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Examining ‘Bone Tomahawk’ and Its Place Among the Weirdest Westerns in Film History

We went blind into Bone Tomahawk, which is a pretty great way to see it. We knew it was a Western with Kurt Russell as the lead, but we didn’t know it would walk right up into “Weird Western” territory. If you’re sold on that alone, stop right now. I wouldn’t say what we’re about to get into is spoiler territory, exactly, seeing as how the marketing is putting the central conflict front and center – Kurt Russell leads a search and rescue into the lair of deadly “cannibals.” But the cannibals are troglodytes, aka cavemen. Yes, it’s a cowboys and cavemen movie.

And it rocks.

The first thought we had as the film ended was that Joe R. Lansdale would probably really like this. Lansdale is an East Texas writer, known for his work in the splatterpunk, Western, and crime genres, whose stories have been adapted into the films Bubba Ho-Tep and Cold in July. Funny then that as we began to research “Weird West” there was Lansdale’s name right there at the start of the topic’s Wiki page. Lansdale is just one writer who keeps the weird west alive, but the roots go all the way back to pulp magazines, which would mix Western tropes with bits and pieces of fantasy, sci-fi, and horror.

The influence of those pulps was felt on film, though short of Valley of the Gwangi most have been forgotten by time. In 1935’s The Phantom Empire Gene Autry stumbles across cave-dwellers, but unlike Bone Tomahawk’s vicious savages, he finds a technologically advanced society with robots and rayguns. Curse of the Undead, a 1959 Universal Studios weird Western that pits a preacher against a vampire hired gun, is near-impossible to find on home video. Something about weird West films has never quite clicked with Western fans or fantasy fans, so films like Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter or The Beast of Hollow Mountain are considered little more than cinematic curios.

There are a couple of true cult classics in the mix. Valley of the Gwangi was released in 1969 and feels at least ten years older than it actually is, due to its old West setting and Ray Harryhausen effects (especially quaint in the same year that brought us 2001: A Space Odyssey). It’s a cowboys versus dinosaurs movie that delivers every bit of what you’d want from that premise including a last reel rampage where a terrible thunder lizard rips apart a Spanish mission.

In George Pal’s 7 Faces of Dr. Lao a traveling circus filled with oddities (a yeti, Medusa, Pan, and more – all played by Tony Randall) affects the country folk who attend the circus in deeply personal ways. It was once a UHF staple and remains one of the best weird Westerns. There’s really nothing else like it.

Modern audiences haven’t quite clicked with weird Westerns either. Wild Wild West, Jonah Hex, Cowboys and Aliens, and The Lone Ranger were all positioned as big must-see summer movies and just didn’t connect. Worth seeking out are less ambitious recent projects like Ravenous or The Burrowers.

Ravenous has cannibals in common with Bone Tomahawk and delivers a chilling new spin on the “wendigo” legend – if you eat the flesh of another, you gain their strength. The search-and-rescue narrative drive of Bone Tomahawk is also used in The Burrowers, but the enemies in question are literal monsters – humanoid mole crickets who poison and bury their prey to eat later.

After revealing the threat – that troglodytes have captured three townspeople – Bone Tomahawk lulls you into a false sense of security for much of its running time. The crew (Russell, along with Richard Jenkins, Patrick Wilson, and Matthew Fox) is endlessly walking, talking, and camping, while trying to protect themselves from bandits and the elements on the way to rescue their charge. It will feel comfortable to Western fans before it takes a hard left turn into material that should satisfy grue-hungry horror fans. 

First-time director S. Craig Zahler’s script deliberately leans on Old West cliches, but is buoyed by crackling dialogue and strong performances. Everybody brings their A-game to this B-movie, and, honestly, that’s always the best way to make a B-movie. It means we can wholeheartedly recommend Bone Tomahawk as not just a great “Weird West” entry but as one of 2015’s most unexpected genre surprises.

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