While I'm still sort of in envious shock that Jon Favreau celebrity deejayed JoBlo's Comic-Con party, I am really interested in seeing how his high concept mash-up, COWBOYS & ALIENS, will fare at the box-office this week. It's a star studded event film, no doubt, but one we really haven't seen before. It's not a prequel, sequel or remake, but it is based on a graphic novel that has found relative success. But most interesting is the two opposing genres Favreau has chosen to revel in: the western and the alien-invasion template. Now, I for one am a huge fan of that rare breed of horror-western, but truthfully, it's quite a bereft subgenre. Not only are there few horror-westerns, there's even fewer done well. And while you may technically codify COWBOYS & ALIENS as a sci-fi-western...we thought it'd be a good idea to dredge up some of the best of the breed. Here now is my Top Ten Sci-Fi-Horror-Westerns!
WARNING: MINOR TO MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW!
#10. BLACK NOON (1971)
Next to impossible to locate a print, Bernard Kowalski's BLACK NOON is the one film on our list that happens to be a TV movie, but I felt like including it as my lifelong mission to hunt down. First off, it's a straight-up horror-western from 1971. And even more intriguing than its eclectic cast - which includes Ray Milland, Gloria Grahame, Henry Silva and Leif Garret - is the simplicity of the premise. A travelling preacher (Roy Thinnes) and his wife become increasingly terrorized by a Satanic cult. Better yet, by actual demons from hell! Now, for a 70 minute TV movie, BLACK NOON has quite the expanse, covering almost three centuries. It opens in 1771, largely picks up in 1871 and concludes in the year the film was made, 1971. With the portents of desolate West, an acrid tone and brisk pacing, BLACK NOON is an awfully obscure horror-western worth tracking down if you can (hint: it's actually playing in five parts on Youtube).
#9. BLOOD RIVER (2009)
While we could have just as easily cited the 1967 Spaghetti Western of the same name, it's Adam Mason's 2009 film BLOOD RIVER that deserves recognition in the pantheon of horror-westerns. Why? it's a slow-burning 4-character thriller dependent on the iconography of the west - the dust, the heat, the barren landscapes, etc. - all playing heavily on the idea of claustrophobia and the lack of escape. Highlighting such themes in and vastly open geographic setting creates a weird juxtaposition...nothing but land for miles in each direction, but really nowhere to go. I dig that element quite a bit. Of course, this isn't a shoot-'em up blood-fest, most of the terror derives from the psychology incurred by our chief villain, a cryptic cowboy named Joseph. Props to Andrew Howard for his disturbing turn, one he parlayed into an equally chilling performance in the I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE retelling.
#8. MAD AT THE MOON (1992)
Martin Donovan's lyrical, quasi-avant-garde film MAD AT THE MOON has yet to be released on DVD, which should give you an idea how esoteric the title is in the first place. Here, Donovan spins a semi-lycanthropic tale along the western frontier, as a young woman (Mary Stuart Masterson) meets and ultimately gets involved with a timorous ranch-hand (Hart Bochner). What she didn't takes into consideration upon the courtship? Homey likes to morph into a bloodthirsty werewolf every time the full moon's aglow. Or does he? Thing is, this is anything but your typical werewolf yarn. In fact, it hardly plays as an out-and-out horror flick. It's a moody, highly unusual film...one that provides as many questions as it does answers. There's a definite ambiguity as to the nature of the beast, is it an actual werewolf or a metaphor for the primal urge of man? For the good-sighted, keep your lids peeled for a young Colin Firth!
#7. DEAD BIRDS (2004)
Why I wasn't terribly fond of Alex Turner's DEAD BIRDS the first time I saw it beats me, because upon various revisits, I've come to like the film a good deal. First off is the premise - a coterie of Confederate soldiers in the 1860s, on the lam for bank robbery, seek refuge in a dilapidated plantation-house. What they didn't account for? A skein of increasingly tormenting supernatural phenomena! Boasting an all-star cast that includes Michael Shannon, Henry Thomas, Patrick Fugit, Mark Boone Jr. and Isaiah Washington, DEAD BIRDS falls prey to what a lot of low budget horror flicks do, a strong third act. Problem is, after a solid hour of setup fraught with spooky stints and inexplicable happenings, once the squad reaches the house, inertia takes hold and the film doesn't really have anywhere to maneuver. Shot beautifully by Steve Yedlin (who recently finished shooting Rian Johnson's LOOPER), with a solemn tenor and deliberate pace, DEAD BIRDS soars pretty f*ckin' high!
#6. CURSE OF THE UNDEAD (1959)
Here's a gimmicky premise William Castle would be proud of. In Edward Dein's schlocky 1959 horror-western CURSE OF THE UNDEAD, when a cryptic sharp-shooter for hire (Michael Pate) turns out to actually be a vampire, a preacher (Eric Flemming) on the range is tasked with protecting his family and ultimately quashing the bloodsucking fiend. Okay it's not that much of a gimmick, but it is pretty rad that Dein, who co-wrote the script with his wife Mildred, was down to explore what it would be like to fuse a vampire movie with that of a western...In 1959. Working on 18 days to get a final runtime of 79 minutes, Dein wisely chose to film in luscious black and white, the result has a timeless quality like no other on our list. It's a short film, but one easy to get lost in its sluggish, atmospheric tempo. Easily panned as B-movie pabulum, THE CURSE OF THE UNDEAD is quite the unheralded forerunner of what horror-westerns have become.
STAY TUNED FOR PART 2!