With the recent release of online release of Brazilian weird-western Bacurau (2019), let’s take a look back at some classic movies of the weird west genre:
P.s. some people have pointed out, quite rightly, that many acid westerns – like El Topo (1970) – are also weird westerns… To that I say: very true. Acid Western Round Up coming soon.
Part body horror, part pastiche, part sci-fi, part cautionary tale, and a whole lotta western, Michael Crichton’s directorial debut definitely punches above its weight when it comes to influences. Crichton went on to re-use the idea of a collapsing theme park in Jurassic Park (1990), while the digital image processing used for the Gunslinger’s sight influenced Terminator (1984), and of course, the whole thing was reimagined for the HBO TV series. Remakes aside, Yul Brynner will always be the implacable android gunslinger of my heart.
If you’ve never heard of this film, you’d be forgiven. In its day – due to clever marketing that pointed out the film’s feminist western elements – Grim Prairie Tales was a VHS rental smash hit. However, since then it has sunk into relative obscurity, and hasn’t yet had a DVD release. A shame because, while distinctly uneven, the film has its moments. Essentially an anthology film made up of horror vignettes told over the campfire by surly bounty hunter Morrison (James Earl Jones) to uptight Easterner Farley Deeds (Brad Dourif), while the stories themselves vary in quality, the double act between Jones and Dourif is a joy to behold.
Cowboys and dinosaurs, what more could you want? In this late, monster-movie throwback, Ray Harrysausen’s Gwangi is a star for the ages.
Another throwback to the “creature features” of the 1950s is Tremors, the Kevin Bacon classic that leans heavily into western themes. Set in the Sierra Nevadas – location for many a classic weird west tale – it sees cowboy drifters Valentine McKee and Earl Bassett cut off in the isolated town of Perfection, forced to tool-up and go it alone with the local residents against an unknown, monstrous invasion.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)
Billed as the “first Iranian vampire western”; Ana Lily Amirpour’s debut feature isn’t a western per-se, but it definitely has a strong spaghetti western flavour, from the ghost town of Bad City, to the eponymous, mysterious, skateboarding Girl-With-No-Name. Bonus points go to Masuka, the Marlon Brando of cat actors. Amirpour’s follow-up The Bad Batch (2016) meanwhile, is a bizarre, R-rated, dystopian acid western which she has described as “Dirty Dancing meets El Topo”.
Near Dark (1987)
On the subject of vampire westerns, there’s also Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark. Like A Girl Walks Home, this one isn’t really a western either; yes, it’s kinda set in the west, and main character Caleb has a hat and a horse and at one point there’s a tumbleweed, but beyond that, it’s much more a classic vamp story at heart. Interestingly, Bigelow initially wanted to film a non-traditional western, but discovered that no one would finance it (this was pre the 1990s western revival kicked off by Dances with Wolves) and it was suggested by studios that she mix up the western with a more popular genre, in this case, vamps.
Peter Hyams apparently ran into the same reluctance from studio heads to finance a western earlier in the 1980s. The resulting hybrid was High Noon homage, Outland, starring Sean Connery.
“I wanted to do a Western. Everybody said, ‘You can’t do a Western; Westerns are dead; nobody will do a Western’. I remember thinking it was weird that this genre that had endured for so long was just gone. But then I woke up and came to the conclusion – obviously after other people – that it was actually alive and well, but in outer space. I wanted to make a film about the frontier. Not the wonder of it or the glamour of it: I wanted to do something about Dodge City and how hard life was.”
Jim Jarmusch’s surreal, acid western tells the story of William Blake; a mild-mannered accountant turned into a killer by the slow grind of the West. By turns bizarre, funny, poignant and poetic, come for the amazing visuals, the overdrive-laden Neil Young soundtrack and stellar cast, stay for a cameo from Iggy Pop in a bonnet.
Many other weird westerns of course; from the supernatural like High Plains Drifter (1973) to the good, Back to the Future Part III (1990), to the bad, Wild Wild West (1999), to the ugly, Cowboys and Aliens (2011). Some others that are on my list but that I haven’t seen yet, like the absolutely batshit crazy looking b-movie Oblivion (1994) or the, err, gory, Bone Tomahawk (2015) or intriguing, off-beat space mining western, Prospect (2018).