by Jeff Niesel
As the contributor behind a regular feature on our film blog called "Loud and Bobnoxious Cult Movies," Bob Ignizio will regularly contribute reviews of b-movies and horror flicks that might not have gotten the attention they deserved when they were initially released. Whether the films just had a short run in theaters or went straight to video, Ignizio is here to provide commentary. What follows is his review of The Burrowers, J.T. Petty's film that's equal parts Western and monster movie.
It’s kind of depressing that one of the best horror movies of the year, J.T. Petty’s The Burrowers, wound up going straight to video while so many crappy fright flicks got a chance to play on the big screen. Of course, some of the reasons are obvious: this isn’t a remake or a sequel and there are no young, sexy stars in the cast. Studio politics may also have played a role, as the executive at Lionsgate who gave this movie the green light left the company prior to its release. Whatever the reasons, this is a film that deserves to be seen.
Set in the Dakota territories just a few years after the Civil War, The Burrowers is a blend of classic Westerns like The Searchers and serious-minded ensemble horror films like John Carpenter’s The Thing and Spielberg’s Jaws, with a touch of George Romero style social commentary thrown in for good measure. A family of settlers is besieged by unseen attackers. Some are killed outright; others are taken away into the night. When the carnage is discovered the next morning, it's assumed the attack was carried out by Indians despite numerous pieces of evidence to the contrary. A search party is hastily formed, headed up by racist cavalry leader Henry Victor (Doug Hutchinson) and his men, including former slave Callaghan (Sean Patrick Thomas). There’s also a contingent of settlers including the grizzled John Clay (Clancy Brown), veteran Indian fighter Will Parcher (William Mapother), Dobie (Galen Hutchison), the young son of the woman Parcher is courting, and Coffey (Karl Geary), a farmer who was betrothed to one of the missing settlers.
While many recent monster movies like Slither and Feast have tended towards camp, Petty keeps his film refreshingly serious, with only occasional comic relief coming naturally from the characters and some well written dialog reminiscent of Deadwood minus the profanity. The story moves at a measured pace, focusing on honest to goodness character development and suspense building. The cast is exceptionally good across the board, and, unlike the knife fodder in most modern horror movies, I found myself genuinely interested in and caring about these characters. Beyond the characters and story, the film also explores themes of racism, environmentalism and romanticized ideals of the old west in a way that adds depth without seeming heavy handed.
Of course, this being a monster movie, it’s important to have a compelling creature, and The Burrowers doesn’t disappoint on that front, either. The titular menaces are sort of like giant, vicious humanoid mole rats that inject their victims with poison that paralyzes and then liquefies the internal organs for easier feeding, leaving their prey alive for the long and painful process so as to insure maximum freshness. The creatures look their best when Petty uses old school latex effects techniques, the CGI versions coming off as somewhat less convincing. Considering how good everything else about this movie is, though, that seems a pretty minor complaint.
To be sure, some will likely find The Burrowers to be “boring” because it isn’t a nonstop orgy of murder and mayhem. If that’s all you want in a horror movie, there are plenty of films from which to choose. But for those who remember a time when intelligent, character driven low budget horror wasn’t such a rarity, The Burrowers is a welcome release. It falls short of classic status, but I suspect this film will attract a devoted and deserved cult following. - Bob Ignizio