Directed by S. Craig Zahler
Written by S. Craig Zahler
A horror/western you say?
This was something I had to see for myself, and if I am honest it is my favourite of the recent Westerns we have had recently, though they are all very, very different. The story is quite simple and I can’t say it is original, but it is for the most part a tense, Western-based thriller with some very graphic (though infrequent) violence, while also subtly commenting on the uneasy justice system of the time, still in its infancy.
The film begins with two men on the skirts of morality, far enough into the west to decide what is right and wrong themselves. They proceed to slit the throats of sleeping cowboys, ruffling through their possessions for anything valuable. One of the men though isn’t dead and is able to let off a gunshot, altering anyone near of their presence. The conversation about such a morbid occurrence actually had me laughing; the script is great, as Buddy lectures Purvis on how many veins to cut in the neck. It is a dark and amusing exchange, and it is not the last.
Distancing themselves from the gun-shot, the two come across what looks like a burial ground. It is only a graveyard for ‘savages, not the civilised man’ says Buddy as he leads Buddy through the circle. I’m not sure why they didn’t simply walk around the circle, I suppose that shows us just how ignorant these men are to older cultures. Not long after walking through the burial ground, the man in front takes an arrow to the throat, and as his friend scrambles to run away the film cleverly doesn’t reveal who shot the arrow, rather, we see what is mostly a silhouette of the attacker, who moves close to Buddy to strike a final blow. He is in the background and hard to see, which causes us to wonder must what the hell we just saw. Was it human?
Upon making his getaway, Purvis upsets one of the skulls in the graveyard, which leads into to the title of the movie.
We move forward 11 days, and Purvis is burying something on the skirts of town, Bright Hope. The title of this town could not be more ironic as the man is welcomed into the town with extreme suspicion. It may be raw, but Bright Hope does have its own justice system, however crass. It is one that does not like outsiders, and this particular outsider is greeted with a bullet to his leg and a jail cell, Sheriff Hunt deciding that the man does indeed have questionable intentions.
Unfortunately, taking him into the jail over-night was a bad idea, as Purvis brought something else with him to the town. It seems that someone isn’t happy about his upsetting of the burial ground, as they follow him to Bright Hope. Once again the name of the town lives up to its ironic nature as Purvis, the deputy sheriff on duty and a nurse tending to Purvis’ leg are kidnapped in a single night, as well as a farmhand who is killed, all the animals gone. By analysing the arrow used on the farmhand, an accepted Native American in the town – known as The Professor – is able to trace where it came from and who used it. Only one tribe uses them he says, and they have no name. No language. They are cave-dwellers, inbred monsters who wouldn’t stop to think about raping and eating their parents. This gives the film a green light to label them as savages without offending anyone, as it is made explicitly clear that they are not like any conventional Native American tribe.
Consulting further with The Professor, it is estimated that this tribe is located roughly in The Valley of The Starving Man. Another intriguing title, this for the location of a tribe of cannibals. The power of love can be an extraordinary force, as the kidnapping prompts husband Arthur, in bed with a useless leg, to somehow join Sheriff Hunt on the hunt for these cave-dwellers, as his wife was the nurse abducted. ‘Back-up Deputy’ Chicory insists on coming along, as does Bright Hope resident Brooder, whose motivations are never quite clear, and whenever he is around we aren’t quite sure what he will do. He is coming along to help, but does he have his own agenda? Or does he simply enjoy killing Natives? He saw his parents murdered by Native Americans when he was ten years old, so the film certainly doesn’t share his racism, but at the same time one can’t help but feel Brooder’s racism is validated somehow.
The film’s middle act is fraught with tension as there are so many intangibles to consider. Is Brooder trustworthy? His attitude to the situation is very laid back, considering the group are making a ‘five day trek in three days’. Would the old man Chicory be better off dead than bumbling around the way he does, even if he does offer some laughs? The sheriff offers a calming presence, but of course we wonder constantly about Arthur’s leg – he can barely walk but refuses to be told what he should do. He is told at one point that one bad fall could mean that he will lose the leg.
Its a rugged ride through the west that greets the foursome and the script and screenplay make it interesting for the duration, with some witty one-liners and some jokes of a dark nature, even during tense confrontations. There are some fantastic looking landscapes too, some with the four horses running into the distance, the total lack of a score amplifying the intimate feeling. It feels like we are traveling with them. Once the cave-dwellers announce their presence with unsettling, loud, echoing groans, the film takes a dark turn as it comes clear that we have no idea just how this film will end.
If I am honest, the last act is what I was here for, and despite the unique build up – using a Western setting – it all fits together nicely, melding the old days and justice of Westerns with the current era of horror films, where anything goes. This is no doubt a gory film, with a fantastic decapitation, along with one of the most brutal killings I have ever seen. This killing though changes the atmosphere completely; it isn’t solely the gore that creates any horror or tension, rather this brutal scene shows us just what these cave-dwellers are capable of. That in turn ramps up the tension as we wonder if anyone else will meet a similar end.
While it isn’t the most original story, this flick is damn well executed. The gore is done well – subtle and not gratuitous. The story offers up enough questions, while the Western-horror hybrid really gives it a unique feel. Go watch it, now!
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