Westbound and Doomed: The Uncharted Terrain of Bone Tomahawk

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Billed as a horror-Western, Bone Tomahawk is a film without direct cinematic precedent. For starters, it’s really more of a Western with a short horror film packaged seamlessly into one brief and glorious stretch of its narrative. It’s also the first very good film in the history of film to marry the two genres (with respect to the great Dusk Till Dawn, which isn’t really a Western). I am, of course, operating on the premise that such titles as Billy the Kid Vs. Dracula, The Quick and Undead and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter aren’t exactly “triumphs.”

Billy the Kid vs. Dracula poster

Not quite a classic…

Sure, you could argue that it draws from a patchwork of disparate sources: an amalgam of The Searchers and The Hills Have Eyes, or perhaps the warped offspring of The Descent and Apocalypto.

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“This is how it feels to have one of the greatest films of its decade critically panned because its director is a racist piece of shit.”

The closest singular film I can link it to would be the black comedy Ravenous (1999). Both, after all, are cannibal-themed period pieces that traffic in undertones of supernatural terror while maintaining a sense of morbid humor.

Bone Tomahawk, however, is simply a different kind of animal. Its humor is more subtle; its horror worlds more horrific; its Western more… Western. The closest singular source I can link it to is Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian, but while that would encompass Bone Tomahwak’s grotesque and philosophical Western leanings, it doesn’t fully capture the more traditional horror avenue into which it (quite literally) devolves.

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Coolest movie poster of 2015?

In short, this movie does something profound for viewers like myself (and other adherents of the idea that bleak cinema is like ASMR) by combining two of the best grim genres ever created into a tidy little package of bloody carnage and retaining the bleakest soulful expression that each has to offer. Furthermore, there has never been a more perfect movie to recommend on a blog that doesn’t focus specifically on horror, crime, Western or thriller, but instead connects these genres through an undercurrent of thrilling morbidity and bleakness.

But enough gushy babbling. Here’s your goddam synopsis:

Like Ravenous, Bone Tomahawk is propelled in part by a fantastic cast of recognizable b-listers. Ravenous gave us the great performances of Guy Pearce, Robert Carlyle and Jeffrey Jones. In Tomahawk we have Kurt Russell harkening back to his Snake Plissken and R.J. MacReady days as a mean-as-nails, no-nonsense sonuvabitch frontier sherriff.

Speaking of The Thing, first-time director S. Craig Zahler draws from a dark pool of horror and crime cinema vets to bring his script to life. Richard Jenkins (The Cabin in the Woods) steals the show as a simple-minded, chatty backup deputy who serves as Russell’s loyal bloodhound.

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“You know, I know the world’s supposed to be round, but I’m not so sure about this part.”

James Wan alum Patrick Wilson (who I’m starting to realize can actually act, even if he ain’t much with a Western accent) plays the lead of a crippled land surveyor spearheading a rescue party. We also get Sid Haig (Rob Zombie vet), David Arquette (Scream, Ravenous), Zahn McClarnon (Season Two of Fargo, Resolutionand Lili Simmons (True Detective, Banshee), with the latter looking way too hot for frontier life. Oh, and then there’s Matthew fucking Fox as a bloodthirsty playboy Indian hunter in what might just be his best-ever role (meaning it’s completely tolerable).

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“Matthew Fox from Lost? You know what’s interesting about him? … Nothing.”

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Monster at the End of the Dream highly endorses this book.

I don’t really feel like giving much away about this film, as I think you should just experience it knowing that you’re going to get something Western, weird and horrific. But for a bit of background, it borrows the theme of a doomed four-man search-and-rescue party a la John Ford’s Searchers who are out to retrieve a damsel in distress from a group of “troglodyte” cave-dwelling Indians. (A story which was originally inspired by the capture of Cynthia Ann Parker, as chronicled in S.C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moona must-read for Cormac McCarthy fans, by the way.)

Packed with brilliant dialogue (especially in the hands of Richard Jenkins), claustrophobically sublime Old West cinematography and one of the best climaxes I’ve seen in any genre in years, Bone Tomahawk would surely make my list of the best horror films of the past decade. But then there’s the predicament of howlike a another one of my favorite 2015 would-be horror films, Springit isn’t a full-fledged horror film. It’s an anomaly. A brilliant, grotesque, slow-burn anomaly that you simply have to behold to comprehend.


GRADE: A-
IMDb: 7.1

-Sam Adams

NOTE: Bone Tomahawk is currently free for Amazon Prime subscribers.

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A Walk Among the Tombstones: Action-Neeson Strikes Back

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Seemingly out of the blue, Taken rebranded Liam Neeson as the most badass plainspoken vigilante since Clint Eastwood as The Man With No Name. Ever since, Neeson’s become the go-to guy for brooding, fearless middle-aged shitckicking heroes with very particular skill sets.

For the most part, it’s worked. Non-Stop (2014, and currently on HBO GO) was a thoroughly entertaining flick about a drunken, remorseful air marshall who goes ape during a hostage situation. It basically played out like a game of transatlantic Clue, while simultaneously mishmashing the plots of Flightplan, Con Air and Snakes On a Plane. If anything, it was further proof that like Segal in his prime, if you give the man a gun and a leather jacket, he can make just about anything entertaining.

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Coming soon from visionary director Luc Besson…

The Grey (currently on Netflix Instant), was another enjoyable brooding Neeson role, and a solid existential survivalist rip-off of Jack London for folks who don’t like readin’ much.

But there was also the forgettable Taken 2, which was basically Taken sans one of the best pieces of action dialogue ever and a criminal lack of throat-punching. Piggybacking that was Taken 3, or Tak3n, most memorable for Forest Whitaker officially throwing in the towel on his acting career as a DMX-channeling police chief who likes playing with rubber bands. (Really, there’s no need to watch either Taken sequel.)

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Forest Whitaker in the classic Ghost Dog—back when he still gave a shit.

So look, I know I write about a lot of well-received, artsy European thrillers on here—movies that are far more intelligent and creative than anything in the “Action-Neeson” repertoire—but if you don’t have a soft spot for a grizzled drunken Irishman who plays throat-punching, American super agents without even bothering to forego his brogue, I think you might just be taking things a bit too seriously.

For fans of Action-Neeson, A Walk Among the Tombstones (out on DVD and available through nefarious interweb means) is easily the best thing since Taken—especially if you like the dark, hellbent vein I tend to tap on this here blog.

The film introduces us to Matt Scudder (Neeson as a grisly bearded, racist drunken detective) amidst a whisky-fueled shootout. Predictably, things go awry, and the next thing we know it’s eight years later and Matt is clean-shaven and holding the podium at an AA meeting.

Liam neeson drunk beard a walk among the tombstones

“We admitted that we were powerless over our accent, and that our beard had become unmanageable.”

If this premise already sounds contrived, that’s because much of this movie’s narrative—based on a book by Lawrence Block—is. You’ve got your prematurely retired, solitary cop/agent who gets to make things right with the ghosts of his past (see: The Equalizer, The Man from Nowhere, Man on Fire). You’ve got the savvy inner-city kid who gives the loner’s life meaning and gets him to awkwardly repeat street slang (Magnolia, Finding Forrester, Half Nelson). And in terms of contrivances, it’s beyond schlocky when a great final shootout scene is tainted by a solemn voiceover of the 12 Steps.

But I don’t think anyone really came to this movie looking to watch the next Chinatown (overrated in my book, anyway… I know, I know, blasphemy).

What we do get is a stormy, Neeson thriller that’s as bleak and unsettling as anything he’s done to date. As Scudder tracks a duo of sadists who kidnap drug dealers’ wives/girlfriends/daughters for ransom money that usually ends in torturous death, Tombstones only builds in its grim hellishness. Aided by pretty much the entire movie being shot at night or in overcast skies, the end product is something like a hybrid of Kiss the Girls and Mystic River.

Drunk Sean Penn Mystic River

“I will find you, I’ll get wicked fahkin’ hammahd, and I’ll throw you in the fahkin rivah.”

Speaking of which, the main thing that sets Tombstones apart from the rest of the Action-Neeson repertoire—and the Bourne Identity blueprint of Taken—is that it bears an uncanny mood and narrative to just about every Dennis Lehane adaptation ever (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, The Drop, etc.). It’s not exactly of the quality of any of the aforementioned films, but it’s also not far from it. And yeah, none of those movies star Liam motherfeckin’ Neeson.

Also, Neeson tries to do something he rarely does—pull off an American accent (and a New York one at that). Or at least I think that’s what he’s going for. It’s unclear. Either way, it provides a few good chuckles, and eventually he just gives up and goes back to fucking people up and delivering sinister threats in his signature brogue. Choice quote: “The girl’s gotta be alive and all in one piece for the deal to happen. Are you listening, motherfucker?”
Liam Neeson authenticious The Town

So is this movie anything more than popcorn? No, not really. But if we’re gonna call it popcorn, this ain’t no microwave Orville Redenbacher shit. This is some primo, truffle-butter kernels popped at one of them leather seat theaters with the $10 beers. In other words, A Walk Among the Tombstones is absolutely everything you could ask for out of a dark, violent, kick-ass Neeson thriller. Look for it, find it, and kill watch it.

IMDb: 6.5
GRADE: B+ 

-Sam Adams

Reanimating Kevin Smith: Tusk furthers a new wave of bizarre, innovative horror

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I am not a Kevin Smith fan. Around the age of 11, I thought Clerks, Mallrats and Chasing Amy were among the funniest films in the world. Shortly after, my testicles dropped. Along with them, the geeky, pothead sex humor that was Smith’s schtick also dropped from my perception of what constituted a watchable movie.

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This was hilarious… back when the word “poop” made me giggle

To this day I cannot watch those movies without grimacing, and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back and Dogma only made a tired, pre-pubescent joke worse. Like many folks, I then completely gave up on Smith. That is, until Red State—his self-distirbuted horror / shoot ’em up tale inspired by the evils of the Westboro Baptist Churchcame along.

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John Goodman has some great lines in Red State.

It’s hard to write anything about Smith without bringing up the idea of maturity (or lack thereof). I mention this because while Smith hasn’t exactly reinvented himself through Red State (2011) and Tusk (2014)—his signature campy, dick-joke humor runs rampant throughout both—he has brought some fresh ideas to the horror genre at a time when every other movie is either an Exorcist rehashing or a remake.

Is this innovation a sign of maturity? Maybe, maybe not. But both films are undeniable measures of progress for a director whose dog and pony show had all but bit the dust.

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Kevin Smith reveals how he got famous…

It’s also worth mentioning that these movies come at a time when Smith is making a major career turn in the direction of horror (Tusk is the first in his slated Great White North trilogy; I can’t wait for 2016’s Moose Jaws). So here’s my two cents on Tusk, which I recommend to anyone who has ever been a fan of the director, or simply to fans of campy horror who may have been just as turned off by him in the past as I was.

Tusk (on DVD)
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Tusk is a very odd movie, so I’ll give it an odd comparison: It’s essentially one part Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and two parts The Human Centipede. Unfortunately, I can’t get too far into the particulars of this description. Even though the underlying premise is hinted at largely both in the title and in the film’s trailer, its climax relies on an underlying conceit that makes it of the “just go in blind and watch it” variety.

Here’s what I can tell you in order to see if this is your cup of tea:

Tusk introduces us to podcaster Wallace Bryton (Justin Long, in his most memorable performance since Drag Me to Hell). Wallace runs a show called “The Not-See Party” along with his bud Teddy (Haley-Joel Osment, 15 years removed from The Sixth Sense and looking like a plump, diminutive Hobbit extra).

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Insert “I see dead people” pun here…

Wallace and Ted capitalize on the shame and misfortune of others. They’re exactly the kind of opportunistic media savages whom Joel Murray’s character Frank would have mowed down with an assault rifle in the brilliant black comedy God Bless America.

When the duo see a viral video of a dullard who mistakenly chopped off his leg with a samurai sword, Wallace travels to Canada, looking for a great freakshow interview. But things don’t quite pan out.

Stranded in Winnipeg, he’s about to call it quits and come home empty handed when he sees an ad in a bar bathroom that reads like a dinner invitation from The Most Interesting Man in the World.

He drives into the icy depths of Manitoba and eventually arrives at the house of the mysterious Howard Howe (Michael Parks, easily recognizable from a slew of Tarantino flicks). Shortly after, things go completely apeshit.

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“I don’t usually star in Kevin Smith movies, but when I do, they’re surprisingly good.”

I know that I deviate from popular critical sentiment when I say that I thoroughly enjoyed the shit out of Tusk. And to Smith’s credit, I’m pretty sure I enjoyed it for all the same reasons that he had a blast making it, and for all the same reasons he knew a small niche of viewers would love it. As Smith said in an interview, “I just wanted to showcase Michael Parks in a fucked up story, where he could recite some Lewis Carroll and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner to some poor motherfucker.”

That synopsis underlines the central gem in an imperfect film that is comprised of several great pieces, as well as a few scenes and ideas that would have been much better off left on the cutting-room floor. (Or simply written and directed by someone less self-indulgent than Smith.)

Michael Parks is phenomenal as Howe, the psychopathic wheelchair philosopher. A long scene in which Howe regales Wallace with stories of drinking with Hemingway in Normandy is easily the best sequence of dialogue Smith has ever written. Wallace’s every word is that of a noble, worldly seaman—if only that seaman were the lovechild of Hannibal Lecter and Dr. Moreau.

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The 1996 remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau, which posed the weighty, primordial question, “What the fuck was Marlon Brando thinking?”

Furthermore, Kevin Smith writes a character in Howard Howe that is completely fleshed out. Even the greatest horror films too often leave us with questions as to who the villain really was, and from whence his darkest motives were borne. (In the case of Texas Chainsaw and Halloween, perhaps this was so we could get hit over the head with a never-ending shower of sequels). But in Tusk, everything is laid on the tableand the story of our villain is brilliantly constructed with thoughtfully researched and historically creative flair.

Michale Parks in Kevin Smith's Tusk

“I Think the real savage animals are the humans.”

Other strong points in Tusk include special effects makeup that is both hilarious and also some of the most wonderfully gruesome creature-feature imagery since Slither. And Justin Long’s performance proves that after Drag Me to Hell and Jeepers Creepers, this guy was put on Earth to do one thing: play a hyperbolically snide, scared-shitless version of himself in horror movies.

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Dear Justin Long: You will always be Darry from Jeepers Creepers.

As for drawbacks from this otherwise refreshingly innovative horror-comedy, Kevin Smith just kind of overdid it with his Kevin Smith-ness. There’s a 13-minute-long scene in which an A-lister makes a cameo as a stereotypically Canadian murder detective that adds absolutely nothing to the film other than the information that Kevin Smith is still able to hook an A-lister.

Not only is this character unnecessary, but his caricature-esque persona brings a level of over-the-top absurdity to the film that is too goofy even for Smith’s batshit premise. Another drawback would be that there’s a bunch of dick jokes and geeky humor that will most likely appeal to no one but diehard Kevin Smith fans.

All said, however, when you weigh the bilge versus the really great bits (the acting, Parks’ brilliant dialogue, a fresh horror story and great special effects), Tusk emerges as one of 2014’s best horror flicks.

Oh, and the usage of Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” in a climactic scene? Brilliant.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 5.6

-Sam Adams

Let the Right One In vs. Let Me In: Bleak landscapes, creepy kids and half-assed CGI cats

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BY ADAM FOX

Adolescent vampires, as they pertain to horror, represent a relatively unexplored genre. Maybe I should specify before incurring the wrath of Stephenie Meyer disciples everywhere: Adolescent vampires as the archetypal monsters-under-the-bed are a bit of an unknown commodity.

In fantasy lore, it’s probably understood that humans would wait until they’re at twenty-something Brad Pitt levels of attractiveness and physique before taking the immortality plunge. Why let the fangs sink in well before you develop a devil-may-care smile and a dashing ponytail?

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“I’m … too sexy for my shirt.”

Perhaps this is why I felt Let the Right One In, based on the Swedish novel of the same name, was so groundbreaking the first time I watched it. Little kids (in all of their inherent creepiness) have been done to death in horror films, dating back to 1976’s The Omen and continuing through 2010’s Insidious. It’s the innocence paired with evil, along with active imaginations, that make the young such scary vectors of the paranormal.

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Damn(ed) meddling kids!

Let the Right One In—available on Netflix Instant—bites into this formulaic trope with fresh fangs and manages to give it new life. Bullied 12-year-old boy Oskar makes friends with a recently arrived neighbor named Eli, a girl around his age. After a little bit of hesitation on both ends, the two develop a very close friendship. Oskar soon discovers that Eli isn’t quite what she seems, and is in reality an ageless vampire that requires daily feedings of fresh human blood to remain satisfied.

(MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD) After Eli’s human caretaker dies, Oskar assumes the role of her chef, wrangling human prey for her consumption. Eli eventually has to leave amid the unexplained disappearances of her victims, but not before she returns the favor and helps Oskar in one of my favorite final scenes in any horror film. Ever.

This movie was remade rather unnecessarily for American audiences in 2010 under the moniker Let Me In. The film wasn’t bad per se, but rather echoed the laziness of Hollywood in churning out unoriginal, low-risk product. To make up for this, director/screenwriter Matt Reeves changed a few components of the original, some for better and some for worse. So it wasn’t just Psycho, in color, starring Vince Vaughn.

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“My hotel’s so fuckin’ money and you don’t even know it! I got this peephole for watchin’ all the beautiful babies.”

LOCALES: Wintry Sweden vs. barren Los Alamos

Let the Right One In’s environment is mysterious, still and snowy. For anyone who’s ever lived in cold climates that receive lots of the white stuff, there’s sort of a blanketing quiet that is the signature of the season. It lends itself so well to the film’s disturbing and contemplative tone, and the external shots are downright eerie.

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Several scenes in Let the Right One In were shot in Luleå—a coastal city in northern Sweden with a subarctic climate.

In Let Me In, they choose the sandy scientific haven Los Alamos, NM as the backdrop. It’s not an awful choice for a horror film by any stretch, but you don’t see enough of the environment for it to be a major player like it is in the original. There’s some spooky shit that occurs in rural New Mexico that doesn’t involve meth or Los Pollos Hermanos distribution lines, but the remake doesn’t quite spotlight the “where” as effectively as the original. It just sort of comes across as Anytown, USA, which was disappointing for someone who lived for several years in New Mexico and knows how disquieting the desert landscape can be.

ACTORS: Kåre Hedebrant & Lina Leandersson vs. Kodi Smit-McPhee & Chloë Grace Moretz

Kåre (Oskar) and Kodi (Owen) capture the awkward dispositions prescribed to their respective characters quite masterfully. Both are bullied loners in their worlds, saving things like newspaper clippings reporting gruesome crime scenes while also electing to stay indoors at all times where it’s safe. The real edge of the original, however, comes in the strength of Lina’s performance (Eli) vs. Chloë’s (Abby).

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Oskar (Team Eli) and Owen (Team Abby)

Chloë Grace Moretz is a fine child actress who is no stranger to the genre, having appeared in a starring role in yet another horror remake (2005’s The Amityville Horror), but she’s just not … spooky enough? An important component of the vampiric character is that her/its backstory is never fully explained and is, for all intents and purposes, androgynous (alluded to in both films).

Lina’s Eli is neither too feminine nor masculine, and her eyes depict the knowledge and experience of someone who would be many years her senior. A difficult casting choice to be sure in choosing someone who is 12 years old and is in actuality thousands (?) of years old, but it’s an element of believability I felt the original film payed a significantly larger amount of attention to.

SPECIAL EFFECTS / CGI: Let the Right One In vs. Let Me In

It’s not all doom and gloom for the Americans. Let Me In had a much greater budget to work with than its predecessor did, and it certainly shows. Something I could never truly get over in the original film was a scene involving a person spontaneously combusting, and a room full of cats. Oddly enough, it wasn’t the fire I took offense to, but the litter of computer-generated cats. What is intended to be a shocking scene displaying how once again the animal kingdom is privy to any type of evil activity turned out to be nothing more than a lazily executed internet meme. I’m not positive on the animal laws in Sweden and how they pertain to treatment/screen time (I know the states have since revised their laws following 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust), but the whole scene is a little bit goofy.

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Bad kitties! … worse CGI

All said, both films are certainly worth a watch, especially the original version (and its excellent corresponding novel). Let Me In and Let the Right One In offer a welcome departure from both found footage dump-offs and toned-down PG-13 monsters that have been cluttering the modern horror shelves.

Vampires have always been the “thinking man’s villains” of the genre—their clout further cemented by somewhat fictionalized historical tie-ins. It’s that foothold in reality, however misconstrued it may be, in which horror films really manage to hit their groove. Both LMI and LTROI prove that it’s still possible to breathe life into a genre without trying to completely reinvent the wheel.

Let the Right One In  (Available on Netflix Instant)
IMDb: 8.0
Grade: A

Let Me In  (On DVD)
IMDb: 7.2
Grade: B-

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Adam Fox resides in West Hollywood, CA, with a wonderful lady and a crippled cat. When he’s not devising ways to get out of driving around the Greater Los Angeles Concrete Jungle, he is an unabashed Masshole with a penchant for drunkenly cheering on the Red Sox and Patriots. In addition to serving as the Assistant Editor for SB Nation’s Pats Pulpit, Adam has written for ESPN, Paste Magazine, the Weekly Alibi and the Mountain West Connection, among others. twitter.com/lefoxtrott