Threads

The mid-1980s were a great time for horror movies–Jason, Freddy, Michael, poltergeists, werewolves, and all their many companions. But on the cusp of the Cold War’s end, nuclear destruction was probably the biggest threat in our collective imagination. And in illustrating that threat, the legendary TV movie Threads  manages to be one of the most frightening films ever made without anything supernatural at all. 

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ThreadsFirst broadcast in 1984, Threads is deceptively mundane and remarkably familiar in its background details. 

There is a recession, conflicts in Afghanistan and Iran, rising tensions between the U.S. and Soviet Russia, protests, police violence, growing internal political strife–proof that the more things change, the more they don’t. 

The story as it is opens in blue-collar Sheffield, England, framed around an unplanned pregnancy and the two families dealing with it when their world ends. These characters are the nominal protagonists, lab rats demonstrating all the expected effects. One of them even survives long enough to see society beginning to recover. But the characters are kept at a clinical remove. Somehow, that makes the whole experience more horrifying. They could be anyone. They could be us.

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ThreadsStep by step, the voiceover and on-screen text explain the preparations, the timeline, the circumstances. It shows us the piece by piece dismantling of life as we know it. Based on documented societal collapses and well-educated speculation, Threads is a steady drumbeat of the known and possible outcomes of a nuclear war.

Objectively, there is little about Threads that is genre. Yet it builds such dread, such despair, with it’s simple presentation, that it cannot be anything but horror. There is precious little character development. The special effects are rudimentary. The script is entirely exposition. And yet the impression it makes lasts. 

***

There is a reason Threads is as revered as it is. It works–too well. The two hours are grueling viewing, and in my opinion far more terrifying than 1983’s identically-themed  The Day After. With low-budget practical effects and well-used stock footage, Threads creates a post-apocalyptic nightmare scenario that is all too believable. 

This one is a must-see. Once will be enough.

blood quantum

Blood Quantum presents its take on the zombie apocalypse with a sure hand and a wry sense of humor. It starts in the usual place, and follows the generally accepted plot line of zombie flicks, but it also chooses a much-needed new perspective. By focusing the story on the experiences and actions of its First Nations characters, we get a view of the end of one world from another one that may just survive.

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blood quantumSet in 1981 on the Red Crow Reservation in Quebec, Blood Quantum wastes no time in diving into the beginnings of the plague. To do so, it relies on most of the instantly-familiar tropes of zombie horror. As always, people begin to act strangely. Animals won’t stay dead. People become violent, dangerous, bitey. Chaos erupts at the hospital. Things go downhill fast. 

The zombies here are dubbed “zeds”, and the tribe figures out very quickly that headshots are the best method of stopping them–but they still burn the bodies to be sure. The tribe also figures out very quickly that this plague turns White people into zeds, and that Indigenous people are immune.

Six months later finds the reservation transformed into an armed compound, with the Red Crow tribe holding their own and rescuing what White survivors they can. But there are long-standing family conflicts, wide-open racial wounds, and the question of how dangerous or vulnerable a new baby will be. As always, somebody lets the zombies loose in the middle of it.

***

The actors are excellent in roles that are familiar, but still outside the usual zombie apocalypse range.

Michael Greyeyes brings a believable dedication to Traylor, the reservation sheriff.

Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers is frustrated, competent, and caring as Joss, a nurse and Traylor’s ex-wife

Forrest Goodluck plays Joss’s and Traylor’s son, Joseph, as a good person struggling to make better choices.

Kiowa Gordon is Traylor’s other son, Lysol, who has already embraced his rage at what the world has handed him.

Stonehorse Lone Goeman gives Gisigu, Traylor’s father, both wit and gravitas as an elder intending to make a stand.

Olivia Scriven is sympathetic as Joseph’s pregnant, White girlfriend, Charlie, who’s condition raises both real-world and horror movie questions.

***

blood quantumI was struck by how beautifully filmed Blood Quantum is. It opens with a spinning shot of sea and sky, bridge and shoreline, before it descends into the reservation and the town. There are brief segments of animation mixed into the live action, bringing to mind the spaciness and style of Mandy but on a more human level.

The gorgeousness extends to the splatter, as well. And there is a lot of it. Beside the thoughtful sociological issues it raises, Blood Quantum is a good, gleeful, old-fashioned gore-fest. 

It is full of great effects, from the makeup to the sunlight glistening off entrails to the creative destruction of various zeds. 

***

My takeaway? Tight, engaging, and fast-paced, Blood Quantum packs a lot of story into an hour and a half. It raises issues that need to acknowledged, while still delivering a great little horror movie. This is definitely one to watch, and relish, more than once.

screaming creatures

Screaming Creatures, Sean M. Thompson’s new collection from Nictitating Books, offers up fourteen meaty tales of horror and weirdness. They often tread familiar ground, but there are enough quirks and twists to keep thing interesting.

Thompson experiments with a wide variety of narrative styles, and with horrors beyond the supernatural. His characters are prey to addiction and abuse, in addition to the monsters that wander among them. Their relationships range from the secure to the profoundly dysfunctional. They rarely find redemption, or even solid footing. Injecting real-life traumas into often over-the-top splatter adds a depth to the goings-on that drew me in.

***

“Sunny Village” begins with the reliably unsettling idea of seeing something you can’t explain and shouldn’t witness, and ends with a left turn and a lot of loose ends.

“The Cliffside Tavern” is a good, old-fashioned watery ghost story.

“Centralia” was my favorite of the bunch, with its creepy video gaming superimposed on a famously creepy setting. It had me looking over my shoulder more than once.

“3 A.M. Orphan” is a strange, Twilight Zone take on someone who was never there.

“Cat’s Claw Llc” presents an isolated office building, suave man-eaters, and a woman who accepts a very tasty job offer. Off-kilter and oddly fun.

“Make It A Double” takes on the trope of evil twins, with the addition of ghosts, alcoholism, and hippies.

“Dead Visions Review” is styled as a movie review of a disjointed, bloody film that may or may not be cinéma vérité.

“Kiss Of The Succubus” starts off as a hard-boiled detective story with demons, then veers into introducing a monster-hunting agency. This should be a novella, at least.

“Metronome” is the classic tale of a writer being destroyed by the demons in his own work. 

“The Silent Man: A Documentary” is written as a transcript, and is reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project and the found-footage genre.

“Rot Gut” is a Western, with a terrible stranger haunting the dreams of a dusty small town.

“The Blind Opera”, told in the second person, follows a dangerous video, secret government experiments, and a wealthy psychopath who has figured out how to find out what it all means.

“Cycle” uses alcoholism as the engine driving the horror along, this time in a family riddled with violence.

“Screaming Creatures” is a long, slightly disjointed musing on the state of madness and the human race, punctuated with plenty of gory violence.

***

Overall, Screaming Creatures is an entertaining ride with a few rough edges that has to potential to be more. Bloody, scary, and eerie, I think it does a fine job of engaging its readers. But while full of ambitious ideas, a few of the stories (“Kiss of the Succubus” and “Rot Gut”, in particular) feel like they end in medias res. I wish they were fully-developed novellas. If Thompson chooses to expand them, I will be more than happy to keep reading.

Creep Throat

Creep Throat: Sex Fables for the Horny, Gloomy, and Unhinged, edited by Viorika La Vae, is a surprising, uneven, and entertaining little anthology. Its ten stories and single poem are a roller coaster of style and mood, with the stories ranging from simply goofy, to overwrought, to brilliant. There is a touch of cyberpunk, a hint of the gothic, and even a call-back to the slick pulp horror of the seventies and eighties. Taken together, they make for an unexpectedly engaging read.

***

My favorites here are:                                                                                          

“Lust and Death in 2045” by Melanie Sage Thibodeaux is a moody and evocative piece that firmly binds together sex and death in something that feels like one of the better indie horror movies. It’s gritty and brutal, conveying desperation and decay without being over the top.                               

“Gear Head” by Duane Pesice tells a sharp, hallucinogenic tale of the cybernetic skin trade. The descriptions are tactile and disorienting, the plot a stream of garbled consciousness. It is weird and wonderful, with the extra added uncertainty of what is experiencing who. 

“Lady Luck” by Eve Kerrigan and Ben Keefe reminded me, with its fast pace, glitzy setting, and snarky characterizations, of the cheesy beach books on spinner racks at the drugstore. I mean that with great fondness. The monster is wildly bizarre, while sex is background noise here–part of the set-up but not a big part of the resulting chaos.                                      

“At Lazio’s: A Tale of the Crawling Chaos” by Jayaprakash Satyamurthy is a variation on a classic tale of vampirism, beautifully told. The story ended up more or less where I thought it would, but was a joy to read with its terse, perfect descriptions and the lovely line, “…for me it’s about the kill, not the chase”.   

***

So, while the stories collected in Creep Throat weren’t always to my taste, overall the anthology is a solid read. The authors are a talented bunch, and there is a good balance between the ridiculous, the serious, and the sublime. I’d say it’s definitely worth a look.                                              

ghoul

ghoulGhoul, the new three-episode miniseries from Netflix, generates its chills with a blend of tried-and-true tropes borrowed from multiple well-known films and a dash of modern dystopia. While the derivative nature of the scares is a downside, Ghoul political dimension provides a different layer of darkness. Overall the film is a predictable but effectively-done horror movie, with an engaging cast and plenty of well-placed gore.

“False sense of patriotism that seems to be spreading through the country.”

Ghoul unfolds in a near-future India that has fallen into fascism, with secret prisons, brutal re-education, enforced political orthodoxy, and questions of how religion impacts patriotism.

The story centers on Nida, a young Muslim woman training to be a government interrogator. Her father refuses to toe the political line. She turns him in, choosing patriotism over faith and family. Soon after, she finds herself assigned to a secret interrogation center where the arrival of a dangerous new prisoner sends the whole command structure spiralling into chaos and death.

Nida is played with great sincerity by Radhika Apte. S. M. Zaheer is her stubborn, seditious father. Manav Kaul is sympathetic as the drunk and troubled Colonel Sunil Dacunha, the man in charge of the prison. Ratnabali Bhattacharjee’s Lieutenant Laxmi Das is convincingly twisted as Dacunha’s duplicitous second in command. And Mahesh Balraj brings a creepy stoicism to the monstrous terrorist Ali Saeed.

“The ghoul shows as the reflection of our guilt.”

ghoulAnyone who watches horror movies will recognize plenty of familiar tropes. But an old story told well is still worth watching. And I think Ghoul tells its old story well.

The film is atmospheric, with a haunted house vibe that uses the desperation of The Blair Witch Project, the industrial oppression of Alien, and the paranoia of The Thing among its many inspirations.

Visually, the decrepit prison setting where Ghoul happens is also very familiar. Built as a bunker against nuclear attack, the site is of course not in any official records. But the film adds a few extra details that ramp up the totalitarian mood. Black-painted windows disguise night and day. Exterior shots of brutalist architecture reinforce the heavy-handed repression at work in this society. The incessant rainfall outside the massive buildings produces its own claustrophobia.  Everything is bleak, dull, and colorless, except for the stunning splashes of red when the monster is revealed.

And the reveal comes quickly. Unlike the graveyard-dwelling, corpse-eating demon of pre-Islamic folklore, the ghoul in Ghoul is a demon of vengeance summoned in retribution. It takes the form of the last person whose flesh it ate, but here it teases out confessions of guilt before it attacks.

“Finish the task, reveal their guilt, eat their flesh”

ghoulGhoul is written and directed by Patrick Graham with inconsistent levels of subtlety. The dialogue is at times very formal and stagey, with power struggles and plot turns telegraphed far in advance. The plotting is slow, grim, and pointed. Terrorism and political orthodoxy are major themes, as is suspicion of any display of faith. If there was any doubt about the point Graham was aiming at, the pile of pulled gold teeth and a crematorium should remove it. The three episodes could have easily been trimmed to two hours. The padding betrays its origins as an intended feature film.

It is still creepy as hell. The slowness, the obvious references, even the predictability of events do not diminish the skill of the cast and the strength and style of the storytelling. Ghoul may not break any new ground, but it is a solid reminder of why stories like it continues to be retold.

figures unseen

figures UnseenFigures Unseen: Selected Stories, the latest collection by Steve Rasnic Tem, is a master-class in weird fiction. The circumstances in these thirty five stories are disturbingly familiar, the settings uncomfortably domestic. Tem’s flawed and damaged characters struggle to hold on to some semblance of normalcy as their lives come apart. They become monsters, but they do not mean to. They misunderstand. They make poor choices. They fail each other the way we all do, at some point. It’s no surprise that reading Tem’s work in Figures Unseen is in many ways like coming home.

***

Steve Rasnic Tem knows his craft. He has published seven novels and more than four hundred short stories over his decades-long career. With his late wife, Melanie Tem, he wrote Yours to Tell: Dialogues on the Art & Practice of Writing.

His language is beautiful, tactile and vivid, shot through with descriptions like ”She bought Julie a doll on her way to the airport, a floppy thing with huge, aimless eyes” and “rising with the orderly progress of the flames, set free into air and light, and they all, all of them stopped their lives that day to watch”.

Yet there is so much ugliness happening inside the beautiful descriptions. Human weaknesses and failings. Selfishness. Greed. Fear. Tem can twist a strange occurrence into a catastrophe with a single well-turned phrase, to peel back the skin of normal conduct and reveal the worms beneath it: “He felt sorry for her, but he also felt scared for himself. The woman he had loved had been gone for years, and now he was left with this. He wasn’t a good enough person to handle something he hadn’t signed up for.”

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I personally find his shorter works sharper and more visceral than his longer ones. These selections in particular stand out for me:

“City Fishing”, is a bizarre coming-of-age tale reminiscent of both Dante’s Inferno and classic zombie fare.

“Houses Creaking in the Wind” provides a grim, brief summary of a man who has lost his wife and children, and may be dead himself.

“An Ending” is a particularly nasty piece about a helpless, bedridden couple dependent on their daughter for their care.

“Little Cruelties” chronicles the disintegration of a man whose attempts to control his wife and son are demonstrated through the rationalized, titular cruelties.

***
Steve Rasnic Tem
Steve Rasnic Tem

Tem also explores some of the more traditional monsters. But in his hands, what is monstrous is the responses to them, the attempts to normalize them, the desire to make them fit into a rational world or to bend the world to fit them.

Two stories here can be identified as vampire tales: “The Men and Women of Rivendale”, and “Vintage Domestic”. Neither fits easily among the common tropes. “Rivendale” offers vampirism as both an inherited disease and a cure for boredom, while “Vintage” phrases it as a desperately private family matter.

“Miri” and “Preparations for the Game” can be called ghost stories, but their hauntings are as much conscience as spirit. The protagonist in “Miri” left part of himself behind when he left his troubled girlfriend, while the main character of “Preparations” is trapped in a constant replay of his own sins.

His werewolf story, “Grandfather Wolf”, places the predator within the context of family resemblances, responsibilities, and love, without ever dipping into sentimentality.

Tem also includes a single Lovecraftian piece, “Between the Pilings”, sad and skewed and effective. In it, Innsmouth becomes a crumbling seaside resort town where the narrator is driven to recapture a lost part of  his youth.

***

The unifying theme of Steve Rasnic Tem’s Figures Unseen is, ultimately, the binding power of the family. These stories are driven by the pain of what fathers, mothers, siblings, and friends do to each other, and for each other. It makes Figures Unseen intimate, disturbing, and hard to forget–because when we strip away the weird and supernatural trappings, we are still left with ourselves.

Under the Shadow, an Iranian horror film released quietly in the U.S. in 2016, is low-key, creepy, and tantalizingly  unresolved. Set in 1980’s Tehran during the Iran-Iraq war, writer-director Babak Anvari’s story of an evil djinn’s grip on a family works largely through the power of suggestion, with a few jump scares thrown in for effective variety.

Under the Shasow
Things fall apart

In Under the Shadow, the tension of life during war-time plays out in the domestic sphere. The film’s primary focus is the rocky relationship between Shideh, portrayed by Narges Rashidi, and her young daughter Dorsa, played by Avin Manshadi. The djinn, if it exists, uses the sharp edges of their personalities to drive them ever further apart.

Neither Shideh nor Dorsa is particularly likeable, but they are thoroughly believable. Shideh is an educated, Westernized woman whose world is slowly sliding back into the dark ages. Already struggling with her mother’s recent death, her inability to return to medical school, and her conflicts with her daughter, she is faced with her husband being sent to the war zone even as the war is approaching their doorstep.

Shideh tries to ignore the seriousness of her deteriorating situation. She clings to the modern privileges of her Jane Fonda workouts and a VCR. She clings to the idea that her home is still safe. She is dismissive of her husband’s concerns, and is frequently annoyed with her daughter. And Dorsa is frequently an annoying child, stubborn, suspicious, and obviously more fond of her father than her mother. With him gone, there is no-one to ease the strain between the mother and daughter.

The idea of evil spirits worms its way into Shideh’s thinking when her daughter’s mute playmate gives the girl a charm to protect her from djinn, evil spirits who travel on the wind and steal away what you love. The thought is reinforced by their landlady’s gossip, prejudices, and superstitions, although Shideh scoffs at such primitive beliefs.

The bomb

But then the strangeness begins, with an unexploded bomb crashing through the roof of their small apartment building and triggering the death of the elderly man living on the top floor. Dorsa becomes convinced that her missing doll–a gift from her father– is in the ruined apartment. She develops a lingering fever that defies treatment. As the other families abandon the building to escape the ever-more-frequent bombings, Shideh uses the excuse of her daughter’s illness to remain behind, alone. She and her daughter rapidly descend into the grip of what may be a genuine haunting or a terrible folie à deux.

Much of Under the Shadow’s power is derived from the absence of anything solid to fear. Anvari is frugal with his depictions of the djinn. The spirit is all flapping fabric and half-seen figures, a gaping mouth and a panicked child’s voice. The growing threat to Shideh and Dorsa seems to come from within, as their interactions become increasingly ugly under the pressure of Dorsa’s inexplicable illness and Shideh’s maternal failings. At one point the tension drives Dorsa to physically attack her mother in a scene I found far more wrenching than the scenes of supernatural malice.

Under the Shadow
Dorsa’s doll

In the end, Under the Shadow is an intimate ghost story that reflects the oppression of beliefs, politics, and culture as much as the oppression of the supernatural. Anvari leaves many of the questions he introduces open-ended. He allows the film to keep its loose ends even as he offers a familiar-looking conclusion that in lesser hands would scream of a sequel–because in life, as in art, inescapable uncertainty can be the scariest part.

Last night saw the premieres of two shows I’ve been waiting for: Westworld on HBO and Ash vs Evil Dead’s second season on Starz. The results were a mixed bag, but hope springs eternal.

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HBO's Westworld
HBO’s Westworld

I have been looking forward to HBO’s take on Westworld for a long time. I have fond memories of being scared silly by Yul Brenner in the 1973 version of it. This Westworld was worth the wait. It unfolds in a sprawling, utterly realistic Wild West theme park where android ‘hosts’ provide a full immersion experience for their paying guests—‘newcomers’, as their programming dubs the human visitors. In the original film, the hosts were more traditionally robotic. The current approach gives us a truer AI, and with an ideological slant towards Battlestar Galactica rather than Ex Machina.

The new Westworld begins brilliantly, with the barest bones of the original film’s concept. The cast is top-notch, the writing superb, and the convolutions of the plot promise deep and strange directions to come. The pacing is precise, with loops and repetitions that become the story’s wheels within wheels.

There is much to think about, here, about the line between the real and the artificial. In what was possibly my favorite scene, a robot host visibly, visceraly adapts its programming to both follow its embedded script and incorporate discordant (and, what should have been unreadable) new information. And while Ed Harris is cold and creepy as the primary villain, he’s not nearly as terrifying as Yul Brenner was. But then again, I don’t think we’ve seen even a fraction of what his character is capable of. Next week can’t come soon enough.

***

Ash vs Evil Dead, back in action
Ash vs Evil Dead, back in action

On the other side of the spectrum, the return of Ash vs Evil Dead was disappointing. Season one successfully incorporated a semi-serious subplot. But as Ash vs Evil Dead starts season two, it seems to have given up too much of its crazy humor to retain its original charm. While the gore is still cheesy and exuberantly over the top, the show actually feels more like the original Evil Dead film, now—more threatening, less loopy fun. But there’s more missing than just silliness.

Part of the episode’s problem is that it felt very rushed, as if plot and character development had been purposefully sacrificed for incessant action. The end of last season saw Ash and company taking a truce and heading to Jacksonville, Florida. Season two starts with the immediate reversal of the road trip. By the first commercial they are back in Ash’s home town, where lots of random events happen—some campy, some supernatural, some just padding. But none of it is consistent. The episode is a mash up of too many ideas with not enough time allowed for them to gel into a reason to keep watching.

I’m hoping that episode two takes a deep breath and slows it down a little. There are more than enough plot elements to work with, and Ruby is still riding the line between nemesis and ally. The qualities that made the Evil Dead franchise so endearing are still there, if the show’s writers and producers are willing to pick out the strongest ones and run with them. Again.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

 

 

He Never Died
He Never Died

He Never Died is a small-scale horror movie that just happens to star Henry Rollins. That was quite enough to get my attention.

Now, I haven’t checked in with Henry Rollins in a couple of decades. It’s good to see that he hasn’t changed much at all. He is still physically imposing, sharp-eyed, and stern. He also has great comic delivery. The starring role he takes on in He Never Died is a real showcase for what he can do.

A few spoilers are coming.

The movie itself is lightweight, with a number of weaknesses. But the script is surprisingly funny, with Rollins’s deadpan performance turning joking lines that border on witty into actual laughs.

Rollins’s character, Jack, is a man of few words. He expresses himself with many eloquent, put-upon sighs and a few unnatural roars. He is slightly chattier than Rowdy Roddy Piper, but not by much. His Jack is a man with big scars, many tattoos, and a purposely limited life. He doesn’t work, drive, drink, or socialize. He eats at the same diner every day. He plays bingo at the local church three nights a week. He buys mysterious contraband from a rogue medical intern every few days. He also happens to be immortal. “I’m in the Bible if that means anything,” he offers by way of explanation.

Then his previously unknown nineteen year old daughter shows up with the intent of getting to know him and interrupts his routine. And soon after, somebody is out to get him.

Rollins is a funny man—he knows how to play this character for all its worth, and his delivery is so dry as to be purposefully ironic. His Jack is so literal, and so sub-clinically annoyed by the people around him, that his reactions can’t help but be funny.

So when Jack is finally prodded to open up to an interested waitress, he recites a resume that includes everything from truck driver, soldier, horse breeder, tinsmith, blacksmith, retail manager, cook, and businessman to prison inmate, medic, and farmer. It is like he is reciting the phone book from memory—or recreating the list of shrimp dishes from Forrest Gump.

Here are a few more of the many, many examples of his dialogue that made me laugh in this movie:

How will Jack find someone to do what he wants? “Money. People like Money.”

How did he get maced in the eyes by his aged landlady? “She’s spry.”

Why is he using pliers to pull bullets out of his forehead? “If I leave the bullets in it’ll heal over and I’ll get migraines.”

It’s hard not to love this.

Yes, there is a heavy-handed religious theme running through the action—less in-your-face literal iconography (that is reserved for the promotional art) than a handful of repeating symbols and figures of unavoidably obvious portent. We aren’t allowed to miss them.

Rollins having a bad day
Rollins as Jack, having a bad day

He Never Died is not a subtle film, and I think it wishes itself to be more clever than it actually achieves. The plot is pretty much a straight line, with the attempts at giving it a crime mystery to supplement the horror playing as awkward rather than deep. The convolutions built into to the story seem simplistic and underdeveloped, not true machinations but things for Jack to do that will let him show off his powers. The inherent violence in the tale is uneven, presented as either over-the-top gore or oddly restrained take-downs that coyly stop before real damage occurs or refrain from showing it.

While Henry Rollins is unmistakably the star, the other actors (Booboo Stewart, Kate Greenhouse, Jordan Todosey, and Steven Ogg, among others) are enjoyable to watch in varying degrees, with their characters’ weaknesses coming in large part from the thinness of the script. None but Rollins rises to great (but let’s face it, everyone except Rollins is effectively a plot device in this), but all are good enough to make this a solid little film.

Still. He Never Died resonates with me like some sort of cheerful, mutant offspring of They Live and The Prophecy. It’s the kind of movie that you can watch repeatedly and still have fun with. And I think that Henry Rollins is to thank for that.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

Bone_Tomahawk_Poster
Bone Tomahawk Poster

Bone Tomahawk is a compelling little Weird Western movie, lurking right on the edge of the genre with its combination of laconic cowboys and horrific natives. Written and directed by S. Craig Zahler, Bone Tomahawk premiered at Fantastic Fest in September, 2015 and went into limited theatrical release in October, 2015. While it has a familiar quality to it, the story is freshly told and effectively, creepily presented.

Spoilers ahead.

For a movie that opens with a throat slitting, a scalping, and an accidently desecrated burial ground, it is almost immediately engaging in a warm way. The oddly literary dialogue is delivered with a western ruffian twang and a sly humor that is unexpected but right. There is a bar named The Learned Goat. There are lines like, “You ask about horses again I’ll slap you red,” and “Sorry for yelling at you.” “My wife used to call me a dumb imbecile all the time. Felt kinda nice.”

The script is a treat. While Bone Tomahawk echoes some of the drawling stateliness of Unforgiven in its pacing, it is not nearly as contemplative and ambles along with jokes and a quicker step. There is precious little music in the film, save for two scenes. The noises of the men and the wind and the moving brush fill the spaces around their chatter. The dialogue follows its own path, separate from the action–witty, bantering, with sarcastic humor running through almost every exchange. The teasing and familiarity effectively conveys the unavoidable intimacy of a tiny community.

The primary cast is led by the ever-reliable Kurt Russell as Sheriff Franklin Hunt, an impressively mustachioed old lawman with a penchant for shooting suspects in the leg. Richard Jenkins plays Chicory, the aged assistant deputy, with deep humor and pathos. As Brooder, the town dandy, Matthew Fox is utterly convincing as a very handsome, very vain, very able rake/gunslinger. Patrick Wilson and Lili Simmons play the pivotal O’Dwyers with a modern slant, yet their drives, attitudes, and frustrations a perfectly within context.

fourhorsemen
Riding out

David Arquette as the scoundrel Purvis reminds me of his role in Ravenous, although here is less dissipated and less amusing since his character inadvertently brings monsters to the town of Bright Hope. The troglodytes, as they are called, come in pursuit of him. They capture him, but also take Mrs. O’Dwyer and the Sherriff’s primary deputy, spurring the plot by necessitating their rescue.

There is a sense of casual heroism among the main characters, of competent men shouldering their load without complaint—the familiar Western ethos of honest, imperfect men doing what needs to be done. When Sherriff Hunt declares, “I’m riding out with Mr. O’Dwyer, because there isn’t a choice for either of us,” the immediate response of Brooder and Chicory is that they will go, as well, because they each feel a personal responsibility for what has happened and a need to make it right.

The tension in Bone Tomahawk rises slowly, like water coming to a boil. Before we ever see the troglodytes, we are on edge from encounters with other, less ghastly men. While travelling, Brooder mocks the sherriff, Chicory, and O’Dwyer for ever having married. But his own heart is broken when his horse is badly hurt when she resists being stolen by thieves in the night and he has to put her down. “Thank you, for your service,” is all he says. It is an underplayed scene, and more affecting for it. The humor drains out of the film quickly after that.

Brooder and his horse
Brooder and his horse

Brooder actually develops as a fascinating character to watch. In a remarkable bit of acting, Matthew Fox shows Brooder beginning to go into shock after losing his hand during an ambush by the troglodytes. But even while shaking from the blood loss and pain, he ties off the stump and asks for the repeater rifle and dynamite. “I’m far too vain to ever live as a cripple,” he says to his companions, as he chooses how to die.

The unnamed tribe of troglodytes reminded me of the wendol of The 13th Warrior and the Carkers of Anthony Boucher’s “They Bite” in their brutality and described cannibalism. They are human but monstrous, decorated with tusks and skulls, ghostly in a coating of ashes, wielding the sharpened jawbones of horses as battle axes. They inhabit an avoided place known among the local Native Americans as the Valley of Starving Men—an area of dry dirt hillsides scraped into walls and inset with animal skulls. They do not speak–“What kind of tribe doesn’t have a name?” “The kind that doesn’t have a language. Cave dwellers”—instead, they use weird, hollow howls through bone whistles set into their throats.

Hunt_and_trog
Bone Tomahawk troglodyte

While the troglodytes are made bestial, the camera does not linger on them or use them for jump scares and shock value. They are presented rather matter-of-factly, much as the townsmen approach them. The horror is understated, with relatively (if not actually) little gore. What bloodshed there is, is graphic and grotesquely believable—scalping, evisceration, dismemberment, torture, a man split in half. But this is not sexy horror movie gore. It is meant to look as real as it does.

I was never a Western fan (Clint Eastwood doesn’t count—he’s his own genre). I always preferred action and horror. But there is an everyman’s nobility to the Western genre. With the employment of stellar actors, a deeply engaging script, and some outré human evil, Bone Tomahawk becomes a film that crosses genres in a satisfying way. While not particularly frightening, it is a well-told, entertaining, and unsettling film that is grim enough to be, truly, weird.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

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