After my first viewing of BONE TOMAHAWK – without a doubt one of the best horror/western movie hybrids ever made – I suddenly realized how seldom filmmakers have merged two of the most enduring genres in American cinema history. While horror is not anchored to any time period, the western is obviously limited by the confines of a specific era — but despite the fact that the North American frontier of the mid-to-late 19th century was often a violent, lawless and dangerous place, there have been only a handful of memorable films that tap into that primal fear of chaos, brutality and the vast unknown.
Looking back on the history of horror westerns (or even “straight” westerns with a horrific twist), I came up with a selection of features which, in my opinion, represent the most effective cross-pollination of two enduring film genres. There are plenty more titles out there that tried and failed, often hilariously (see BILLY THE KID VS. DRACULA, if you must), but this list is made only of the ones that got it right… or came close enough.
So saddle up and follow me on the trail of Wild West Horror!
CURSE OF THE UNDEAD (1959)
One of the first modestly successful attempts at fusing two staples of the classic drive-in era, CURSE infuses the low-budget western with vampire blood. The story begins as a mysterious plague spreads across the frontier, leaving its victims drained of blood; the epidemic is actually the nocturnal handiwork of a vampiric gunfighter named Drago (Michael Pate), cursed with living death after murdering his own brother. While not a classic by any stretch, CURSE is noteworthy for being an early attempt at merging two very distinct genres (at least as a feature film; chapter-plays like THE PHANTOM EMPIRE had previously pitted cowboys against monsters and/or aliens). Interestingly, it was shot on Universal’s standing “frontier town” backlot, the site of countless cowboy serials and gun-slinging quickies.
THE LIVING COFFIN (1959)
The same year as CURSE OF THE UNDEAD, this similar low-budget blend of dusty western and gothic horror was playing in cinemas south of the border. Originally titled EL GRITO DE LA MUERTE (THE SCREAM OF DEATH) prior to its dubbed/retitled release in the US, this is basically a mashup of formula western and DARK SHADOWS-style gothic drama: the story pits a dashing cowboy and his bumbling sidekick against a slew of ghosts and vampires summoned by a supernatural curse. It also references the time-honored “Crying Woman” legend, which became fodder for numerous Mexican horror films, and even gives a nod to Poe’s classic tale THE PREMATURE BURIAL. It’s also surprisingly bloody for its day (in color, no less), rivaled only by the first wave of Hammer horror classics from the UK.
BLACK NOON (1971)
One of many made-for-TV occult thrillers that saturated the airwaves throughout the ‘70s, this odd entry may not be on the same level as spooky period epics like CROWHAVEN FARM, but it does manage to capture the same vibe, and there’s a truly wicked payoff for those patient enough to navigate its leisurely pace. The story revolves around a young minister (Roy Thinnes) whose wagon trek across the desert with his wife nearly ends in tragedy until they are rescued by the residents of a remote mining town. The townspeople, under the leadership of fatherly Caleb (Ray Milland), become strangely fascinated with the young preacher – especially Caleb’s ghostly, mute daughter (Yvette Mimieux), who has a fondness for cats and wax dolls. Only when our protagonist finally gives in to the temptations of the flesh does he realize the residents’ true intentions.
CUT-THROATS NINE (1972)
While not technically a horror film, this deranged blood-drenched western certainly feels like one – it even includes a nightmare sequence in which one of the characters turns into a zombie – and the film’s US distributor recognized the exploitation potential, issuing “Terror Masks” to theater patrons to shield them from the goriest moments. The titular cut-throats include a group of convicts whose armed escort is slaughtered by gold-seeking bandits, leaving only a lone sergeant and his daughter to deliver them to the gallows. This volatile situation is further heated by the fact that one of the prisoners is responsible for the death of the sergeant’s wife (as revealed in one of many violent flashbacks), and as if that weren’t enough, the chains linking them together are not iron, but gold. Suffice to say things don’t work out well for anyone involved.
EYES OF FIRE (1983)
This eerie low-budget obscurity fell off the radar after a very limited theatrical run (I have vivid memories of the creepy TV spot), shunned by audiences seeking the more visceral horror in the mode of EVIL DEAD before finally developing a fair cult following when it arrived on home video. While it still eludes an official DVD or Blu-ray release, this surreal offering is worth rediscovery for its dreamlike imagery and gorgeous cinematography (director Avery Crouse was previously a photographer). Set in the late 18th century (not really a frontier-era western, but close enough for me), the story involves a fallen minister and a handful of his loyal followers under the guidance and protection of the town witch; their quest for a place to settle down leads them into the heart of a cursed forest haunted by malicious native spirits. Crouse makes the most of a threadbare budget, and maintains a building sense of doom that keeps the modest pace from dragging the story down.
GRIM PRAIRIE TALES (1990)
I’m hoping that the resurgence in popularity of old-school horror anthologies will light a fire under whomever owns the rights to this warped little gem – which never got a proper theatrical release but soon experienced a mini-revival on VHS – so it finally receives the royal treatment. The legendary James Earl Jones, hamming it up as a grizzled, half-mad bounty hunter, shares a campfire with an unlikely fellow traveler: genre icon Brad Dourif (in one of his rare low-key horror roles), as a bookish attorney crossing the desert alone. The pair swap scary stories in an attempt to outdo each other, and the result is a quartet of quirky horror segments with EC Comics-style moral twists, and the best of which is the only one overtly supernatural: a young married man riding the prairie alone comes to the aid of a pregnant woman, and learns too late that she is not quite what she appears to be. While none of the tales are nearly as interesting as this one, the film overall is memorable for the classic banter between two seasoned cinema veterans.
Poorly marketed as a gory action flick during its theatrical run, this darkly comic horror epic is one of the most entertaining, spooky and just plain fun entries in the cannibal horror subgenre. Blending vampire tropes with the Native American legend of the Wendigo, RAVENOUS also features some top-shelf acting talent – including Robert Carlysle as the emaciated survivor of a Donner Party-like massacre who eventually (and literally) crosses swords with a disgraced Army Captain (Guy Pearce), who learns too late of the visitor’s true nature after he arrives at an isolated mountain fortress. The gorgeous cinematography showcasing vast, imposing mountains (actually filmed in Slovakia) is also liberally sprinkled with blood, guts and bone fragments, all set to an eccentric and amazing score by Blur’s Damon Albarn & avant-garde composer Michael Nyman (THE PIANO). A must-see for fans of classy period horror and straight-up bloody mayhem.
DEAD BIRDS (2004)
This subdued entry is a strange western take on the otherwise familiar horror tale of criminals who choose the wrong hideout; in this case, it’s a gang of Confederate soldiers (including E.T.’s Henry Thomas and a pre-fame Michael Shannon) who seek shelter in a seemingly abandoned Alabama plantation… which, of course, is not quite as abandoned as they thought, having once been home to a practitioner of the black arts obsessed with bringing his wife back from the dead. This scenario is remarkably similar to William Wesley’s incredibly creepy 1988 film SCARECROWS, but with more ghostly (though no less lethal) supernatural entities at work. There’s an underlying feeling of doom that builds steadily and gradually throughout the film, as well as some remarkably gory moments (including WILD BUNCH-style bloody gunplay) and a couple of legit jump-scares to keep you on constant alert.
THE BURROWERS (2008)
Sort of a 19th-century spin on the TREMORS franchise, this tale involves a rescue party seeking a family of missing settlers who vanished without a trace. Working on the assumption that the pioneers were abducted by a Sioux raiding party, they uncover clues that an aggressive underground-dwelling tribe may be responsible (foreshadowing the plot of BONE TOMAHAWK). Using every means at their disposal (including some shockingly violent acts), the seekers eventually discover the real enemy: a bizarre race of blind, carnivorous creatures who tunnel beneath the plains by day and emerge to devour human prey by night. While it’s a low-budget monster movie at heart (the Burrowers themselves are kinda flimsy-looking, and wisely kept in shadow), it benefits from strong performances (any movie featuring Clancy Brown is going to be worth your time, though he’s under-used here) and solid camerawork, and even manages to take a few pot-shots at bigotry and entitlement, turning the searchers against one another when confronted with the horrific unknown.
BONE TOMAHAWK (2015)
Let’s conclude our list with the most current release, which is also one of the most memorable: the unbearably tense and fascinating debut feature from writer, musician and cinematographer S. Craig Zahler (ASYLUM BLACKOUT). It stars the inimitable Kurt Russell (still sporting his glorious HATEFUL EIGHT facial hair) and Patrick Wilson (INSIDIOUS, THE CONJURING) as members of a tiny rescue party in search of two abductees from town (including the latter’s wife); their journey leads them into the sacred burial ground of a nameless native clan (known only as “Troglodytes” due to their cave-dwelling nature) whose members practice incest and cannibalism and speak only in horrific roars (enabled by tubes of bone inserted in their throats). This deliberately paced and character-centric quest tale takes great advantage of its vast, dusty landscapes and draws heavily from John Ford’s classic western THE SEARCHERS… that is, before diving headlong into graphic horror in an unforgettable final act, where we see the title weapon put to horrific use.