Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Burrowers (USA, 2008)

(Trailer.) And how many Western Horror films can you think of?
When it comes to genre films, the Horror Western has long been a sorely ignored possibility, at least in regard to horrific events occurring in the Old West. The modern-day Midwest is hardly that ignored in this sense, the sun-burnt highways and badlands of the USA being a popular setting for any number of films narrating the fates of any number of people at odds with zombies, vampires, aliens, mutants, chainsaws, whatever. But when it comes to the unnatural underway in the Old West during or around the era of Manifest Destiny, the pickings are slim.
The two old "classic" William Beaudine guilty pleasures Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (1966) and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter (1966/full film at promptly come to mind, as do a few entries from second-rate franchises losing steam, such as the snow-bound Ginger Snaps Back (2004/trailer), Tremors 4: The Legend Begins (2004/trailer) and the Mexican set From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman's Daughter (2000/trailer), but original films — such as the interesting Grim Prairie Tales (1990/trailer), the kiddy film The Valley of Gwangi (1969/trailer), the regrettable failure Dead Birds (2004/trailer) or the almost traditional western High Plains Drifter (1973/trailer) — are rare, especially when considering the actual amount of celluloid filmed over the last 100 years.
For this reason alone J.T. Petty's latest film The Burrowers is a film worth watching, for it is indeed a horror tale occurring smack-dab in the midst of the Manifest Destiny, sometime in the 1800s in the sparsely populated and still largely unexplored Dakota territories. Regrettably, like most of the films previously mentioned, Petty's film is not entirely successful, but for all its flaws it not only reveals a strong cinematic eye but is never boring and continually retains the interest of the viewer. In fact, its only true flaw is that it seems under-developed and ends too abruptly, as if the entire sections were left out and the final scenes rushed so as to make the movie fit within a commercially viable 96-minute timeframe.
OK, the film also suffers a slight dearth of likeable characters — even the nicer ones show some truly disgusting sides on occasion (one of the worst being the teenage youth who decides to kiss his first female by kissing a "corpse") — but the lack of redeemable characters is less of a flaw than a reflection of reality in general. The film reflects the difficulties, dangers and unpredictabilities of the times, and as such The Burrowers isn’t about heroic types like Shane (1953) or the Pale Rider (1985/trailer) who saves the day, but is about Normal Joes confronted first by the hardships of the West and then by something truly unknown.
The lack of the clearly heroic type has put off some viewers who decry J.T. Petty's overtly liberal revisionism in regard to the Western itself, but even if he does overdue the evil Whiteman a bit, his revisionism is probably much closer to the truth than the golden sunsets populated with The Good in White and The Bad in Black as found in the traditional Western or popularized in the "true" tales of any number of admired western heroes. Face it, those were hard times during which a Redskin was considered as human as, well, a Taliban nowadays, and there wasn't much room left for wimps or moralists. Still, if you are even mildly of the John Birch Society type, you might want to skip this film (and, please, feel free to stop reading this blog).
Mostly low on blood but high on tension, laced with realistic characters and a general depressing tone, The Burrowers follows five men that take up the trail of what they assume to be a raiding Indian party that decimated the local settlement, taking six in tow. Among the missing six is MaryAnne (Jocelin Donahue), the flame of the Irish immigrant Coffey (Karl Geary), who strikes up a friendship with Walnut Callaghan (Sean Patrick Thomas), the ex-slave cook of the group of soldiers who have joined up in the search, led by the sadistic and Indian-hating Henry Victor (Doug Hutchison). The travels across the beautiful scenery of the Midwest quickly devolves from a search party to an Indian-torture party, which eventually results in the two groups parting ways as the original search party seeks what they assume to be another Indian tribe called “The Burrowers” by the other Native Americans... by the time they find out the truth, their numbers have been substantially reduced and hope seems gone as well. Can the Ute Tribe be of help? They are known to have successfully fought the creatures in the past....
In general, The Burrowers is low on gratuitous gore but nonetheless manages to have a high “ick” factor, achieved primarily through the acts of man. As a crossbreed of horror and western, The Burrowers treads closer to the western than it does the average monster flick. The horrors that the humans do are very much as terrible as that of the monsters, only the monsters are driven by an animalistic urge for nourishment whereas the humans, as "thinking" creatures, have no real excuse for their monstrous deeds. (Indeed, the Burrowers themselves only now feed on man because White Man has driven their traditional food of choice, the buffalo, to virtual extinction.) Less scary than simply suspenseful, eerie and unnerving, The Burrowers is a well-filmed and well-acted film with an underdeveloped storyline that is well worth watching despite its rushed and unsatisfying (and depressing) ending.
PS: The image below was found on, where an anonymous poster has labeled J.T. Petty a "thief." Sure would be interesting to read the Spanish-language pulp....

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