A new horror film that isn’t a remake?
A creature feature without gallons of CGI?
The Burrowers is quite the breath of fresh air, and not only because it’s also a western.
Yes, you read right. That’s fields, horses, men on the trail, Native Americans, period costumes and monsters.
Set in 1879, The Burrowers is firmly placed in the world of pioneers, immigrantsand Bluecoats striving to settle, survive and conquer the American frontier lands (in this case Dakota). When a family is abducted from their homestead, a group of men set out to find them, assuming they have been taken by Native American tribe.
The posse is led by experienced Indian hunters John Clay (the always excellent Clancy Brown) and William Parcher (William Mapother), and bigoted army leader Henry Victor (Doug Hutchinson) and his men. Joining them is Irish immigrant Fergus Coffey (Karl Geary), a ranch hand who is hoping to rescue the girl he has fallen in love with, the teenage son of the woman Parcher has designs on, and ex-slave, Walnut Callaghan (Sean Patrick Thomas). However, as they attempt to follow traces of the family across the territory men start disappearing from camp. After they make a grisly discovery in the earth, it starts to become clear that what they are hunting is not human.
The relationship between horror and the western is not new – just think of the Texan landscapes of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, whose demented family bears more than a passing resemblance to the Clantons of My Darling Clementine (John Ford, 1946). But it is surprising how infrequently the connection has been made. J.T. Petty, the director and writer of The Burrowers, makes it clear that this is a western from the get go (and is quite explicit about wanting to make a western in the interesting making of featurette included on the DVD), making the most of the power of the landscape and drawing out the tensions between settlers, frontiersmen and Native Americans, as well as those between the possibility of domesticity and what’s out there.
Visually and thematically the film bears close relationship to the recent rash of westerns that dwell on the raw beauty of the land and the violent difficulties of the men making their way in it. The cast do a fine job of placing the characters convincingly in this world, particularly Clancy Brown whose low-key appearance grounds many of the early scenes.
The horror portion of the film is likewise served up with thought and care. Petty certainly understands the art of not revealing too much too soon and the revelation of ‘the burrowers’, creatures very far from an Indian tribe, is executed very well. It pleased me a great deal how little CGI there was, and the reality of the effects is well worth it (again the DVD includes some good insights into the realisation of the monsters). The sense that these men who are relatively new to the country, are dealing with something elemental, part of the fabric of this new world, is evocative and wholly appropriate to its place in the western genre. Plus, there is the suggestion of gore and nastiness, without actually diving fully into blood and guts strewn all over the place.
The creatures strike a nice balance between creepy – ‘what’s that rustling over there in the darkness?’ – and viscerally monstrous – ‘oh my god what’s that hideous thing on top of me?’.
All of this makes for a well thought out, well made, good looking film that definitely blows away the vast majority of what’s on offer in recent horror films.
My sense of it is that in many ways its heart is more concerned with being a western, but the integration of the genres is suggestive enough for this not to be a problem.
Its lack of showiness might not get it noticed in the same way that so-called ‘torture porn’ is, but at least it demonstrates there is something else, out there…
Additional film information: The Burrowers (2008)