character’s Mandrake-like talents that make him especially enigmatic and darkly charismatic. Director Gianfranco Parolini, aka Frank Kramer, surrounds his hero with graveyards and morticians, and kits him out with Bondesque gadgetry.
He is augmented further by a front-rank cast of connivers and cut-throats, principally William Berger, Fernando Sancho, in his habitual role of grandstanding bandit chieftain, and a dapper Klaus Kinski – the first of his two appearances in the Sartana franchise.
Sartana describes himself as a “first-class pallbearer”; his chief antagonist thinks he’s more like the devil. Subsequent films would break the spell; here, however, Parolini encourages the impression with mischievous relish.
The Valley of Gwangi (1969)
King Kong with cowboys. Substitute a giant primate with a dinosaur and that’s the concept in a nutshell. Sadly, Gwangi’s mighty roar fell on deaf ears in 1969, when popular cinema was more self-aware and more sensationalistic. “A naked dinosaur just was not outrageous enough,” lamented Gwangi’s creator, Ray Harryhausen, fresh from surrounding a nearly naked Raquel Welch with primeval anachronisms in One Million Years BC. Perhaps it would have drawn greater crowds in the Fifties, when both westerns and monster movies were at their peak. True, 1956’s Beast of Hollow Mountain did not exactly seize the box office in its jaws, but that lacked Harryhausen’s genius and was less evenly paced.
Nevertheless, this remains a rattling adventure. The plot excavates a 1942 project, also called Gwangi, by King Kong animator Willis O’Brien, and apes (ahem) Kong’s narrative: showmen slumming it in Mexico discover a fabulous creature in a “forbidden valley” (another variation on Conan Doyle’s “lost world”), dismiss native superstitions and bring it back to civilisation for an ill-fated exhibition. After a short-lived rampage, the creature meets a noble and oddly poignant demise. (Unlike Kong, Gwangi shows no interest in the heroine, except as a potential snack.)
Gwangi – an imagined cross between a T.Rex and an Allosaurus – is an imposing and vivid creation, all rippling muscles, swishing tail and snapping jaws. He is the alpha beast in Harryhausen’s prehistoric menagerie, which also includes pterodactyls, a strapping Styracosaurus and the rather daintier (and comically misnamed) ‘El Diablo’ – a tiny, horse-like Eohippus, extinct for 50 million years.
It is when El Diablo is stolen from Gila Golan’s Wild West show and returned to the wild by gypsies that Golan and her wranglers venture to the valley, joined by her old flame, the cocky opportunist James Franciscus, and Laurence Naismith’s conveniently placed palaeontologist. After a skirmish, Gwangi is subdued, transported in a wagon and readied for his stage debut; trapped in a blazing cathedral, he literally brings the house down.
There is some consideration to issues raised in other cautionary fantasies (notably Jurassic Park), with the concerns of science pitted against superstition and the profit motive, but these are not pursued with the same vigour with which the characters chase Gwangi, and vice versa. The human protagonists are largely an ignoble bunch; it is Harryhausen’s meticulous stop-motion monsters, and the havoc they unleash, that reward viewing.
Django the Bastard (1969)
When Franco Nero and Sergio Corbucci brought Django to the screen in 1966, they weren’t to know the extent to which the character would take on a life of his own – perhaps even a life after death, if we take Sergio Garrone’s unlicensed follow-up at face value. The original Django had something of the Grim Reaper about him; wrapped in a heavy black cloak, he travelled with his own coffin, and had an unhealthy affinity for cemeteries. It was not too much of a stretch for Garrone and his co-writer and star, the lugubrious Anthony Steffen, to endow the character with seemingly supernatural traits.
Inexpressive even by Steffen’s standards, this iteration of Django is a former soldier on the trail of three officers who left him and his comrades for dead. Instead of a coffin, he totes crosses engraved with the names of his prey. He moves stiffly, like death warmed up (or just about). Through camera trickery and judicious editing, he seems to materialise and disappear at will, terrifying the gunmen employed by Paolo Gozlino, his final target.
Garrone evidently studied the horror stylebook, if only to master the basics, as when Django is revealed in the darkness (most of the film is set at night) by a sudden burst of light, appears as a reflection in a water trough, or slides into shot in close-up; the impression gained is of a spectral presence lurking just beyond the frame. He seems invulnerable until wounded by Gozlino’s brother, a psychotic man-child played by Italian trash-film talisman Luciano Rossi. The injury doesn’t hamper Django for long, however, and the ending restores his mystique.
This ambiguity elevates Garrone’s offbeat western above most of the Django derivatives produced in the same period. (It is often suggested that Clint Eastwood was inspired by this film to make the ostensibly similar High Plains Drifter. Yet Django the Bastard was not distributed in the States until after Drifter had been produced, and even then it was hardly a marquee release. It is not inconceivable that Eastwood – or at least Drifter’s writer, Ernest Tidyman – saw this film in Europe at some point, or read about it, but it seems unlikely.)
And God Said to Cain (1970)
A counterpart of sorts to Antonio Margheriti’s Web of the Spider (itself a remake of his own Castle of Blood), this dark and stormy western, once it dispenses with the preliminaries, transposes the notion of vengeful spirits from the olde worlde milieu of Sixties Italian horror films to an equally fantastical old West.
Klaus Kinski (later to play Poe in Web of the Spider) is cast to type as a wraith-like avenger, back from the dead in a metaphorical sense – fresh out of prison, and fixed on punishing the man who put him there. With his cadaverous features and baleful pronouncements (“I’ve earned the right to kill, even if God chooses to punish me for it”), Kinski is an unnerving protagonist, as inexorable as the storm that symbolises his wrath and convinces the weaker-minded of his opponents that he is a force of nature.
The plot is a mere pretext – Kinski’s quarry, played by co-producer Peter Carsten, is a powerful man with a private army, a proud son and a woman who once belonged to Kinski. What distinguishes the film is Margheriti’s gothic rendering of threadbare material. Much of the action takes place in darkness, with dust clouds billowing; Kinski skulks in a cave system that snakes beneath the streets; natural sounds are amplified; the camera often tilted to disorienting effect.
In scenes highly reminiscent of Django the Bastard, Kinski picks off Carsten’s hired guns with uncanny efficiency (and not just by shooting – Margheriti stalwart Luciano Pigozzi is crushed to death beneath a church bell), before confronting his adversary in a room lined with mirrors. This was a cliché even then, but not in the context of a western – this becomes almost notional, as the director’s staging, combined with the claustrophobic setting, atonal music and the flickering and crackling of flames, takes us into the realm of gothic melodrama, not dissimilar to Margheriti’s own period chillers.
Other Italian westerns with comparable inclinations include: Margheriti’s Vengeance, a sulphur-scented 1968 film featuring a flamboyant supervillain, and Whisky and Ghosts (1974), a botched attempt to rejuvenate the slapstick Trinity formula with supernatural frissons – Rentaghost is funnier; Lucio Fulci’s The Four of the Apocalypse (1975), with Tomas Milian as a Manson-like sadist; Sergio Martino’s A Man Called Blade (1977), a formula revenge plot embellished with gothic frills; Tex and the Lord of the Deep (1985), a mediocre adaptation of a long-running Italian comic strip, which involves Giuliano Gemma’s Tex Willer with Native American supernaturalism, among more mundane distractions.
Black Noon (1971)
At a time when Satan spread his wings over much of popular culture, this modest TV movie exploited the same paranoid fears and fantasies about all things diabolical or pagan that fuelled The City of the Dead, Rosemary’s Baby, The Devil Rides Out, The Brotherhood of Satan, The Exorcist, et al. It projects those fears onto an Old West setting, where minister John Keyes and his wife, Lorna, are found stranded in the desert by the good folk of nearby San Melas. The mood that develops is subtler than the in-joke (Melas-Salem) suggests. Roy Thinnes’ man of God is slowly corrupted by the flattery of the townsfolk and the longing looks of the mute Deliverance (Yvette Mimieux), who incapacitates his wife with black magic.
The creeping tempo – classic made-for-TV – escalates incrementally. The locals’ Olde Worlde ways prompt Lorna to observe, “It’s as if they were from another time, or another world,” which proves to be prescient. Keyes has visions of a bloodied man pursuing him, while Lorna glimpses a masked gathering, complete with goat and dead owl. The revelation of communal devil worship will surprise nobody evenly lightly schooled in modern horror, but it is well timed by TV veteran Bernard L. Kowalski, whose efforts to convey a dreamlike ambience are only patchily effective.
The casting is astute, and helps keeps the town’s placid veil in place. Old stagers Ray Milland, Gloria Grahame (wasted) and western stalwart Hank Worden are buttressed by the beatific Mimieux; Henry Silva has a more stereotypical role as an all-in-black, mustachioed bandit, shot ‘dead’ by Thinnes in a scene that accelerates his character’s fall from grace.
A flash-forward implies these entrapments occur every hundred years. Like the church that hosts the fiery final sacrifice, which is strongly reminiscent of The Wicker Man, Black Noon is a well-constructed slow-burner.
Cut-throats Nine (1971)
Ultra-nihilistic and gratuitously violent, the final western directed by Joaquin Luis Romero Marchent was the most anomalous assignment of his career. The Spaniard made westerns in Europe even before Sergio Leone. He wasn’t radical like the latter, but had greater integrity and passion for the genre than most of the hired guns churning out ersatz-American shoot-’em-ups in the early Sixties.
How he arrived at this grim tale of greed and bestial savagery is something of a mystery. He co-wrote the story and script with Santiago Moncada, a specialist in cynical horror films, which helps explain the bitter tone – exacerbated by the wintry, mountainous conditions in which a group of escaped convicts and their captives, an army officer (Robert Hundar) and his daughter (Emma Cohen), find themselves.
Yet Romero Marchent was producer as well as director, indicating a considerable degree of professional commitment. Bloodying the waters are the graphic stabbings, slashings and eviscerations that have made the film notorious – it has been suggested, and seems likely, that these were added by someone other than the credited director, perhaps at the behest of distributors.
Cut-throats is thus, in part, a splatter film; in America, it was marketed with the offer of ‘terror masks’ for the squeamish. Looking beyond these inserts, which mark the reduction in the prisoners’ ranks as they succumb to their basest instincts, there is a macabre passage in which one of them hallucinates a vision of an undead Robert Hundar, stalking him through the wilderness.
As a whole it is a bracing and unsettling, if exploitative, experience.
High Plains Drifter (1973)
Clint Eastwood’s first western as both director and star returned the genre to its roots as morality tale, albeit with blurred distinctions appropriate to the sceptical Seventies. Eastwood’s protagonist emerges like a mirage from the desert heat and proceeds to uncover the hypocrisy and collective guilt of Lago, a small mining town, where a marshal was whipped to death by three hired guns with the leading citizens’ complicity. The trio are on their way back from prison to punish the locals for turning them in, but it’s Eastwood’s revenge that counts, posited as a kind of divine retribution that consumes the town – painted red and renamed ‘Hell’ – in a blazing climax.
Building on his Dollars persona while slyly sending it up, Eastwood’s moral vision is very much of its time: materialism and cowardice are worthy of disdain; non-consensual sex a marker of alpha masculinity. He encourages inferences about the stranger’s otherworldly origins but leaves the matter unresolved; the script identified him as the marshal’s brother, but this is never vouchsafed in the film. The first flashback to the murder is from the protagonist’s perspective, in the form of a dream, with the lawman played by Eastwood’s stunt double – their resemblance is close enough for siblings, which would make Drifter a more-or-less straight-up revenge film.
But the only thing definitive about the denouement – bloody vengeance against a backdrop of hellfire, after which Eastwood drops his heaviest hint that the stranger is more avenging angel than mortal man – is that a firm conclusion cannot be drawn. (See also: Eastwood’s Pale Rider , an amalgam of Drifter and Shane that similarly invites metaphysical speculation.)
A Knife for the Ladies (1974)
Nineteen-seventy-four was a pivotal year in the development of the slasher film. But enough about Black Christmas and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Also released, to a clamour of indifference, was this torpid murder mystery, also known as Silent Sentence, for no apparent reason, and Jack the Ripper Goes West, which is no less misleading.
So poorly paced that it sags even at 82 minutes (for a later release it was chopped down to under an hour), the plot follows a chain of stabbings in the Old West town of Mescal, where the grouchy sheriff reluctantly aids a hotshot detective to crack the case. The western setting is elementary – it was shot on the Old Tucson lot, there are actors and extras milling about, flatly intoning clunky dialogue (“This has got to be the work of a madman”), but no sense of time or place. It is difficult to convey a period feel when your lead actor looks as if he would rather be surfing or singing soft-rock ballads.
The kill scenes are similarly perfunctory, as well as tame, and the central mystery is not exactly taxing, although the revelation of the killer’s identity and motive belatedly injects some manic energy into proceedings. The overall impression is of people going through the motions, from Larry G. ‘Nigger Charley’ Spangler’s sluggish direction, to the indifferent acting – the exceptions being Jack Elam’s typically eccentric turn as the aggrieved sheriff, and Richard Schaal’s mannered portrayal of the town’s mortician, the one red herring of note.
Even the soundtrack suggests a production pieced together without much thought – the film opens with synthesized whines that echo the period’s experimental electronica, and closes with a full-throated psychedelic rock song. In between, the music is recycled from Dominic Frontiere’s bombastic score to the Clint Eastwood western Hang ’Em High.
For a western with slasher/giallo tropes, a far superior offering is the 1972 Italian film The Price of Death, with Gianni Garko as a Sartana-like sleuth and Klaus Kinski as a scornful murder suspect.
The Shadow of Chikara (1977)
Equally likely to be overpraised or lambasted, this foray into the crowded realm of Indian mysticism is an atmospheric oddity. Civil War veterans Joe Don Baker (reliably surly), Ted Neeley (of Jesus Christ Superstar) and Joy Houck Jr, as the requisite part-Indian tracker, venture up the Buffalo River to a mountain in search of diamonds. Along the way they rescue Clint Eastwood’s muse Sondra Locke, encounter slack-jawed hicks of the Deliverance variety and are menaced by unseen, arrow-firing pursuers who “leave no tracks… move like a fog through the forest”. It all pertains to a mythical eagle-demon, Chikara, which has banished mankind from its domain.
Writer-director Earl E. Smith had ventured into horror’s hinterland before, having written The Legend of Boggy Creek and The Town That Dreaded Sundown; his scenario foreshadows more polished films like Southern Comfort and, especially, Predator – Houck could be Sonny Landham when he says, “I fear no man, Captain, but these are not natural people; they’re spirits, demons.” No monsters reveal themselves here, unless close-ups of an eagle count.
Smith gets good mileage from dense foliage and precipitous cliffs, shooting from low angles, the camera skirting the river’s surface. The eeriness trickles rather than flows, in true Seventies style, playing on the nerves of the characters – except for the rhino-skinned Baker – and lingering after the ambiguous, fashionably downbeat ending, in which Locke’s character abruptly takes centre stage.
Chikara used to play regularly on UK television in the Eighties. Today, it is trapped in public-domain hell. A washed-out, abbreviated print, under the title Curse of Demon Mountain, one of its many AKA’s, is the only one currently in circulation. A fairer assessment of a film that is haunting but ragged will have to wait until a scrubbed and restored version becomes available.
Eyes of Fire (1983)
Set in the Appalachians during the Colonial era, this is technically a period piece rather than a western. It employs the motif of settlers versus ‘savages’ in a similar way, however, and shares with The Shadow of Chikara a fascination with Native American mythology – here, a belief that “innocent blood… sinks into the earth… the souls of the slaughtered creatures gather together into a breathing spirit, a devil, that captures the living and commands their shadows”.
The ‘devil’ is a shambling, ragged, witch-like creature, complete with the titular orange eyes and a retinue of naked, mud-smeared followers; they prey upon a party of dissident pioneers led by Will, a deluded preacher, who struggles to comprehend the threat to the group. It falls to characters more closely attuned to the natural world – a rugged trapper and a young woman with seemingly magical powers – to confront the evil in the woods.
Director Avery Crounse eventually succumbs to Night of the Demon syndrome – the monster loses power once it becomes too palpable – and an overreliance on (badly dated) psychedelic optical effects. For much of the time, however, he cloaks his story, told in flashback by the sole survivors, in a genuinely weird ambience, all misty greenery, shadowy figures half-glimpsed in flash cuts, amplified ambient sounds and arresting imagery: a tree festooned with feathers; human faces embedded like totems in tree trunks.
Historical detail is solid, from costuming and dialect to the preacher’s (inevitably misguided) faith in Manifest Destiny, but this loses relevance in the third act amid demonic attacks, showers of bones, exploding children and copious green goo.
Karlene Crockett gives the one performance of note, as the enchanted Leah, but the main character, as such, is the Missouri wilderness, which seethes with sinister intent in the best tradition of backwoods horror.
Near Dark (1987)
Classic films are rarely born from artistic compromises, making Near Dark a beautiful anomaly. Kathryn Bigelow yearned to make a western but, in the Eighties, studios had about as much faith in that genre as they had in neophyte directors. So she and co-writer Eric Red, recognising the shared romanticism of westerns and horror movies, spliced the forms together, reconfiguring vampires as nomadic outlaws led, fittingly, by a character named Jesse, old enough to have fought in the American Civil War (like the James boys) and still a rebel more than a century later.
Jesse’s feral “family” – sexy matriarch Diamondback, man-child Homer, leather-clad psycho Severen – unwillingly adopts Caleb, a Midwestern dreamer smitten by, then bitten by, the ethereal Mae, Homer’s protégée. Their relationship dovetails with the gang’s evasion of the law, Caleb’s father and sister, and their primary enemy, the sun. It’s all shot, mostly from dusk till dawn, against a hauntingly hazy backdrop of plains and desert highways, Bigelow folding in elements of film noir (never exclusively an urban phenomenon) and road movie.
Ironically, the swerve towards horror did not pay the dividends everybody had been hoping for. Eschewing gothic trappings (the only cross in evidence is engraved on the butt of Jesse’s Single Action Army revolver – so much for its power as a deterrent), Bigelow’s vision was just too unconventional for the masses, especially compared with The Lost Boys, a contemporaneous reimagining of vampire lore that nevertheless retained much of the old iconography. Yet Bigelow’s melding of dreamy Midwestern milieu, lyricism and grungy violence (viz. the massacre in “shit-kicker heaven”) remains timeless (even Tangerine Dream rein in their digital excesses), whereas The Lost Boys has an unmistakable Eighties date stamp.
Bigelow doesn’t jettison all vampire traditions. Some she embraces, principally the combustible ferocity of sunlight. (Not all the film’s innovations are so convincing – Caleb and Mae are cured of their affliction by simple blood transfusions.) And if there is pathos in the plight of the young lovers, stranded between darkness and light, so there is in the fragility of the outlaws’ existence. For all their murderous hell-raising, there is also something intoxicating about them, even as their rebel yell – radiating from Henriksen’s smouldering Jesse and Bill Paxton’s exuberant Severen – dies out in a (literal) blaze of glory.
Ghost Town (1988)
Not as lurid as most Charles Band productions of the time, Ghost Town pitches a modern-day sheriff into a premise that could have served an episode of The Twilight Zone. Franc Luz’s Deputy Langley follows a missing woman’s trail to Cruz del Diablo, a decrepit settlement in the outback, where the skeletal remains of its long-dead lawman spring from the ground and beg him to “rid my town of evil” – to wit, a gang of undead outlaws led by Devlin, whose men hold the spirits of the locals in a kind of tyrannical limbo, waiting for the right man to send their oppressor to hell and redeem them for their High Noon-like cowardice when their sheriff was killed. This Langley accomplishes, in a routine finale that retreats from the almost oneiric atmosphere built up in the first half.
The opening scenes yield some well-timed jolts and striking images: the capture of Catherine Hickland’s character, swept up in an unholy dust storm; shadowy, whispering figures silhouetted by flashes of lightning, watching Langley as he investigates the town; a cluster of saloon patrons glimpsed in a mirror, but not in the room itself. Langley seems to be slipping in and out of surface reality, although this impression is not sustained and the plot dissolves into a straight-up western scenario, albeit with supernatural inflections. The requisite showdowns obscure the more affecting moments, when the few townsfolk given featured roles (notably Bruce Glover as a blind, fortune-telling cardsharp) voice their anguish at lingering in purgatory, as well as their longing for death.
It is the undead villain, however, who captures the filmmakers’ imagination. Devlin alone among the outlaws has rotting flesh, and the only reason for that, one surmises, is that all the decade’s most iconic horror villains, from Freddie Krueger to Jason Voorhees, had similar afflictions. Despite Jimmie F. Skaggs’ enthusiasm in the role, Devlin is not of that calibre.
Nevertheless, Ghost Town is worth a visit. It has some original ideas, and the production design, costumes and performances are generally convincing, for what was evidently a cheap production. Much like Cruz del Diablo, there are few traces of the film’s existence, with no DVD currently in circulation. Its director, too, disappeared from the scene – this seems to have been the only film he made.
Grim Prairie Tales (1990)
Determinedly old-fashioned, much to its benefit, this anthology employs the discrete talents of Brad Dourif and James Earl Jones as mismatched travellers who trade yarns and insults one night over a campfire.
The stories themselves are not especially substantial – due partly to weak writing and partly to the brevity demanded by the portmanteau format – but this is almost moot. What the raconteurs impart, in their sharply scripted linking scenes, is the simple pleasure of relating and absorbing tall tales. Two of these cover familiar genre territory – the consequences of desecrating sacred Indian ground, and revenge from beyond the grave. The others are more diverting. A clean-cut young man succumbs to lust in the dust with a wandering succubus, climaxing in an image so grotesque it would have graced Brian Yuzna’s Society. The most affecting segment eschews fantasy entirely; the shock here is that a young girl discovers her adored father (an impressive William Atherton) is a brutal racist, yet her moral outrage is tempered, perhaps even outweighed, by filial affection.
If the vignettes are serviceable, the interplay between Dourif, as a peevish urbanite, and Jones, as an ursine bounty hunter, is sparkling. Their relationship even develops a degree of warmth, as the sun comes up and they go their separate ways, and there is a blackly comic sting in the tale that undercuts Jones’s pretensions as a bounty hunter.
Blood Trail (1997)
It is a trope of Native American-themed pursuit westerns that white hunters often find themselves the hunted, outfoxed by a prey with seemingly mystical powers. (See, for example, Robert Aldrich’s Ulzana’s Raid.) The twist here is that the quarry is a white man, a no-account cowboy who is possessed by a vengeful spirit after he and a friend desecrate an Indian burial ground. What unfolds is a mixture of supernatural and serial-killer motifs, in which a group of deputies (and their obligatory Christianised Indian guide) dwindle in number as they track a murderer, nicknamed Bloody Hands for the prints he leaves, through the Indian Territories.
Most of the carnage occurs off-screen, actor-director Barry Tubb building up the atmosphere in subtler ways – fleeting images of the elusive killer and his grisly handiwork; close-ups of an owl, a rather obvious metaphor for the predatory villain. The performances (by a largely unknown cast) are mixed – some lacklustre; others laudably naturalistic. These are ordinary men confronted by extraordinary events, and their reactions are measured and plausible.
Tubb’s judgement is not always so sound: certain daytime scenes would have played better, and generated more suspense, at night; inserts of the Indian warrior in what is presumably the spirit world add little of value; the number of deputies could have been reduced – there are too many for the slender running time to accommodate, and none makes a firm impression. (The involvement of Near Dark’s Adrian Pasdar, the best-known actor, is similarly inconsequential. He has two scenes, in one of which he hangs himself.) The music – New Age lite – is another weak point. Nevertheless, Tubb’s film is quietly effective, merging genre elements without being jarring.
From Dusk Till Dawn 3: the Hangman’s Daughter (1999)
Part prequel, part rehash, this entry in the Tarantino-Rodriguez genre-bending franchise folds in the imagined adventures of the American writer Ambrose Bierce, who disappeared in Mexico in 1913, or so it is believed, after joining Pancho Villa’s revolutionary forces. It is the one sliver of originality in the backstory of the vampire Santanico Pandemonium, future queen of the Titty Twister brothel-slash-vampire haunt.
Although no more necessary than the first DTV sequel, Texas Blood Money, this does at least improve on that, mainly due to Michael Parks’ droll performance as Bierce. Sadly, it’s not primarily his story. Instead, the focus shifts to the charmless outlaw Johnny Madrid, who escapes the gallows and rides off with his would-be executioner’s daughter, Esmerelda. Their flight takes them to la Tetilla del Diablo (which has a more romantic ring to it than ‘Titty Twister’), where their paths converge with Johnny’s gang, his pursuers, and Bierce and the Newlies, young married missionaries. After some preamble involving barman Danny Trejo and a sultry Sonia Braga, the fangs come out, with humans pitched against reptilian bloodsuckers in a ‘twist’ that will wrong-foot only those viewers unfamiliar with the first film. Esmerelda, of course, is revealed to be a vampire princess.
Director PJ Pesce exhibits the magpie-like proclivities of Tarantino and Rodriguez, but none of their finesse. The western action is rendered in the adrenalised style that has become almost compulsory – slo-mo, Dutch angles, rapid panning, fast cutting – to the tempo of a diet-Morricone soundtrack. The spaghetti western influences extend to the visuals, with landscapes coated in twilight red or dusty ochre, and the characterisations, which are plug ugly to a fault. By the time the onus has shifted to horror, most people will be rooting for the vampires.
Seamlessly melding disparate material, Antonia Bird’s visceral black comedy is almost sui generis, which helps explains its failure to find an audience. (Twentieth Century Fox’s hapless marketing campaign was another factor.) The script pays blood-smeared lip service to the cases of prospector and self-confessed cannibal Alfred (or ‘Alferd’) Packer, subject of 1993’s Cannibal! The Musical, and the Donner Party pioneers, some of whom ate their dead comrades while snowbound in the Sierra Nevadas in the winter of 1846-7.
Yet Robert Carlyle’s Colquhoun, lone survivor of a group of settlers, has not resorted to anthropophagy from starvation alone, but to test a Native American belief that a man who devours the flesh of his fellows gains superhuman potency. This provides the basis for a satire of sorts on the Darwinian dynamics of the western’s survivalist ethos, with Colquhoun challenging Guy Pearce’s emotionally ragged Mexican-American war veteran, John Boyd, to a contest of wills as much as physical resilience. The subsidiary characters, misfits to a man, are largely an irrelevance.
Having eaten flesh himself in a moment of weakness, Boyd is vulnerable to Colquhoun’s fiendish entreaties. “It’s not courage to resist me,” says Colquhoun, “it’s courage to accept me.” Pearce articulates Boyd’s struggle intensely, nerves straining as he clings desperately to his humanity; Carlyle, predictably but no less pleasingly, attacks his role with relish, imbuing Colquhoun with almost evangelical fervour.
Typical of the script’s mordant wit is Colquhoun’s backhanded appreciation of Manifest Destiny – he looks forward to the imminent influx of pioneers much like a gourmet anticipating a new restaurant opening – while the subversion of audience expectations is evident in the hero-shaped hole at the heart of the narrative. That function is notionally Boyd’s, but he is swiftly revealed to be a poltroon, banished to remote Fort Spencer in the Nevadas for battlefield cowardice.
Few things play to type in Ravenous – the wintry vistas are oppressive rather than inspiring; the music rasping rather than heroic. Only in Boyd’s epic duel with Colquhoun in the grand-guignol final act is there the spectre of a classic western trope – that of a damaged man grasping for redemption.
Legend of the Phantom Rider (2002)
Something went badly awry here between concept and execution. The main plot – outlaw gang rules a town by force – feels divorced from the supernatural backstory – the recurring clashes, centuries apart, of good and evil spirits.
After a pre-credits sequence in which two warriors fight to the death in the West of 1165, the story jumps forward 700 years, when Blade, an ex-Confederate officer, leads a band of cut-throats. They subjugate the town of Saugus until a woman named Sarah, whose husband and son were slain by the gang, cries vengeance, and an Indian shaman summons a mysterious, scar-faced gunfighter named Peligidium to do the job.
Blade is described as “pure evil, broken from the gates of hell” but, as written and played (in an insufferably mannered vein) by co-writer Robert McRay, he is a run-of-the-mill megalomaniac, no more intimidating than a thousand other western tyrants. There are hints that he knows Peligidium (also played by McRay, thankfully without dialogue), that these are indeed reincarnations of eternally feuding spirits, but the sense of supernatural forces at play is ambiguous – less by design, you suspect, than because of sloppy storytelling.
We must also infer that Blade’s sparing of Sarah is because she “unknowingly harbours the ‘lost spirit’ of a warrior chief” and is thus Blade’s quarry, as the opening text suggests. This also states that the “battle for supremacy” between good and evil forces “only takes place within the ancient walls of the city of Trigon”, in which case one presumes that Saugus is built on the same site. By such tenuous threads is the plot held together. Eventually it becomes a moot point, since Blade is dispatched not by Peligidium, but by Sarah – hardly a fitting comeuppance for “the devil himself”, with his opposite number rendered redundant just when it matters. It is scarcely Armageddon.
The anticlimax is in keeping with Erik Erkiletian’s direction, which records killings, confrontations and conversations in the same flat manner; not even Peligidium’s interventions raise the tempo, set by a monotonous dark ambient score. With his flowing duster, Jonah Hex-like deformity and stooping posture, this ‘avenging angel’ cuts a certain dash, but his role is poorly defined; neither he nor Blade lives up to his billing. The remaining characters merely fill out the scenery – even Sarah, the galvanising force, limply played by Star Trek: the Next Generation’s Denise Crosby.
Horror devotees may enjoy seeing Phantasm’s Angus Scrimm as the town preacher, who finally takes up arms against the gang. For western fans, there is a minor role for veteran Stefan Gierasch (Jeremiah Johnson, High Plains Drifter) and tributes to Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and The Culpepper Cattle Company, among others. These are crumbs of comfort, however, in a film that offers nothing new as a western and a supernatural atmosphere that would dissipate at the striking of a match.
Dead Birds (2004)
Opening during the American Civil War, Alex Turner’s simmering debut takes a sharp detour, via a bloodily executed bank robbery, into the realm of The Amityville Horror, The Shining and The Evil Dead, with a foreboding edifice – in this case, a deserted plantation house where the outlaws hide out – functioning as a portal for demonic forces.
As a western, it is of minor interest – the historical context is only fleetingly addressed – but Turner cranks through the supernatural gears proficiently enough, from unsettling portents – a dead bird; a book of spells; a skinless, deformed animal out in the corn field – to ghostly apparitions and gruesome deaths. The central section unfolds at what may charitably be described as a deliberate pace: characters wander off alone to their doom, synced to electronic drones; ghostly children bear their fangs; mysterious human/animal footprints appear; lightning illuminates nasty surprises. The history of the house involves human sacrifice and occultism, and now it seems that anybody who enters becomes possessed by demons.
The lead roles are capably played, if underwritten, by a cast including E.T.’s Henry Thomas and Man of Steel’s Michael Shannon. Period detail and set design show diligence, as do the gore effects, and the lighting and camerawork imbue the plantation house and its surrounding corn field with palpable menace.
Turner grasps for that clammy, Lovecraftian sense of otherworldly dread, of diabolical terrors inhabiting “a world around our own”; overall, his execution is a little too mechanical to achieve those ends. Nevertheless, Dead Birds holds its own among the glut of ghost stories that have been in vogue for much of the past two decades.
Tremors 4: the Legend Begins (2004)
The original Tremors was an engaging combination of monster-movie clichés, droll performances and smart writing, the Jaws formula transposed from ocean to desert. (Even the posters mimicked Roger Kastel’s famous artwork for Spielberg’s shark-buster.) After two indifferent follow-ups this prequel appeared set in 1889, when the town of Perfection was still called Rejection – purely, it seems, so that characters can remark on its aptness following an exodus of locals and the closure of the local mine.
This is typical of the script’s laboured humour, as are the greenhorn antics of supercilious mine owner Hiram Gummer, the ancestor of series mainstay Burt Gummer (this was the role that practically sustained the career of actor Michael Gross for a decade and a half. He also played the part in a thirteen-episode TV series). Hiram arrives from the East to discover that 17 miners have been killed by unseen creatures, dubbed “dirt dragons” by the smattering of locals who remain. Of course, these are really the mighty-mawed graboids seen in various iterations throughout the series, from “shriekers” to “ass-blasters”, realised here mainly in the form of puppets and miniatures, with CGI (which reared its ugly head in T3) kept to a minimum.
Gradually the familiar Tremors scenario falls into place, with a group of affable characters – augmented for a time by Billy Drago’s scenery-gnawing gunfighter – besieged in an isolated location and improvising a counter-attack against their subterranean foes. (Grafted onto a western setting, it resembles the oft-used situation in which outgunned villagers prepare a trap for marauding bandits.) Familiarity does not necessarily breed contempt, given the lightness of tone maintained by the same group of film-makers responsible for the entire series, but it does mean that, as in many prequels, the script churns up old ground – and eats up a lot of screen time – while establishing continuity with the other films.
There isn’t much about the fourth instalment of Tremors that hadn’t seemed fresher and funnier in the first. Determined fans, however, will enjoy the portrayal of Hiram Gummer as a gun-shy fumbler, the antithesis of his great-grandson Burt, a weapons fetishist. Naturally, by the end of the film, Hiram has graduated from a palm-sized derringer to an 8ft punt gun.
The Quick and the Undead (2006)
Set 80-some years after a virus turned most of the population into walking corpses, this DTV quickie itself is symptomatic of the plague of modern zombie films: tongue in cheek but witless; stacked with quotes from better-known works; iconographically derivative – spaghetti westerns, Mad Max and, of course, George Romero are the main points of reference.
The only characters are a fistful of bounty hunters, whose trade is on the wane given the dwindling number of zombies. A nefarious scheme to infect more cities and increase demand is introduced too late to have a bearing on the plot, which focuses on antihero Ryn Baskin tracking a rival gang for revenge. Toting a loaded guitar case, El Mariachi-style, and dressed like an outcast from Fields of the Nephilim, the lead actor’s Eastwoodisms quickly become tiresome. (His given name happens to be Clint, but that’s no excuse.) Likewise his bickering relationship with his would-be Tuco-esque sidekick; mercifully, this is terminated halfway through, after a rare attempt at pathos that falls flat because of insipid dialogue – a failing throughout.
The scripting is strictly A-Z; anything that could have added substance or colour is bypassed. Baskin’s connection to the other characters, like his possession of an immunity serum, is given scant attention. The scale of the epidemic is stated at the beginning, but there is little sense of the world outside the frame (the lean budget would account for this to an extent). The make-up effects are passable, and first-time writer/director Gerald Nott injects some energy into the kill scenes and confrontations, but by and large this is a lethargic, unconvincing effort. The wait for a worthwhile zombie-western goes on…
BloodRayne II: Deliverance (2007)
Ford, Mann, Peckinpah, Leone, Eastwood… Trace the line of descent far enough, take a sharp vertical dive and eventually, somewhere near the Earth’s core, you encounter the irrepressible Uwe Boll. This entry in his series of interminable video-game adaptations relocates the half-human, half-vampire heroine of BloodRayne from 18th-century Romania to the American West, where she tangles with a bloodsucking Billy the Kid.
Surely, the premise is not to be taken seriously; what to make of the rest of the film? Technically average, with a few moody shots of the misty environs of Deliverance town offering false hope, it fails in most other areas. The dialogue dies in the actors’ mouths, making already sub-par performances seem that much worse. The pouting Natassia Malthe, stepping into Kristanna Loken’s figure-hugging leathers as Rayne, suffers more than most, her bons mots about as cutting as lamb’s wool, delivered with the desultory air of somebody who expects to get by on looks alone – “You expect me to act as well?” Her physical prowess in the sporadic action scenes is so-so, although Boll’s slack direction does her a disservice – escaping from the gallows, Rayne has what feels like an eternity before Billy’s vampirised myrmidons react. Maybe losing one’s soul dulls the senses.
Not that Boll musters much more energy as a filmmaker, and most of that he squanders on ‘style’: hard stares and close-ups from the Leone school; slo-mo from Peckinpah’s box of tricks. (The score is faux-Morricone, to boot.) Atmosphere and tension evidently were not major concerns. The same can be said for the characterisations – Rayne must be one of the dreariest and least effective protagonists in modern horror, regularly requiring rescue by associates who include a bland Pat Garrett (Boll regular Michael Paré) and a phony preacher whose blessing, nonetheless, is supposed to sanctify garlic-infused bullets. Zack Ward’s Billy the Kid, meanwhile, is camp rather than menacing, hissing his lines in an inexplicable Mittel-european accent.
BloodRayne II can’t even be recommended as a riot of unintentional hilarity. It’s too vapid for that, notwithstanding the presence of a character named Piles and such philosophical musings as, “Life is like a penis: when it’s hard, you get screwed; when it’s soft, you can’t beat it.”
Dead Noon (2007)
Produced for peanuts by a group of friends and gussied up with camera trickery and rudimentary effects, this flashily vacuous pastiche was made in the spirit of The Evil Dead – its director described it as a “love poem to Sam Raimi”. It is an unfortunate comparison. (And unfair to an extent – The Evil Dead had a lavish budget in comparison.) Where Raimi’s rampant imagination cohered around tight plotting and a near-hysterical atmosphere, the makers of Dead Noon proffer half-formed ideas, few of which they generated themselves.
The budget severely hinders the effects work, which is where director Andrew Wiest’s ambitions (and talents) clearly lie, but it is the fundamentals of script, acting and pacing that are the main issues. As the title forecasts, the set-up is High Noon with zombies (not the flesh-eating kind), as an outlaw named Frank returns from Hell (rendered as a green-screened lake of fire, before which Frank and a Stetson-wearing Satan play poker), resurrects his old gang and tracks down the great-grandson of Kane, the lawman who sent him to his grave. It is the younger Kane’s wedding day, of course, but he forsakes his darlin’ in the name of duty.
For his part, Wiest forsakes the tension of High Noon for interminable chase scenes and random kills in drab locations; for all the pyrotechnics, most of this is padding. (Raimi, one feels, would have run riot with the film’s big set piece, a shoot-out on Boot Hill involving zombie extras, crude CGI skeletons and even cruder dummies. Tongues were presumably in cheeks but, again, the scene long outstays its welcome.)
Characterisation is another casualty. Where the viewer felt Gary Cooper’s dilemma in every subtle twitch and nervous glance, his offspring barely musters an emotion. His fate, consequently, is unlikely to stir anybody else’s. The best that can be said for Wiest is that he displays enough visual imagination to suggest that, with a few dollars more and a halfway decent script, he may yet make something worthwhile.
When Lionsgate picked up the film for distribution, it saw fit to commission a framing story, which has another Kane – Hodder, of Jason Voorhees fame – playing one of Frank’s old rivals. Apart from background, these scenes add little of interest, but Hodder does, at least, possess charisma.
Left for Dead (2007)
If there is a visual equivalent of verbal diarrhoea, this would be a textbook case. Albert Pyun’s frenzied assemblage of flash cuts, slow motion, filters, fades, freeze frames and superimpositions makes Tony Scott look like Tarkovsky. As stylisation it’s both superfluous, neither advancing the plot nor expressing the mood of the characters, and tiresome.
Indeed, it wears out its welcome within the first two minutes, during which an extensive opening crawl is intercut with jagged footage of the backstory. This is explained in some detail – the married preacher Mobius Lockhardt’s affair with a whore in 1880 Mexico, her murderous rampage with her colleagues when he rejects her, his pact with the Devil and ghostly graveyard vigil, waiting for the chance for revenge, pause for breath – even though the same events are repeated later in flashback form. Perhaps Pyun felt the need to force the pace because the script, by first-time writer Chad Leslie, was too sluggish or convoluted (fair points both). Whatever the reason, it saps intrigue from the story proper, which follows Clementine Templeton’s hunt for her philandering husband, Blake, and his flight from the same mob of angry prostitutes, who team up with Clementine and track Blake to the ghost town of Amnesty, where they gradually fall prey to Mobius.
Despite the novelties of setting – the film was shot in Argentina – and a largely female cast, who get to act out the macho one-upmanship popularly associated with westerns, this is thin stuff. It is set up by Clementine’s voice-over (yet another gimmick) as a meditation on revenge and loss, but this amounts to little more than melodramatic soul-baring on the part of the principals and a few self-pitying utterances from Mobius. (Why a holy man-turned-limbo-dwelling avenger should dress like a spaghetti western re-enactor is a mystery. The explanation probably lies in the director’s admiration of all things Leone.) His fleeting appearances, scored by scraping guitars, seem to herald one of those cheap gothic-rock videos from the Eighties, while his status as a tormented lost soul, which could have anchored the drama, dangles from the narrative like a loose thread.
There are positives – the prostitutes are an authentically unglamorous bunch, dressed in rags and smeared in dirt, with a mindset to match the brutalizing circumstances – but these are overwhelmed by negatives – weak characterisations (Victoria Maurette, feeding on scraps, tries her damnedest as the clench-jawed Clementine), a script at cross-purposes (Feminist fantasy? Supernatural revenge saga?) and the whizz-bang redundancy of Pyun’s direction.
Like many directors before and since, the B-movie maverick – who still hasn’t topped his cheerfully schlocky debut, the Conan knock-off The Sword and the Sorceror (1982) – failed to integrate competing genres.
Undead or Alive (2007)
This self-styled ‘zombedy’ aspires to the same combination of broad comedy and genre-specific parody as Braindead and Shaun of the Dead, with additional nods towards Blazing Saddles. The first feature by a South Park alumnus, it has all the silliness of its forebears, and a fair amount of gore, but not the same manic abandon; the pace is too slack and the writing too laboured.
Director Glasgow Phillips’ script tweaks undead lore, positing the contagion as a White Man’s Curse brewed up by the great Apache chief Geronimo as his last act of revenge – hence the creatures are referred to as ‘Geronimonsters’. Moreover, these are zombies that still have the ability to converse and carry grudges, so that running gags continue even after death (shades of Day of the Dead). More is the pity, then, that the characters have little to exchange other than weak wisecracks. Aside from the barbed repartee of the central trio – an army deserter, a fey cowboy and Geronimo’s ball-busting niece – the tone is shamelessly puerile, penis gags and pratfalls being about as sophisticated as it gets.
Much of the humour revolves around the ascription of stupidity to the white man – whether undead or alive. It is a point made repeatedly by Ravi Rawat as the Apache girl, who doesn’t have to try too hard to outsmart her travelling companions: James Denton from Desperate Housewives (self-effacingly smug) and Chris Kattan of Saturday Night Live (fey bordering on camp). Then again, it is Denton’s character who figures out a cure when he gets bitten, infecting Kattan in turn, and it is very much at Rawat’s expense.
The zombies, likewise, are figures of fun. Even when they pen the heroes inside a fort for the inevitable, Romeroesque siege finale, they are more like slapstick props than creatures from the id. The overall vibe of Phillips’ film is cartoonish, but not enough to compensate for a script that is fitfully funny at best.
Snakes on the plains… This Sci-Fi Channel original (loosely speaking) is simplicity itself, with stock western characters besieged in a town overrun by CGI serpents – replace these with zombies, vampires or graboids and the film would play much the same way.
The production design, on sets constructed in director Todor Chapkanov’s native Bulgaria, is the film’s strongest suit, creating a credibly weathered environment (albeit on a scale commensurate with a slender budget), adequately furnished with period props. The costumes bear scrutiny in a similar way.
Not so the snakes, their threat nullified by slapdash digital effects, especially when they are shown from above, slithering on mass like a spillage of viscous liquid. They at least look more or less life-size, if not especially like copperheads. This being the era of Supergator and Mega Python vs. Gatoroid, however, form dictates the intervention, towards the end, of an enormous mother snake, adding Aliens to the list of films to which this one is in thrall. Chapkanov and composer Nathan Furst are particularly unabashed in stealing from Leone, the gunfight between hero Brad Johnson and outlaw Billy Drago mimicking the maestro’s editing style and the title music from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
Drago, reliable as ever, high-tails it from the plot after 30 minutes, leaving a charisma vacuum that remains unfilled. The rest of the film stutters. Drawn-out exchanges of dialogue, mostly in a light-hearted register, are interrupted by snake attacks, seen off with guns, dynamite, a flamethrower and a hand-cranked machine gun, which gets a Heath-Robinson makeover into a makeshift harpoon launcher for the finale.
No explanation for the snakes’ rampage is given. Considering the nonsensical exposition that typifies Sci-Fi (now SyFy) Channel offerings, that was perhaps just as well. Chapkanov followed this comparatively well-mounted production with 2009’s feeble Ghost Town, which begins in the old West before relocating to modern times, where Satanic outlaws (led again by an under-used Billy Drago) terrorise a group of students.
The Burrowers (2008)
A revisionist-western thesis resides in the margins of this frontier allegory, the mayhem caused by its subterranean monsters conjoined with, if not rooted in, cultural misconceptions of the period, military malpractice, and the doctrine of Manifest Destiny. Where the white protagonists – archetypes to a man – blame the death of local farmers and the disappearance of others on a mysterious Indian tribe, the Sioux and the Utes know better. They speak of demons they call ‘burrowers’, which subsisted on buffalo until white hunters decimated the herds, and now they harvest humans for food.
The script’s critique of American imperialism is neither radical (it all but name-checks The Searchers, a revisionist lodestone) nor subtle – the officer commanding the search party has a tobacco pouch made from a dead Indian’s scrotum – but it adds thematic heft to a story that is concerned just as much with the prejudices and tensions of its human characters as it is with what lurks beneath the prairie. (Those expecting a full-on creature feature may well be frustrated, especially given the measured pace.)
The actors, led by a grizzled Clancy Brown, talk and behave in a plausible manner, given the circumstances; the dread that slowly grips the company is especially palpable, as is the paranoia that precipitates a needless and costly exchange of gunfire with potential Indian allies. The burrowers themselves are restricted to cameos – glimpses of pallid shapes in the darkness; unnerving clicking noises on the soundtrack. Director JT Petty doesn’t let them off the reins until late on, when a gruesome flesh feast reveals them to be vaguely amphibian in appearance, a mixture of practical effects and (inevitably, considering the low budget) dubious CGI.
The lack of a compelling central figure does hamper the human drama somewhat, but the period detail is fine and the landscape, leeched of much of its colour by Phil Parmet’s generally excellent photography, is both majestic and daunting, serving both aspects of the production.
Not much about the burrowers’ background or their (vaguely spider-like) feeding habits stands up to inquiry, but this is almost beside the point. Petty’s grimly ironic ending locates the real horror not in the shallow graves where the creatures’ paralysed victims await their grisly fate, but in the rampant chauvinism and narrow-mindedness that accompanied westward expansion – at least, so the revisionist thesis would have it. (Petty also shot an 18-minute prequel, Blood Red Earth, set 70 years before the main feature – for reasons unknown, the burrowers only make an appearance once in a generation.)
Jonah Hex (2010)
Or: Eight Million Ways to Die at the Box Office. A bounty hunter with a tortured past and disfigured face, Hex first appeared in DC Comics’ Weird Western Tales in the early Seventies. Since then he has fought zombies, gut-shot Batman, travelled through time and diced with aliens, so the mixture of hard action and supernatural fantasy, fictional and historical characters, in this screen venture is not exceptional. Neither is the resulting farrago after rewrites, reshoots and studio misgivings about tone and content dogged the film’s production.
The plot has Josh Brolin’s Hex conscripted by President Grant (Aidan Quinn) to bring down Quentin Turnbull (Malkovich), his old commanding officer in the Confederate army, now preparing a devastating fireworks display for the Centennial celebrations. Hex is motivated by revenge rather than patriotic duty – it was Turnbull who murdered his family and left him for dead. During that ordeal, Hex somehow acquired the ability to reanimate corpses, albeit temporarily; as a plot element, this is almost entirely redundant. (Megan Fox, as an implausibly pulchritudinous prostitute and Hex’s sort-of girlfriend, is similarly superfluous.)
Brolin was born to play a gunfighter, oozing brutish charisma, although the prosthetic scar hampers his delivery. (Given lines as banal as, “Anyone who gets close to me dies,” that’s not necessarily a bad thing.) He deserved a script that wasn’t so choppy and nonsensical (partly a consequence of studio cuts that reduced the running time to 81 minutes), in which spaghetti-western machismo is locked in a forced marriage with mysticism and gadgetry: Hex’s horse is armed with twin Gatling guns; he later employs handheld, dynamite-propelling crossbows.
Behind the camera, Jimmy Hayward directs as if designing a video game, with whizzy camerawork and room-shaking explosions synchronized to Mastodon’s crunching metal score. The attempt at contemporary relevance, with Turnbull explicitly labelled a “terrorist”, complete with WMD, is risible. By the time Malkovich, who looks bored throughout, unleashes his “super weapon” – a kind of giant Gatling gun with cannons for barrels, designed by cotton-gin inventor Eli Whitney, no less – painful, long-suppressed memories of Will Smith’s Wild Wild West float to the surface. (Glowing orange ‘trigger’ balls?) It was no surprise that Jonah Hex missed the mark with critics and public alike.
(See also: horror-western strips in the Eerie and Creepy comic series from the Sixties; Marvel’s Ghost Rider – not Johnny Blaze – later renamed Phantom Rider; and more recent publications such as Desperadoes from IDW and, more loosely, Preacher, from DC’s Vertigo imprint.)
Exit Humanity (2011)
Low-budget zombie films have been spewed out in recent years like so many one-hit wonders. This one, by contrast, is a concept album: adventurous in scope, serious in intent, relatively sprawling. Like many a magnum opus, there are drawbacks: it is somewhat ponderous; the script and execution, while generally strong, cannot quite bear the weight of writer-director John Geddes’ ambitions, which lean towards a study of grief and mortality akin to The Road – how to maintain hope and, yes, humanity, in the midst of catastrophe.
An apocalyptic vision, although lacking the means to convey scale, Geddes’ film traces the stench of reanimated corpses to the dying days of the American Civil War. It follows one ex-soldier, Edward Young, as he loses his wife and son but regains a sense of purpose alongside a small group of fellow survivors resisting the demented Confederate General Williams. To call it a ‘zombie film’ is in some ways misleading (like any intelligent vehicle for the living dead, the ‘z’ word is never used). While they are present in substantial numbers, ready to be dispatched in time-honoured fashion in a seemingly unavoidable tip-of-the-hat to Romero, the undead are actually an unwelcome distraction – any kind of plague would have served to advance the themes and concentrate attention on the human drama, which is what Geddes more or less succeeds in doing, irrespective of the shuffling corpses he shoehorns in. (Perhaps they could be considered, Romero style, as metaphors for the kind of rancid antebellum attitudes represented by Williams; but that would stretch their significance somewhat.)
Young’s torment and findings are collected in a journal, read in mellifluous voiceover by Brian Cox, as one of the character’s descendants. Geddes reinforces the device by breaking up the narrative into chapters and portraying certain events with animation, as if they were Young’s own illustrations from his diary. (They were probably also seen as a cost-cutting measure, expediting the story without the need for shooting additional scenes.)
The antiquated setting, stressed by a desaturated palette (warm colours are reserved for flashbacks to happier times), allows Geddes to pitch his film as a spurious zombie origin story, even as it leans heavily on established motifs. “What force is behind this?” wonders Young, played with earnestness by relative newcomer Mark Gibson. (His anguished wailing, however, quickly gets old.) The answer harks back to voodoo and necromancy; one of the script’s most original notions is that zombie outbreaks have occurred at various points in history, across many cultures, whenever men have chanced to play god. In that sense, Geddes’ whey-faced ghouls could conceivably fulfil another allegorical function.
Having planted this idea, the film wraps up Young’s vendetta against the general, aided by an army of the undead, while the anomaly of another character’s immunity ends Geddes’ dour feature on a cautiously optimistic note.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012)
Another audaciously skewed, schlockily titled alternate history lesson from Seth Grahame-Smith, the author of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Transposed to the screen with his customary gusto by Night Watch director Timur Bekmambetov, it posits the great emancipator as the saviour not merely of America’s slaves, but of its very soul.
His epochal dispute with the Southern elite, while not divested of its moral and economic imperatives, is reimagined as a campaign against the scourge of vampirism, with the bloodsucking landed aristocracy (no heavy-handed symbolism here) allied with Confederate president Jefferson Davis. The battle of Gettysburg, with vampire soldiers among the rebels’ ranks and Yankees wielding silver weapons, becomes a kind of Armageddon – “to decide whether this nation belongs to the living or the dead”.
To decide where Bekmambetov’s film belongs on the action-fantasy-western-horror spectrum is not straightforward either. The premise is barmy, with Lincoln’s political ascendency shadowed by his nocturnal career as an axe-wielding vampire slayer, but it is treated with all the seriousness of weighty historical drama – drama, that is, by way of elaborately staged fights among herds of stampeding CGI horses, or atop speeding steam trains crossing flaming trestle bridges.
In its quieter moments, the film engages on a more intimate level, thanks to the sincere playing of Benjamin Walker in the title role, Mary Elizabeth Winstead as his devoted (but never docile) wife, and Dominic Cooper as Henry Sturgess, his vampire mentor, who has taken a Blade-esque turn against his own kind. Both Sturgess and Lincoln have a personal stake (ahem) in the campaign against the creatures’ leader, played with a supercilious sneer by Rufus Sewell, having lost loved ones to vampires in the past.
With its soft-focus photography and digitally augmented mise-en-scene, the film strives for a measure of visual authenticity amid the mayhem of its set pieces and the ludicrousness of its plot, but the overall effect remains that of a steampunk graphic novel writ large. Somehow, its revered hero emerges with his dignity intact – and his reputation enhanced to an unexpected degree.
See also – or perhaps not: Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies, a direct-to-video ‘mockbuster’ released the same year. As in Vampire Hunter, there is a stronger than expected showing by the central actor, in this case Bill Oberst Jr., who imbues Lincoln with gravitas even when he is dispatching zombies with a sickle. It’s just as nonsensical as Vampire Hunter, but on a much smaller and less ambitious scale.
Wesley Snipes’ tax affairs delayed the filming (begun in 2006) and release of this garbled fantasy, which has done nothing to restore the actor’s credit in Hollywood. (He ought to be doubly grateful to Sly Stallone and co, in that case, for The Expendables 3.) Shot in the starkly beautiful Namibian desert, like much modern action cinema it is more a grab bag of influences than a coherent work in its own right. (Exhibit A: Jonah Hex.)
Partly a revamp of Blade’s comic-strip mythologising – Snipes once again plays an undead avenger, battling undead villains – and partly a mannered stab at Jodorowsky-style surrealism – it opens with Snipes’ desert showdown with three men dressed as cardinals, one of whom has his lips sewn shut – it is in large measure a Leone tribute: wide shots and close-ups; studied mise-en-scène; dialogue cribbed from Once Upon a Time in the West. The use of fragmented flashbacks is also telling, although what they reveal, after a jumbled opening third, is that a slight revenge story – gunfighter kills bandits for raping his woman – has been scrambled and swollen with half-baked ideas about entries to hell and postmortem skincare, not to mention secondary characters who have no bearing whatsoever on the plot.
Snipes, as the redundantly monikered Aman, looks good, in dreads and duster, but constructs his performance from poses and gestures; when he is called upon to intone the backstory – how Aman’s mother saved his life via a demonic pact, but brought down a curse that resurrects his victims – he does so stiltedly. Then again, it is such a clumsy expository device that perhaps he shouldn’t be faulted too harshly.
His adversaries are pleasingly outlandish, led by a bewigged, white-haired psychopath who steals people’s skin – the ‘gallowwalkers’’ own hides do not last long in the sun, apparently. These creatures need beheading if they are to die for good, with Snipes ripping out spinal columns just to make sure – predictably, the CGI effects are patchy. While Snipes was on hiatus, co-writer/director Andrew Goth (seriously?) would have been wiser honing the script, rewiring the characters and cutting out the tangents. As it is, GallowWalkers remains considerably less than the sum of its influences.
Blood Moon (2014)
A curiosity, if nothing more. A UK production with a largely British cast and crew, set in old Colorado but filmed on the cheap partly in a forest (Black Park in Buckinghamshire) and partly in Laredo, a replica western town built in Kent by a living history society. The script plunders Native American mythology to embellish desultory werewolf shenanigans in a scenario modelled, like so many before it, on Stagecoach and Night of the Living Dead: mismatched characters thrown together to face an external threat.
In this case a laconic gunfighter, cowardly preacher, newlywed lawman and bride, sultry widow and young English reporter pitch up on a stagecoach in Pine Flats, a failed silver town, where they are waylaid by the outlaw Norton brothers. The latter kill the drivers and the priest without thinking – thinking not being their forte – but hold the remainder hostage for no good reason other than to initiate the kind of siege situation exploited by film-makers ad nauseam. And, of course, to supply a captive audience for the ‘skinwalker’ – supposedly a warrior in bestial form – that emerges under a blood moon that night.
Elsewhere on the trail is the marshal of nearby Lassiter, whose bank the Nortons have robbed and whose idea of a posse consists solely of a female halfbreed. (To be fair, perhaps the budget wouldn’t stretch to extras.) She can’t take her liquor – when will these Injuns learn? – but knows a lot about the lore surrounding skinwalkers. For good reason, as it turns out.
Writer Alan Wightman and director Jeremy Wooding stay inside the confines of the horror and western genres, deferring too readily to their respective clichés. Several of the characters, for example, have ‘a past’ – was gunman Calhoun (Shaun Dooley) a former priest who renounced the cloth to avenge his murdered wife? – but details are sketchy or introduced too late to make a difference. Exposition of this kind distracts from the group’s efforts to defeat the monster in the closing stages. Wooding spoke of a light-hearted intent, so presumably talk of “one-horse towns” and “rustling up some vittles” is not to be taken seriously, but the irony founders on flimsy writing and flat line delivery. John Landis may sleep soundly.
There are guns that don’t fire when most needed, villains who pause just long enough to be disarmed. Even the skinwalker is inconsistent, killing some victims outright, merely knocking down others – it’s more a tool of the script than the force of (super)nature it ought to be. The creature costume is nothing to howl about, but it is nice to see practical effects in these CGI-saturated times, even if the beast appears only fleetingly.
Had the film-makers flipped off the safety catch, such generic flaws could more easily be overlooked. Technically it is more than adequate, given a budget in the region of £500,000 – the production design and costumes aid verisimilitude, and the photography capitalises on the muted palette of south-east England to create what the director called ‘gothic noir’, accentuated by wisps of fake mist. Not an original aesthetic, but effective.
If only the rest of Blood Moon weren’t similarly muted. In the sparsely plotted field of British werewolf films that pit guns against fangs and claws, the lack of verve and absence of bite leave one pining for Dog Soldiers.
Kevin Grant – author of Any Gun Can Play: The Essential Guide to Euro-westerns
NB. Once tracked down, the following will be included in an updated version of this article: The Headless Rider (1957), Night Riders (1959), The Devil’s Mistress (1968), Ghostriders (1987), Stageghost (2000), Cowboys vs. Vampires (2010) and Dead 7 (2016).
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