(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.