With a horror genre frequently as barren creatively as the dusty badlands this film inhabits, it’s easy to get carried away with seeing something new and wholly unique, and critics are mostly justified in their effusive praise. (Still, it should be noted, originality for its own sake does not a great film necessarily make. Seeing Crips break out into “I am the Monarch of the Sea” from the H.M.S. Pinafore would be very original indeed.)
Bone Tomahawk is so unique it veers far away from horror territory. It also upends western conventions by the coach-load. To name just one, gone are the boisterous card-games, big talk and ladies of the evening of a booming Deadwood saloon. Here, the perennially dull (and empty) watering hole, The Learned Goat, is home to a barkeep and a sad, lazy, drunk piano player, whose unit costs actually go up, the more songs of his you buy.
Two criminal drifters, Purvis and Buddy (a marvelous Sid Haig and David Arquette), set the tone early on with engaging patter before they’re set upon by something weird in the desert. Before the credits role, they’ve exchanged more dialogue than what took place the first two Friday the 13th films combined.
Buddy survives to have his wounds tended to by the town’s de facto doctor, Mrs O’Dwyer, who is also nursing her injured husband back to health in their home.
Meanwhile, a stable boy is murdered by unseen forces and Mrs O’Dwyer, who’s been providing unorthodox healthcare services overnight in the jail, Buddy, and a local deputy are kidnapped.
They consult with an Indian guide who is just as afraid of what’s potentially out there as the cowboys. This sets in motion – what else – a search party!
Mr. O’Dwyer, far from healed, insists on joining the posse, led by the formidable Sheriff Hunt (Kurt Russell), bombastic hot-head Brooder (an amazing Matthew Fox) and aging garrulous yes-man Chicory (Richard Jenkins).
What they find out in the desert, we’ll leave to our viewers.
The course of the journey on horseback eats up a lot of screen time, but cowboy baked bean repasts and ripostes like “It’s 9 pm and it feels like next week” keeps things cooking as the foursome approaches The Valley of the Starving Men.
What’s most shocking about Bone Tomahawk is not the frequently intense gore but the chatter, which, again, could come straight out of the mouths of Al Swearengen and co. in Deadwood (one of the very best shows to grace the small screen). When the bartender asks, “What’s your predilection?” he answers his own question with “you look like you could use something potent. Or omnipotent.”
It’s rare to see page-popping dialogue in any film, let alone in horror. Great to see here, even if Bone Tomahawk is more of a western*.
**** (out of 5)
*PLEASE SEE OUR LIST OF THE BEST HORROR FILMS OF 2015
**PLEASE CHECK OUT OUR DISCUSSION OF BONE TOMAHAWK ON THE REALLY AWFUL MOVIES PODCAST**