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Blood on the Frontier: Nate’s Top Ten Horror Western films

I love a good horror western. There’s something about the American West that lends itself to to mystery, menace and an ever felt presence of supernatural evil. Be it ghosts in the mountains, giant cryptozoological behemoths from beneath the earth, terrifying cannibalistic psychos, cursed burial grounds or haunted ghost towns dotting the vast plains, there’s an unspeakably harried energy to be found in this setting and the combination of dust, horses, blood and terror is a delicious mixture akin to movies and popcorn for me. There’s a lot of them out there ranging from low budget B grade junk to beautifully crafted genre efforts, but whether gooey schlock or eerie art house, the genre mashup has no shortage of creative efforts. Here are my ten favourites.. Oh one more thing! I’ve tried to stick to films set in the Old West as that to me is what a western is, while more contemporary stuff set closer to present day feels like cheating. I did make an exception with one entry though because despite being set somewhere in the 80’s, it totally falls squarely into Western territory and deserves inclusion. Enjoy!!

10. J.T. Petty’s The Burrowers

There’s something nasty dwelling beneath the acrid soil, something that was once content to feed on bison until the population was driven scant by millions of hunters. Now it’s forced to breach the earth and feed on humans, while a gaggle of gnarled character actors like Clancy Brown, Doug Hutchison and William Mapother form a posse to try and face them. This is a genuinely frightening creature feature with graphic, sickening violence and a sly commentary on capitalist colonial tendencies that swept across the land during that era.

9. Grim Prairie Tales

This is a creaky old anthology flick from the 80’s that sees James Earl Jones cast against type as a gregarious, grizzled bounty hunter and the great Brad Dourif as a timid businessman trading spooky stories around the campfire. Their tales involve murder, haunted canyons, betrayal and more and although are hit and miss occasionally provide chills. The real fun though is the interaction between these two brilliant actors and honestly I would have preferred the filmmakers not cutting away to every story and just having James and Brad tell the whole thing, leaving the rest to our imaginations.

8. Sam Shepard’s Silent Tongue

River Phoenix sits out in the desert looking haggard and grieving over the corpse of his Native American wife before she comes alive to haunt him. This is a bizarre, disjointed film full of terrific ideas and striking imagery, and although I can’t quite wholeheartedly recommend it because overall it doesn’t work, it’s worth to see vivid performances from Phoenix, Alan Bates, Richard Harris and particularly Sheila Tousey as the vengeful ghost.

7. Dead Birds

Several confederate outlaws and their hostages hide out on one severely haunted farmland after robbing a bank in this low budget but well made chiller. There’s nicely gooey creature effects, a pseudo twist ending and cool work from varied folks like Mark Boone Jr, Patrick Fugit, Henry Thomas, Muse Watson, Nicki Aycox and Michael Shannon.

6. From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman’s Daughter

The best of the Dawn sequels (better than that lame duck TV show too) is a prequel set in the past outlining how the vamp bar the Titty Twister acquired it’s business license of sorts and how evil princess Santanico Pandemonium (Ara Celi) came to power. The real treat here is seeing legendary Michael Parks playing real life poet Ambrose Bierce, who really did go missing near the end of his life. This film plays ‘what ifs’ with that notion really nicely and just has a wickedly imaginative story that builds upon the Mexi Vampire mythos in a cool way.

5. Avery Crounse’s Eyes Of Fire

This one is almost damn near impossible to find, but my god is it worth it. A weirdo minister (Dennis Lipscomb) is booted from a pilgrim colony for being a creepy polygamist and sent along with his followers out into the wilds of Missouri. They accidentally wander through the burial ground of a Native Tribe though, and the ghosts are none too happy. This is a surreal, pagan style trip through eye catching folk horror elements, witchcraft lore and strange earth magic. Trees come alive, spectral figures loom out from thickets and the sheer creativity behind production design is commendable. Their low budget goes a long way in crafting something beautiful and striking. Good luck finding it though, it never made the jump to DVD and VHS’s seem to be lost to time. There was a YouTube version so that’s probably your best bet. Like I said though, this one is something special, and well worth the hunt.

4. S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk

Kurt Russell and his entourage hunt down deadly troglodyte (such a great word) cannibals in this paced, aggressive, atmospheric and arresting piece. What makes Zahler’s aesthetic so special is he takes time getting to know his characters, their eccentricities and relationships to one another in meticulous fashion before throwing them to the wind, and whatever comes howling along with it. In this case it’s a tribe of terrifying cave dwelling inbred psychos who provide a formidable enemy for Russell’s grizzled Sheriff and Co.

3. Ron Howard’s The Missing

This film is tied with Backdraft as my favourite Howard film and I’ve never understood why it’s so low rated. Cate Blanchett plays a plucky frontierswoman whose young daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) is snatched by an evil witchdoctor (Eric Schweig) who is also a part time human trafficker. Together with her estranged and dysfunctional halfbreed father (Tommy Lee Jones), she hunts them down across plains and mountains to an eventual showdown. This is a frightening, atmospheric genre film that I’ve always loved and provides the actors with excellent roles to have fun with. Plus it’s got a Val Kilmer cameo that he only took to spend time around Blanchett, but can you blame him?

2. Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark

Not a traditional western but bite me. Bigelow’s lyrical, dreamy take on the vampire mythos is an enduring masterpiece with colourful character work from Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton and others. It’s a nice touch that the word vampire is never mentioned but the energy and ambience around those legends couldn’t be thicker. That gorgeous Tangerine Dream score is one for the books too.

1. Antonia Bird’s Ravenous

Probably the quirkiest film on this list, it’s a spectacularly gory, pitch black horror comedy that sees ex soldiers Guy Pearce and Robert Carlyle facing off against the breathtaking backdrop of the Sierra Nevada Mountains sometime after the Mexican American war. This is a curious film that approaches the taboo of cannibalism with a cheerful, nonchalant attitude and wholeheartedly plunges down a narrative with no end in sight but blood, guts and mayhem. A literal acquired taste, it has offbeat energy, a kooky but beautiful score and spooky, campfire story energy that has always spoken to me.

Thanks for reading!! What are your favourite horror westerns?

-Nate Hill

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Alejandro Amenábar’s Regression

If you’re going to make a horror film about misdirection and surprises, at least make the revelations later on in your narrative count for something and give the initial setup some weight and relevance. Alejandro’s Amanábar’s Regression is a piss poor attempt at what I just vaguely outlined as well as in telling a coherent, believable story that arrives somewhere satisfactory.

Back in the 80’s and 90’s there was spooky mass hysteria revolving around continued reports of satanic ritual abuse and here those who suffered it, those who perpetrated and covered it up and those who investigated it are explored, starting with Ethan Hawke as an intense local detective in a small town who takes special interest in the case of a teenage girl (Emma Watson) who claims to have been tortured and abused as a young girl, by several cultists including her father. Together with a wry psychoanalyst (David Thewlis) he starts a murky investigative procedure into this girl’s past and the collective secrets of the entire town. Many involved indeed do have repressed memories of ritual horrors conducted in secret ceremonies where unspeakable acts happened and the devil was summoned. But did they, and was he? That’s the problem with this story as a whole.

The film tries to arrive somewhere entirely different from where it started out and the result is an embarrassing mess. Exploring ideas of collective mass hysteria and paranoid delusion are one thing but when you spend so much of your narrative building things from a literal horror-centric standpoint and then abruptly turn it on its heels like they do here it’s a giant misstep and ruins the whole thing. There are numerous detailed, graphic and genuinely disturbing scenes of satanic abuse that are fairly effective until the story bares its true colours and all mood and tension they tried to build is sucked out of the room. Hawke is good at displaying unstable nature as a guy who gradually starts to lose control of his sanity and Watson, at least for the first two thirds of the film, is believable in her traumatized desperation and fear, while Thewlis is always reliable no matter what. Their hard work is ultimately swallowed up by a hollow, pointless and stupidly lazy narrative that is so half cooked you can practically hear the MacBook still whirring as the last few lines of the script are hurriedly typed out to rush the film into production. Amanábar has made some good films before (The Others, The Sea Inside) but he lets things get right out of control here and loses sight of whatever it was he started out with at the outset big time. It’s a shame because I’ve waited for a good story about all these freaky claims for years. Somewhere out there is a great script and resulting film based around the satanic worship scandals from back then, but this sure as hell ain’t it. Not even close.

-Nate Hill

David Lynch’s Lost Highway

High beams pierce a nocturnal interstate as David Bowie’s ‘I’m Deranged’ eerily cuts through a still night and we realize that David Lynch’s Lost Highway isn’t going to be your average road trip, let alone overall viewing experience. This is a fuzzy, feverish portrait of a fractured mind attempting to make sense of extremely distressing circumstances that are both alienating and possibly self inflicted. Lynch is always keen on probing the murky cerebral waters which border on potentially paranormal occurrences, and the often frustrating line, or lack thereof, which is drawn in, around and between these two aspects. Psychological terror, ambiguous scenes that leave you scratching your head once you’ve caught your breath, identity crisis, elliptical narratives that leave us haunted and wanting more are all tools in his bag, ones he’s employed countless times throughout his monolithic career. Usually he implements that in an esoteric, earthy way, but there’s something cold, clinical and unsettlingly voyeuristic about this that somewhat separates it from a lot of other stuff he’s done. The term ‘Lynchian’ in itself has become its own genre, there’s no debating that anymore. It’s usually within this self made realm that he explores, but it’s almost like with this one he went in with a mindset to play around with a sordid, almost De Palma-esque style of genre, and then inject it with his trademark eerie weirdness, in this case to great effect.

Bill Pullman stars as jazz trumpet player Fred, spending his nights belting out unnerving solos in smoky clubs. Pullman is an all American prototype, seen in a lot of generic, regular Joe roles. Observing him venture into sketchy material is jarring and super effective (see his career best work in David’s daughter Jen Lynch’s Surveillance for an even better example of this). He and his gorgeous wife Alice (Patricia Arquette) wake up one ominous morning to discover a packaged video tape on their doorstep, the contents of which show someone breaking into their house and filming them while they sleep. They feel both horrified and violated, and call the police who prove to be just south of useful. From there things get terrifically weird. Fred attends a party where he meets the Mystery Man (Robert Blake) who plays a mean spirited magic trick on him that will have your skin crawling out the door. This was one of Blake’s last two roles before the unfortunate incident that cut his career painfully short, but he’s perfect for Lynch’s stable and eats up the frames he inhabits, a pasty faced ghoul with beady black jewel eyes and a piercing laugh that will stain your dreams. Before he knows it, Fred wakes up and is accused for his own wife’s murder, whisked away to a dank death row cell, plummeting the film into a new segment, Lynch’s way of letting us know this isn’t going to be an easy watch.

Fred wakes up sometime later… And isn’t Fred anymore. He’s a young dude with amnesia who’s been missing for a while, played by the edgy Balthazar Getty. It’s a stark narrative left turn, a stinging reminder that from there on in, we’re in for some nasty antics with no light at the end of the tunnel. Getty is released from prison, since he’s not Pullman who they arrested to begin with. From there he gets entangled in one hot mess involving a volatile gangster porno king (Robert Loggia), his seductive wife (also Patricia Arquette) and the ever present Mystery Man who lurks over both planes of the film’s narrative like a malicious puppeteer. I’m trying to be deliberately vague about the plot (lord knows Lynch did as well), both to not spoil any surprises for you, and partly because after many viewings, I’m still not sure exactly what it means for myself. It’s a great big clusterfuck of extremely disturbing sequences, surreal passages of auditory and visual madness and a frothing undercurrent of atmosphere that constantly pulls on your sleeve to remind you that something is terribly wrong, but never gives you the solace of telling you what that something is. Traumatic viewing to say the least.

Lynch assembles an extraterrestrial supporting cast including Michael Massee, Jack Nance, Natasha Gregson Warner, Marilyn Manson, Henry Rollins, Mink Stole, Jack Kehler, Giovanni Ribisi, Richard Pryor and the one and only Gary Busey (when Gary is one of the calmest, sanest people in your film you know you’ve driven off the cliff). Some highlights for me are anything to do with Blake’s paralyzing spectre of a character who is one of the best Lynch creations ever, Loggia intimidating an obnoxious driver is priceless and the closest the film gets to comedy, and the final twenty minutes where the lines of reality, fantasy and the jagged planes of perception within the characters minds collide, providing us with a creepy non-resolution, part of what makes the entire show so memorable and affecting. A classic that begs countless revisits before it can fully cast all aspects of its spell on you, and one of Lynch’s unsung best.

-Nate Hill

Robert Rodriguez’s and Quentin Tarantino’s From Dusk Till Dawn

Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez are good buddies and have always sort of played on each other’s side of the fence in terms of creativity, collaborating here and there over the years on cool stuff, but my favourite tandem venture they ever did has to be From Dusk Till Dawn, a crime horror action schlock hybrid that has aged beautifully over the years, doesn’t fuck around in terms of packing a punch in all of the specific genres it works in and is a glowing testament to the powers of practical/prosthetic effects over CGI.

The first half of this thing is a classic Tarantino slow burn: George Clooney and Quentin himself are the Gecko brothers, a pair of murderous bank robbers in swanky suits, on the run from southern law following a bank robbery bloodbath (never actually seen a lá Reservoir Dogs) and causing violent trouble all over the rest of the state. After narrowly escaping Michael Parks’s immortal Texas Ranger Earl McGraw, they kidnap a retired preacher (Harvey Keitel) and his two kids (Juliette Lewis and Ernest Liu) and make a beeline for the Mexican border and the sanctuary of an impossibly rowdy strip joint and trucker bar called… wait for it… The Titty Twister.

Once at the bar Rodriguez takes over the reins and in a split second we segue into horror most gory as our unconventional protagonists realize that this bar is actually a nest of Mexican vampires, and they’re ready to spring the trap. This includes an unbearably sexy dance from Salma Hayek’s vamp queen Santanico Pandemonium, a biker named Sex Machine (Tom Savini) with guns where his guns are, a literal army of hairy undead beasts, a giant rat, a human spinal column used as a saxophone, crossbows, more gallons of blood and various gore than I’ve ever seen amassed for one film and just too much else to mention.

For most folks, the first half of this film is the pay-dirt; Tarantino’s laconic, dangerous approach to the Gecko brothers’s rampage is no doubt one of the coolest things he’s written, particularly the sequence with Michael Parks and any dialogue between Keitel and Clooney, who gives probably the most fun and uninhibited performance of his career. Tarantino chomps at the bit and is downright terrifying as the worst kind of unstable psychopath, it’s the best acting work he’s ever done. I myself prefer the latter half with all the horror though.. the sheer amount of gooey lunacy, latex drenched creativity in design is something you don’t see anymore, unless it’s a deliberate throwback. The bar is populated by what seems like hundreds of varied and equally disgusting bloodsuckers until after a while and dozens of kills you get the sense that every character needs a good shower. Keitel brings a grizzled nobility to the priest, while Lewis tones down her usual bubbly mania for something decidedly more down to earth. Danny Trejo plays a grumpy vamp bartender, blaxploitation icon Fred Williamson shows up as a badass Nam vet and watch for cameos from John Hawkes, Greg Nicorato, Kelly Preston and 70’s icon John Saxon. Cheech Marin also shows up of course, in three obviously different roles because why the fuck not and has a monologue that would burn the ears off of any conservative viewer. Some will say this film is too much, and hey I’m not one to argue with them, but for me if it’s too much of anything, it’s a good thing. The horror is old school schlock-schploitation and the hard boiled crime yarn that comes before is equally stylistic and fun. It’s Quentin and Robert attuned to different wavelengths but somehow on the same frequency, and the result is a bloody, chaotic horror crime western classic.

-Nate Hill

Jordan Downey’s The Head Hunter

It’s amazing what you can do with a low budget, especially when all you’ve got to blow is thirty grand, but Jordan Downey works small scale magic with The Head Hunter, an inventive, atmospheric Viking era horror story that is one of the most creatively entertaining films I’ve seen so far this year.

In the vein of stuff like Willow and The 13th Warrior, here we see a misty, desolate Nordic landscape (actually Portugal) and the fearsome warrior (Christopher Rygh) who wanders through it in spectral, gaunt armour, always on the hunt for hordes of mythical ghosts, goblins and werewolves, a bounty hunter of sorts who displays the heads of his quarries as trophies on the wall of his forest abode. The only creature he hasn’t yet slain is the one that killed his young daughter (Cora Kaufman) years before, and it’s his brutal purpose in life to hunt this thing down over foggy mountains, through dark caves and have his vengeance. There’s an inspired sense of detail here and much of the first half we simply see his routine in studious fashion, going out to kill these beasts (mostly offscreen, as budget permits), coming home all shredded up (thank god for gooey prosthetic effects) and using a homemade magic potion to regenerative damaged tissue and heal himself. I’ve read reviews saying this is boring or slow or goes nowhere but those critics have their heads in the sand, because these extended sequences are terrific for setting up character, getting a sense for the space and time around him and treating ourselves to the lovingly handcrafted production design, from ancient manuscripts he studies to the varied heads piked up on his living room wall. When the action and horror does come later it all pays off because we’ve sat with this guy for a while, learnt his ways and are ready to see how he handles things when they go haywire. They do, but I won’t spoil the fun because there’s a few delicious twists, tons of creepy horror action and even a few genuinely poignant moments too.

This thing has an estimated budget of thirty grand, and runs for just over an hour, falling short of being an actual feature, but I know from experience just how tough it is to make a low budget work. My friends and I made a sweet horror film once that had a budget of 5 grand and the resulting product was only like eight minutes long, so I feel their pain. It’s especially apparent in horror because you need all these gory effects, costumes and exotic sets and whatnot, so it can be tough. The constraints are obvious here but I think that what Downey has accomplished with what he had is phenomenal. The setting looks beautifully eerie, atmospheric and well lit, the creature effects are earthy, elemental and refreshingly old school, the score by Nick Soole is most excellent in setting mood and the two actors playing the warrior and his daughter knock it out of the park. This was a bit less grimly serious than I pictured going in, more supernatural and fantastical than I anticipated, but once you adjust to the tone it works really well. Think more Army Of Darkness than Pathfinder but less silly and you’ll have some idea, but really this thing is fairly unique and on its own level. Plus, it isn’t a sequel, remake, reimagining or prequel, it’s an original script! How about that! Great stuff all in all, one of my favourites of the year so far.

-Nate Hill

Ari Aster’s Hereditary

Hereditary more like Herediterrifying. I know I’m late to the party but Ari Aster’s supremely disturbing chiller deserves all the hype and more, it’s a beautifully designed, aggressively scary bag of fun that walks a line between being deeply, psychologically upsetting as well as otherworldly, supernaturally haunting. It’s striking to find a debut this good from a first time director, but the guy handles all elements seemingly effortlessly and the result is an immersive, atmospheric, competently staged, elemental fright flick that will literally have you sleeping with the lights on after.

Toni Colette gives the performance of a lifetime as a wife and mother somewhat grieving the loss of her own mom, who was a secretive, difficult old goat in life. Her husband (Gabriel Byrne) is somewhat detached, her two kids (Milly Shapiro, Alex Wolff) have their own issues. It isn’t until further tragedy strikes this family that we begin to see fissures crack in both their individual psyches and relationships as a group. Grief is a hell of a thing and it can turn a family dynamic ugly and venomous pretty quick, but there’s something else circling this clan, an intangible malevolence that I’ll shut up about right now because it’s a diabolical thrill piecing it together along the way. I will say pay attention to *every* frame though, as there are clues aplenty embedded in the visual scape. Colette displays several remarkably realistic meltdowns and I shudder to think of the personal process that led her to that level of mania because she’s downright unnerving. Byrne doesn’t do too many high profile films anymore but it’s always great to see him, he underplays it here but is no less unsettling as a guy who seems uncomfortable around his own family, one of the several taboos the film plays with. Shapiro doesn’t do much as the daughter but her unearthly presence alone is enough to get us squirming, she is one weird looking kid. Wolff, on the other hand, is quite excellent and has a couple scenes of heightened distress that are pretty staggering. A shout-out to character actress Ann Dowd too who, I’m happy to say, is getting more work than ever before these days and finally has a sizeable outlet for her talent.

One aspect that makes this such a freaky thing to sit through is that none of the family members, and no other characters in the film in fact, are really likeable characters. They’re somber, sullen, withdrawn weirdos who make heinous mistakes and harbour unthinkable secrets and when the horrors start coming for them it kind of feels warranted. There’s this blanket of mental unrest and familial turmoil that hangs over everything and provides the film with a canvas of unrest for the paranormal horror to gradually encroach on like fog on the horizon, and the mixture makes for an almost unbearable ride through hell that was the scariest viewing experience for me since 2014’s It Follows. It’s also darkly beautifully though, Aster mounts some detailed, artistic and pagan inspired production design that’s like eye candy, he lights the sets starkly and specifically and plays around with miniatures in transitions and shot compositions for a visual experience like no other. Don’t even get me started on the score by Colin Stetson that plays like a nightmare brought to life, as does this masterpiece of a horror classic.

-Nate Hill

E. Elias Merhige’s Suspect Zero

E. Elias Merhige’s Suspect Zero is an interesting piece for me. Although it’s almost universally looked at as a failure, a shell of what it could have been, I’m crazy about it the way it is and think they did a fantastic job. It has a bit of a muddy past: Zak Penn wrote the script back in the 90’s, after which it gained much interest from the likes of Tom Cruise, Ben Affleck and others. It took until 2004 to finally get the film made, resulting in a version that many frown upon and consider a shitty film. Balls to them.

This is a grim, eerie serial killer chiller with an atmosphere thick enough to slice with a razor, and one extremely unsettling lead performance from a haggard, haunted Ben Kingsley. He plays Benjamin O Ryan, an ex FBI agent. Or is he? He’s efficiently hunting down and murdering random people (or are they?), leaving vicious visual calling cards and deliberately leaving victims lying on state lines to ensure the Bureau’s involvement. In particular he takes a shine to raw boned Agent Mackleway (Aaron Eckhart), leaving specific clues for him. O Ryan employs a metaphysical method of finding his victims, using an old psychic technique from a scrapped program the feds once explored. This gives extreme stylist Merhige a reason to throw sketchy, disconcerting images, sounds and editing into the fray, providing a visually and aurally chafing experience. Merhige is infamous for making the surreal, experimental shocker ‘Begotten’, and he brings the same stark, discomforting qualities to the proceedings here. I’m reminded of another experimental director who brought a near elemental aesthetic to an otherwise grounded serial killer flick: Tarsem Singh with his brilliant psychological fantasy ‘The Cell’. Suspect Zero is the grimy, fragmentary cousin to The Cell’s grandiose beauty. There’s also traces of Sev7n, Silence Of The Lambs, Millennium and more, yet the film finds its own groove and never sinks into derivative gestures. Composer Clint Mansell ditches his trademark celestial tones for something truly unique, a dread soaked nightmarish lullaby that gives the film an otherworldly tone to linger in dreams.

From Kingsley’s unnerving introduction hunting down a stranger on the interstate to his haunted, sympathetic final moments you get a feel for this extreme character that only this actor can give, infusing O Ryan with a zen like resolve that’s perforated by the psychological damage within. Eckart shows brittle desperation and blesses his performance with a touch of noir, which is appropriate to the film. Harry Lennix, Kevin Chamberlain, Frank Collison, William Mapother, famed writer Robert Towne and Carrie Anne Moss all give great work too. If you can forgive a few instances of murky plotting and one or two cheap plot turns, you’ll hopefully enjoy this as much as I do. It really deserves better attention and praise than it has gotten so far.

-Nate Hill