Westerns share a lot in common with horror. Both deal in black and white, good and evil, blood. There’s not a lot of true cross over. Sure, you’ve got some brilliant horror that pulls ideas from the Western: Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes. But that’s not what we’re looking for. We want horses and cowboy hats and shit. And we found them.
Here are the five best Western/horror crossovers.
5. The Burrowers (2008)
Here’s one that bears a resemblance to Bone Tomahawk: someone’s love goes missing, Indians are blamed, a posse heads out in search but finds something more sinister than expected.
Writer/director J.T. Petty laments the barbarism of the white settler and its Cavalry with a bleak and subconsciously gruesome image of the consequences of “progress”.
Burrowers, though, asserts itself as a horror film early and often. It certainly borrows from both genres, balancing themes well by exploring what’s ugliest in Western lore. Horror films tend toward social commentary in a way that Westerns rarely do—indeed, classic Westerns tend to revel in the exact elements of human nature that horror likes to exploit for its blood-curdling nastiness.
Solid performances, especially from veteran character actors Clancy Brown and William Mapother, elevate the film above its monster movie trappings.
4. Ginger Snaps Back: The Beginning (2004)
In 2004, director Grant Harvey offered an origin story for the lycanthropic Fitzgerald sisters (Katharine Isabelle and Emily Perkins reprising their roles). It’s 1815 and Ginger and Bridget find themselves lost in the Canadian wilderness, seeking assistance from a Native American woman and then shelter from a creepy pastor and his flock at a fur trading post.
What’s got the traders so spooked? Werewolves!
They bring the sisters in because they are nicer than the people at The Slaughtered Lamb, but it turns out they’d have been better off leaving G&B to die in the woods.
The movie has a fun, self-consciously anachronistic style to it that allows the Fitzgerald sisters to seem even more like us and like outsiders than they did in the original high school horror show. Dream sequences, practical effects, creepy kids, sisterly love and old fashioned carnage make this one a decent throwback.
3. Dead Birds (2004)
First, we get to liking the rag tag bunch of misfits—deserters from the Confederate army: two brothers (Henry Thomas and Patrick Fugit), two buddies (Michael Shannon and Mark Boone Junior – hell yes!), an escaped slave (Isaiah Washington) and a nurse (Nicki Aycox).
Next, we’re freaked out by the mutant boar and grisly scarecrow in the abandoned plantation where they will hole up with their ill-gotten loot.
What director Alex Turner does best with his supernatural Western is to draw you in with sympathetic characters played well by talented actors. Though the pace is slow—as is often the case with supernatural horror—and the FX are not spectacular, the film has a hypnotic quality and it fills you with dread.
Turner benefits from an empathetic script penned by Simon Barrett, who’d go on to a fruitful partnership with director Adam Wingard (You’re Next, The Guest, Blair Witch). Together with haunting performances, the mind-bender of a story leaves you troubled.
2. Ravenous (1999)
The blackest of comedies, the film travels back to the time of the Mexican/American War to throw us in with a cowardly soldier (Guy Pearce) reassigned to a mountainous California outpost where a weary soul wanders into camp with a tale of the unthinkable – his wagon train fell to bad directions, worse weather, and a guide with a taste for human flesh.
Pearce is great as the protagonist struggling against his own demons, trying to achieve some kind of peace with himself and his own shortcomings, but Robert Carlyle steals this movie.
As the wraithlike Colonel Ives, he makes the perfect devil stand-in. Smooth, compelling and wicked, he offsets Pearce’s tortured soul perfectly. The pair heighten the tensions with some almost-sexual tension, which director Antonia Bird capitalizes on brilliantly.
1. Bone Tomahawk (2015)
In a year rife with exceptional Westerns (Slow West, The Hateful Eight, The Revenant), this film sets itself apart. S. Craig Zahler’s directorial debut embraces the mythos of the Wild West, populating a familiar frontier town with weathered characters, but casting those archetypes perfectly.
Kurt Russell and Richard Jenkins, in particular, easily inhabit the upright sheriff and eccentric side kick roles, while Patrick Wilson’s committed turn as battered heroic lead offers an emotional center.
Zahler effortlessly blends the horror and Western genres, remaining true to both and crafting a film that’s a stellar entry into either category. Bone Tomahawk looks gorgeous and boasts exceptional writing, but more than anything, it offers characters worthy of exploration. There are no one-note victims waiting to be picked off, but instead an assortment of fascinating people and complex relationships all wandering into mystical, bloody danger.
Because the true horror is a long time coming and you’re genuinely invested in the participants in this quest, the payoff is deeply felt. This is a truly satisfying effort, and one that marks a new filmmaker to keep an eye on.