Western Horror Double Feature – Bone Tomahawk / The Wind

In the closing days of October and with the Korean Film Festival imminent, I took one final dive into the SBS 13 Days of Horror Collection to explore two Horror Westerns which have piqued my interest for a while – the male-dominated Bone Tomahawk (2015) and the female-driven The Wind (2018).

Purvis (David Arquette) walks into a bar in the frontier town Bright Hope. Left buried outside the town are the belongings of the travellers he and his partner Buddy (Sid Haig) murdered eleven days ago. In the course of their escape, they entered an eerie canyon where the sun appeared to shine from the wrong side of they sky. Buddy was killed by arrows while crossing a large ring of bones and Purvis fled. Having been observed burying his ill-gotten gains by “backup deputy” Chicory (Richard Jenkins), Purvis is shot in the leg and taken into custody by Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell). Hunt sends for Samantha (Lili Simmons), assistant to the local (drunk) doctor, to tend the wound and leaves her there with deputy Nick (Evan Jonigkeit). The next morning Samantha, Nick and Purvis are missing. The stable is down several horses but has gained a dead stableboy and an arrow mounted with a bone arrowhead. A well-educated Native American known as “the Professor” (Zahn McClarnon) identifies it as belonging to Troglodytes, a savage tribe not considered human by his people, and advises the Sheriff against pursuit. Nevertheless the Sheriff sets out in pursuit with three men who insist on accompanying him – Arthur (Patrick Wilson), Samantha’s husband, who is still recovering from a broken leg after falling off his roof; Chicory, an ageing drunkard medic; and Brooder (Matthew Fox), an arrogant dandy who has spent his life hunting and killing Native Americans since watching the brutal deaths of his mother and sisters when he was 10.

A significant chunk of Bone Tomahawk is taken up with the journey back to the Troglodytes’ homeground, hampered by the loss of the party’s horses to a night-time assault by Mexican raiders and the subsequent need to complete journey on foot accompanied by a man on a crutch. As a consequence much of the movie centres on the interactions between the four men, a mixture of male bonding and open hostility. Russell comes naturally to the role of sympathetic authority figure. Fox’s character requires more of a balancing act, but he manages to convince both as the vain, educated, well-dressed ladies’ man and as the efficient amoral survivalist killer. Jenkins is engaging as the over-the-hill senior citizen who can’t shut up but has hidden strengths. Wilson, however, is the weak link. It looks like we’re meant to sympathise with him as the stubborn man who pushes against overwhelming physical difficulties to save his more intelligent wife, but his character is annoying and Wilson is a charisma-free zone. Sidelined for a while before becoming pivotal to the resolution, this might be a deliberate choice to make his later actions more surprising, but that seems a poor reason to bore the audience with him for so long – casting a better actor (or at least drawing out a more interesting performance) wouldn’t have undermined that story point.

Surprisingly after the suggestion of the supernatural at the beginning, the Troglodyte tribe seem to be simply a small band of extremely competent killers who have adapted well to the landscape and have inserted bones into their throats to make weird vocalisations. By calling on a Native American voice to disavow them, writer/director S. Craig Zahler has given himself an excuse to pack in all of the savage cannibalistic stereotypes of racist Western lore without slandering any existing tribes – whether this absolves him from wallowing in those tropes is a matter for the individual viewer. For myself, the sections near the end where we get to see more of the tribe and how they treat their captives didn’t really come together – it was more about slathering on the brutality rather than learning much about them as a people. Admittedly, that would have been difficult in the context of the story due to the lack of a language in common or any real incentive for the tribe to communicate with their food stock, but it made the last section feel to me like a less interesting version of The Hills Have Eyes (1977). And after the final confrontation, the movie simply… stops. There was the potential for something interesting here, but despite the elements I liked, on the whole Bone Tomahawk left me feeling flat.

Opening with the emergence from a cabin of a blood-drenched Lizzy Macklin (Caitlin Gerard) carrying a stillborn baby, followed by the baby’s burial with its mother Emma Harper (Julia Goldani Telles), The Wind portrays Lizzy’s experiences managing their New Mexico property while her husband Isaac (Ashley Zukerman) and Emma’s husband Gideon (Dylan McTee) are away dealing with the legal niceties. Hanging out the washing one day she hears the snarl of a wolf, barely making it back inside before the wolves reach her. The door barely withstands their onslaught, during which the shadows seen through the cracks of the door appear to grow to the height of a man. Having buried the corpse of their slain goat the following day, Lizzy is disturbed when the goat reappears unharmed and shoots it. The frightening experiences begin to escalate and Lizzy becomes convinced she is being stalked by a shape-shifting prairie demon connected with the wind.

Interspersed with this are flashbacks revealing how Gideon and Emma came to occupy the nearby cabin. Initially delighted to have regular human company after all this time, Lizzy and Isaac find some of their new neighbours’ mannerisms strange. Although neither of them seem to have been fully prepared for their new lifestyle away from a town, Gideon begins to adapt to the physical requirements. Emma, who brought a trunk full of gothic novels with her, begins to show signs of mental disturbance. Enlisted to extract a cowering and raving Emma from underneath her bed, Lizzy discovers that Emma is pregnant, evoking memories of her own lost child. Lizzy tends to Emma, who begins to taunt her with suggestions that Isaac is the child’s father (most likely wish fulfilment on her part but never clarified one way or another). As the flashbacks approach the events with which the movie began, Lizzy’s haunting in the present reaches its height and her husband returns for the climax.

The female focus of The Wind is a stark contrast to Bone Tomahawk. In that movie, a male writer/director sets four manly (mostly) men on a stark quest of survival to rescue a woman. The three women in the film – the kidnapped Samantha (a competent doctor smarter than anyone else), the sheriff’s wife and the mayor’s wife (clearly in charge) – are all treated with respect as characters, but they’re all sidelined and Samantha’s role in her rescue is small. The Wind, written by Teresa Sutherland and directed by Emma Tammi, is built around Caitlin Gerard’s central performance and privileges the female perspective on the frontier lifestyle, a largely solitary life based around a single isolated location while the men spend days or weeks off in the wilderness or visiting civilisation for supplies.

There doesn’t seem to be any explicit connection between this film and Victor Sjöström’s silent western The Wind (1928) starring Lillian Gish, adapted from Dorothy Scarborough’s 1925 novel of the same name, although there are broad similarities in the central idea of a lone woman driven to murder and insanity. Whether that’s what is going on in Tammi’s film is left up to the audience – Lizzy might have killed Emma and been driven mad by isolation, or both women might have been the targets of a malevolent shape-shifting entity which could threaten their ability to distinguish reality from truth. Tammi is certainly able to conjure up a sinister atmosphere and orchestrate some terrifying situations, ably assisted by Ben Lovett’s string-scraping score, but while most of them are effective, some of them are considerably less so – in particular the ghostly presence of Emma after her death, which is underwhelmingly mundane in comparison. It’s this aspect which ultimately left me disappointed with The Wind. It’s a better movie than Bone Tomahawk, and taken purely on its female characters and psychological aspects it’s very successful, but the supernatural aspects were less consistently integrated and undermined the overall achievement. It’s still a worthwhile film, but I had hoped for more from it.

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