HORROR TEN SPOT: Favorite Horror-Westerns
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 AHEAD!
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).
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.
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!
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!
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.
Though somewhat bereft of the typical western iconography, there's no way in hell I'd omit Antonia Bird's horrific tale of westward expansion. I know I threw RAVENOUS some love back when we feted our favorite period-set horror joints, but so near and dear to my heart is this barbaric tale of cannibalism, I felt like repeating the offense. Consider the first rate cast: Guy Pearce, Robert Carlyle, Jeremy Davies, David Arquette, Jeffrey Jones and the late great John Spencer...all giving fine performances in this Darwinist tale of survival of the fittest. Equally impressive are the landlocked locations...shooting across a swath of the globe that includes Prague, Mexico and Slovakia. The dreary, fire-lit nighttime scenery, the beautiful yet debilitating snowfall, the sweeping landscape photography by Anthony B. Richmond (DON'T LOOK NOW), not to mention the taut, first screenplay from Ted Griffin (OCEAN'S ELEVEN, MATCHSTICK MEN)...all coalesce in a truly special way.
Co-authored by longtime AITH pal Eric Red, Oscar winning director Katheryn Bigelow set her offbeat 1987 vampire thread along a barren stretch of desert highway. Sure, it's not your six-shooter and ten-gallon-hat kind of western, but it's precisely the blend of different sensibilities that make NEAR DARK such a success. Besides, Bill Paxton in 80s leather...what the else do you need? Seriously though, Bigelow's work here, which begins with the script, is one of the most austere and solemn vampire movies we've seen. Released the same year, it can almost be construed as the antithesis of THE LOST BOYS, which obviously pokes much more fun at the genre (coincidentally, Jason Miller's sons are in both films, Joshua John in NEAR DARK, Jason Patric in THE LOST BOYS). A couple of other trivial tidbits: Michael Biehn turned down a role after being dissatisfied with the script, and a "21 Jump Street" Johnny Depp auditioned for the starring role of Caleb, which ultimately went to that Hollywood powerhouse, Adrian Pasdar. Can't win 'em all Kathy!
Death rides a pale horse! With a decade and a half under his directorial belt, Eastwood hops back in the saddle of the genre he knows so well, flexing a confident hand in the chilling and mysterious PALE RIDER. Here, somewhat paying homage to his own HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER (as well as the work of Sergio Leonne), Clint once again stars as an enigmatic wastrel. This time he's The Preacher, a superhuman, gun toting, sin cleansing badass who gallops into town and waylays any evildoer that even so much as glances at him the wrong way. Alright, let's call a spade a spade, this mothaf*cker's a merciless jinni...representative of one of the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse. Pay attention to the way Clint shoots the film, they elusive way he shrouds The Preacher in the shadows. Like great films and filmmakers, he's showing us, not telling us, and those willing to suss the visual subtext will realize the power of the films meaning.
How many of you knew that sci-fi writer Michael Crichton was also a feature film director? Eight titles in total, his feature debut coming in 1973 from a script he adapted from his own novel. That's right ladies and gentlemen, I'm talking about the dystopic alternate universe...the utterly bonkers destination that is WESTWORLD. What always struck me about WESTWORLD - about pair of opulent vacationers hunted down by a robot-gunslinger after a Wild West themed amusement ride goes horribly awry - is the sure hand with which Crichton tells his story. I think because originated the tale, in long form, then truncated it to a filmable clip, and by then had such firm handle on the material he knew exactly what he needed to get onscreen. At 88 minutes no less. Of course, there's always Yul Brenner's marvelous performance to keep you cozy at night as well. Dude f*ckin' rules! So much so that John Carpenter based the "indestructible" nature of Michael Meyers on him.
In Big Clint's sophomore directorial effort (his first western), he showed tremendous restraint, subtlety, and a deft ability to evoke a latent spirit in HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER. It's a covert supernatural western, not an overt one...a task much more difficult than beating you over the head with clear-cut definition. I love this film. Shot in six weeks by the vastly underrated Bruce Surtees, Clint made the wise decision of opting against Universal's wishes to film on a studio lot, instead having a whole town built in the desert to achieve his ethereal vision. And to those who discredit the films otherworldly subtext, Clint confessed in an interview to James Lipton that the original script made reference to The Stranger being the brother of dead marshal. Clint nixed that angle for the under-tonal spookiness. And damn are we glad he did! I know what you may be thinking, Jake, what's up, how can you have a NOT very scary movie as your top horror-western? To that I say it doesn't matter, quality is quality, and HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER is a topflight film. Simply the best on our list!