The Burrowers

Film review by Thomas M. Sipos




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The Burrowers (2008, director: J.T. Petty; script: J.T. Petty; cast: Clancy Brown, David Busse, Harley Coriz)





The “horror western” is a subgenre of the horror genre, not the Western. The horror western uses Western icons (e.g., Grim Prairie Tales), but its story conventions and atmosphere are horror. It is marketed toward -- and attracts -- horror fans, not Western fans.

Horror westerns normally mix these two genres from the start. We see the Western icons (the period locale, cowboys, Indians. etc.), but the story is soon, and clearly, horror.

The Burrowers is set in the Dakota Territories, 1879. But rather than blend the Western and horror genres, The Burrowers's strength is that it begins largely as an authentic Western. Only after the audience is emotionally adjusted to a Western does The Burrowers become a horror film.

The Burrowers opens on a romantic conversation, set on an idyllic Western ranch, a golden sunset in the background. Coffey with Maryanne, as they discuss how he will ask her father for her hand in marriage.

Minutes later, the first violent outbreak is typical of Westerns -- we hear gunfire outside the cabin. The family escapes to a cellar. They hear strange noises -- our first hint of an unnatural threat, as required by horror -- but we don't see any unnatural threats.

The family is killed. Maryanne is apparently kidnapped by Indians. (Audiences know it wasn't Indians -- but are lulled into believing that Maryanne may still be alive.)

For the next 44-45 minutes, The Burrowers is mostly a straight Western. Romantic photography, charging horses, beautiful prairie vistas -- supported by appropriate Western period music.



Psychologically, emotionally, dramatically, the characters are typically Western. The strong and silent Clay (very much a The Searchers, John Wayne type). The gentlemanly gunslinger Mr. Parcher. Coffey, the romantic Irish immigrant, riding to rescue Maryanne. Callaghan, the “noble Negro” (what Spike Lee calls the "magical Negro") -- compassionate, honorable, enduring racism without ever losing his dignity.



There is also an arrogant U.S. Cavalry officer, callous and cruel to both blacks and Indians. When he threatens to whip Coffey for “feeding my Indian,” the strong and silent Clay stares him down, ready for a gunfight, though outnumbered by the officers' troops.

Naturally, the officer backs down from the heroic Clay.

Throughout these first 44-45 minutes, there are intimations of horror -- the strange scars on a dead girl's neck; strange holes in the ground; something in the bushes that kills four troops. But overwhelmingly, The Burrowers's mise-en-scène, music, story, characters, and themes (loyalty toward loved ones and comrades; dignity in the face of adversity) are those of a Western.

The film emotionally conditions the audience for Western. Even if they know intellectually that they're watching a horror film, they feel like they're watching a Western. This conditions their expectations for a Western outcome. They anticipate (even if only subconsciously) that Coffey will rescue Maryanne. Most of the heroes will survive -- and if any should die, they will die noble, honorable, courageous deaths.

Yet as the film progresses, The Burrowers morphs from a Western into a horror film.

Midway into the film, Clay is killed. It's not an honorable death, but shocking and brutal. He dies not like John Wayne, giving a noble speech while heroically fading away, but is unceremoniously butchered like one of Leatherface's victims.

Clay's death is emotionally jarring. I regard this as the event that pushes the audience's mindset out of the Western genre, and into horror.

Things worsen. The monsters (vampiric “burrowers” living underground) reveal themselves. The unnatural threat becomes clear and visible.

The burrowers' bite poisons Parcher. As he fades over the course of the next day and night, he grows paranoid and cowardly. He shoots at his former comrades, lest they desert him.

In the end, he dies a coward's death. (His emotionally selfish state of mind is not unlike the cowardly jock in Jeepers Creepers 2 who wanted to abandon the weak ones, only to be killed himself.)

Callaghan likewise dies a senseless, ignoble death, the result of cowardice and incompetence. A victim of friendly fire, and an incompetent army surgeon (who perhaps callously amputated Callahan's leg, not much caring about a mere Negro's health). Callaghan, the “noble Negro,” dies like a piece of meat -- discarded like an anonymous victim in a slasher film.

Some friendly Indians die senseless deaths too, mistaken by the army as hostiles and executed. Much like Ben was mistaken for a zombie in Night of the Living Dead, and thus killed by a sheriff's posse. In horror films, innocents often die at the hands of incompetent authority figures.

Coffey fails to rescue Maryanne, or anyone else. He fails to bring proof of what he's learned about the burrowers. The army, by killing the friendly Indians, kills any hope of learning how to stop the burrowers. As in many horror films, the protagonists stymie, but do not destroy, the threat. Myers will return to kill again.


By starting as a straight Western (rather than a “horror western”), and only morphing into horror after the audience has been emotionally conditioned for a Western, The Burrowers solves a common horror film problem:

Horror requires an unnatural threat -- a sudden realization that (to quote from Frank Lupo's Werewolf pilot script) "The world is not as our minds believe."

The problem is that audiences get jaded after seeing so many horror films with the same unnatural threat -- be it a vampires, zombies, or uberpsychos. Familiarity breeds a sense of normalcy. Seeing them so often, we come to feel that they're commonplace, hence, natural.

As a result, horror filmmakers are challenged to find new ways to "creep out" audiences with a novel unnatural threat, some new threat that will overturn viewers' sense of reality.

Because most horror filmmakers can't rise to the challenge, they instead rely on gore and shocks (e.g., Devil's Grove).

The Burrowers solves this problem by starting as an authentic Western. Only after the audience is emotionally invested in a Western, with preconceived expectations of the characters' heroic deeds and successful fates, does the film emotionally jar them by segueing into a horror film -- when the characters are suddenly revealed to be cowardly and/or vulnerable.

Their deeds and deaths are typical for a horror film, but shocking to an audience that had forgotten they were watching a horror film.

Imagine High Noon if, during the last third, Gary Cooper suddenly turns cowardly, Grace Kelly is senselessly butchered like a piece of meat, and half the town massacres the other half in mindless mayhem.

The Burrowers demonstrates the emotional punch that comes of establishing one genre in the audience's mind, then defying their emotional expectations by morphing midway into another genre. A non-horror sensibility is established, into which any unnatural threat feels that much more unnatural.

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