Thursday, January 7, 2016

I heard the Troglodytes squawk in Bone Tomahawk...

There's nothing quite as strangely satisfying as a horror western, whether it's an offbeat team-up like "Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter" or a surreal anthology like "Into the Badlands" (1992). 

Writer/director S. Craig Zahler's latest entry in the crossover sub-genre, "Bone Tomahawk", is much in tune with Wes Craven's "Hills Have Eyes", Jack Ketchum's novel,"Off Season", and Tobe Hooper's "Texas Chainsaw Massacre", with a strong dash of John Ford's "The Searchers" and a hardy sprinkling of John McTiernan/Michael Crichton's "13th Warrior" and Marcus Nispel's "Pathfinder": overall, pretty intense ingredients. 

The adventure is led by the versatile Kurt Russel, who not only made a fine impression as "Tombstone'"s Wyatt Earp, but in such imagi-fare as John Carpenter's "Escape from NY/LA"; "The Thing" and "Big Trouble in Little China" (each, in its own right, a disguised western); and let's not forget Paul W.S. Anderson's "Solider" (a science-fiction retelling of "Shane"). 

Set in the ironically labeled 1890s town of Bright Hope, "Bone Tomahawk" starts with an ominous prologue, wherein two unsavory types, Buddy (horror veteran Sid Haig) and Purvis (David Arquette) slaughter a group of campers, only then to be confronted themselves by an aggressive force. Buddy is killed via an arrow, while Purvis frantically flees, and from this, further odd events unfold.

At first, the circumstances are subdued, in a kind of "From Dusk Till Dawn" mislead, but this helps establish the story's primary characters: the calm, seasoned Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Russell); his deputies Nick (Evan "X-Men" Jonigkeit) and Chicory (Richard "Cabin in the Woods" Jenkins); injured foreman Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick “Watchmen/Fargo” Wilson); his alluring wife, Samantha (Lili "Banshee" Simmons); the dapper John Brooder (Matthew "Lost" Fox) and the astute "Professor" (Zahn McClarnon: Wilson’s “Fargo” costar), a Native American who's well versed in tribal history. 

When Hunt investigates the campground slaughter, he addresses Arquette at the local saloon and shoots the suspect in the leg when he tries to flee. O’Dwyer’s wife, who possesses doctoring skills, is asked to visit the jail to remove the bullet, as her husband nurses his own wounded leg at home. However, when Samantha stays overnight to watch over the man, it results in her being abducted, along with Nick and the prisoner. 

To stir things up, a local stable boy is found slaughtered the next morning in a most vicious manner. The Professor attributes the grisly handiwork to the Troglodytes: an inbred, cannibalistic clan of tribal rejects who’ve taken residence in the caves far beyond Bright Hope.

Hunt assembles his crew to retrieve the missing persons (hoping they're still alive), with Chicory, Brooder and O’Dwyer (despite his injury) sallying forth. 

For a time, Dwyer’s admirable determination becomes the venture’s concentration, as tries to subdue his pain and curb his frenzied concern. Brooder remains cool and quippy in the meantime, with Chicory adding down-to-earth comic relief whenever he can. As one might expect, Hunt is the most focused among the men, maintaining stabilit, even when his group is confronted with unexpected interference.

Though their trek remains interesting, things finally intensify when they reach the Troglodyte’s turf. The ghostly cave-dwellers waste no time in firing their arrows upon our brave band, intending ultimately to feast upon their flesh.; and to empower their animalistic auras, the Morlock-ish monsters never speak, opting instead for blood-curdling squawks: the apparent result of bone-pipes fixed in their throats.

The film’s final stretch is its most memorable, though not as gruesome as, let’s say, “Jungle Holocaust”, but still reeks of generous sadism and gore. Whether our heroes will actually succeed is hard to predict, but what enfolds is gripping and jarring, culled from a primitive resourcefulness, where the surrounding elements are all one can grasp, and a weapon can be as basic and raw as a refashioned body part.

For what it’s worth, much of “Bone Tomahawk” echoes the slow-burn feel of Ron Howard’s “At the Heart of the Sea”, which also caters to cannibalism (see Dec ’15 post). Zahler's movie also  feels like a Werner Herzog adventure, presenting a quiet but dismal descent. At other times, it smacks of surrealism, like Nicholas Winding Refn’s “Valhalla Rising”, where Mads Mikkelsen's Viking embarks on a similar, strange sojourn.

When all is said and done, what best distinguishes "Bone Tomahawk" is its characters, with each performance, whether supporting or leading, exemplary. For the record, Russell and Wilson fans will be particularly pleased by the actors' deft nuances and extensive screen time.

With more publicity and further word of mouth, “Bone Tomahawk” could have been a major hit. Its existence at least demonstrates that one doesn’t need zooming starships or caped avengers to create otherworldly escape, though the film's pensive pace and dark tone will probably deter some. Still, for those who fancy their adventures tough and quirky, Zahler’s fable will garner praise. I, for one, rank it among 2015’s best, and if you're so inclined to check it out, I'm confident you'll claim the same. 

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