Collins’ Crypt: Horror Westerns - Our Loneliest Sub-Genre

BC laments the shortage of movies where cowboys fight monsters.

A few months back, a link for The Projection List was going around, with its sortable listing of all upcoming movies providing a fun timekiller for bored office workers like me (and, I assume, a very valuable tool for people who need such information at the ready). One way you could sort was by genre, which I did and then (of course) scrolled down to see all of the horror movies coming our way. As expected, most of them were horror/thriller and horror/supernatural entries, with only a few horror/comedies and horror/sci-fi selections. But there was only a single horror/western: the much anticipated (by me) Bone Tomahawk, which stars Kurt Russell in his first genre role in nearly a decade.

Its lonesome existence did not surprise me, either. While horror is frequently mixed with other genres, the horror-western hybrid is probably the rarest next to horror-driven sports movies (some exist! Goal of the Dead, for example, is about a zombie outbreak at a soccer game that's actually really good). I couldn't get the function to work properly (i.e. see the actual titles) but per the IMDb there are only about 250 titles (movies, TV episodes or shorts) that combine horror and western concepts, compared to over 12,000 horror-comedies. Even when I was watching horror movies every day for 6 years, I think I only came across less than a dozen such titles, and some of them weren't exactly westerns but movies set in old west locations, like Tremors, which is a pretty straightforward monster movie (and a really great one) but its setting is the only thing that occasionally gets it put on lists of "horror-western" movies. The DTV fourth film actually DOES qualify as a more traditional western, but if you need Tremors 4: The Legend Begins to be an example of anything, it should be "This is why you don't do prequels."

1988's Ghost Town, on the other hand, is most definitely aiming to please fans of both genres. The plot is about a sheriff (Frank Luz) looking for a runaway bride (Catherine Hickland, who appears in TWO Scream Factory releases this month - this one and Witchery) in the middle of the desert when a sudden dust storm seemingly transports them to a literal ghost town. It's ruled by Devlin (Jimmie F. Skaggs), who has a pretty great look for a villain - his face is partially eaten away and the remaining skin is tight, making him look skeletal (particularly in long shots). He, along with everyone else in town, is trapped in a loop, going back 100 years, a curse that will remain until someone avenges the original sheriff's death, a scene Luz watches unfold in a dream sequence. Luz and Hickland set about breaking the curse for good, and that's what gives the movie its middling action, with shootouts and chases aplenty in its final 25 minutes after a rather languid first hour.

With some minor script changes, this could have been a straight up western. Squash the specifics of them being undead, and you have a movie about a lawman coming into a small town in the old west, drawing the ire of the bad guy that has been ruling it with his iron fist, and freeing the innocent locals by shooting a whole bunch of bandits (and finally, the tyrant villain himself). There's a saloon, a blacksmith trying to keep his head down, even a tense poker game - generic as it may be, it checks off a lot of the expected beats of a standard western film, albeit with undead villains, occasional makeup FX gore, and a plot point about how modern weapons won't work and the ghosts will continue to come back unless killed with particular ammo. You don't get much of that sort of thing in Unforgiven.

Another difference between it and Clint Eastwood's classic is that it's not very good. It's a Charles Band production (one of his last for Empire before forming Full Moon) so as with most of his output you shouldn't expect anything great unless Stuart Gordon is involved. But in Band's defense, apparently it had even bigger obstacles during its production, including two director changes (Tourist Trap's David Schmoeller was supposed to direct - he probably could have given it some pop) and the ditching of its score. Scream Factory's Blu-ray release (the film's first digital release ever, at least in the US) is unusually bare - not even the trailer makes an appearance, let alone the commentaries or interviews that are all but standard on their stand-alone releases. So any further info on its troubled production is not to be found here; all we can do is look at its sad box office take ($75 grand) and assume that it certainly didn't help make the horror-western become a common 'thing', like zombie comedies and found footage movies about idiots breaking into an asylum.

In fact, many of them share Ghost Town's barely-released status. Some other notable entries in this under-populated genre are Grim Prairie Tales, Undead or Alive (a horror comedy western! It had NO chance!), The Quick and the Undead, and Gallowwalkers, best known for being the movie Wesley Snipes was filming when he had to go to jail for his tax issues - it was barely completed (with Snipes' voice dubbed by someone else) and dumped six years after shooting. Then there's The Burrowers, the best of the lot by a mile, and with enough recognizable faces to get a theatrical release, but was unfortunately a victim of Lionsgate's corporate restructuring in the late 00s, ultimately dumped on disc with no fanfare. It's a great movie, and like Ghost Town it aims to function just as well as a western as it does a horror movie (a monster movie, to be specific), so please see it if you haven't already.

When they move away from cowboys and saloons, distributors seem to have more luck. John Carpenter has cited Rio Bravo as an influence on his urban Assault on Precinct 13 (and later Ghosts of Mars), but the closest he came to making a traditional western was probably Vampires, his New Mexico-set film from 1998 that was also his only hit movie of the decade. It's set in the present day, but the dusty western locales make it easy to forget that at times, and Carpenter himself says it's more of a western than a horror film. Kathryn Bigelow's classic Near Dark is also frequently cited as one of the best examples of a horror-western, thanks to its general concept of a drifter entering into lawless territory, plus some inspired touches (including hero Adrian Pasdar giving chase while on a horse!). The film didn't make much money during its initial theatrical release (thanks to its distributor going bankrupt), but found plenty of fans on video and has become an oft-name checked example of a great 80s horror, a great vampire movie, and (thanks to her later Oscar glory) a must-see debut from an acclaimed filmmaker. And so, it goes without saying, it's one of the best horror-western hybrids.

(2001's The Forsaken, a ripoff of Near Dark featuring actors from several WB shows of the time, is not any of those things.)

It's interesting that so many of them are vampire or zombie movies; one of the very first to combine these two beloved genres was Billy the Kid vs. Dracula, about as obvious a title you could ask for. Apart from Burrowers, The Valley of Gwangi, and (if we're counting it) the Tremors series, there aren't a lot of monsters coming up from under saloons and blacksmith shops, and I don't think I've ever seen a slasher (though the 2010 Red Hill comes close). Ghosts come up every now and then, but for the most part the sub-genre is loaded with things that bite: Curse of the Undead (another early entry), Bloodrayne 2, and Sundown involve vamps, and three of the four I mentioned above in passing (Grim Prairie Tales being the exception, as it was an anthology) were zombie tales. And they're human, but there's still plenty of people being bitten involved in Ravenous, one of the best movies mentioned here and worthy of its own article (hey, I already wrote one!). Unfortunately, it, like so many others mentioned earlier, performed abysmally at the box office, sparing us from a dozen ripoffs but also giving studios another reason not to greenlight any such projects that came their way.

Needless to say, it won't take much for Bone Tomahawk to become the highest grossing horror-western film of all time (Vampires is the only one in this article to hit $20m), but unless it makes The Ring money I doubt it'll start a new trend of such fare. With traditional westerns still something of a rarity in Hollywood (True Grit and Django were huge hits, but Lone Ranger and A Million Ways To Die In The West probably undid the goodwill they built up), it will take more than one hit to start cranking these things out the way they've been making found footage and haunting movies in the wake of Paranormal Activity. But as I said, there's a lot of horror sub-genres they haven't really mined for cross-pollination with the western, and the public is ALWAYS in the mood for a fresh take on zombies nowadays (willing to bet most people haven't seen the ones I mentioned), so I assume anything with a decent budget and studio backing that took a Walking Dead approach to a story Sergio Leone or Howard Hawks would have given us during their heyday would be a pretty big hit if done right (if done wrong it'll just be the bigger budgeted Quick and the Undead - oof, that one was bad).

And, honestly, I kind of want to see someone take a crack at doing Ghost Town correctly. Not with Band, obviously, since it'd be ten times worse and the ghosts would be replaced by toy bongs or some shit, but the basic concept is pretty fun, and it wouldn't take much to turn it into a legitimately good movie. The biggest change would probably be to let the Hickland character take center stage instead of the boring sheriff. Maybe it's just because of the actor playing him (Luz belongs to the Jai Courtney school of charisma-free leading men), but there's nothing particularly interesting about the character (he barely seems fazed that he's suddenly fighting 100 year old ghosts), and it's disheartening to see him pulling Hickland to safety and other hero nonsense when she seemed above a basic damsel in distress role. I mean, she ditched her groom at the altar and doesn't seem too concerned about it, establishing her as more capable and interesting than your average '80s horror female, but before long she's just "the girl," doing nothing but wait to be helped over and over. Taking cues from Night of the Living Dead '90 and giving HER the guns for the big finale (killing off or at least sidelining the generic sheriff) would elevate the movie's value immensely. Devlin could use a little more fleshing out (no pun) as well; he certainly has the LOOK of a good villain but on the page there's not a lot to him beyond making angry faces and threatening the protagonists.

Naturally, I doubt a Ghost Town remake is on anyone's mind (unless this Blu-ray sells like 10 million copies or something), but again, this is a sub-genre that's ripe with opportunities. You have zero competition, plenty of built-in audience members (western fans are neglected enough that I doubt they'd mind some Fangoria elements in a new movie), and, most importantly, a guarantee that a producer can't make you turn it into a found footage movie (if it's set in the OLD west, that is). Every now and then someone threatens a Near Dark remake, but I don't see the point - with such a niche audience, why turn half of them off from the start? There are so few movies in this sub-genre, we certainly don't have to start recycling one of the very few that worked right the first time. Until then, feel free to watch the ones I recommended above, and shout out some recommendations of your own! As I said at the top, there are around 250 such examples, and even when you take out the TV stuff (there are a couple of good Twilight Zone episodes) and short films that's probably still several dozen features that qualify. Any I should see? I am trying to fill holes in my western intake (I just saw Once Upon A Time In The West for the first time - great film!) and figure I can ease myself in with some of the horror blends. Bonus if they include zombie horses.
 

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