Favourite westerns of the decade

 

© Zentropa Entertainment 33 / Danish Film Institute / Warner Bros

 

And so an old decade ends and a new decade begins…  Which is weird, as to someone of my vintage it feels like we only said goodbye to the noughties a few months ago.  In fact, it feels like the most recent decade hurtled past so quickly that we didn’t even have time to decide on a proper name for it.  What was it?  The tens?  The teens?  The teenies?

 

Meanwhile, I assume that this new decade will be referred to as the twenties.  The previous twenties, in the early 20th century, were also given an adjective and became known as the ‘roaring twenties’.  Unfortunately, if the same adjective is applied to the new twenties, I suspect they’ll be ‘roaring’ because they’ll witness the roaring of countless apocalyptic, global-warming-induced bush and forest fires.

 

Anyway, this changeover of decades has meant that many of the newspapers and magazines I read have spent the past few weeks publishing ‘best of’ lists – best books, best albums, best films – for 2010-2019.  I’m going to post only one such list on this blog and it concerns a cinematic genre that’s close to my heart: western movies.  (I’ve started reading Larry McMurtry’s 1985 novel Lonesome Dove and I’ve just had lunch courtesy of my local Sri Lankan branch of Taco Bell.  So I’m in a particularly western-ly mood at the moment.)

 

Here, then, are my favourite westerns from the past ten years.

 

© Paramount

 

True Grit (2011)

Not so much a remake of the famous 1969 western True Grit as a fresh adaptation of the 1968 Charles Portis novel on which it was based, Joel and Ethan Cohen’s True Grit was received with muted enthusiasm by critics and isn’t usually credited as one of their better movies.  But I like it for its fidelity to the novel.  Like its source material, it has as its central character and narrator the 14-year-old Maddie Ross, a precocious, forthright and priggish girl who hires rascally Marshall Rooster Cogburn to help her track down the man who murdered her father.  The 1969 version is, of course, dominated by John Wayne’s portrayal of Cogburn.  Here, though, with Maddie (Hailee Steinfield) centre-stage, Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) is pushed to the side somewhat and he’s a gruffer and more ambiguous figure.

 

The result is a more sombre, less exuberant film that is usually the case with the Cohen Brothers, for the most part following the events of the novel.  Things go off on a tangent at one point, though, when the Cohens insert some weird stuff about a hanging corpse and an enigmatic rider wearing a bearskin, as if they suddenly decided to make the story a little more Coen-esque so that it’d appeal to their normal audiences.  I particularly appreciate the melancholy ending, in accordance with the book, which has Maddie a quarter-century later as a middle-aged, one-armed spinster travelling to a Wild West show where, she’s heard, an elderly Rooster Cogburn is performing – only to find when she arrives that he died a few days earlier.  It’s symbolic of how, by the start of the 20th century, the West had been tamed and the old, wild one had gone.

 

The Salvation (2014)

At times it feels like western movies have become so engrained on the global consciousness that non-American audiences are now fonder of them than American ones; and non-American filmmakers are more interested in making them than their American counterparts.  That’s certainly how it feels with The Salvation, a Danish western film directed by Kristian Levring and featuring a Danish / French / Swedish / Welsh / Scottish cast with Jeffrey Dean Morgan, playing the villain, as the only key cast-member who’s American.  The story, of a Danish settler avenging himself against the psychos who murdered his wife and child and finding himself up against a gang that controls a town, is no great shakes but the film is well-made and the cast is marvellous.  Besides Morgan, it has the can-do-no-wrong Mads Mikkelsen as its hero, the equally can-do-no-wrong Eva Green as its heroine (or anti-heroine), and also Jonathan Pryce, Mikael Persbrandt, Douglas Henshell and former French footballer Eric Cantona.

 

Actually, the thought of Cantona playing a cowboy makes me want to punch my hand in the air and shout “YES!”

 

© DMC Film / Film4

 

Slow West (2015)

If Danish filmmakers can make a western, then surely so too can British and New Zealander ones.  Filmed in New Zealand and directed by a Scotsman, John Maclean, who was once the DJ, sampler and keyboard-player with the Beta Band, Slow West is an eclectic affair.  It features among other things a trio of Congolese musicians, two husband-and-wife Swedish bandits, a German social anthropologist studying the Native American tribes, a villain masquerading as a clergyman, a haunted forest and some Laurel-and-Hardy-style slapstick comedy involving a washing line.  Wisely, though, Maclean doesn’t let things get too disparate.  The result is a film that’s eccentric and varied in character but nonetheless has a lean and linear narrative.

 

Kodi Smit-McPhee plays an innocent love-struck teenager who pursues the girl of his dreams from the Scottish Highlands, over the Atlantic to America, and finally across the Wild West where, in an echo of True Grit, he hires a mysterious and hard-bitten bounty hunter (Michael Fassbender) to act as his guide and guardian.  Needless to say, things become wilder and more dangerous the further west they go.

 

The Hateful Eight (2015)

The eighth movie (get it?) made by Quentin Tarantino, The Hateful Eight has a rogue’s gallery of characters trapped in a store-cum-refuge called Minnie’s Haberdashery in the middle of nowhere, and in the middle of a blizzard, one night sometime after the American Civil War.  They include gang-leader and human wildcat Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who’s a prisoner of bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell).  Ruth suspects that at least one of his fellow travellers in the haberdashery is a member of Daisy’s gang and is plotting to rescue her and eliminate all the witnesses, i.e. everyone else.  Who is it?

 

As you’d expect from a Tarantino movie, the film is long and long too are the scenes where characters probe, joust and bicker and generally are as verbose as possible.  But I don’t mind that with The Hateful Eight, where the screeds of dialogue, restricted setting and limited number of cast members make you feel at times that you’re watching a stage play rather than a film – a play with some fine performers (Russell, Leigh, Samuel L. Jackson, Bruce Dern, Tim Roth) and a play that’s practically Jacobean in its levels of blood-letting.  Pleasingly, with its snowbound landscapes and paranoid atmosphere where nobody is sure about anyone else’s identity, it also echoes elements of the greatest movie in Russell’s back catalogue, 1982’s John Carpenter-directed The Thing.

 

Tarantino’s previous movie was the 2012 western Django Unchained,  Before the decade was over, he also directed Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) which, though set in 1969, contains sequences where we see its main character performing in 1950s and 1960s American TV western shows.  Tarantino obviously loves the genre, so will he treat to us to another fully-fledged western in the 2020s?  Go on, Quentin.  You know you want to.

 

© FilmColony / The Weinstein Company

 

Bone Tomahawk (2015)

Bone Tomahawk is writer-director S. Craig Zahler’s bold exercise in combining a traditional, leisurely-paced western (for its first hour, giving us time to get to know and like the characters) with a bloody in-your-face horror movie (for its last half-hour, when we get seriously worried about what’s going to happen to those characters).  It sees a posse of mismatched characters, led by Kurt Russell (again) as a slightly over-the-hill but still hard-assed sheriff and Richard Jenkins as his totally over-the-hill but still eager deputy, ride off into the wilderness in search of some people who’ve been abducted from their frontier town.

 

But when the posse catches up with the kidnappers, who turn out to be a tribe of cave-dwelling, inbred, cannibalistic troglodytes, things take a sudden swerve into the macabre.  Zahler signals this swerve by showing a jaw-dropping act of violent horror that’ll have you pausing your DVD for a few minutes so you can recover.  (Folk who originally saw it in the cinema weren’t so lucky.  A mate of mine confessed he had to get up and walk out at that point.)

 

In a Valley of Violence (2016)

Capably directed by Ti West, a filmmaker better known for his horror movies, In a Valley of Violence has a drifter and ex-soldier (Ethan Hawke) arrive in a frontier town where the sheriff (John Travolta) and his deputies run things more like gangsters than law-enforcers.  The most psychotic deputy (James Ransome) also happens to be Travolta’s son and he soon takes a violent dislike to Hawke.  Like The Salvation, In a Valley of Violence doesn’t offer anything that’s groundbreakingly new – but there are a few fresh twists in its plot.  Travolta’s character, for instance, isn’t an out-and-out villain but more a weak, conflicted character who’s swept along by escalating events; while it’s not the death of a person that compels Hawke to fight back and seek revenge, but the death of his pet dog.  Meanwhile, the supporting cast is enlivened by Karen Gillan as Ransome’s dumb and excitable girlfriend and Burn Gorman as an unsavoury mule-riding priest.

 

© N279 Entertainment / X-Filme / Momentum Pictures

 

Brimstone (2016)

After the Danes, Brits and Kiwis had made Westerns during the decade, it wasn’t altogether a surprise that the Dutch should have a go as well.  What is a surprise is how writer-director Martin Koolhoven makes Dutch western Brimstone both unremittingly grim and operatically over-the-top – it’s probably the least likeable film on this list but deserves respect for its determination to make audiences squirm, cringe and gawp.  Telling the tale of a mute woman (Dakota Fanning) pursued across the West by a demented church minister (Guy Pearce) who slaughters anyone who might offer her happiness and stability and has Terminator-like abilities to keep going no matter what injuries he suffers, Brimstone doesn’t flinch in depicting misogyny that’s bred not just by basic male barbarism but also by Bible-bashing religious hypocrisy.  The film stumbles near the end with Pearce finally getting his come-uppance in a hasty and unconvincing manner.  However, Koolhoven makes amends by sneakily adding a downbeat epilogue that shows, in Brimstone’s brutal milieu, that nobody gets a happy ending for too long.

 

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

This list began with a Cohen Brothers film and with a nice symmetry it ends with one too, the western-anthology movie The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.  The opening story is also the title one, featuring Tim Blake Nelson as white-clad, singing and relentlessly garrulous gunfighter Buster Scruggs and showing the Cohens as their most inventive and boisterous.  However, the tone varies among the other segments.  All Gold Canyon, for example, about a grizzled old prospector (played by a grizzled old Tom Waits) digging up a remote, unspoilt valley in his belief that gold lies somewhere beneath it, is a more straightforward and conventional adaptation of a Jack London story; while Meal Ticket stars Liam Neeson and Harry Melling in a surreal Wild West reworking of Edogawa Ranpo’s grotesque tale The Caterpillar.  The film concludes with the supernaturally-tinged The Mortal Remains, in which five strangers find themselves on a stagecoach whose destination might just be the destination that ultimately awaits everyone.

 

Actually, The Mortal Remains, and Brimstone and Bone Tomahawk, plus other recent westerns like The Wind (2018) and Sophia Coppola’s remake of The Beguiled (2017), suggest that as the Wild West drifts further off into history and away from the modern world, it may become a common setting for stories of the gothic, supernatural and macabre.

 

And that’s my list.  Looking at it now, I have to say thank goodness for Tarantino, the Cohen Brothers and various Europeans and Kiwis.  If it hadn’t been for them, there’d hardly have been any westerns made between 2010 and 2019.

 

© Caliban Media Company / RLJ Entertainment

 

Films of 2016

 

© Sidney Kimmel Entertainment / CBS Films / Lionsgate

 

2016 was generally a bloody horrible year but it at least produced some decent films.   Here’s my top ten favourite movies of 2016.  I realise that some of them were made (and released in their home countries) in 2015.  But since they didn’t reach British cinemas and / or DVD outlets until the following year, I’m treating them as 2016 films.  Be on your guard for occasional spoilers.

 

Anomalisa

The Guardian’s excitable film critic Peter Bradshaw described Anomalisa as “unforgettably, skin-crawlingly strange”, though I found its wistful and amusing story of a middle-aged celebrity finding love in a big soulless hotel more reminiscent of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003) rather than anything by David Lynch.  There’s even a scene in Anomalisa that does for Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Want to Have Fun what Lost in Translation did for Roxy Music’s More Than This.

 

However, Anomalisa is based on a play by Charlie Kaufman, who scripted and co-directed it with Duke Johnson, so it’s also flavoured with brain-bending oddness.  David Thewlis’s harassed customer-service expert, in Cincinnati for a conference, suffers from Fregoli Delusion, i.e. he perceives nearly everyone in the world as the same person, including his wife, son and ex-girlfriend.  All have the same bland face and same bland voice (supplied by Tom Noonan).  When he meets a young woman who somehow bucks the trend and possesses some individuality (Jennifer Jason Leigh), he promptly falls for her.

 

What makes Anomalisa odder still is the fact that it uses stop-motion animation – Thewlis, Leigh and Noonan are speaking through puppets.  If, like me, you still associate stop-motion animation with the Ray Harryhausen movies of yesteryear – featuring cyclopses, gorgons, dinosaurs and giant octopi – the scene where the Thewlis and Leigh puppets indulge in cunnilingus will blow your mind.

 

© HanWay Films / Paramount Pictures

 

Bone Tomahawk

I’ve already written about Bone Tomahawk on this blog so I’m not going to say much more about it – save that S. Craig Zahler’s bold exercise in combining a traditional western (for its first hour, giving us time to get to know and like the characters) with a bloody in-your-face horror movie (for its last half-hour, when we get seriously worried about what’s going to happen to those characters) was one of 2016’s unexpected pleasures.

 

It doesn’t end well for Deputy Nick, though.

 

Green Room

Three years ago writer / director Jeremy Saulnier treated us to the melancholy modern-day noir classic Blue Ruin.  He maintains his high standards with Green Room.  A down-on-their-luck punk band get a chance to make money playing a gig at a bar in the remote Pacific Northwest.  The catch is, it’s a ‘boots-and-braces’ crowd, i.e. the audience are neo-Nazi skinheads.  The band survive the gig – despite performing the Dead Kennedys’ Nazi Punks F**k Off – but then see a murder committed backstage and end up trapped in the titular green room, besieged by some shaven-headed psychos who want to eliminate the witnesses.

 

Saulnier skilfully cranks up the tension in this nasty but blackly funny thriller.  Rarely in a movie have attack-dogs appeared more terrifying.  And equally terrifying is Patrick Stewart as the bar owner and the skinheads’ cerebral but malevolent leader – Stewart no doubt welcoming a chance to ditch his Goody-Two-Shoes Star Trek image for a while.

 

© Broad Green Pictures / Film Science / A24

 

Hell or High Water

Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) updated to the 21st century, Hell or High Water has two Texan brothers, played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster, adopt an unusual strategy to rescue their family farm from a mortgage deal with a bank.  To pay it off, they start robbing local branches of the same bank.  Will their scheme succeed before the investigating Texas Rangers, played by Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham, catch up with them?  Director David Mackenzie deftly orchestrates the drama – we have two pairs of characters whom we like, but we know the results are going to be unhappy when their paths finally cross – and the bank robberies receive extra tension from our knowledge that this is happening in Texas, a state where the customers are as heavily armed as the robbers and security staff.

 

Oh, and Jeff Bridges just gets better with age.

 

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

As I grow older and more curmudgeonly, I find fewer comedy films capable of making me laugh.  An exception is the work of New Zealand writer / director Taika Waititi: Eagle vs Shark (2007), What We Do in the Shadows (2014) and now this film.

 

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is about grumpy old misfit Hector (Sam Neill) and chubby juvenile delinquent Ricky (Julian Dennison) taking to the New Zealand mountains pursued by police, social services, vigilantes and the media; along the way encountering hardship, killer wild boars and an affable lunatic called Psycho Sam (Rhys Darby), but also forming a precious friendship.  Waititi creates a funny and affecting movie but avoids easy laughs and cloying sentimentality.  The characters here take some hard knocks and the happy ending is hard won.

 

© Gamechanger Films / XYZ Films

 

The Invitation

Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation takes a familiar dramatical trope, the dinner party that goes wrong – see Rope (1948) or Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) – and turns it into a horror movie.  For most of its length, though, it’s more about social awkwardness as a group of well-heeled trendies get together for a meal in the Hollywood Hills and find their hosts a little too vocal about the New Age fad they believe has turned their lives around.  Logan Marshall-Green is good as the guest who suspects something sinister is afoot – but is he just overacting to his hosts’ happy-clappy goofiness?

 

Kusama shows Hitchcockian skill in stoking up and then dampening down Marshall-Green’s suspicions at different points in the film.  Meanwhile, hulking character actor John Carroll Lynch gives a memorable turn as an unexpected party guest.

 

Krisha

Krisha was the year’s other great dinner-party-goes-wrong movie – not in a macabre way but in a painful, all-too-human one.  During Thanksgiving, the sixty-something Krisha of the title turns up at her family’s celebrations as a not entirely welcome guest.  Long considered the black sheep of the family because of alcohol and substance abuse, Krisha is on a last warning to behave herself.  Inevitably, as the day progresses and subtle but niggling pressures mount, Krisha’s self-control begins to fray.

 

Shot over nine days in 2014 with a budget of just $14,000, Krisha feels claustrophobically intimate because director Trey Edwards Shults filmed it in his parents’ house, using members of his family and his friends for the cast.  Making it feel more intimate still is the fact that Shults himself plays Trey, Krisha’s estranged son; while Krisha Fairchild, his real-life aunt, plays Krisha.

 

Krisha is a low-fi marvel and it’s easy to see why indie filmmaking guru John Waters named it his film of the year.

 

© A24

 

Room

More claustrophobia is served up by Lenny Abrahamson’s Room, scripted by Emma Donoghue from her novel of the same name.  This Canadian-Irish co-production sees Brie Larson abducted and imprisoned for seven years in a small, fortified shed that has the amenities of a grotty caravan – sink, toilet, bathtub, TV, gas cooker.  Larson’s abductor also subjects her to a sexual relationship, the result of which is a young son, played by Jack Tremblay, who knows nothing of the world but what he sees in the cramped quarters around him.  To him, ‘Room’ becomes as huge and all-encompassing a concept as the ‘Earth’ or ‘Universe’.

 

Eventually, Larson and Tremblay escape from Room.  But faced with uncomprehending and emotionally-traumatised relatives and by sensation-hungry journalists, you wonder if spiritually they’re going to be prisoners of Room forever.  It sounds like a discouragingly bleak film but, thanks to Abrahamson and Donoghue’s treatment of the story and to the performances by Larson and Tremblay (the former winning an Oscar), the ultimate result is surprisingly positive and uplifting.

 

Train to Busan

Yes – Zombies on a Train!  It’s easy to dismiss Yeon Sang-ho’s high-concept horror / disaster movie as a case of what you see being what you get – and what you do see and get is plenty of spectacular and nail-biting action set-pieces.  However, there’s more going on than you might initially think in Train to Busan, which has a zombie apocalypse erupting on the Korean peninsula and some survivors on a train trying to get past zombie-overrun stations and avoid the infection spreading on board to reach the southern, zombie-free city of the title.

 

© Next Entertainment World

 

While blue-collar characters like Ma Dong-seok’s streetwise bruiser and Choi Gwi-hwa’s homeless man act in defence of their fellow passengers, suited CEO scumbag Kim Eui-sung has no compunction about sacrificing everyone else to save himself – and the train staff are alarmingly and maddeningly deferential to him.  In fact, he embodies the corporate rottenness that contributed to South Korea’s real-life MV Sewol disaster in 2014.

 

The Witch

Finally, praise for Robert Eggers’ The Witch, which was stupidly marketed as a straightforward, scream-a-minute horror film.  This baffled audiences of adolescent horror buffs who came to it expecting something like Sinister (2012) or The Conjuring (2013), but instead were treated to a slow and unsettling tale of a Puritan family being torn apart by superstition, mistrust and paranoia in the Nathaniel Hawthorne-esque setting of 17th-century New England.

 

At least Stephen King got the right measure of The Witch, calling it “a real movie, tense and thought-provoking as well as visceral.”

 

© Rooks Nest Entertainment / Universal Pictures

 

Bad to the bone

 

© Caliber Media Company / RLJ Entertainment

 

A while back on this blog I mentioned the film Bone Tomahawk, which was released in late 2015.  A fusion of two cinematic genres I’m fond of, the western movie and the horror movie, it was written and directed by S. Craig Zahler.  I’ve finally caught up with Bone Tomahawk on DVD and, I’m pleased to say, I think it’s as good as the 89% rating it got on the online film-review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.  Wow – for once, the world’s movie critics and I seem to be in agreement.

 

As a western Bone Tomahawk is charmingly traditional.  It involves a posse of mismatched characters – is there any other sort of posse in western movies? – riding off into the wilderness, searching for a handful of people who’ve been abducted from their frontier town.  The posse are excellently played by a quartet of actors: the whiskered Kurt Russell as a getting-on-a-bit but still not-to-be-messed-with sheriff; Patrick Wilson as a domesticated ex-cowboy whose wife is among the abductees; Matthew Fox as an insouciant dandy with a violent past – though he dresses in white, he’d definitely have been the Man In Black if this film had been made 60 years ago; and Richard Jenkins as Russell’s ‘back-up deputy’, a position that was evidently given to him because while he was too old and doddery to be allowed to become a real deputy, Russell didn’t have the heart to disappoint him by not making him a deputy at all.

 

Jenkins, actually, steals the show.  His ramblings are by turn wry, melancholic and idiotic, are occasionally profound and are always entertaining.  He joins a noble tradition of gnarly character actors who’ve played doddery old sheriff’s deputies in western movies, including Walter Brennan in Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959) and Arthur Hunnicutt in Hawks’ El Dorado (1966).  The scenes between Jenkins and Russell are a joy and their last one together even brings a tear to the eye.

 

But just before you rush out to rent Bone Tomahawk expecting it to rekindle happy childhood memories of watching James Stewart and Audie Murphy bumping along on horseback beside a cattle drive whilst Maureen O’Hara bakes them apple pie back at the ranch-house…  I should remind you that this is also a horror movie.  Zahler cunningly disguises the fact by devoting much of the running time to his four heroes journeying through the wilds, talking, philosophising, bickering, getting to know each other and allowing us to get to know (and like) them too.  But at the end of their quest, in Bone Tomahawk‘s final half-hour, there’s a horror movie ready to pounce…

 

© Caliber Media Company / RLJ Entertainment

 

Admittedly, Bone Tomahawk also has a horror-movie prologue at its beginning.  It opens with a pair of bushwhacking cut-throats stumbling across and violating a remote, mysterious burial ground, much to the annoyance of some unseen but very belligerent locals.  (The pair are played by the great veteran B-movie actor Sid Haig, who’s been in everything from Jack Hill’s Foxy Brown (1974) to Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997); and David Arquette, who was also a cast-member in the last horror-western movie I really enjoyed, Antonia Bird’s Ravenous back in 1999.)  In fact, the owners of the burial ground are so pissed off that they spend the next 11 days pursuing one of the cutthroats and eventually he leads them to the frontier town that’s home to Russell, Jenkins and co.  Making the most of their visit, they promptly carry away a couple of the townspeople.

 

But the abductors aren’t Indians, as the white folks in town assume.  The one native-American townsperson, a chap nicknamed the Professor (Zane McClamon) who’s probably the most erudite person in the whole film, identifies the culprits as cave-dwelling “troglodytes”: a “spoilt bloodline of inbred animals that rape and eat their own mothers.”

 

And when Russell’s posse finally catch up with those troglodytes…  Well, let’s just say that Zahler signals the switch from western to horror pretty spectacularly.  In order to show what the trogs are capable of, he subjects us to a scene of jaw-dropping brutality.  My better half, Mrs Blood and Porridge, and I are pretty hardened movie-watchers.  We could sit through three Lucio Fulci zombie movies back-to-back first thing in the morning and still eat a hearty breakfast afterwards.  But even we found that scene in Bone Tomahawk so harsh that we had to pause the DVD for a minute and go, “Phew!”

 

Zahler knows what he’s doing.  Most modern horror filmmakers would never allow such a leisurely build-up – there’d have to be death and horror every ten minutes – but he wants to give us time to get familiar with his characters.  And once those characters have our affections, then he hits us with the death and horror, meaning that we’re on the edge of our seats thereafter, wanting them to get out of it alive.  (The Borderlands, the British horror movie from 2013, benefitted from a similar approach.)

 

Zahler’s also clever in orchestrating his plot so that near the end his characters’ survival depends on the member of their group who’s least physically able to deal with the trogs.  It’s one thing to end a film with Superman – or some cool, indestructible Clint Eastwood type – fighting off the villains.  But the result is far more suspenseful when the person in question is the opposite of Superman, someone with the odds stacked against him.

 

Bone Tomahawk is a bold movie, partly because it attempts to meld two genres that aren’t often melded; and partly because its creator isn’t afraid to make some unfashionable choices with the plot.  It’s a movie, then, with a lot of guts.  In all senses of the phrase.

 

© Caliber Media Company / RLJ Entertainment

 

Horror westerns

 

(c) Caliber Media Company / RLJ Entertainment

 

Currently on release in UK cinemas is Bone Tomahawk, directed by S. Craig Zahler and starring Kurt Russell.  This film is unusual because it’s a mash-up of two genres that in the past have been rarely combined.  On one hand, like last year’s Slow West and The Hateful Eight, it’s a western movie.  On the other hand, Bone Tomahawk is a horror movie too – and a pretty gruelling one, according to the reviews of it I’ve read.

 

When you think about it, you’d expect more cinematic overlap between westerns and horror movies.  The 19th-century American frontier was a violent place and from time to time some horrifying things happened there – at least, that’s the impression I get when I read something like Cormac McCarthy’s no-atrocity-spared western novel Blood Meridian (1985).  And America was developing its own gothic-horror tradition at the time, although this was happening in the east of the country – Washington Irving was born in New York, Edgar Allan Poe in Boston and Nathaniel Hawthorne in New Hampshire – rather than in its west.  Meanwhile, Native American folklore was rich in monstrous creatures, such as the skin-walkers, wendigo and mannegishi of, respectively, Navajo, Algonquian and Cree legend; which could easily be subjects for horror films.

 

I suspect one reason why there hasn’t been much overlap is because the earliest cinematic attempts to blend the genres were so ham-fisted.  In particular, I’m thinking of a pair of cheapies that pitted legendary wild-west outlaws against legendary old-world monsters, Billy the Kid Versus Dracula and Jessie James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter.  Both were directed by William Beaudine in 1966 and were about as good as their titles suggested.  No doubt their rubbish-ness hobbled the western / horror crossover before it got properly going.

 

But since the 1970s there have been some worthy westerns that work too as horror films.  As an aficionado of both genres, I’ll present here a few of those hybrids that I especially like – movies with spurs and Stetsons, cacti and cowpokes, that’ll send a chill down your spine.

 

(c) Universal Pictures

 

Actually, you could argue that 1971’s The Beguiled, which starred Clint Eastwood and was directed by Eastwood’s frequent collaborator Don Siegel, is neither a western nor a horror film.  It’s set in the American Civil War, not in the wild west; and it isn’t a film that tries to scare you as such – it’s more of a brooding gothic melodrama.  Nonetheless, it reminds me a little of Misery (1987), Stephen King’s famous horror novel about obsession, captivity and torture.

 

The Beguiled starts with Eastwood’s character, an injured Yankee soldier, ending up on the grounds of a boarding school in Louisiana.  The southern belles in the school – staff and pupils are all female – decide to hand him over to the Confederates, though not before he’s recovered a bit and is less likely to die in the Confederates’ grim prison-camp.  However, sneaky Clint soon starts flirting with, wooing and manipulating the ladies around him: a middle-aged headmistress with an incest-related secret from her youth (Geraldine Page), her gawky and virginal second-in-command (Elizabeth Hartmann), a loyal black maid (Mae Mercer), the regulation school hussy (Jo Ann Harris) and the eccentric twelve-year-old who first discovered him in the nearby forest (Pamelyn Ferdin).

 

But things backfire on him.  By meddling with the repressed emotions of his rescuers / captors, he triggers a series of unpleasant consequences.  Getting one of his legs amputated by the womenfolk in an amateur surgical operation is just the start of it.

 

A wonderfully atmospheric film, The Beguiled makes you respect Eastwood for refusing to play it safe with his macho and immensely-popular-at-the-time persona.  Instead of portraying another heroic he-man, he essays a character who’s a scheming, duplicitous twat; one who gets his come-uppance from the people he least expects it from, the women he assumes he can control.

 

(c) The Malpaso Company / Universal Pictures

 

But The Beguiled isn’t the only western where Clint defies genre expectations.  Three years later he directed and starred in High Plains Drifter, a movie that combines the 1952 western classic High Noon with a ghost story.  This time he plays a supernatural reincarnation of a dead sheriff, a phantom somehow made flesh again, who rides into the town where years earlier his original self had been abandoned by the cowardly townspeople and murdered by a trio of psychopathic outlaws.  Now the outlaws are due to be released from prison and will likely attack the town again; and the local citizens, having grown no braver in the interim, unwittingly hire the ghost of their old sheriff as their new sheriff in the hope that he’ll protect them.  Of course, the vengeful spirit does no such thing.  Instead, he heaps humiliation upon them by insisting that they do some very strange things to prepare for the oncoming showdown – covering their town in red paint, for instance, or making a dwarf their new town-mayor.  And then, just as the villains are approaching, he clears off…

 

Credulity is stretched (even by ghost-story standards) by the fact that Eastwood gets re-hired as sheriff without the townspeople recognising him as the same man whom, earlier, they’d allowed to get killed.  But to some extent the film gets around this problem by having flashbacks showing the sheriff’s murder, where’s he’s not played by Eastwood but by his stunt double Buddy Van Horn.  (Van Horn later became a filmmaker himself and directed Eastwood in movies like 1980’s Any Which Way You Can and 1988’s The Dead Pool.)  Thus, the murdered sheriff looks like ghostly Clint but isn’t quite the same.

 

High Plains Drifter is a film that I saw on TV as a kid and found very disconcerting because it wasn’t what I’d expected.  Not only is Eastwood an anti-hero rather than a hero, but he’s also a ghost.  On the other hand, of course, after seeing the film I could never forget it and I now rate it highly.  And Clint certainly seemed to like it because he used a slightly less supernatural, slightly more mainstream version of its story in his 1985 movie Pale Rider.

 

(c) United Artists

 

Another film I remember finding baffling when, as a juvenile, I first saw it on TV was 1977’s The White Buffalo.  It was produced by the prolific mogul Dino De Laurentiis, who probably intended it as a western-flavoured cash-in on a movie that was doing rather well at the time, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975).  Though its story, about an aging Wild Bill Hickok obsessed with a giant albino buffalo that’s murderously stalking the American frontier, is obviously indebted to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick too.

 

On its release The White Buffalo flopped and got critically panned, and it certainly has its problems.  For one thing, the monster buffalo – designed by special effects man Carlos Rambaldi, who’d previously worked on De Laurentiis’ 1976 remake of King Kong – isn’t very convincing.  Shots of it charging towards the camera with its humped back going up and down as rhythmically as a toy drinking-bird look absurd.  And the script contains some silly things.  It’s nice that Hickok, played by Charles Bronson, gets to bond with an Indian brave, played by Will Sampson, who’s tracking the buffalo too and who turns out to be no less a Native American personage than Crazy Horse.  But when Bill and Crazy communicate, they insist on making heavy use of sign language even while they speak perfectly good English to one another.  It’s as if each thought the other was deaf and felt obliged to use sign language and lip-reading to get his meaning across.

 

But The White Buffalo has some good points.  The scenes showing the icy frontier wastes with the big, beastly behemoth of a buffalo braying and bellowing just off-screen, are undeniably spooky – like all monsters in all horror films, this one is far creepier when we can’t see it and have to use our imaginations to picture it in its full ghastliness.  And it has a great supporting cast of veterans from old western movies and TV shows, including Stuart Whitman, Clint Walker and Slim Pickens.  There’s even a cameo from John Carradine, who was associated with both westerns and horror films and had, in fact, played the bloodsucking title character in 1966’s Billy the Kid Versus Dracula.

 

Charles Bronson, though, is as inexpressive, morose and gruff as ever.  Indeed, the movie’s climax is basically the Gruffalo versus the Buffalo.

 

(c) F/M Entertainment / De Laurentiis Entertainment Group

 

I usually don’t count movies set in the modern-day American west as westerns, even if they do contain Stetsons, horses and tumbleweeds.  However, I’ll make an exception for Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 film Near Dark because it has at least one character, a former Confederate soldier called Jesse, who dates back to wild-west times.  You see, Jesse and his gang are vampires, roaming the dusty prairies and preying on unsuspecting cowboys; and, barring accidents and sunlight, they’re immortal.

 

Near Dark is beautifully shot by Bigelow and has a wonderful cast.  Among those playing the vampires are Lance Henriksen, Jenette Goldstein and Bill Paxton, all of whom had recently served under Sigourney Weaver in 1986’s Aliens (directed by James Cameron, with whom Bigelow was married for two years).  Alas, it didn’t do much as the box office, probably because it was released at the same time as another movie about a vampire gang, Joel Schumacher’s much more tongue-in-cheek and populist The Lost Boys.  (Not that I’m dissing The Lost Boys – I love it too.)

 

However, Near Dark has proved influential over the years.  The scene where the vampires slaughter the staff and patrons of an isolated bar-diner was so powerful that Oliver Stone basically copied it for the opening scene of his Natural Born Killers seven years later.  And the scene where the vampires, besieged in a motel, duck the shafts of sunlight that increasingly sear across their darkened room as bullets punch holes in its walls was borrowed too, by Robert Rodriguez, for 1996’s From Dusk Till Dawn.

 

(c) Heyday Films / 20th Century Fox

 

Finally, a mention for 1999’s Ravenous, an American-British-Czech co-production that showcased a lot of British talent – director Antonia Bird, actor Robert Carlyle and composer Michael Nyman and musician Damon Albarn, the latter two providing the film’s unsettling banjo, horn and drum music.  Equally a horror film, western and ultra-black comedy, Ravenous has Guy Pearce playing a veteran of the 1840s Mexican-American War who’s re-assigned to a remote military fort in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  One winter’s night, a near-frozen Carlyle staggers into the fort with a horrible tale to tell.  He was a member of a wagon train making its way through the mountains that got marooned in the snow.  The pioneers took refuge in a cave and once their food ran out, the more ruthless among them started to eat their weaker companions.  Taking Carlyle at his word, the soldiers head off to find the cave and put an end to the cannibalistic madness.  What they find when they get there, though, isn’t what they’d expected.

 

The first half of Ravenous is brilliantly unnerving, but once Pearce and company arrive at the cave the film becomes increasingly comedic – probably because director Bird has nowhere else to take the horror.  Indeed, as Carlyle tries to introduce Pearce to the pleasures of eating human flesh, it turns into a satire about the Ubermensch of Nietzschean philosophy and the dog-eat-dog nature of American capitalism – both of which would gain prominence after the simpler values of the old American west were dead and gone.