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There’s something inherently mournful and haunted about the American West: those wide open spaces…the harsh, unforgiving environment…the long history of bloodshed and genocide, land wars and gold rushes…the West may have been subsumed by the inevitable march of time and progress but there’s a dark, untamed and feral power that’s always laid just below the soil, just waiting for folks to dig deep enough to find it. Despite generations of “white hats vs black hats” in Saturday morning Western matinees, the true legacy of the West is as grim as that of the Arctic void: it’s Death, plain and simple, stretching out before the eye like so many miles of sun-baked nothingness, like the burned-out villages that signaled a new way of life for the natives who were already here or the hollowed-out stomachs of the settlers who would make it theirs, if they could only survive the winter.

Writer-director J.T. Petty’s outstanding Western-horror film, The Burrowers (2008), is a film as sad and mournful as the Old West. Nominally a “monster movie,” The Burrowers is more about the ways in which the inhabitants of the American West fell short of the promise of a “new way of life,” falling back into the same patterns of violence, racism and fear that dogged the industrialized metropolises of the East. It’s a sad film because it offers no glossy aphorisms or false hopes: the downfall of humanity will always be humanity…we are our own worst monsters.

The film takes place in the Dakota Territories, at the tail-end of summer, in 1879. Our protagonist, Fergus Coffey (Karl Geary), a hard-working Irish immigrant, has just got up the nerve to propose to his beloved, Maryanne (Jocelin Donahue). When he travels to her family’s homestead, however, he comes upon a terrible scene: Maryanne’s farm and the surrounding farms have all been attacked and burned to the ground, with survivors nowhere to be found. Fergus gets together with Will Parcher (William Mapother), who appears to be the Old West version of William Peterson’s Gil Grissom from CSI. Fergus and Will, along with Dobie (Galen Hutchison), the young son of Will’s girlfriend, head out to look for the missing families. Their little group is complete when they connect with a take-no-nonsense preacher, Clay (Clancy Brown) and Walnut Callaghan (Sean Patrick Thomas), a black soldier who becomes fast friends with Fergus.

Despite the presence of strange wounds on the bodies and large holes in the surrounding ground, the prevailing belief seems to be that “the Indians did it.” This gets driven home when the odious Captain Henry Victor (Doug Hutchison) and his U.S. cavalry unit show up: Victor, a belligerent, boorish and detestable racist, just wants to know what natives to kill…he seems to have previous little interest in recovering anyone, as long as he gets a pound of flesh. To that end, he believes that the captives are being held at the nearby reservation, although Clay and Will both know that’s a completely stupid assumption. With Captain Victor in charge, however, there’s no time for rational thought, only heated action.

The plot thickens, as it were, when the cavalry manages to capture one of the dreaded “Indians”: Victor promptly gets to torturing him, figuring that he’ll spill the beans when he’s in enough pain. Will isn’t so sure, however, especially once he starts to talk about the mysterious “Burrowers”: everyone assumes they’re just some heretofore unknown tribe but Will points out that “Men mine, animals burrow.” He’ll be proven right, of course, as the group begins to get more and more clues that something much different from kidnapping has occurred. When the group comes upon a still-living young woman buried in the ground, however, the full truth of their situation becomes evident. Fergus, Will, Clay and the others have stumbled into the hunting grounds of something older than mankind, something which lived on the buffalo until we hunted them to extinction. It will be the fight of their lives as they battle the creatures, each other and the evil, merciless Captain Victor, their humanity blowing away with each new atrocity, like so many tumbleweeds on the plain.

Quite simply, The Burrowers is one of my all-time favorite films: it’s beautifully made, intelligent, thrilling, has great effects, real emotional depth, fully developed characters and a knockout central idea. The mythology behind the creatures is strong and rather unique (I dearly love the idea of an ancient predator running out of its food source and opting to upgrade to people) and the film never panders to its audience. Indeed, The Burrowers often seems just as much a straight-up dramatic Western as it does a horror film, even though the horror elements are strong and up-front for the entire film. This has a lot to do with Petty’s script, which is excellent: he tackles some big ideas but never allows the material to get away from him or lets the whole thing get bogged down into didactics. It’s made explicitly clear from the get-go how villainous Victor and his men are, yet Petty lets much of this arise organically, via Victor’s awful personality, rather than as merely an accepted point regarding the U.S. military’s patently awful history with Native Americans.

One of the most interesting elements of the film ends up being the balanced depiction of Native Americans: rather than existing simply as “noble savages” or defacto bad guys, as has been the norm for Westerns for some time, the Native characters are just as varied and fully formed as the white settlers, even if they don’t get quite the same amount of screen time. The scene where Fergus panics and fires on the friendly Sioux scouts is a bracing one, precisely because it upends our usual expectations in such situations (from a traditional Hollywood viewpoint, at least): the Native Americans were friendly and eager to help, until they got unceremoniously attacked. Despite all of Victor’s vitriol, here’s proof positive that the dreaded “other” is just like “us”…and then we go ahead and take a fucking shot at them, just to add a cherry to the sundae. It kind of belies the whole idea of “savages”: anybody would get “savage” if some asshole was shooting at them for no reason.

By contrast, the scene with the Ute warriors upends expectations in the other direction: after the conflict with the once-friendly Sioux, the Utes offer of assistance seems like a no-brainer. When they end up being just as treacherous as Captain Victor, however, it makes the obvious connection pretty plain: just like the white settlers, there were good and bad Native Americans. The difference, of course, ends up being the position of power and authority assumed by troglodytes like Captain Victor: when evil wears the crown, evil things tend to happen, regardless of the best efforts of good people.

There’s a lot to chew on in The Burrowers but the film never feels overly complex or convoluted: it’s fast-paced from the jump, although the film still takes care to spin out and establish its atmosphere at every opportunity. The droning, atonal score helps with this immensely: when combined with the desolate, wide-open imagery, there’s a peculiar sense of paranoia and claustrophobia that settles on the viewer. It’s a feeling as if one is trapped beneath a boundless sky that is, nonetheless, slowly pressing down and crushing you, millimeter by millimeter.

Acting-wise, The Burrowers is similarly top-notch. Karl Geary cuts a very sympathetic character as the anguished Fergus, even when he’s doing something fundamentally stupid like firing on the friendly Sioux. William Mapother is fantastic as Will, his likable character put to the screws once he starts making some very terrible decisions and it’s always great to see character-actor Clancy Brown in anything: his Clay is another neat character in a pretty impressive career. Special mention, of course, must go to Doug Hutchison as the hateful Captain Victor: sporting a foppish mustache and looking (and sounding) suspiciously like a twin to DiCaprio’s equally terrible Calvin Candie, Hutchison is an unrepressed, unbound mess of primal, undiluted racism, the poster-child for every hateful act that humanity can commit against itself. There’s no point where Victor is ever anything less than a complete and utter monster and it’s to Hutchison’s great credit that he still manages to make the character seem three-dimensional.

From beginning to end, I can find very little about The Burrowers that doesn’t hold me enthralled: from the filmmaking to the acting to the script, everything is in complete balance, contributing to one of the most well-rounded features I’ve ever seen. While I must admit to really disliking Petty’s debut feature, Soft For Digging (2001), I enjoyed his follow-up, S&Man (2006) and loved the follow-up to The Burrowers, Hellbenders (2012), making him one of the new crop of horror writer-directors that I watch like a hawk. While there might not be a whole slew of horror-Westerns, numbers-wise, The Burrowers is easily at the head of the class. It’s a film that really gets under your skin: I still find myself thinking about the finale, from time to time, even when I haven’t seen the film for a while. It’s a sad, elegiac film without easy answers or fairy-tale conclusions…it’s a hard film, as hard as the unforgiving landscape that it depicts and the haunted specters of humanity that reside there.