It seems that the best horror movies of recent years are the ones that approach the genre obliquely. To all intents and purposes Bone Tomahawk is a western. Set in a frontier town it follows the usual tropes – shifty stranger in town, dusty saloon, tough sheriff (Kurt Russell doing what Kurt Russell does best) and restless natives. There’s even the forming of a posse. But underneath that desert sunset beats the heart of a horror movie, and a pretty good one at that.
Opening with Buddy and Purvis (Sid Haig(!) and David Arquette) killing and robbing a group of travellers, the pair run at the sound of horses. Unfortunately they run into a native burial ground. Later as Purvis arrives in the town of Bright Hope, it soon becomes apparent that he has been marked. The natives want revenge and take deputy sheriff Nick and Mrs O’Dwyer (the de facto town doctor) in the process.
So begins the meat of the story as Sheriff Hunt, back-up Deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins), Mr O’Dwyer (crippled from an accident and played by Patrick Wilson) and dandy gun fighter Brooder (Matthew Fox) set out across uncharted territory to rescue the hostages, a rescue that culminates in a bloodbath of gore and violence.
In this age the film does well to separate the cannibalistic natives from genuine First Nation tribes – one scene sees a Native American scout refuse to help, describing the tribe as an in-bred abomination. That said there are moments of awkwardness as the movie takes its time-period and setting seriously. The good guys are uniformly good (no shades of grey and no reflection on them being on someone else’s land) and the bad guys reduced to monstrous figures – they don’t even have a language. By dehumanizing the tribe the movie shows its horror credentials more fully – you just can’t make a western this simplistic these days.
But as a horror movie it is a fantastic piece of work. The dialogue is zippy and funny (showing writer director S. Crag Zahler’s background as a novelist) and the performances from a top drawer cast uniformly superb, with Kurt Russell a standout. It feels old-fashioned (and not just from the Old West setting) the kind of movie that would once have been a VHS favourite, passed around at school by kids not really old enough to watch it.
Part The Searchers, part The Hills Have Eyes, Bone Tomahawk is all horror.
GS Rating: 4/5
GS Blogger: Bobby Diabolus