Who'd have thought that there was filmmaker out there aspiring to be the next William "One Shot" Beaudine? J.T. Petty's The Burrowers debuted at this year's Midnight Madness and has been trumpeted as some sort of breakthrough in high concept--a horror western--but some of the first films I can remember watching were Beaudine's Billy The Kid Vs. Dracula and its co-feature Jesse James Vs. Frankenstein's Daughter--no, I'm not that old...such fare was typical of what my hometown theatre offered easily-entertained youngsters on matinees in the 70s.
Not that Beaudine's potboilers would ever be considered the definitive take on the subject, and of course, Petty is certainly a much more accomplished filmmaker (but really, who wouldn't be?)--I suspect the buzz has more to do with the acclaim for Petty's documentary S&Man (a deserved MM hit in 2006, and for reasons unknown, unavailable on DVD) than The Burrowers strengths as a film. It's a serious-minded and handsomely mounted exercise in genre-mashing, offering a solid horse opera scenario that ultimately gives away to a ho-hum creature feature.
It's 1878, shortly after the end of the Civil War: Irish farmhand Coffey (Geary, who goes back to Petty's first feature Mimic: Sentinel) works up the courage to propose to fetching Maryanne Stewart (Donahue), and rides off to her family's cabin to ask for her family's blessing. But at the Stewart homestead, the family is under seige from unseen marauders. The men barricade the women and children in the barn, and struggle to fend off what they assume are marauding Indians. When Coffey arrives, he finds the men butchered, but the women and children missing, including Maryanne.
The local ranchers assume they've been kidnapped by Commanches, and have formed a scout party lead by the local sheriff (Brown, who could save any film, and usually does...). Coffey offers his services, and makes a friend in ex-slave Callaghan (Thomas, who gets all the best one-liners). The prognosis is hardly encouraging: when shifty Parcher (Mapother, fast becoming the "oh that guy" of the early 21st century after appearances on Lost and In The Bedroom), the group's experienced tracker, is asked if he's ever successfully found anyone, his curt response is "not alive".
The posse joins up with the preening Colonel Henry Victor (Hutchison, literally twirling his moustache) and his cavalrymen, who have vowed to exterminate any Indians--Commanche or otherwise. They navigate settlements along the Dakota Plains with Parcher acting as translator, and are warned by the Ute tribe that the attacks are actually the work of "the burrowers", flesh-eating creatures who live below the earth. It soon becomes obvious to Geary that racist Victor and his Bluecoats have no interest in the search and are only interesting in killing Indians. When some of the men go missing, they are later found half-alive and buried in shallow graves--the burrowers don't kill their prey right away and use a venom to paralyze them and induce madness. This offers some hope for Maryanne's rescue--but, as Parcher offers, would she be better off dead?
The Burrowers takes its lugubrious cues from recent revisionist westerns like Unforgiven and The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, than say, the coy Cinemascope pageantry of How The West Was Won or the hyper-stylized melodrama of Sergio Leone. But I couldn't help but think what a vicious wit like Joe R. Lansdale--who knows a thing or two about supernaturally-themed oaters--could've brought to a premise that begs for a few B-movie frissons to lighten its precious load (you can't help but think of Tremors, but it isn't nearly as much fun). Petty's heart is in the right place, but the entire enterprise seems more like an opportunity to wallow in period fetishes and stage Malick-influenced tableaus than to create any real sense of menace, or allegory, even though he's clearly striving for something topical with the theme of the white settlers' destruction of the ecosystem (the burrowers are said to feed on man because the buffalo were wiped out) and mistreatment of the natives (represented none-too-subtley by Victor's xenophobic bloodlust).
The script plunders The Searchers and Red River in all the right places but it's hard to get worked up over all the teeth-clenching of this buckskin testosterone fest when you realize it's all a delay mechanism until another grizzled cowpoke gets sucked into the ground by a fairly shoddy (by today's standards) CG-beastie.
Dubious effects aside, the film is otherwise beautifully shot by Rob Zombie's regular DOP Phil Parmet, who shows some real range here--er, on the range--composing the big grassy vistas and craggy facial landscapes the genre demands, complemented by an appropriately Morricone-esque score by Joseph LoDuca.
©2008 Robert J. Lewis