The Burrowers (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
Boiled down to its essence, J.T. Petty’s horror western “The Burrowers” explores the white man’s fear of The Other: Irishmen, black folks, indigenous Indians—these may as well have been monsters, less than animals, in the eyes of the white man. And in this story, there are literal monsters that come out at night to take people from their homes and feed on them. The white man and those whom he considers to be inferior must team up and learn to work together in order to eliminate an immediate threat. Although certainly meant to be for entertainment, the work makes a rather critical statement about how America works in a nutshell.
I relished its macabre sense of humor. The story takes place in the Dakota Plains 1879 and the first shot involves a marriage proposal. The beautiful woman goes missing and Coffey (Karl Geary), desperately in love, goes on a mission to retrieve her. For a long while the picture is told through the prism of optimism. These men in cowboy hats sporting guns and can-do attitude surely must save the day. They may have their differences but surely they can learn to see past the pettiness and get the job done. After all, lives—innocent lives, especially since the missing includes children—are more important than squabbles, right?
Well, it seems Petty has learned a thing or two from Hitchcock at his peak. Halfway through as bodies begin to pile up, we start to question that perhaps the messages that the filmmaker wishes to impart about America and its deeply racist history is more important than following the expected parabolic path. Notice the manner in which the pacing slows to a snail’s pace somewhere in the middle as characters are shuffled around like a deck of cards. Those who we believe must make it to the very end for the sole purpose of plot are now cold underneath the ground—well, actually, warm because the creatures in question tend to paralyze their soon-to-be form of nourishment and bury them alive so their victims’ organs can rot before the big feast—and those we think will not make it far remain thriving. Fresh decisions like these manage to keep the picture afloat despite sudden changes tone and pacing.
Although not especially memorable, I enjoyed the look of the creatures. It is the correct decision to keep them hidden in shadows and tall grass for the majority of the picture. Instead, we hear the chittering sounds they make before the attack. Is this their form communication? A way to intimidate? Can they help it? On the occasional moments we see them front and center, I was reminded of naked mole rats on steroids. There is gore but emphasis is not on the amount of blood and how they spurt out of arteries. Rather, what’s important is what they do to the human bodies once they have one trapped. Thus, we believe why these creatures have existed even before the white man arrived in America—and even before man existed. The burrowers are not only ancient but also formidable. The screenplay is so elastic, it even has room to make a statement about man’s destructive role in the environment.
“The Burrowers” may not be big on overt scares but it is willing to take on a number of ideas that will continue to remain relevant for years to come. And because some of the topics it touches involve racism, racial injustice, destruction of nature, and the like, that in itself is horror. Most modern horror films do not even dream of being about something. Some simply strive to deliver shock and call it a day. Here’s one with a point to make.