The horror western is a particularly small and mostly unsuccessful corner of our favourite genre. It doesn’t help that the western as a whole has been in decline for many years with just the occasional bright spot like True Grit and Open Range. Worse than that, the other main splicer of genres is the the sci fi western which seems to deal exclusively in very expensive disasters like Cowboys Vs Aliens, Wild, Wild West and The Lone Ranger (sorta), all of which are at best okay (Cowboys vs Aliens) and at worst hell on the silver screen (the other two).
The horror western has actually had some pretty good films made in its camp. Exit Humanity and The Burrowers are both interesting takes on the zombie and underground-monster movies and Grim Prairie Tales will always be in my good books: I have a soft spot for any film involving a cowboy being consumed vaginally whilst having intercourse with a woman he picks up in the desert. Now along rides Bone Tomahawk, probably the best horror western yet.
Okay so Bone Tomahawk is more like The Searchers via Heart of Darkness but where the heroes ultimate destination is is pure Cannibal Holocaust. The Wild West truly was a grim and desperate place if this film is to be believed. The very opening shot is a man waking up on the prairie only to find his throat being cut. Just the very act of sleeping was difficult back in those days. Having survived the insanity of the civil war, American citizens then had to deal with bandits, gunslingers, native Americans who understandably wanted to kill them and the land itself with all manner of murderous creatures. Here, the worst of them are a bunch of below-human troglodytes who are despised by the natives and unheard of by the settlers. A couple of crooks (grossly but perfectly played by David Arquette and Sid Haig) stumble across their sacred land, one is murdered and the other escapes with presumably a maguffin that’s never really explained. He buries it in the nearest town he comes across but is caught by the “savages” along with a deputy and the local doctor’s assistant (Lili Simmons, who is far to perfect and well, clean for the Wild West, but good none the less).
So the sherif, his first deputy, the assistant ‘s husband and the local gunslinger set off to rescue their people and confront these monsters. What makes this film work so brilliantly is that the four leads are played by Kurt Russell, Richard Jenkins, Patrick Wilson and Matthew Fox.
Kurt Russell is, of course, an American legend in his own lifetime and he has not done enough westerns in it. Now in his sixties he’s really grown into himself. He’s always been a chilled, gruff bastard on screen, but here with his mutton chops, handlebar moustache and weathered skin he really embodies the stoic, tough but good lawmaker perfectly. He channels the likes of John Wayne in The Searchers or Gary Cooper in High Noon but being Kurt Russell he is also ridiculously cool at the same time. If there is a down side to Russell here it’s that the film feels more like an ensemble than a film with him as the lead, so in the mid section his character has a little more to do than tell the others to stop arguing.
Richard Jenkins has always been a deeply normal looking man but has excelled at every role he’s ever taken. Whilst often being middle management or ineffective father figure he has always exuded intelligence and thoughtfulness. His deputy is something different. Though fercely loyal to Russell he is not a bright man. He’s guillable and clumsy but also kind and dedicated. Hidden behind a dirty old white beard and rimmed glasses I didn’t even recognise him at first. He’s the heart of the movie and I felt genuine concern for him especially as the gang gets nearer to the nightmare that awaits them.
Patrick Wilson is as usual brilliantly understated. His performances always defy his wholesome good looks and he has it particularly tough here as he has to play a hero who has a broken leg throughout the entire tale. This involves him hobbling a lot and then later doing nearly all his scenes dragging himself across the dirt. Wilson really shows the fraustration and anger he has with himself as he is incapable of saving his wife due a stupid mistake (nothing even heroic, he fell off his roof whilst putting tiles up).
Then there’s Matthew Fox. He has been criticised over the years, unfairly I think, for being a bit wooden. Well no one is going to say that about him here. His gunslinger is a cold, mean son of a bitch, convinced of his own superiority for being hard enough to kill a lot of Native Americans and smart enough never to get married. But he also is a lost and lonely soul. He claims he’s coming along on the trail “cus he’s the best at killin Indians” but it’s as much because he has no one else to care about as these lot even if he does constantly belittle them. Fox a couple of great moments where his guard just slips away and we are left with just raw emotion, even if they are for his own selfish reasons, they’re still pretty moving.
The largest chunk of the film is the journey to the tribe and is not really a horror at all but a western about the interaction of these four characters. Despite all the bickering and infighting, the Wild West (especially out of the fragile safety of their town) is a truly dangerous place and they come to rely on each other so much that by the time they reach the place where their loved ones are, we can see how important each of them is to the mission. For example Fox may be a blood thirsty killer but right there and then that’s exactly what they need.
The final act really does dip into a horrifying heart of darkness and things do not play out as you might imagine. But that just makes the film all the more tense. It’s not a fast paced film by any stretch of the imagination (and to be fair it’s shot a little flat here and there) but the final act will have you on the edge of your seat, and one scene in particular will make you want to throw up and protect you bollocks.
It’s a shame that Bone Tomahawk got a limited cinema showing in the US, with a VOD release at the same time, it’s hard to become a hit like that. Also it is on in a very limited release in the UK; one showing at night at the Picture House Central is not going to set the box office alight. This is a great pity as this is a damn fine film in a small but interesting sub genre. The horror and the western do make fine bed fellows, why not jump in with them?