Skip to main content

You know, I know the world's supposed to be round, but I'm not so sure about this part.

Bone Tomahawk
(2015)

(SPOILERS) S Craig Zahler’s movie debut, coming in the wake of numerous sold but unmade screenplays, is a highly accomplished horror western, exhibiting the kind of slow, steady unfolding, in full knowledge of a worth-the-wait climax, also exhibited by the likes of Kevin Costner’s Open Range. The major difference being, Open Range doesn’t explode into a crimson fountain of limbs and entrails, while Bone Tomahawk wades in knee deep.


Not being a gore hound, I take no great glee in the sight of an unfortunate deputy’s scalping, having a block hammered into his mouth and then suffering the final indignity of being split down the middle, but I suspect the horror fiend in Zahler took unbridled relish in this dubious achievement. Elsewhere, there are numerous dismemberments and a cathartic decapitation, as Russell’s Sheriff Hunt gets a too-late opportunity for payback.


Perhaps most wince-inducing, however, in terms of the protracted stress and strain, is the arduous journey to the location where the town of Bright Hope’s abductees are held captive, during which Patrick Wilson’s O’Dwyer, recuperating from a fractured leg, further damages it with his every step after the posse’s horses are stolen.


To be fair to Zahler, he isn’t indiscriminate in his employment of viscera. Indeed, he’s so measured and meticulous in building up suspense that he scarcely needs to be. By the time we reach the unhallowed hallowed grounds of the cannibal troglodytes (apparently it’s okay to depict Native Americans as mindless savages, just as long as they’re barely recognisable mindless savages, more The Hills Have Eyes than Stagecoach) nerves are jangling uncontrollably in anticipation of the terror awaiting our motley heroes (and to be honest, I’m glad he didn’t opt for a realistic portrayal of how people would likely react to the deputy’s death, since none of the characters would ever have recovered their wits).


And they are very much motley. Russell’s Sheriff Franklin Hunt wears the familiar whiskers of Kurt in western mode (going back to Tombstone two decades ago), and it doesn’t need saying he doesn’t disappoint. Only that, with his current minor career resurgence, it would be nice if he doesn’t make a habit of dying in all his new defining roles. As it is, it’s his co-stars who rather steal the limelight, the odd line aside (“Well, you’re pretty angry for a guy named Buddy”).


There’s Wilson’s O’Dwyer, desperate to rescue his abducted wife (Lili Simmons, best known for Banshee), so much so that he foolishly heads off with a busted leg and spends three-quarters of the movie looking like a liability who will certainly do for their slim chances of staging a successful rescue. It’s one of Zahler’s great strengths as a writer that, in a fairly simple plot, he veers from the expected in character fates. Okay, I was expecting Russell to buy it, and Fox’s cocky sharpshooter Brooder was also unlikely to see the final frame, but the turnaround of O’Dwyer, resourceful and resolute, was still surprising, even when it dawned on me that’s where this was heading. That said, it’s astonishingly considerate of the troglodytes to give their cave a back way in, so he doesn’t have to hoist himself up a rock face.


Brooder: I’ve killed more Indians than anyone else here put together.
The Professor: Well, that’s an ugly boast.
Brooder: It isn’t a boast, but a fact.

Fox is terrific in a gift of a part, Brooder being parcelled out a procession of self-assured and pithy one-liners, even to the point where he’s looking death in the mouth (“I’m far too vain to ever live as a cripple”), and given an amusing exchange (as above) with the town’s knowledgeable Native American. And, while he maybe antagonistic and aloof, Brooder surely loves his horse.


Richard Jenkins as Chicory gives the talkative (and then some, particularly on the subject of flea circuses and reading in the bath) old-timer a touching moral code (“One of them was wearing a crucifix” he protests of the bandits shot down by Brooder; “Then Jesus should have helped him” comes the reply). There’s also good support from Simmons, and David Arquette as the throat-cutting, grave-desecrating outlaw who starts all this.


As for the troglodytes, they’re a fearsome bunch, possibly a little too acrobatic when it comes to being flattened by bullets, but with arrestingly outlandish throat adornments/implants that give them a unique (slightly Predator-esque) method of communication (part of O’Dwyer’s rehabilitation into a hero comes when he removes one and lures others to their doom with it).


Zahler has made nothing short of a first rate B-movie here, one he elevates with fine, memorable characterisations and a keen choice of cast. It will be interesting to see which way the entirely exploitation-titled Brawl in Cell Block 99 takes him. What makes Bone Tomahawk so arresting is that it takes western characters and throws them into a horror scenario; it may lack the subtext of a Deliverance or Southern Comfort, but it succeeds as a character piece long before it’s overwhelmed in splatter. Can he do the same for the prison genre?


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Popular posts from this blog

The Illumi-what-i?

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) (SPOILERS) In which Sam Raimi proves that he can stand proudly with the best – or worst – of them as a good little foot soldier of the woke apocalypse. You’d expect the wilfully anarchic – and Republican – Raimi to choke on the woke, but instead, he’s sucked it up, grinned and bore it. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is so slavishly a production-line Marvel movie, both in plotting and character, and in nu-Feige progressive sensibilities, there was no chance of Sam staggering out from beneath its suffocating demands with anything more than a few scraps of stylistic flourish intact.

Ziggy smokes a lot of weed.

Moonfall (2022) (SPOILERS) For a while there, it looked as if Moonfall , the latest and least-welcomed – so it seems – piece of apocalyptic programming from Roland Emmerich, might be sending mixed messages. Fortunately, we need not have feared, as it turns out to be the same pedigree of disaster porn we’ve come to expect from the director, one of the Elite’s most dutiful mass-entertainment stooges, even if his lustre has rather dimmed since the glory days of 2012.

What’s so bad about being small? You’re not going to be small forever.

Innerspace (1987) There’s no doubt that Innerspace is a flawed movie. Joe Dante finds himself pulling in different directions, his instincts for comic subversion tempered by the need to play the romance plot straight. He tacitly acknowledges this on the DVD commentary for the film, where he notes Pauline Kael’s criticism that he was attempting to make a mainstream movie; and he was. But, as ever with Dante, it never quite turns out that way. Whereas his kids’ movies treat their protagonists earnestly, this doesn’t come so naturally with adults. I’m a bona fide devotee of Innerspace , but I can’t help but be conscious of its problems. For the most part Dante papers over the cracks; the movie hits certain keynotes of standard Hollywood prescription scripting. But his sensibility inevitably suffuses it. That, and human cartoon Martin Short (an ideal “leading man” for the director) ensure what is, at first glance just another “ Steven Spielberg Presents ” sci-fi/fantas

All I saw was an old man with a funky hand, that’s all I saw.

The Blob (1988) (SPOILERS) The 1980s effects-laden remake of a ’50s B-movie that couldn’t. That is, couldn’t persuade an audience to see it and couldn’t muster critical acclaim. The Fly was a hit. The Thing wasn’t, but its reputation has since soared. Like Invaders from Mars , no such fate awaited The Blob , despite effects that, in many respects, are comparable in quality to the John Carpenter classic – and are certainly indebted to Rob Bottin for bodily grue – and surehanded direction from Chuck Russell. I suspect the reason is simply this: it lacks that extra layer that would ensure longevity.

Are you telling me that I should take my daughter to a witch doctor?

The Exorcist (1973) (SPOILERS) Vast swathes have been written on The Exorcist , duly reflective of its cultural impact. In a significant respect, it’s the first blockbuster – forget Jaws – and also the first of a new kind of special-effects movie. It provoked controversy across all levels of the socio-political spectrum, for explicit content and religious content, both hailed and denounced for the same. William Friedkin, director of William Peter Blatty’s screenplay based on Blatty’s 1971 novel, would have us believe The Exorcist is “ a film about the mystery of faith ”, but it’s evidently much more – and less – than that. There’s a strong argument to be made that movies having the kind of seismic shock on the landscape this one did aren’t simply designed to provoke rumination (or exultation); they’re there to profoundly influence society, even if largely by osmosis, and when one looks at this picture’s architects, such an assessment only gains in credibility.

That, my lad, was a dragon.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) (SPOILERS) It’s alarming how quickly Peter Jackson sabotaged all the goodwill he amassed in the wake of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. A guy who started out directing deliciously deranged homemade horror movies ended up taking home the Oscar for a fantasy movie, of all genres. And then he blew it. He went from a filmmaker whose naysayers were the exception to one whose remaining cheerleaders are considered slightly maladjusted. The Desolation of Smaug recovers some of the territory Jackson has lost over the last decade, but he may be too far-gone to ever regain his crown. Perhaps in years to come The Lord of the Rings trilogy will be seen as an aberration in his filmography. There’s a cartoonishness to the gleeful, twisted anarchy on display in his earlierr work that may be more attuned to the less verimilitudinous aspects of King Kong and The Hobbit s. The exceptions are his female-centric character dramas, Heavenly Creat

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

This risotto is shmackin’, dude.

Stranger Things Season 4: Part I (SPOILERS) I haven’t had cause, or the urge, to revisit earlier seasons of Stranger Things , but I’m fairly certain my (relatively) positive takes on the first two sequel seasons would adjust down somewhat if I did (a Soviet base under Hawkins? DUMB soft disclosure or not, it’s pretty dumb). In my Season Three review, I called the show “ Netflix’s best-packaged junk food. It knows not to outstay its welcome, doesn’t cause bloat and is disposable in mostly good ways ” I fairly certain the Duffer’s weren’t reading, but it’s as if they decided, as a rebuke, that bloat was the only way to go for Season Four. Hence episodes approaching (or exceeding) twice the standard length. So while the other points – that it wouldn’t stray from its cosy identity and seasons tend to merge in the memory – hold fast, you can feel the ambition of an expansive canvas faltering at the hurdle of Stranger Things ’ essential, curated, nostalgia-appeal inconsequentiality.

You keep a horse in the basement?

The ‘Burbs (1989) (SPOILERS) The ‘Burbs is Joe Dante’s masterpiece. Or at least, his masterpiece that isn’t his bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you masterpiece Gremlins 2: The New Batch , or his high profile masterpiece Gremlins . Unlike those two, the latter of which bolted out of the gate and took audiences by surprise with it’s black wit subverting the expected Spielberg melange, and the first which was roundly shunned by viewers and critics for being absolutely nothing like the first and waving that fact gleefully under their noses, The ‘Burbs took a while to gain its foothold in the Dante pantheon.  It came out at a time when there had been a good few movies (not least Dante’s) taking a poke at small town Americana, and it was a Tom Hanks movie when Hanks was still a broad strokes comedy guy ( Big had just made him big, Turner and Hooch was a few months away; you know you’ve really made it when you co-star with a pooch). It’s true to say that some, as with say The Bi

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the