Saturday, October 22, 2016

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies: The Burrowers

"If you so much as touch that gun without my say-so, I will holster it in your ass."

There was a recent discussion on a message board I frequent about horror westerns. I can't remember the list - was Dust Devils on there? Bone Tomahawk  was. High Plains Drifter counts, I think. There's also Sundown, Grim Prairie Tales, and... geez, I'm sure there were more. It just seems like there aren't a lot of horror westerns and even fewer good ones.

Supernaturals! That one with Nichelle Nichols! That was... not really a western, I guess. Never mind. Ghost Town? No, modern day. White Buffalo?


"Don't ferget Billy the Kid vs Dracula!"

Nevermind.

The point is, I don't really think of horror when I think of westerns, and hearing the two genres mentioned together doesn't really inspire my interest. Curiosity, maybe - like hearing that someone has deep-fried an orange - but it doesn't immediately make me want to try it. So when Tom B recommended The Burrowers back in 2013 I didn't exactly rush out to get a copy. When I did finally watch it - on Netflix, probably a year or so later - I was pleasantly surprised. And I was looking forward to watching again this year.

The Medium
I've got the DVD from Lionsgate - purchased used for under five bucks. There doesn't appear to be a blu-ray available, which is too bad as the cinematography would definitely benefit from being seen in high-def. It's also for rent on any of the standard online streaming sites, and that might be preferable if it's in HD.

The Movie
Yes, The Burrowers is  a horror/western. In the absence of a huge amount of evidence for my claim, I'll still say that I think the key to a really good one of these is to make sure both sides of the coin are treated equally well. In this, The Burrowers succeeds admirably. The western aspect feels authentic and true to the genre, and the horror - the monster sub-genre, specifically - is also handled with care and attention to the details and tension that make it work. The result is something that is more than the sum of its parts. Each would work fine separately, but it's the combination that makes it memorable.

"He keeps going on like this and I'm liable to stick this gun up his..."

A multiple family homestead is attacked, presumably by a local tribe, and an entire family is missing. Despite misgivings over the circumstances - one family seems to have been shot by the  patriarch - a posse is formed to track down them down and bring the missing family back home. We've got two old Indian War vets, John Clay (Clancy Brown) and William Parcher (William Mapother), Fergus Coffey (Karl Geary),  an Irish immigrant and suitor of one of the missing girls, and Dobie, the young son of a woman Parcher is wooing. They are joined in their pursuit by a local attachment of the US cavelry, lead by Eugene Victor Tooms... er, that is, by Henry Victor (Dough Hutchinson).

"Why, my fingers are of normal length, sir, why do you ask?"

The natural camaraderie that springs up between the men in the main group is one of the best parts of the film. And that includes the cook, Walnut Callaghan (Robert Ri'chard) that joins them after they leave the Cavalry. (Something about their casual racism and propensity for overzealous acts of violence seems to rub them the wrong way.) I also just love their dialogue. An exchange between Coffey and Callaghan is less than 30 words, but they're friends once it's done. And you get the sense of a long history between Clay and Parcher, without any long soliloquy's or flashbacks.

John Clay: Why do you spend so much time rubbin' that boy's belly? He already thinks you're Jesus Crockett.
William Parcher: I'm courtin' his mother.
Clay: That's Gertrude Spacks' boy?
Parcher: Yeah.
Clay: Skinny woman. Might as well just poke the boy.
Parcher: (smiling) That's not a very godly sentiment, John.

"Well, I'm not a very godly man, Clay."

Coffey is the main protagonist and it's his goal of finding his love, Maryanne (House of the Devil's Jocelin Donahue) that drives the men forward, deep into the wilds. Unfortunately for them all, it's not a Native American tribe that's taken the family. It's something far, far worse. Something that lives underground, attacks at night and buries you alive, paralyzed by poison, until it comes back to feed.

The monsters are really well done, especially for a low-budger monster movie. I've seen quite a few low budget movies that are let down by their monster - Dark Was the Night, for instance - and The Burrowers manages to avoid that trap. They're not perfect - and, as usual, lose a bit of their power to scare when seen in full - but much better than I would have expected and absolutely creepy as hell when only half-glimpsed by firelight.

Or glimpsed by paralyzed, half-buried eyeball.

Things start to go badly for the men when Clay is killed in an ambush. Parcher is cut by one of the creatures and starts to succumb to an infection cause by the venom. Their only hope is the possibility that the Ute may know something about how to fight the things, but even when they finally find a couple of members of the tribe things don't go as planned.

In addition to the script and the acting, the cinematography is fantastic. Whether it's sweeping vistas of prairie or claustrophobic pine forests, the screen always has something worth looking at. If I have a complaint, it's that the movie does seem to drag a bit at times - I didn't mind this time around, but I remember wanting to get a look at the monsters a lot sooner the first time I watched it.

Well, everything's okay now...

The Bottom Line
The Burrowers is just a well done, low-budget western horror movie. It punches well above its weight class in terms of script, cinematography, acting and special effects. I'm not sure why it didn't get picked up for a wider release, other than it's a bit of an anomaly. It's too much of a unicorn to be able to market properly. Personally, I think it should appear to fans of westerns and fans of horror movies. Really enjoyed it.

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