Isolation and loneliness are often at the heart of any situation that instills irrational fear in humanity, and nothing is more isolated and lonely than the untamed American West. With hundreds of lawless miles in-between outposts of civilization, a single human being is at constant threat from rough terrain, weather, and both animal and human predators. When he finds himself dehydrated, starving, lost, or injured, he becomes imprisoned by that distance; it is claustrophobia in the world’s biggest locked room.
It is also a great place to explore supernatural themes, because of the built-in “myth of the West”. Westerns take place in the adolescence of America, a time of pioneer spirit when manifest destiny beckoned brave travelers to venture into the vast and unexplored landscape barely touched by human influence. This was a place of mystery to European settlers, who would probably have found that an imagined Wendigo sighting wouldn’t have been any more frightening than a real-life encounter with a lunatic prospector, a Native American in war paint, or even an unusual new animal species like a hyena, rattlesnake, or horned toad. The myth of the West is America’s Arthurian legend, with cowboys as the knights of the round table and gold rush boomtowns as myriad Camelots; it only seems appropriate Merlin would show up in the form of an Indian medicine man, or that a hero would battle a ghost rider as his own personal black knight.
Finally, some of the greatest horror stories thrive because of the clearly drawn lines between good and evil, and the ensuing battle between them. What better place to draw those lines than in a Western, where intent can be divined by whether a cowboy’s hat is black or white, and where the line between civilization and chaos is often nothing more than a single man with a tin star?
The hybrid genre of the western-horror has had a checkered and unusual past, lurching from terrible to inspired and back again. In 1966, a double bill brought about the unusual pairings of famous monsters with historical cowboy figures with “Billy the Kid vs. Dracula” and “Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter”. Obviously confused about how to successfully integrate them, the genre floundered along until the 1980’s, when writer Eric Red created two modern horror-westerns, the Rutger Hauer chase film “The Hitcher” and the vampire crime drama “Near Dark”. Subsequent entries in the genre have more effectively balanced the two genres. Here are four recommendations for further exploration into the sub-genre.
An extremely obscure and hard-to-find film, it was directed by Edward Dein (also credited as a writer on the Val Lewton chiller “The Leopard Man”) and starred “Rawhide” actor (and sometimes writer) Eric Fleming. The story revolves around a preacher who has to protect his town from a gunslinger who also happens to be a vampire.
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An even more complicated genre hybrid because of the addition of zombies and comedy, “Undead Or Alive” stars Chris Kattan and James Denton as robbers caught in the middle of a zombie curse caused by Geronimo himself. It is written and directed by Glasgow Phillips, who recently wrote the slasher update “Smiley”.
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Following a band of Confederate soldiers hiding out in a creepy farmhouse after robbing a bank, this movie boasts an incredible cast of supporting actors just on the verge of breaking out (Patrick Fugit, Michael Shannon, Isaiah Washington, and Nicki Aycox, just to name a few), as well as a script from Simon Barrett, who would go on to contribute to “VHS” and “The ABC’s of Death”.
In a thoughtful and surprising twist on western horror, writer-director J.T. Petty creates a monster suited for the Wild West, and creates a film just as comfortable in a discussion of ecological horror, monsters on the loose, and the darkness of the human heart as it is in a discussion of westerns. A young Irish man joins a posse searching for what they believe to be an Indian party that attacked the home of his love interest, only to find out that something much more dangerous and foreign than Indians are waiting for them.