Being blindsided can be fun. All I knew of J. T. Petty was that his previous film "S-and-Man", a documentary on voyeurism and media manipulation, hit with controversy when it turned out that there was a bit more manipulation in it than people initially thought. It was argued that the manipulation was an intentional part of the viewing experience, but it all started to sound a bit pretentious and apologetic to me.
So I wasn't exactly going nuts when I heard Petty had a new project called "The Burrowers", a horror western which seemed to be following the "Tremors" template. My curiosity went up when Todd gave it a favorable review last year, so I decided to see it at this year's Imagine Festival in Amsterdam.
It allowed me to see this direct-to-DVD title in the cinema, ironically in the same week as its "official" premiere as a DVD-release, and I now truly feel privileged having done so.
Because, people, the sad truth is:
YOU WERE ROBBED!
Robbed from having a decent chance of seeing this in a cinema near you. For "The Burrowers" is one of the most cinematic films I've seen in quite a while, and so far my most pleasant surprise this year. I'll go as far as to say that if this had been playing at this year's International Film Festival Rotterdam, it would probably have been the only film to get a "5-out-of-5" from me. And I'm now an instant J. T. Petty fan.
So what made me like it THAT much?
Read on after the break...
J. T. Petty made "The Burrowers" for Lionsgate, which gave him 7 million USD to do so. To keep costs down the film was shot in only 23 days, while shots requiring special effects were kept to a minimum.
Although a general release in cinemas was initially being planned, a change of management within Lionsgate did not do "The Burrowers" any good. Together with films like "Repo! The Genetic Opera" the title was allegedly labelled as "suspect" for being a pet-project of the previous management, and shelved until it was decided to release it direct-to-DVD. Which it was, yesterday.
Thankully some of its original cinema prints are doing the rounds at festivals the World over, which meant that I actually was able to see it on a big screen. Which I recommend!
Somewhere in the US Western frontier in 1860, whole farmsteads are being attacked and massacred. Whoever the culprits are, they leave only some bodies while the rest of the people go missing. The local settlers are sure: "them Injuns" are the cause and a posse is formed to pursue the evildoers. This group sets out in a faint hope of rescuing any survivors, and a less-faint hope for extracting some revenge.
Yet the evidence they find is strange, for this tribe uses unknown weapons and leave very strange holes in the ground wherever they go. The band also discovers that all local Indians are as scared of these attackers as the settlers are, and worse: whatever it is they're following starts stalking them at night...
Being a movie with subterranean monsters, it's easy to dismiss "The Burrowers" as a "Tremors" clone. Yet the two films are very much different, and even though I love "Tremors" for re-introducing the world to the fun of monster flicks at the time it was released, I think "The Burrowers" is the more original movie of the two.
As such it is of course also more difficult to market, so each and every bit of advertising you see will tell you this is "HORROR!!!", with "EVIL!!!" in it. But this will give people entirely the wrong idea of what to expect.
For starters the whole "Western" angle isn't just a gimmick. "The Burrowers" really IS a western, first and foremost. A damn good one even. The whole first half goes into explaining who the people are, what they are doing in that area and how the relations with both the ever-present army and ever-present natives work. This part is surprisingly well researched on an historical level, far more than you'd expect from a direct-to-DVD horror flick. Instead of going the ha-ha self-referential route, this film takes its surroundings serious. There are a few teases showing the audience that yes, there will be monsters later on, but the focus is on the setting of the story and its main characters.
The effect of all this detail leaves its marks later on in the movie. No matter what faults James Cameron's "Titanic" had, its sound design and art direction DID give you the feeling you were actually on the big boat during the flashback story. The same thing happens here in "The Burrowers": you can almost smell the landscape after a few days of being on horseback with these people. It helps that the cinematography by Phil Parmet ("The Devil's Rejects") is nothing short of stunning.
Acting is good all around, but I have to single out Clancy Brown here. We all know and love him as the Kurgan from "Highlander" or Sgt. Zim from "Starship Troopers" but his grizzled lawman here is something else, chewing the scenery like it's gum. He keeps being billed first in all lists which is maybe unfair as the true leads would be Karl Geary and William Mapother, but it has to be said he OWNS the scenes he's in as the ultra-experienced overbearing strongman of the group. Older and sporting a big beard, I spent half of the movie wondering if it really was Clancy Brown. Mark my words: if he ever does a leading role this well it might just net him an Oscar Nomination one day.
As for gore, "The Burrowers" may be more subdued in this aspect than people might expect. Sure, it gets bloody at times and what the creatures do to people is very creepy indeed (good for a few nice shivers up your spine at least), but the film never becomes a gore-fest.
The most disturbing scenes in the movie concern the standard racism leading to the casual torture and extermination of the natives, who by the way are not shown as saints in any way and pose a very real threat instead.
Of course the film changes gears when it turns into a "trapped heroes versus monsters" film. But even then it manages to cleverly sidestep the standard conventions of the genre, and keeps its moral compass pointing the same way. The mix of social commentary and monster-bashing here even reminds me of Bong Joon-Ho's "The Host", of all films.
The monsters themselves (described by Petty during the Q&A afterwards as "naked molerats with some Komodo Dragon mixed in...") look pretty good and consist mostly of on-set practical effects, with CGI only being used to add an occasional extra limb or so.
Instead of making a fun monster flick J. T. Petty set out to make a serious western. It just happens to have some fun monsters in it too! With this mix, "The Burrowers" has become a strange hybrid. Monster fans might be bored by all the adult western stuff, while moviegoers out for more serious fare might be scratching their heads when the monsters arrive. Mixing The Searchers with Aliens is a brave choice indeed, you might even say it's foolish or disrespectful to the audiences of both. Expecting it to become a good movie can be seen as rather pretentious. The pretentiousness accusation doesn't stick however, as "The Burrowers" is a very good movie, maybe the best I've seen in quite a while. I hope its direct-to-DVD release won't be too huge a crippling factor in its success.
It also marks J. T. Petty as a huge talent to keep track of and it has made me VERY curious about his other output. I'll definitely keep my eye on him. Petty's next film will be a remake of the first "Faces of Death" (a gig secured because of the "S-and-Man" movie...), and while I have no clue what the hell he thinks he's doing, finding out what it is will be fun!