The Burrowers Review
The dry and dusty plains of the Wild West aren’t (with a few notable exceptions) a staple backdrop for subterranean creature-themed horror movies, so an effort to use such a combination can make for an intriguing prospect. Of course, splicing together two seemingly disparate spheres can carry a high risk factor; any resultant lack of authenticity for either the Western or horror elements can turn off the respective ardent and discriminating fan bases, whilst failing to strike the right balance between the two will rapidly alienate any wider audience. J.T. Petty’s The Burrowers draws two such worlds together, in the hope that the backdrop of a Western will provide a sufficiently unconventional premise upon which to unleash a powerful assault of grubby, burrowing terror.
Petty, who penned and directed the feature, proves mature enough to harness the risk well, constructing a movie of such credibility that, for the first half an hour or so, it’s quite conceivable that you could be watching a rather decent Western. The gentle Irish tones of character Fergus Coffey (played convincingly by Karl Geary) mentally practising his speech to a would-be bride’s father makes for a particularly touching opening, before a darker threat begins to loom.
What could this threat be? Of course, it must be Injuns! As an ensemble of men gather to recover a supposedly snatched family from the suspects, a somewhat less familiar enemy begins to (quite literally) surface, and the fate of any unfortunate victims is a truly horrific ordeal indeed.
Utilising this compelling combination of Western and horror, Petty leverages the exploration of some important themes. Race and ethnicity issues crop up with some regularity in a divided and ever-developing land, and are handled sensitively and with some irony-laden humour. The brutality of certain elements of the American gathering is well reflected in the efficient brutality of nature; as the victims are struck down by the marauding nasties, the emerging modus operandi is horrifically clinical – and devastatingly effective. Perhaps most subtle is the commentary on the counter-productive consequences of the Americans' meddling and greed; the unmitigated ravaging of nature’s resources is one which nature will adapt to, unleashing its blood-thirsty revenge upon the unsuspecting perpetrators.
Authenticity is assured with almost exclusively solid performances, and the camerawork is technically sharp and impressively creative. Whether it’s the moment where the galloping gang thunder through a field, with the camera focussing on a cricket gripping some long grass which rustles from the breeze created by the mob, or the aerial perspective of the unfolding horror in a forest scene later on, the filming, composition, and framing is frequently steady, balanced, and imaginative.
Special effects are handled with equally impressive aplomb; whilst there are some wince-inducing moments, vivid bloodshed is eschewed in favour of a more restrained approach. The nasties of the piece, initially captured in a sensibly pitched darkness, are convincing when making a clearer appearance, and whilst they almost appear to be the result of some very effective CGI, the effects are actually produced using far more traditional methods, which work very well indeed.
The only real drawbacks surround the general pacing. The careful and measured construction of the unfolding events may alienate some viewers who are expecting a more straightforward horror piece, and likewise fans who have a proclivity for the Western genre may be unsettled as the horror elements gather pace towards the latter stages. Such is the challenge for the filmmaker who dares to bring two worlds together, but the fact is that this brave approach pays dividends by separating itself from the sprawling shelves of formulaic horror movies, and enables the quiet exploration of some interesting and challenging themes. It’s a subtle and often understated piece, by modern standards, but those who are open-minded about their horror – and, possibly, those who are open-minded about their Westerns, would be well advised to hunt this quality piece down.
This Lionsgate release of The Burrowers is presented in an aspect ratio of 2:35:1, looks great, and is encoded with region 2 for a European audience. Trailers include Jason Statham running around and being generally rather silly in Crank: High Voltage, Sam Raimi's Drag me to Hell, S. Darko, and the daft but enjoyable My Bloody Valentine.
The transfer here is extremely good, with a clear reproduction of the action, and an accurate capturing of the motion, even during faster moments. The colour is largely strong, and the sprawling vistas of the countryside (sometimes surprisingly green) are beautifully rendered. The only real criticism I have surrounds some moments where the colour can look a little under-represented; scenes where the American entourage gallop towards the camera, for example, seem to lack adequate reproduction of colour and brightness, and some of the forest based moments are a little lacking on definition when the darkness encroaches. Overall though, given the relatively modest budget of the production, this is a visual experience of some quality.
English subtitles are available for the Hard of Hearing, and the subtitles are clear, well placed, and accurate.
Audio delivery is especially strong, with the recording presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. Vocals are clear and high in the mix from the off, although whether you can fully understand what is being said beneath the thick accents is another matter entirely! The sound of gunshots are an excellent showcase of the quality here, with each shot exploding with impressive depth and echoing across the sound space convincingly, and during some sequences the flies buzz around you with irritating realism!
Joseph LoDuca's fitting soundtrack is delivered with similar high quality reproduction.
We are treated to a couple of extras which are short-lived but well worth a viewing. First up is The Burrowers: Making a Horror Western, containing a clutch of interviews with the Director and cast. Particularly interesting is director Petty’s explanation for the chosen marriage of Western/horror, which is indeed an important factor for the movie’s impact. Running time is at approximately six minutes, so don’t go blinking too often.
The second featurette, Digging up the Burrowers: Creating the Monster, reveals the wizardry behind the special effects, and it’s a genuine surprise to discover that the creatures are not the product of CGI, which perhaps explains the excellently captured and convincing movements. Once again, the running time is fairly short, around about five minutes this time.
With the combination of a convincing Western backdrop providing a foundation for the unfolding of some brutal horror, J.T. Petty’s The Burrowers delivers a refreshing blend of genres that could have sat together awkwardly, were it not for some slick direction, a careful and understated build-up, and strong performances from the cast. The extras here are a welcome, if somewhat short exposure of the mechanics behind the film, and with a clean transfer and high quality audio reproduction, there is much to recommend that you unearth this smart Wild West/Crawling Creature collision.