Zowie. What a privilege I had last night. I got to sit down and watch JT Petty’s Western Horror film The Burrowers. The film has just finished up post production here in Toronto and we were the first public group outside of the production to see it off a fresh, unspoiled 35mm print. Glorious!
The Burrowers tells the story of Coffey, an Irish immigrant wants the hand of MaryAnne in marriage. One night her family’s isolated ranch is attacked. But by who? Or what? All that is left in her homestead are the bodies of her family and she is nowhere to be found. Coffey sets out with a pair of aging Indian-fighters [Clancy Brown and William Mapother], a teenage boy and an ex-slave to find his beloved MaryAnne. Expecting the offenders to be a band of fierce natives, the group prepares for a routine battle. But they soon discover that the real enemy stalks them from below and they must unravel the mystery, ‘Who are the Burrowers’?
The Burrowers is a splendid blend of raw western grit and unnerving horror. Using the wild expanses of New Mexico to portray mid 1800s Dakota Plains the isolation of the settlers and their rescuers only emphasizes how monumental a task any rescue can be. The land is barren, vast and beautiful. Petty was quick to point out that while the wild tundra of New Mexico was easy to shoot he still owes much to his cinematographer Phil Parmet for capturing that raw beauty on film. There is plenty of time to enjoy the view and I appreciated that there was as much time riding horseback as there was engaged in conflict. I thought that only further emphasized how big the frontier was. The journey takes days. This is big country.
Petty is not eager to rush into his story either. He takes his time, offering brief glimpses, suggesting something just ain’t right on the plains. As much time as it takes the rescue party to cross this barren land does Petty take to lure us towards the horrific truth of the disappearances. Combining brief glimpses of pale flesh and limbs rustling through the tall prairie grasses, the twisting and turning of the earth with layers of strong sound design Petty plays with the viewer’s nerves, gently fraying them, toying with them until the great reveal. Even then, knowing that you may not get away, that maybe there is no hope, is just too damned unsettling.
How should you approach this film? To understand The Burrowers in its context it would help to think of it the same way at Bong Joon-ho’s The Host. That’s a mighty big measuring stick if you were comparing the two. What I mean by this is just as The Host was a monster film within the context of a family drama Petty’s film is a horror film within the context of a western. And what is great about Petty’s screenplay is that there are horrific elements throughout both sides of his story. It is not just limited to the discovery of these Burrowers, it also plays out in the story of the settlers, their Calvary escort and the Native Indians they think they are pursuing. Thus, the definition of what qualifies as horror gets broader.
You experience the scares and fantasy of the non-humanity horror of the monsters but you’re kept grounded by the inhumanity and horror of the settlers and the Calvary and their actions. What Petty has created here is a multi-dimensional horror film that stands a greater chance of striking a nerve with its audience. Though some may not be bothered by the monsters and that type of violence they may be bothered by the settlers and their type of violence to each other.
The challenge now for Petty and Lionsgate is how to sell this movie and who to sell it to. If The Burrowers is billed solely as a horror film I think that it would be misleading and suffer greatly by the moaning of those coming into the film expecting a straight-up monster versus human horror film. The Burrowers is a great festival film more than it is a cinema movie. By that I mean that a festival audience will be more tolerant, understanding and perceptive of Petty’s motives and pacing in his script whereas a random gathering of cinema goers may not get it and in their own frustration may lose the point of it. Those looking for fast paced action, gruesome kills, running from room to room in a bloody fit will not find it here. The Burrowers burns as long and bright as the sun setting on the horizon and when the light is subdued behind the landscape do the monsters come out to feed.