If I told you The Burrowers focused on the 1879 disappearance of several innocent settlers, you'd probably expect a half-decent (if somewhat familiar) western flick. If I told you that the abductors were a group of subteranean monsters, you'd logically assume it was a horror flick. And clearly J.T. Petty's The Burrowers is both things: It's a monster movie and a western at the same time, but it also manages to be more than the sum of its two genre halves.
Petty, whom you may remember from Soft for Digging, Mimic: Sentinel, or the little-seen S&Man, strikes a masterful balance between old-school horse opera and old-fashioned monster movie -- and whether you end up loving the flick or hating it, most genre fans will walk away a little impressed with the filmmaker's balancing act.
I'd call The Burrowers a full-bore WESTERN that just happens to have creepy monsters in it, mainly because that's the way I see the film -- but also to let the gorehounds know that they're not getting a non-stop rock 'em-sock 'em carnage party. As a matter of fact, The Burrowers has long stretches in which the title creatures play no part whatsoever ... and it helps that the "western" sections are (arguably) the best sections of the film. Like all the coolest western stories, The Burrowers deals with issues of honor, loyalty, and bravery -- but it does so in a quick and efficient style that makes the "talky" bits work and the spooky sections shine. Petty is more than content to dole out his monster moments at well-spaced and appropriate sections, but when the beasties DO show up, well, they almost steal the whole damn show.
Petty's confidence behind the camera is far from the film's only asset: The cast is stocked with fantastic character actors like William Mapother, Doug Hutchison, Sean Patrick Thomas, and the great Clancy Brown, the film is shot in a beautifully crisp fashion that belies the production's limited budget, the Joseph LoDuca score is a comfortable blend of genre styles, and the creatures are both very effective and wonderfully disgusting. Best of all, the screenplay (also by Petty) sets you up for 'predictability' in both the western and horror departments, and then subverts those expectations time and again. (How cool it is to actually get a few surprises from such a potentially familiar concoction.)
If the last "horror / western" you can remember that was actually worth a lick is Ron Underwood's Tremors, I recommend you get a little revved up for The Burrowers. The films are nothing alike, if you're asking me, mainly because The Burrowers is a period piece (while Tremors is not) and Tremors is flush with comedy (while The Burrowers is not) -- and it's Petty's film that goes the extra mile by asserting that the "extinction" of the old west may have had some decidedly nasty repercussions on a biological level. The film frequently invokes the plight of America's early loss of innocence -- and how our horrendous treatment of Native Americans may have tainted us beyond repair...
But, yeah, it also works as a monster movie too. Just one that looks damn good, smells like a western, and has more than half a brain in its head. It's a pretty unique little genre mash-up, and I've no problem giving it a very strong recommendation. (Far as I know, the DVD will hit the shelves next April.)