Tag Archives: Western

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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Sam Shepard’s Silent Tongue

Sam Shepherd’s Silent Tongue is a bizarre one. The writer/director is usually in succinct, assured control of his art but here he kinds of makes a mess in the sandbox, literally since this is set in the deserts of the American Southwest. There are some outright fantastic ideas at play here and scenes of striking beauty and chilling poetic morbidity, but the narrative isn’t fixed together solidly enough and much of it is lost on the viewer in a hail of haphazard scenes and a story that barrels along with scant exposition, a complaint that you will rarely, if ever hear from me, but here we are.

This is River Phoenix’s last film before an untimely passing, and it finds him sitting half crazed out on the frontier, grieving the death of his halfbreed Kiowa wife Awbonnie (Sheila Tousey), who perished during childbirth. He’s an already slow kid who is driven positively mad by this tragedy, and sits there with her corpse on a makeshift alter howling at the moon and brandishing a giant rifle at anyone and anything who comes near them. Because of his refusal to give her proper burial rights, she comes back as a vengeful, spooky ghost to harass and haunt him, something like a desert legend crossed with a spectral Kabuki costume. Elsewhere the boy’s distraught father (Richard Harris) returns to the dusty travelling circus where he bought Awbonnie in hopes of purchasing her twin sister Velada (Jeri Arredondo) to console his son out there on the plains. The circus owner and father of the two (Alan Bates) is less than cooperative when he learns of his first child’s passing and his son (Dermot Mulroney) is downright hostile. Seeing no other option, Harris kidnaps the girl and high tails it for the desert enclave where Phoenix sits and Awbonnie roams around like a lost soul tormenting him.

This isn’t a pretty boy western, a shoot em up or a cowboy picture, it’s a gnarly, fucked up frontier horror story populated by strange people and punctuated by odd, supernatural occurrences and disturbing flashbacks involving the mother of the two Kiowa girls (Tantoo Cardinal), who is called Silent Tongue for a very specific and unsettling reason. Phoenix is convincingly unhinged and plays the horror well, Harris is weary and understated, while Mulroney seems miscast and stumbles over the articulate western dialogue. It’s Bates who takes the cake though as the constantly drunk circus owner who has to face his past out there on the plains, he practically fills up the whole runtime with his ranting and raving, it’s a wonder he could sustain that level of mania for an entire performance. Tousey is intense and elemental as the ghost, adorned in eerie makeup and face paint and spewing out freaky threats in a guttural voice. Shepherd tries his best to anchor everything in symbolism and provide a story that makes sense, but it simply gets lost in a muddle and ends up making little emotional impact, which is kind of unforgivable because this story technically *does* make sense when you work it out in your head and *should* make a landing like that. I’m not usually one for remakes but this one practically begs for it because the story and ideas are so beautiful and full of potential, but the execution turned into kind of an inconsequential shit show. Shame. Great score by Patrick O’Hearn though.

-Nate Hill

Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

How iconic has the image become of Clint Eastwood, poncho adorned, rolled cigarette locked firmly in that drawn snarl, peering out from a wide brim, dust caked hat atop a horse? The Man With No Name is such a household name these days that he’s shown up everywhere from Stephen King lore to an animated Johnny Depp movie, but it all began with Sergio Leone’s original spaghetti western trilogy, the best of which is the fireball classic The Good, The Bad & The Ugly.

The trilogy itself not only launched an entire sub-genre in the early sixties but created a mood, a feel that no one besides Leone has ever been able to so specifically distill. Extreme closeups on eyes deep set in furrowing brows. Languid establishing shots of frontier town streets, expansive railroads and acres of dry brush-lands. The actors aren’t necessarily blocked from scene to scene with any kind of briskness but rather wade languidly through an ambient space seemingly at their own leisure and never with haste. Spaghetti westerns are never about the plot, but about the moment, the setup, the apprehension in the saloon, grotto, civil war torn graveyard or desert that these hard bitten folks find themselves in.

Eastwood’s nameless gunslinger meanders across a bitter, busted up American west that is, of course, actually Italy, engaging in war games and an obsessive treasure hunt with two other pieces of work, the sociopathic monster Angel Eyes (Lee Can Cleef) and the lecherous, untrustworthy rodent Tuco (Eli Wallach). All three are after a legendary gold stash somewhere out there in the desolation and are prepared to kill anyone who stands in their way, bonus points for each other. Eastwood is cold, calm and opaque, Cleef is cheerfully, sadistically ruthless, Wallach oozes weaselly survival instinct and together they make a captivating trio.

Three scenes in particular stand out in my mind; the first is the epic showdown between them all, stood a few hundred paces apart in a triangle, locked in a tense pre shootout stare-down as Ennio Morricone’s gorgeous and threatening score booms around the landscape and plays with expectations wonderfully. It’s a kicker of a scene and probably the showcase Western showdown in cinema. The second (and I’m assuming at this point that anyone who’s read this far has seen the film) is the final sequence where Eastwood taunts Wallach by literally leaving him hanging and riding away as Morricone yet again gives our eardrums symphonic bliss. It’s a wicked little epilogue that illustrates the character’s dry, subtle sense of humour nicely and I remember my dad (this was a favourite for him) rewinding it just to catch the beats a second or third time. The third is a moment where Eastwood comes across a soldier who is dying in the dust. He offers the man a drag off his cigarette, and the simple action suggests a beating heart and flickers of compassion in a mostly hard, stoic fellow. Nice touch.

-Nate Hill

Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Volume 2

Roger Ebert observed about Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Volume 2 that although it takes place in a heightened reality that’s removed from the realism of our own, the human behaviour and emotions explored couldn’t be more real or more relatable. That insight is precisely why it is my favourite Tarantino film and in particular I think that the last half hour or so is the best, most thoughtful and intuitive thing he’s ever directed in a career that for the most part hasn’t dug that deep in such a way.

Every filmmaker must duck expectations and adapt or fall victim to self parody and repetition, and the guy understands this well. Volume 1 is a thrilling love letter to samurai films, peppered with sword fights, hectic editing and celebrates movement, choreography and synergistic expression. With this film though he moves inward, not just showing us the extreme actions of these characters, but why they’re doing them. The first film opens with the how, as Bill (David Carradine) tenderly puts a loaded gun to the temple of The Bride (Uma Thurman) and pulls the trigger. This film shows us what led to that, and the consequences yet to come, why indeed she feels the need to Kill Bill. It’s a beautiful story that’s acted to the nines by Thurman and Carradine, both giving their career best. The samurai vibe is somewhat present again but here the tone is that of a spaghetti western. Anyone who knows or loves this genre (pauses typing and raises hand) is familiar with the aesthetic: languidly paced shots, long glances lingered on by a camera that moves slowly, stolidly. Orchestral significance placed upon seemingly mundane or small gestures and measured, introspective performances. It’s all here, from the glorious wide shots of the California desert to the laconic inwardness of Michael Madsen’s Budd to the Morricone strains that Quentin loves to sample.

The Bride continues her quest stateside, taking on Madsen’s lowkey deadly cowboy, tussling with Daryl Hannah’s treacherous banshee Elle Driver, punching her way out of a sealed coffin six feet deep and even finding time to stop in for a quick visit with Michael Parks, sneakily playing a different role than Volume 1. Madsen is off the chain spectacular as Budd, a gruff, sadistic badass who has seen better days and seems done with life until she brings out the fire in him once again. His quiet scene with Carradine outside the rundown trailer is a showstopper, as is his priceless expression when chewed out by an asshole boss (Larry Bishop, providing the funniest moment in either of the two films). Tarantino brings out the best in Madsen and this is their finest collaboration, proving in tandem what creative forces both or them are.

This is the Uma and David show when it gets down to it though, their eventual confrontation is what we’ve been anticipating since the beginning, but he doesn’t quite give us what we expect. They meet at a quiet Mexican villa, she sees her daughter for the first time and the words spoken between them cut deeper than any of the physical blows, of which there are barely any. Both The Bride and Bill know exactly what their respective actions have done to them both individually and as a couple, and that there’s no going back from a betrayal like that. The fascinating thing, for me at least, is seeing how despite this anguish and hatred, they are still very obviously in love with each other, something that isn’t easy to get across without spelling out, but these actors nail it. I love the writing here, the body language, the time and attention spent on exploring the pathos, I think it’s Quentin’s showcase sequence and the one that dispels anyone from thinking of him only as ‘that guy who makes violent movies.’

He often works with his pal Robert Rodriguez and most people might immediately think of GrindHouse or Sin City but this is my favourite of their collaborations. Robert isn’t seen or present behind the camera but he composes an original score that is heartfelt, evocative of the western genre and altogether a brilliant composition, particularly the cues around Madsen. This is unique in the fact that it’s the only film Tarantino has made using a score in a career of distinctive soundtrack choices.

From the stunning opening sequence shot in dreamy black and white and aching with palpable yet guarded emotion to the intense, exhaustive training montages with warrior Pai Mai (Gordon Liu, also showing up in a different role) to the blood n’ dust takedown of Elle and Budd in the bone dry desolation out west to the final showdown and reconciliation of sorts with Bill, this is a fantastic story and one hell of a piece of filmmaking on every level. The two Volumes are so very different and I noticed the other day that although I’ve seen both probably hundreds of times, I’ve never watched them back to back. They are separate entities, two sides of the same coin. Bill tells The Bride that her side ‘always was a little lonely.’ The same goes for Volume two, there are less characters, more time spent on emotion and a slightly mournful feeling that the frenzy of Volume one just didn’t have time for. I love this portion of the story the most, I’ve always felt just a tiny bit more at home in Volume 2, and I will never have anything but absolute love for it.

-Nate Hill

Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West

There isn’t much I can say about Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West that the mythical, larger than life masterpiece couldn’t say for itself, especially on its magnificent, crystal clear Blu Ray transfer that blows the dust out of the cracks and showcases it’s sunny cinematography in full remixed glory. From the coming of the railroad to a fledgling empire, the corrupt businessmen employing hard bitten thugs to do their nefarious bidding (a prophetic motif if there ever was one), the searing forbidden romance between the archetypal ex-working girl and the silent, lethally dangerous drifter, the dusters adorning gunfighter that sway in a lilting prairie breeze, the trod of hooves, the thunder of impending gunfire preceded by the eerie calm of the showdown before, this is the western to end all westerns, the textbook example, the crown jewel of the genre and the one wheat-stalk saga that I just can’t get enough of. Leone basically patented an entire sub-genre between this and the Man With No Name trilogy, it’s a now timeless flavour that rippled down throughout the generations and changed the face of the western forever. The film itself is perfectly balanced symphonic storytelling, in every aspect of the medium. Charles Bronson’s mysterious loner Harmonica blusters into town, opaque and uttering few words save for the melancholic strains of his instrument brought to wailing life by composer Ennio Morricone. Henry Fonda’s elegant, magnetic and unbelievably evil mercenary Frank hovers over everything like a black cloud of portent. Claudia Cardinele’s drop dead gorgeous Jill violently carves out her own path of survival, lust and grief amidst the unforgiving frontier. Jason Robard’s half injun outlaw Cheyanne tries hard not to wear an obvious heart of gold on his sleeve while seeking retribution for a diabolical frame-job. These mythical, monolithic individuals invite shades of grey into what we’ve become accustomed to in Western archetypes too, which is another hallmark of Leone. Gone are the stalwart sheriffs, stoic heroic leading men and obvious moustache twirling of clearly delineated villains. Bronson is rough, callous and never straight up chivalrous, Fonda is reptilian but oh so charming, the kind blue eyes barely suggesting what evil leers beneath, and Robards for his part turns an outright scoundrel into something of a teddy bear during his arc. It’s in the little, drawn out interactions and moments that we learn what we need to know about these characters, and Leone lets their performances, Morricone’s iconic score and the lingering space between action tell the story, so that by the time the monumental showdown rolls in, we know what we need to know about these wild, complex personalities and can get swept up in the revelatory spectacle of it. One for the ages.

-Nate Hill

Scott Cooper’s Hostiles

Scott Cooper’s Hostiles is beautifully shot, competently staged, well produced, acted and scored, but there’s a certain depth, development and complexity lacking, and I lay the blame on script, which seems a little south of the polished stage, with one foot still rooted in the blueprint phase. It’s a shame because the actors are game to give the film all they’ve got, but the script handed to them just isn’t on par with their efforts. Christian Bale is implosive as ever in one of his best performances as Blocker, a decorated civil war vet who has spent a great portion of his career heavily involved in the war and genocide against Native American tribes, and as such has become a hard, mean and brittle tempered creature. It’s fascinating to observe how someone like him, who does have a decent soul deep down, can be turned so backwards and hateful in circumstances like that, another theme the film doesn’t quite follow through with. Blocker is tasked with one last mission before semi-early retirement: Escort legendary Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi, excellent as ever) and his kin from Arizona back to his home in Montana to live out his remaining years. Blocker bristles at the thought, but when his salty superior officer (Stephen Lang) threatens his pension, he begrudgingly saddles up. The film then showcases their journey, several hardships and skirmishes they find themselves in, all to fertilize the eventual bond and understanding formed between the two groups and their decision to work as a unit, and even respect each other. Here’s the problem: the script isn’t deep or thoughtful enough to make any of these arcs believable. The Native characters are painfully underdeveloped, particularly Yellow Hawk’s son and his wife, played by Adam Beach and Qorianka Kilcher, two actors more than capable of handing in great work when the material comes their way. The one thing that does work and is probably the best quality that film has is a character played by Rosamund Pike, a frontier farmer whose entire family is slaughtered by vicious Comanches in the film’s arresting opening scene. She joins Bale’s company, and Pike plays her with harrowing sadness, terrifying vengeful poise and gives one of the most realistic, un-cinematic portraits of grief I’ve ever seen. Come awards season next year, she should be a front runner. The film almost doesn’t deserve her sterling subplot, but it does it’s best, and reaches some heights here and there. Bale’s company is played by a reliable troupe including upright Jesse Plemons, melancholic Rory Cochrane and grizzled Peter Mullan. Also appearing is western veteran Scott Wilson in a brutal last minute cameo, always nice to see him still in the game. There’s an unbalanced focus between the soldiers and the natives, who I wanted to learn more about but were left as mainly tagalong bystanders with scant dialogue. When Bale’s arc reaches it’s final stages, I felt slightly cheated by everything that came before: I didn’t quite believe that what he’d been through was enough to sway over two decades of hate and prejudice, and once again the fault lies with script. A little more care, preparation and editing could have turned this from a good film into one for the ages.

-Nate Hill

Walter Hill’s The Long Riders

◦ I’m pretty sure that Walter Hill’s The Long Riders does something that no film had done before or after, least to that extent: pull off the biggest sibling stunt casting session in history. Based on the rowdy, violent exploits of the James Younger gang in the old west, Hill casts real life brothers as the troupe, a choice which could have been south of silly in any old director’s hands, but works like gold here. James and Stacy Keach play Frank and Jesse James, David Robert and Keith Carradine are the Younger clan, while Randy and a very mean, very young Dennis Quaid fill the boots of the Millers. It’s fairly brilliant, well organized and pays off nicely, especially if you’re a fan of any of these guys, which I am and then some. Now, the film. Most westerns about these hotshot outlaws take a quippy, cavalier standpoint and go for sterling silver charm. Not Hill, a notorious trend shirker and trailblazer whose tactics in casting, music, editing and tone have never followed the Hollywood grain. The film is downbeat, somber and mostly a series of vignettes that topple against each other like dominoes. The gang shuffles from robbery to holdup almost reluctantly, like it’s written in the stars and they have no choice but to commit crimes. They clash royally with the ruthless Pinkerton agency, who cause more than a few casualties on their side. The shootouts here are no sanitized 50’s Lone Ranger fluff, they’re brutal, bloody and amped up to extreme violence, which is always to be expected from Hill. The life of an outlaw is not glamorized here either, a choice rarely, if ever made in the western department. These are hard men resigned to their rough lives, not fast talking hot-doggin prince charmings like insufferable Young Guns type crap. There’s scattershot subplot about the brother’s lives, but mostly the focus is rooted in their exploits and run ins with the law. David Carradine’s Cole Younger has a cool knife fight sequence up against half breed injun Sam Starr (Hill favourite James Remar) over the favour of pretty hooker Pamela Reed. The actors are all gritty and grizzled, from James Keach’s long-faced, Moody Jesse James to Dennis Quaid’s volatile psychopath Ed Miller. Hill’s go to music guru Ry Cooder provides another achingly gorgeous score with echoes of his composition on Southern Comfort a few years later, a melancholic tune stripped bare of any action sequence swells or orchestral hoo-hah. Pretty damn underrated as far as big screen westerns go, with a tone and look that seems somehow far more genuine than many others in the genre.

-Nate Hill