Anyone who has been a long time reader of The Lair could probably tell you that I’m a big fan of Westerns and Horror films, but my one look at a combination of the two genres, 1996’s Fort Doom, was a barely above average outing. So when I heard tell of another hybrid, 2008’s The Burrowers, I knew I had to check it out. It’s only taken me a year since its DVD release to get around to it. Partially, I was hesitant to see another melding of the two genres, but it was also my quick read through of the synopsis that sounded like 3:10 to Yuma crossed with Tremors that gave me pause. Today it finally made its way to the top of my Netflix queue, and so with some degree of trepidation, I sat down to check it out.
The film opens on the plains of the Dakota Territories in 1879. In the night, a group of settlers are abducted from their home, and even though the evidence doesn’t seem to point to an attack from one of the native tribes of Indians, the posse that is formed to track down their abductors can come up with no other explanation. The posse, including an Irishman named Coffey (Karl Geary), a freed slave named Walnut (Sean Patrick Thomas), Indian fighter John Clay (Clancy Brown), and U.S. Cavalryman Henry Victor (Doug Hutchison), set out to discover the family’s fate. Along the way, their numbers continue to dwindle as more of them are lost into the night. Through an Indian maiden that they capture, they finally learn of a species called the burrowers that inhabits this area. They capture their victims, drug them, and bury them alive only to come back and devour their victims as the body decomposes. Coffey learns that the only tribe that knows how to combat the menace is the Utes, but the means to the beasts’ destruction may not be any kinder than the terror they already cause.
While on the surface The Burrowers may seem like a “monster in the dark” film wrapped up in the dusty dressings of a Western film, the themes it displays are much deeper than a casual glance might belie. The creatures have begun attacking humans because the buffalos that were their natural prey have been cleared from the plains by the settlers, and though the film never beats you over the head with it, the revenge of nature against the denigration of the ecology is definitely important to the film. The Burrowers also takes some time to speak on the brutality of the U.S. Cavalry during western expansion. The leader of the troops, Henry Victor, will take no other explanation for the deaths other than blaming the Native Americans. He is shown torturing and killing the Indians without any thought or remorse at all, and more than once in the film the characters could have saved themselves if they had only taken time to listen to the natives instead of shooting at them. It’s also very interesting that the main characters of the film become the Irishman Coffey and the freed slave Walnut. At this time in history, they were probably the most marginalized groups outside of the natives, and throughout The Burrowers proves itself a tale of the outsiders and the unseen.
All the acting is very strong in the film, and I could not criticize any single performance too harshly. One or two of the younger actors are not all that great, but they have little screen time overall. Karl Geary really impressed me as Coffey. I haven’t seen Geary since I looked at the movie Najda a year or so ago when I was writing an article on various Renfields on film for BthroughZ. I had a hard time getting a fix on him in that film, but that wasn’t the case with The Burrowers. Geary is the grounding character throughout the film, but it is very interesting how the director narrows his focus to him after so much of the film being an ensemble piece. In the earlier portions of the film, if I had to guess, I would have thought that Clancy Brown’s John Clay would end up being the star of the main arc. Brown is solid as usual, and I could have used even more of him in the film. Doug Hutchinson, who plays the despicable military man Henry James, was unrecognizable from his X-Files episodes where he played Eugene Tooms, but that didn’t make him any less of a complete creep. The last performance I have to mention is Walnut as played by Sean Patrick Thomas. Thomas has been a long time face on the genre scene due to his performances in films like Halloween: Resurrection and Dracula: 2000, but I barely recall him from those films. That won’t be a problem with The Burrowers as he turns in a sensitive compelling portrait of a freed slave trying to make his way in the world.
Director J.T. Petty, whose previous credits include 2001’s Soft for Digging, S&Man(2006), and Blood Red Earth (2008), culled the film The Burrowers from a seven-part mini-series of the same title released on the internet in 2007. Many of the same cast members that were involved in the serialized version of the story signed on again for the film version, and this is where it gains much of its strength. The actors knew the characters, the director knew the material, and all that was left was to execute it on a bigger scale. The cinematography by Phil Parmet, who carried the same title on both Rob Zombie’s Halloween and The Devil’s Rejects, combines the traditional look of the Western film and its wide-open spaces with the claustrophobia of those same settings when night sets in. It gives the film a sense of mystery that is greatly needed as the audience stays steadily ahead of the characters throughout the film. Wisely, Petty keeps the creatures under wraps for a good portion of the film revealing them little by little which adds to the suspense and allows for some shocking moments late in the film.
I’ve always felt like the Western genre was ripe for a combination with horror, and it makes me very happy to see that someone else finally agreed with me. The Burrowers really hit all the marks I was looking for, defied cliché, and remained pacey and interesting throughout. If you’re like me and like your Westerns a little weird, your horror intense and a bit gross, and your films exciting from start to finish, then The Burrowers is one that you want to keep on your radar. Just don’t watch it before you go camping. I just can’t see that working out for you.