The Burrowers (2008)
“They wait… They hunt… They feed”
Director: J.T. Petty
Cast: Clancy Brown, David Busse, William Mapother
Synopsis: In the Wild West a rescue party sets out to find a family of settlers that has vanished from their home under mysterious circumstances.
J. T. Petty plants a modern-style horror story in an old-fashioned Western setting to surprisingly good effect with The Burrowers. It takes a certain degree of confidence to set any story in the Old West these days, given the near-moribund state of the genre. After all, even recent blockbusters like Django Unchained and The Lone Ranger have done little to revive its fortunes. So Petty is to be applauded for trying something different, and for daring to present us with an atmospheric tale intelligently told. Sure, there are occasions when he employs the kind of cheap horror tricks we’ve all seen in countless horror movies, but more often than not, Petty’s is a more thoughtful — and thought-provoking — story.
The Burrowers opens with Fergus Coffey (Karl Geary), an Irish immigrant living in the Dakota territories in 1879, rehearsing the words he will speak to the father of Maryanne Stewart (Jocelin Donahue) when he asks him for her hand in marriage. What Coffey doesn’t know is that he will never get to deliver his rehearsed speech. When he arrives at the Stewart’s homestead he stumbles across a number of corpses, each of them bearing a wide but neat and near-bloodless wound in their necks. Maryanne and other members of her family are nowhere to be found, however. It’s only natural that the locals suspect an Indian raiding party and a small group of men is duly assembled to give chase in the forlorn hope of recovering Maryanne and her family. It is with these men that we will venture into the grassy plains of Dakota as they slowly come to the realisation that what they are pursuing isn’t, in fact, a tribe of Indians, but some unearthly creatures that have begun preying on humans now that the population of their natural prey of buffalo has been decimated.
The men involved in the hunt are of the usual variety. There’s the alpha male, William Parcher, played with calm authority by William Mapother; John Clay (Clancy Brown), an old hand who provides the wisdom required to pursue their prey; Dobie Spacks (Galen Hutchison), the inexperienced teenage son of Parcher’s love interest, and ‘Walnut’ Callaghan (Sean Patrick Callaghan), a former slave who now works as cook for a cavalry unit led by the sadistic Captain Henry Victor (Doug Hutchison), whose help in searching for the Stewarts the men initially accept. However, when the men witness the barbaric torture of an innocent Indian by Victor’s men they go their own way, accompanied by Callaghan.
For the first 45 minutes or so, The Burrowers plays out like a typical Western with only a few hints that the second half of the movie will stray into horror territory. The first clues to the fact that we’re not watching a conventional Western arrive with the unexpected death of one of the characters who looks as if he’s shaping up to be a major contributor to the story. With this unexpected and unheroic death the film jolts its audience from its comfort zone leaving us unsure of who will survive and who will die. It’s a trick used to even better effect later in the movie when another character is only wounded by the eponymous monsters and undergoes a transformation that completely undermines our initial impression of him. And then the men discover a young girl, buried in a grave so shallow that a strand of her hair rises like a frail plant from the earth. The girl is still alive, but in a catatonic state and bears the same mysterious wounds on her neck as the bodies Coffey found at the Stewarts’ household.
The trouble with The Burrowers’ slow, deliberate style is that it’s totally at odds to the expectations of hard-core horror fans who prefer to see thinly-drawn characters killed in gory ways without having to go through all that troublesome business of getting any in-depth insight into what makes those characters tick. That’s why the movie gets a lot of middling to negative reviews from horror sites. For those who are happy to spend some quality time with the characters they’re about to see suffering horrifying fates, The Burrowers proves to be something of a find, delivering a quiet horror that is both memorable and unsettling.