The best movie to see this Halloween season isn’t at the movies. Correction: Bone Tomahawk is on one, allegedly bedbug-ridden screen here in New York City, but it’ll be gone by Mischief Night. So it goes in the turbulent and ever-shifting marketplace for off-the-grid indies. It is, however, easily accessed at home.*
Going out to attend horror movies this past month has been a bust. OK, I skipped the Hotel Transylvania and Paranormal Activity continuations, and to the extent that I prefer Vin Diesel in anything I like him behind the wheel than in hot pursuit of witches. (To judge by the grosses of The Last Witch Hunter, so do you.) The more successful Goosebumps is really child’s play, with PG-level gross-out gags that my kids lapped up; me, I LOLed just once, when the teenage heroes, trying to send the monsters back into the pages of their books, are flummoxed by the use of a typewriter.
Most disappointing was Crimson Peak. On tight or just-enough budgets, Guillermo del Toro has made some astonishing thrillers, with unique political angles; The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth are high on the Horror 101 syllabus. I enjoyed the city-flattening excesses of the mega-budget Pacific Rim. But Crimson Peak proves that money can’t buy script, which here is as vaporous as the CGI spooks haunting the title edifice. The intent seems to have been Rebecca with poltergeists, with the achievement closer to Under Capricorn or one of Hitchcock’s weaker thrillers. It looks and sounds great…and after an hour of Mia Wasikowska flailing on her pillows, having walked into a union that was plainly dicey from the get-go, I was bored.
Del Toro, the world’s biggest horror fan, would probably love Bone Tomahawk. He might even envy it. Having no money can free you to realize your vision, and Bone Tomahawk, produced for a reported $1.8 million, had no money, or just enough money to pay for Crimson Peak‘s staircases. I assume the film was shepherded into being by its star, Kurt Russell, an admirer of first-time filmmaker S. Craig Zahler’s Western novels, and his effortlessly charismatic presence may have had a leavening effect on costs. It’s Kurt Russell in Tombstone garb, as a sheriff in the Old West, which will be enough to get some of you to click over to Vudu or the VOD service of your choice.
The downside of having no money is not having a cushy marketing budget for theatrical distribution, which is where I come in. Better than Kurt Russell as an Old West sheriff, it’s Kurt Russell as an Old West sheriff tracking cave-dwelling cannibals, doubling its “must see” cult value as Halloween approaches. The strange, ashen creatures, who communicate through unsettling means, are upset that their hallowed burial ground has been vandalized, and have abducted the wife of a townsman, played, with an inconvenient broken leg, by Patrick Wilson. Crutch or not he joins Russell’s tracking party, which includes Matthew Fox, a gunslinger of questionable repute who was his wife’s old flame, and Russell’s wheezing old deputy, Richard Jenkins. Off they go through the deserts of SoCal, and about an hour of the movie is witty, period-inflected, tension-building banter, like Jaws on the Orca. (At 132 minutes, you get your rental’s worth.) The two younger actors give strong performances; Russell and Jenkins, delightful ones, doing traditional Western stuff. I could have listened to them for another hour.
But there are cave-dwelling cannibals about. And they mean business. Gut-munching, limb-lopping business. Horror Westerns are hard to get right–Ravenous, a less traditional one, has its fans (and Bone Tomahawk has a fan service appearance by its co-star, David Arquette), and I guess Kathryn Bigelow’s fine Near Dark (1987) counts. Oddities like Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1965) are just bizarro. Bone Tomahawk establishes a tone, and sticks with it to its bittersweet, viscera-strewn end. Quentin Tarantino’s pricey upcoming Western The Hateful Eight, with Russell, gives its characters the names of low-budget Western directors of yesteryear, a cutesy choice. With minimal sets and frugal outdoor filmmaking, Bone Tomahawk incarnates their essence. And adds the mondo element of cannibal “troglodytes.” (Not Native Americans; the movie is contemporary in bloodshed and political sensitivities.)
Plus…an end credits theme song, like those 50’s oaters. Relax, it works splendidly.
And I love this poster, like Red Sun (1971) with Charles Bronson or something. You won’t see it on a marquee, but you could keep it on your desktop as a souvenir of your Bone Tomahawk experience. Which I recommend you have.