The American West was plagued by many horrors back in the 19th Century. Snakes, scorching heat, cacti, dysentery; just to name a few…but we’re not talking about those. No way, too scary. What we’re going to discuss is the wild sub-genre known as Western Horror! Here, anything can be stalking across the dry deserts and rolling plains: vampires, werewolves, giant subterranean worms, you name it! Scary, but not as scary as consumption…makes my chest hurt just thinking about it.
My love for westerns is only slightly outmatched by horror, so (as I’m sure you guessed) this is a personal favorite of mine. Sadly, this niche doesn’t have a huge selection, but it has been growing gradually over the years. In any case, there’s enough out there to wrangle a list. So, strap on your six-gun and mount up, because there’s a bounty on these flicks and we’re bringing them in dead or alive!
1. From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman’s Daughter
(Directed by P.J. Pesce; Starring Marco Leonardi, Michael Parks, Ara Celi; 1999)
“Set 100 years ago in Mexico, this horror/western is the story of the birth of the vampire princess Santanico Pandemonium.” – via IMDB.
How many of you knew there was a From Dusk Till Dawn sequel, let alone two? If not, that’s okay. They were straight-to-video releases. That being said, I personally dig them both. They’re nowhere near as good as the first (who would expect them to be?), but they have their charm and bring some interesting (and fun) ideas to the table. We’ll get to Texas Blood Money somewhere down the road. For now, we’re talking about The Hangman’s Daughter.
It’s vampires in the Wild West…er, Mexico… okay, it’s not technically a “western” in the strictest sense of the word, but it’s got six-guns, bandits, horses, stagecoach robberies, brothels full of blood-sucking freaks; all the classic tropes are here. One thing stands out the most in this flick, however: the blood and guts. I’m pretty sure a good amount of the budget went to the gore effects, because they are extremely fun. Heads blow up, people get dismembered, blood gushes everywhere, it’s a good time! These vampires have no qualms tearing people limb from limb, which is how it should be. Sadly, not every special effect is a gem. Some can look quite silly, especially when it comes to the vampire deaths and CGI bats (yikes). Fortunately, those don’t happen too often.
As far as the story goes…eh, its alright. Basically, a bunch of bandits and an alcoholic writer wander into the “La Tetilla Del Diablo” (the “Titty Twister” circa 1913), only to find out it’s ran by vampires (surprise, surprise). Michael Parks plays the inebriate author in question (who gets clairvoyance the more he drinks…sure, why not) and is easily the most likable character. He just doesn’t give a damn about anything but booze, and apparently I find wholesome, upstanding sentiments like that endearing. Everyone else does well enough to keep the movie on track, but c’mon…no one is watching this for a well-crafted narrative. We’re here to see cowboys fight vampires, to which it delivers in flying, bloody colors.
2. Bone Tomahawk
(Directed by S. Craig Zahler; Starring Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox; 2015)
“In the dying days of the old west, an elderly sheriff and his posse set out to rescue their town’s doctor from cannibalistic cave dwellers.” – via IMDB.
“Bone Tomahawk? But Giallo, haven’t you already talked about this film in a different article?”
Why, yes I have, my imaginary friend! However, I previously focused more on its cannibal genre influences. This time, I’m looking at the film as a whole, and let me tell you…it’s the horse’s hay (i.e. it’s pretty good). With Western veteran Kurt Russell starring, would you expect any less?
To bring you up to speed, the film follows four riders as they trek across the brutal landscapes of the American west in pursuit of cave-dwelling cannibals that kidnapped some townsfolk. The first three-quarters of this film is an ordinary western, with our riders dealing with the unforgiving frontier, from the dangers of the wild to murderous, roaming bandits.
The film’s crew did a fantastic job establishing the setting to be as much of a character as any of the heroes. Starting out with beautiful visages of hills and green woods, it slowly becomes more barren and hostile the closer they get to the cannibals’ lair. Almost like they’re going back in the time to a primordial era.
That’s when it gets to the horror part, where our weary travelers go through several manners of brutalization before the credits begin to roll. Safe to say, the last 20 minutes or so are not for the faint of heart, but wow… they’re gruesomely glorious.
There’s something I noticed that separates this flick from the others: there’s a clear distinction between the story’s western and horror sections. While similar movies try to combine the two concepts together, this one keeps them almost entirely separate. You can pinpoint where the movie stops being one, and changes to the other. Why am I bringing this up? It just caught my attention, and I thought I would share.
3. The Valley of Gwangi
(Directed by Jim O’Connolly; Starring James Franciscus, Gila Golan, Richard Carlson; 1969)
“A cowboy named Tuck Kirby seeks fame and fortune by capturing an Allosaurus living in the Forbidden Valley and putting it in a Mexican circus. His victim, called the Gwangi, turns out to have an aversion to being shown in public.” – via IMDB.
Alright, I admit…I’m cheating a bit here. This isn’t really a horror movie per say, but what it lacks in terror, it makes up with an Allosaurus (Gwangi) fighting circus cowboys. That makes it a creature feature, which is technically a horror genre, so that’s my excuse.
This flick is probably the most accessible out of the bunch. There’s no explicit gore, no deep character development, not much in the way of a human antagonist or some sort of foil to the hero. Just a bunch of cowpokes lassoing a dinosaur and taking it back to town…only for it to break out, kill an elephant, then attack a church. You know, good clean family fun!
And let me tell you how awesome Ray Harryhausen’s stop motion is! The way the dinosaurs move (while a bit unrealistic given what we now know of the prehistoric beasts) is nothing less than incredible. So fluid, so primal, so much fun to watch Gwangi fight a Styracosaurus as cowboys run around panicked. Primo supremo, if I do say so myself. Gwangi is the star of the show, and the rest just exist to support him. Honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
4. The Burrowers
(Directed by J.T. Petty; Starring Clancy Brown, David Busse, Harley Coriz; 2008)
“In the Wild West a rescue party sets out to find a family of settlers that has vanished from their home under mysterious circumstances.” – via IMDB.
So, I went into this article fully prepared to like this flick the least. I saw it years ago as a kid and wasn’t particularly fond of it. I watched it a time or two in high school, still didn’t really care for it. Gave it another chance in college, and found myself appreciating it a little bit more, but didn’t think it would stick with me. Now after my most recent viewing, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a damn fine horror western. I don’t know what happened! Maybe I was finally in the right headspace or something.
This film is definitely the darkest tonally compared to the others (even Bone Tomahawk). The term “mean-spirited” comes to mind, mostly because the characters go through a sadistic amount of punishment. Ripped thumbnails, bullet wounds, rotting alive from the inside-out… that kind of stuff. It’s pretty gnarly, which I consider a plus.
On top of that, it’s a well-told story that deals with the characters’ personal drama as much as the titular “Burrowers”, giving it a degree of depth. The acting matches Bone Tomahawk on quality, and the creature design is the most unique of the four films. The way the monsters go about killing people is also quite interesting. It’s kind of like farming…but instead of planting seeds, they plant bodies.
If you’re down for a creature feature that rises just a bit above others (and is also extremely harrowing) then The Burrowers might just be for you!
Great job, partners! We might have exhausted all our bullets and bean rations, but we finally made it to the end! Time to take off our hats, hang up our spurs, and enjoy that sweet sunset as the stars begin to glow in the desert sky. Keep your gun on your hip, though. You never know what’s creeping around the Weird West… until next time, friends! Ciao!