It’s Cowboys vs Cannibals in ‘Bone Tomahawk’

I used to hate westerns.

My great-grandfather was obsessed with them, and as I kid I never understood why. They bored me to tears. It seemed like every single film in the genre had the exact same plot, the exact same characters, and the exact same showdown at the climax. To younger me, if it didn’t have lasers, aliens, or explosions, then it wasn’t worth the celluloid it was printed on.

It wasn’t until much later in life, unfortunately after my grandfather had passed away, that I really began to develop an appreciation for the genre. A lot of that came from hybrid properties like Firefly and Stephen King’s Dark Tower saga, which sneakily spoon-fed me western tropes while disguising it as straight science fiction, and allowed me to familiarize myself with a lot of the character archetypes the genre is known for. A spoonful of sugar with the medicine. And as I began to slowly realize that maybe there was more to the Western than just clichés of cowboys and Indians, I started to play catch-up with all of the films I’d been missing out on.

Once Upon a Time in the West, True Grit, 3:10 to Yuma, these were all incredible, beautiful, moving pieces of cinematic art that I’d been depriving myself of for years, and I was kicking myself for it. Hell, I’m named after George Stevens’s 1953 classis Shane, and I’d never even seen it before. So I spent a few years educating myself, and really gaining an appreciation for a corner of cinema history that I had spent so long ignoring.

And playing a lot of Red Dead Redemption.

After seeing all of these legendary Westerns, my favorite still remains a slightly more contemporary example: 1993’s Tombstone. As far as I’m concerned, this movie has everything: A stellar cast (Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer, Sam Elliot, Bill Paxton, Charlton Heston, Powers Boothe, and Robert freaking Mitchum, just to name a few), a gorgeous, sweeping score, tense, energetic action, and insanely quotable dialogue. Every single line uttered by Val Kilmer’s Doc Holiday in this movie is gold, pure and simple. The set design, the costumes, the impressive mustaches, all of it comes together to make, in my opinion, the most engaging, entertaining, and enormously rewatchable Western that I personally have ever seen.

But at my core, I’m still a horror fanatic at heart. So when I’m scrolling through an article on lesser known horror films a few years ago, and I see this piece of box art, I stop dead in my tracks:

Kurt Russell, looking exactly like he did in Tombstone, big bushy mustache and all? In a horror film? One that’s being called “one of the most brutal movies ever made?” Well, that’s pretty much an instant watch for me.

And let me tell you: Bone Tomahawk delivers on every aspect of its premise. Authentically captivating Western? Check. Terrifying, gory horror film? Check. Kurt Russell being Kurt Russell? Absolutely check. This movie came to me at the perfect point in life for me to see it (despite having been released in 2015), and I could not be happier about it. It’s like it was tailor-made for me in a lab somewhere.

First-time director S. Craig Zahler (who has since gone on to direct the excellent Brawl in Cell Block 99 and Dragged Across Concrete) proves that he has a deep, innate understanding of both the horror and western genres with a compelling, remarkably suspenseful plot that perfectly and symbiotically intertwines the tropes and trappings of the two unique styles of film to create something wholly new and unique. There have been horror films with a western flavor before, with vampire thriller Near Dark being a personal favorite of mine, but none have ever felt so true to the spirit of a western as Bone Tomahawk. The film follows a small, southwestern town as their sheriff captures a murderous, thieving drifter, who claims to have been attacked by savages. Sure enough, those same attackers, a group of cannibalistic, inbred Native American cultists called Troglodytes, descend on the town, kidnapping a few of their more beloved residents. The gruff old sheriff, played of course by Russell, must round up a posse and hunt these creatures down before a terrible fate befalls their captives.

Our characters are classic western figures: The sheriff and his deputies, the town doctor, some greedy bandits, a good-natured stable foreman, and his kind-hearted wife. It feels so much like a tried-and-true, old-school cowboy tale, about a tired sheriff making one last ride out to save townspeople from violent savages, that it’s almost comforting in its early scenes. The familiarity is charming and nostalgic, and you almost want to just sit and enjoy the atmosphere for a while.

But that feeling doesn’t last long at all. When Bone Tomahawk ramps up its horror elements, which it does fairly early on, it does so with the brutal intensity of some of todays most vicious and bloody affairs. Think almost the bastard offspring of The Descent and The Hills Have Eyes. The villains of the film, the bloodthirsty Troglodytes, feel very much like they’re cut from the same cloth as the Cave Crawlers from Descent, with their mute, almost inhuman and predatory movements, while at the same time exhibiting the same sadism and cruelty as Hills’s mutant hillbillies. These are not people that can be reasoned with or threatened. They only want one thing, and it’s to torture and murder.

As you’d expect from such unpleasant-sounding antagonists, the violence in Bone Tomahawk is intense, to say the least. To call it brutal almost feels inadequate, as we’re treated to some absolutely sickening displays of barbarism and savagery from both sides of the film’s moral playing field. Our heroes shoot to kill, and it’s not exactly bloodless when they do so. And on the flip side, the Troglodytes are fond of dismemberment, evisceration, and all other manner of bodily mutilation. There’s one kill in particular towards the end of the film that may be one of the sickest, most stomach-churning things you’ll ever see on screen, a fact which anyone who’s seen it can attest to. I knew it was coming, having been spoiled in the very same article that recommended the film in the first place, and it still made me want to stop the movie. It’s gut-wrenching and cruel, but it also fits in with the general tone of the film and the bleakness of the world that it creates, making it feel earned and necessary rather than just violent for the sake of shock value.

And none of this would work, either the familiar western elements or the more unsettling and unexpected horror aspects, if the film didn’t have a solid cast to back up the drama and the terror, which Bone Tomahawk most certainly does. Outside of the repeatedly aforementioned Kurt Russell, we have horror poster-boy Patrick Wilson, proving why James Wan keeps hiring him for his numerous supernatural romps: Because he’s just damn good at what he does. He’s the textbook definition of “Likable Horror Protagonist,” and he makes the transition to period-piece Western hero seamlessly. Joining him are Lost’s Matthew Fox, Scream alum David Arquette, Sean Young, of Blade Runner fame, and last but not least, the always-delightful Richard Jenkins as the obligatory drunk deputy, a must-have in every western. This cast is almost better than the film deserves, on paper, but all deliver fantastic performances that elevate what could have been a campy farce to a hauntingly grim and grisly western adventure.

Bone Tomahawk is so great a film, so effective a horror experience, that had I not previously already begun to explore the western as a genre, this probably would have been the movie that finally pushed me over that edge. With a previously established appreciation for the genre, however, it only made me love it more. But even if you don’t like cowboys and Indians, it’s still an excellent horror film, one made for those of you who like your scares to be as visceral and gratuitous as humanly possible. If you’re a fan of films like Hostel or Saw, you’ll feel very at home here.

Have you seen Bone Tomahawk? If so, what did you think of Kurt Russell’s mustache? And what are your favorite horror genre mashups? Let me know in the comments!

And as always, Happy Halloween!

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