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The Burrowers

Combined genres have become common place in films today. While there are some purists among the ranks of film buffs in general this trend helps to keep the art of cinema fresh and exciting. It allows the film maker to explore new directions in his craft and offers the audience a much wider variation in movies to enjoy. Of course it is an extra burden on the film maker to hit the mark with the elements of two or more distinct genres and blend them together. Some of the best of these hybrid films come when the two genres involved are miles apart. For example in the last few years one combination has popped up and it shows a lot of promise; the horror western. While it may seem that this combination would never work the fact remains that this blending is natural. One of the fundamental requirements of the horror flick is to plunge the potential victims into an isolated setting. The old west is perfect for this. Frequently small towns were virtually cut off from their neighbors and it was not uncommon for families to live many miles away from their nearest neighbors. Then there is the lack of official law enforcement. Even in town help may not be around. There are some restrictions that have to be taken into account. You cannot use technology to create or justify the creature at large. Of course there is always the supernatural to explain things and in horror this has been a long standing tradition. One of the more recent forays into this blended genre is ‘The Burrowers’ by J.T. Petty. When I received a copy to review I had high hopes and much to my pleasant surprise it exceeded my expectations. This film works well as both a western and horror flick and is completely entertaining. It should come as no surprise that this film is an independent. The major studios would never take a chance on something this novel and off the beaten track. This is how cinema advances; through the efforts of imaginative film makers that are willing to take a chance. This film was made for only about $7 million but it comes across as better than many big budget flicks. The distributor of the movie is Lion’s Gate and they have a great track record with little Indy gems like this, especially new twists on horror flicks.

Petty both wrote and directed this film and did an excellent job in both fields. He has some experience in both aspects of film making but he is still relatively new to movies. Most of his prior work has been in horror so he is craving out a niche for himself. Most horror fans are tired of the typical slash and dash flicks that when something like this comes around it is a breath of fresh air. The story is extremely well crafted with an amazing economy. Nothing in the screenplay is wasted and every moment contributes to the furtherance of the story. At least with this sold west setting bikini clad coeds are precluded. The result of this is to return the focus of the film to the plot and character development where it belongs. Unlike so many horror flicks lately you have to pay attention to what is going on here. The plot actually matters and consists of a lot more than mindless carnage. One of the best aspects of this film is how petty takes the necessary time to establish this firmly as a familiar western before he slowly infuses the horror elements. Slowly the settlers begin to disappear and the racist army colonel (Doug Hutchison) naturally enough blames the local Native American population. In his biased mind this explanation makes sense despite the growing evidence to the contrary. By the time the heinous creatures are identified it is pretty much too late. The most difficult thing about crafting w hybrid story is to come up with something that succeeds in all contributing genres but Petty manages to pull it off.

Mr. Petty also does a fine job as the director. A film like this is all about timing and demonstrates excellent style in how he does so. Letting the audience believe they are watching a standard western it provides a foundation to build the rest of the story. Here Petty uses each genre as an element of the other so rather than having them compete they compliment each other. Petty also made a wise choice in what type of horror flick he incorporates here. The fast pace action that can be provided by western might seem to fit with a viscerally oriented horror flick. Petty chose to use a more psychologically inclined horror story. This naturally enough has an effect on the pacing since the director has to give the audience ample exposition to propel the plot. By avoiding the visceral tack Petty can keep the creatures out of sight longer than usual. When you team a visionary director with a talented cinematographer you get something special, Petty’ cinematographer for this film was Phil Parmet and the man certainly has talent. The camera work is beautifully done with a real eye for details. The countryside sets the stage perfectly, creating a sense of tension and suspense. Usually the required isolation from any possibility of help is provided by some dank old house or a remote wooded area but in this case the vast distance inherent in the old west provides the same elements. For most of us it is impossible to imagine having to ride the better part of a day before seeing another human being but this was standard for this time and place. This is also a major part of the appeal for the western. People had to be self reliant back then and fend for themselves. When you juxtapose the rugged individual with a natural cannibalistic creature you have something worth watching.

A group of Irish immigrants come to in the Dakota Territories in 1879 in order to eke out a better life. The area is bleak and hard with many miles between homes. Coffey (Karl Geary) is a farmhand taken with the beautiful daughter of a neighbor, Maryanne (Jocelin Donahue) and goes to her home to ask her to marry him. When he gets there he finds the place littered with mutilated corpses and his beloved is among those missing. Everyone including the local army is certain this was just an Indian attack and those missing are better off dead but Coffey is determined to him his love.

This is a film that is more concerned with human relationships and interaction that ripping people apart. Unlike most horror films you cannot watch this movie passively; it demands your full attention. This is a rare Indy gem and is well worth a place in your collection.

Posted 03/26/09

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