The Western horror is a disappointingly underutilised genre in film. Desert settings provide all the necessary elements to execute a successful scare-fest: complete darkness, isolation and eerie silence. These vast expanses allow for a gradual build in tension whilst simultaneously keeping audiences on edge in the claustrophobic and unknown wilderness. This particular blend of western and horror is typified in the superb Bone Tomahawk.
The story centres around the anachronistic Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell), who is forced to assemble an unlikely posse when several members of his town are kidnapped. They learn that the Troglodytes (cave-dwellers), a savage group of indigenous cannibals, are behind the abductions, and race to retrieve their fellow residents before they are presumably devoured.
The unorthodox group charged with saving the townsfolk consists of the Sheriff, his garrulous deputy, an enigmatic gunslinger and a crippled foreman, whose wife is one of those captured. Russell (The Thing), Patrick Wilson (The Conjuring franchise), Richard Jenkins (Let Me In, Cabin in the Woods) and David Arquette (The Scream franchise) are all more than comfortable in the horror genre, which only serves to enhance the gritty narrative.
S. Craig Zahler’s feature film is his first project since stepping away from cinematography. This is evident from the exquisite landscape shots and panoramic views captured as the gang roam across uninhabited territory. However, it is the razor-sharp screenplay, particularly the exchanges between the grizzly Russell and clean-cut Matthew Fox, which carries this film precariously into the final act. There will be a view that the indigenous cannibals are portrayed in a borderline racist nature. However, Zahler was clear in expressing that all native American Indians were perceived this way by the ignorant Whites in the late 19th century. This is less a criticism than an accurate commentary of the political racial horrors of the time.
Bone Tomahawk contains all the tropes required for a classical horror film. A group picked off one at a time, unexplainable evil rich with idiosyncrasies and scenes dripping with suspense. This all culminates in truly gruesome brutality; a scalping and dismemberment scene too appalling to comprehend. The effects of this vertical bisection, including the muted and jarring audio, elevates the sequence to cult stardom.
Ultimately, this film is all about Kurt Russell, with the remaining cast playing an auxiliary role. His immaculate facial hair is matched only by his unyielding resolve in extricating those people he was entrusted to protect. His character is prototypical Russell, a personable hero who is always encumbered with the hard choice. The Searchers meets The Hills Have Eyes in this modern cult-classic. A definite slow-burn reliant on an elite script, but with a unique chronicle and tomahawking conclusion which are worth the wait.