Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Burrowers (2009)

Decent horror-western films are hard to come by, though it seems the two genres would go together so well. Think of the desolate Wild West and how something horrific could stalk wayward cowboys or pioneers on such a lonely frontier. The wide open spaces, with no one around to help for hundreds of miles, could indeed turn ominous with the proper story. The history of the West itself is filled with stories of missing wagon trains, ghosts, ghost towns and strange creatures, not to mention the numerous Native American myths.

It really bums me out that there aren’t more horror-Western films, but luckily writer/director J.T. Petty (who gave us the amazingly subtle, but no less disturbing, Soft for Digging) has managed to craft this kind of menacing story with The Burrowers, recently released on DVD on April 21st, 2009 from Lionsgate.

Life in the Dakota Territories in 1879 isn’t easy. The few pioneers that rough it out there have to overcome the lack of civilization, harsh climate and the threat of Indian raids. Yet settlers experience a certain freedom in the Wild West…like Irish immigrant Coffey (Karl Geary), who fled the oppression of back East to start a new life on the frontier. He is even planning on asking for his sweetheart’s hand in marriage. Only, when he goes to visit her one morning, he finds four of her family dead and her, along with five others, missing. An Indian raid is the first explanation given for the brutal scene, and a posse, including experienced frontiersmen John Clay (Clancy Brown), Will Parcher (William Mapother), Coffey and a young teen hoping to become a man, is formed to hunt them down. They are soon joined by the cavalry, lead by the nasty Henry Victor (Doug Hutchison), who likes to belitte his cook and ex-slave Callaghan (Sean Patrick Thomas) and viciously torture Indians for information. The one brave they do catch can only warn them of “the burrowers”…and as people start disappearing into the night, pulled down into darkness by these “burrowers”, the group discovers that they are the ones being hunted and not by any Indians, either! They soon realize that the real enemy stalks them from deep within the earth and that what they face is far more terrifying than death.

The Burrowers delivers a beautifully menacing horror film and shows exactly why a Western setting works so well in the horror genre. The expansive plains evoke a melancholy loneliness during the day, but at night they achieve a more sinister feel. Just what are the long prairie grasses and dark shadows beyond the campfire hiding? What are the strange noises coming from the dark? This wonderful setting, coupled with cinematographer Phil Parnet’s panoramic views of the West during the day and claustrophobic shots at night, creates a tension-filled and frightening film that shouldn’t be missed.

Writer/director J.T. Perry doesn’t just let the scenery speak for itself, though. The story is also an extremely well-crafted monster tale that doesn’t sacrifice sophistication for scares. Perry wisely keeps the monsters in the dark for most of the film, teasing us with their strange sounds and small glimpses of the beasts. An enormous amount of tension is created by doing this, especially during the night-time scenes in which the monsters circle a camp of the posse.

Perry also includes the obligatory social commentary about white men abusing the natives, but also shows how distrustful the Native Americans were of white men. This adds some more tension to the story and the distrustful feelings of both the white men and Native Americans feel very accurate.

The stellar cast of actors also does a fine job of creating tension, whether between themselves, the natives or what lurks underground. Doug Hutchison (Punisher: War Zone, Lost) was great as the villainous Henry Victor, complete with a mustache that curled at the ends. Clancy Brown (Carnivale, Lost), William Mapother (Lost, Prison Break) and Karl Geary were all wonderful as the “good guys,” bewildered by what “the burrowers” truly are but determined to push on and find the missing victims. Everyone was believable in their role, not the easiest thing to pull off in a period piece, and evoked the proper emotions, whether it was to loathe or love their character.

The film isn’t a gorefest but there are several nicely bloodied scenes that delivered. The creep-factor was more intense in this film than the gore, and the creatures and just what they did to their prey really got under my skin. The creature effects, by Robert Hall (who is making quite a name for himself in horror – check out his recent Laid to Rest film), were pretty awesome and downright creepy. Some people have complained of the “look” of the creatures, but I definitely have no complaints. Everything from their movements to their maws to the sounds they made sent shivers up my spine!

The Burrowers is what I like to call “high-end horror.” It’s a more sophisticated, more nuanced film that doesn’t rely on cheap scares or stereotypical characters like some throw-away horror films. It has a menacing feel and a tense atmosphere that slowly build until the abrupt finale, where you can finally let your breath out! It is also one of the few horror films that has capitalized on a Western setting, which in turn makes it an even more eerie and frightening film!

This is definitely one of the best horror-Westerns ever made, and so far one of the best films of 2009! Go see it!

Available from Amazon!

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