Whilst the Western and horror genres might seem an unusual mismatch, Bone Tomahawk – the debut film from author, screenwriter and cinematographer S. Craig Zahler –provides one of the best examples of either genre that we’ve seen in recent years.
The stripping away of our orderly society and the prospect of relative lawlessness in an untamed environment is inherently terrifying. The Walking Dead uses this as its basic premise, as well as transposing many of the tropes of Westerns to its post-apocalyptic setting. It’s a surprise then that horror movies set in the old West are few and far between, and good ones even rarer.
Bone Tomahawk - which draws inspiration from John Ford’s The Searchers - sees a group of people, including a young woman (Lili Simmons) abducted from a small town by a group of Native Americans known as Troglodytes. Her crippled husband (Patrick Wilson), local sheriff Kurt Russell (still sporting his magnificent Hateful 8 facial hair), professional Indian Killer Matthew Fox and sheriff’s deputy (Richard Jenkins) form a rescue party and set off in pursuit.
There’s no hint of the captives’ fate for most of the film, so it’s these four who are at the heart of the story. Russell can do world-weary and grizzly in his sleep by now. Jenkins provides him with solid support and providing much of the film’s comic relief, and Fox proves a curious hybrid, part gentleman, part ruthless killer. It’s Wilson however who provides the film with its heart: he’s fully aware that his injured leg is holding the group back, but determined to rescue his wife.
As their journey progresses – mired by encounters with Mexicans, horse thieves and eventually the Troglodytes themselves - things begin to turn very dark indeed. What starts as a traditional, if dark, Western gradually morphs into something very different; twisting into full-blown horror by the time the group reach the end of their journey.
And it’s the last half hour – when the group catches up with the Troglodytes - that makes Bone Tomahawk really stand out. The cannibalistic group may not be based on any actual group (the film even brings in Wilson’s Native American Fargo co-star Zahn McClarnon to emphasize the point) but that doesn’t make them any less sinister.
The group are reminiscent of the barely-human monsters conjured up by early-era Tobe Hooper or Wes Craven. Whilst they may not be wholly original, they are nonetheless a terrifying creation, and the horrors the Troglodytes inflict on both the rescuers and captives alike some may find hard to watch. One murder in particular - in which the titular weapon is put to good use - is amongst the most wince-inducing scenes we’ve seen since Audition.
Bone Tomahawk is one of 2016’s best to date, effectively injecting the Western with a shot of horror. Combining an impressive cast (including cameos from the likes of Sid Haig, Sean Young and David Arquette), great villains and a brilliantly dark climax, it should be essential viewing for both Western and horror fans alike.
BONE TOMAHAWK / CERT: 18 / DIRECTOR: S. CRAIG ZAHLER / SCREENPLAY: S. CRAIG ZAHLER / STARRING: KURT RUSSELL, PATRICK WILSON, MATTHEW FOX / RELEASE DATE: 13TH JUNE