“High Plains Drifter”
“No Country for Old Men”
by Dean Patrick
While recently watching Ethan Coen’s masterful “No Country for Old Men,” I realized that some of the finest, as well as most disturbing horror, is of the western genre. This entire idea deserves a longer, more involved paper, to be fair. But let’s take a look at four gems, and why they are such a joy when your blood needs curling.
HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER
Originally dismissed by critics as residual sauce from his spaghetti westerns, Clint Eastwood’s “High Plains Drifter” when seen today shows the lack of understanding of early 1970s critics. They were idiots.
This is a film where Eastwood’s Stranger is nothing short of an avenging angel of death who is as terrifying as he is mysterious. Is he the ghost of a Marshal? Doesn’t matter. He’s creepy as hell is what matters most, a character who provides hints of future unforgettable Eastwood gunslingers from Josey Wells to William Munny in Eastwood’s Oscar powerhouse, “Unforgiven.”
“High Plains Drifter” with Eastwoods’ Stranger is a film whose protagonist is as much villain as hero, a character of disturbing and chilling presence throughout, finally turning a once white-picket fence town into a hellish and ruined landscape.
Here’s a relatively unknown supernatural thriller set in the late 1800’s, starring Caitlin Gerard, directed by Emma Tammi.
“The Wind” is far more traditional in its horror setting than the Eastwood film, in that the backdrop here is created from abandoned cabins, a mother with a stillborn child being buried in frightening loneliness, and madness that slowly boils to an awful eruption. The dread of Tammi’s film is immediate.
Gerard plays Lizzy Macklin, where she and her husband have been living alone in an abandoned New Mexico town. When Emma and Gideon Harper move into an abandoned cabin near the Macklins, Lizzy soon discovers Emma under the bed speaking in wild incoherence. The film then spirals into hell with a force of emptiness that such landscapes surely possessed, it’s hard to not feel it even in a full house.
There are scenes of wolves tearing goats apart, ominous poltergeists, and a wicked priest - all of which make “The Wind” a piece of western horror you’ll want to see a second time just to figure it all out.
If the previous two films don’t pack enough gunpowder for you, then please, I beg you, take a peek at S. Craig Zahler’s “Bone Tomahawk,” starring Kurt Russell in one of his most powerful performances.
This film is so riveting in its pummeling of the senses, and so shocking in its turn of events halfway through that it’s mandatory to prepare yourself for the final 30 minutes. Russell plays Sheriff Hunt who ends up setting up a rescue party to save a few of the locals who have been captured at a strange burial site that is pervaded over by a tribe of Native Americans called the “Troglodytes.”
When the Troglodytes come upon Hunt and his outfit, there’s little the Sheriff can do as his group is quickly overwhelmed, captured themselves, and taken to one of the most harrowing and gruesome “prisons” you’ll ever experience in film. It is here where the story explodes into such a desperate escape attempt, with Natives who behave more like alien beasts than anything human, that you will feel, no matter where you’re sitting, the blood drain from your scalp.
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
Finally, Coen’s “No Country for Old Men,” featuring Javier Bardem’s Oscar winning performance as the sociopathic killer, Anton Chigurh. You cannot reason with him. You cannot beg for your life with him. Yes, Josh Brolin co-stars, with supporting A-listers Woody Harrelson and Tommy Lee Jones.
But make no mistake: none of them match Bardem’s triumph of evil.
The film has become such a permanent icon of brutal efficiency, and played so frequently on the major cable stations, there’s no reason to give anything other than a few reminders of some of the most chilling scenes.
When Anton is at the gas station, irritated with the gas attendant, telling him he has no idea what he’s talking about when the guy just wants to close the store and get as far away from the sicko as possible. But not until Anton makes him call heads or tails, a call where the attendant’s life is at stake.
When Anton is grinning stupidly and insanely with a shotgun pointing right at Woody Harrelson’s crotch while the phone rings incessantly, Harrelson knowing his fate and asking Anton if he knows just how insane he truly is before Anton pulls the trigger with as much emotional detachment as a wooden puppet.
When Anton puts a gas-drenched piece of cloth inside the gas tank of a local car to blow it to pieces as he walks in the pharmacy as if nothing has happened so he can steal everything he needs to clean out his bullet wounds.
When Anton has an old farmer get out of his truck and places the captive bolt stunner to the old man’s head and murders him without a single flinch. Because Anton needs the truck.
And on and on it goes as one of cinema’s greatest villains wreaks havoc on everything and anyone who gets in his way.
If you haven’t had fun with western horror during past haunted seasons, well…get on it!