Tag: j.t. petty

The Burrowers

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.


Hellbenders (2012)
★ / ★★★★

The Augustine Interfaith Order of Hellbound Saints (Clancy Brown, Clifton Collins Jr., Andre Royo, Robyn Rikoon, Macon Blair, Dan Fogler) are men and women who serve God as well as licensed exorcists in Brooklyn, New York. But they are no ordinary holy water wielders: Instead of living their lives to serve as examples, they attempt to be as morally compromised as possible—defying the Ten Commandments and committing sins left and right—so that if or when the time comes that they are faced with a demon so powerful, they can invite it inside their bodies, kill themselves, and ensure that the demon be dragged to hell with them.

With a premise like that, one expects “Hellbenders,” written and directed by J.T. Petty, to be wild, imaginative, funny, ironic, and a hell of a good time. Instead, the energy behind the performances is unfocused, the dialogue is neither intelligent nor all that amusing, and visual effects are allowed to run rampart—especially during the last third—that a lot of it ends up looking fake and trying too hard to impress.

Part of the problem is that we are not really allowed to watch Hellbound Saints do terrible things. Most of them are merely mentioned. Someone who is married admitting that he or she has had an affair is not equal to the audience seeing it in action. I wondered if the writer-director was afraid to make his characters look bad out of fear that we would find them so despicable that we would not want to root for them. But the bottom line is that they fight against demons who wish to set the world on fire. Despite “terrible” actions they commit, we are still very likely to be on their side. Giving them a little freedom to act wild or crazy might have given the picture an element of fun.

Each Hellbound Saint is not given appropriate depth. Just about every scene focuses on a behavior which gets exhausting after a while. A movie being a comedy does not justify characters who lack the capacity to have thoughts or internal monologue. Because the majority of the scenes are behavior-driven, we never get invested in who they are or wonder who they were before joining the parish. Sometimes knowing a bit more about the character’s history can make the jokes funnier—even if they are not all that clever.

The back half is a slog. One would think that once a great evil has been released, the material would be more interesting. Again, it rests on telling rather than showing. Instead of showing us the random acts of chaos that are happening in the city, we get two or three lines about how horrible it is out there. One might cite the limitation of the budget. But I argue: Budget does not create tension.

“Hellbenders” might have learned a thing or two from a little movie called “John Dies at the End” (where Brown also stars in). The latter creates a certain level of uncertainty which matches the paranoia of its leading character. There is synergy between the internal and the external elements. The former, on the other hand, by comparison and independently, is one dimensional in that it relies too much on a physical challenge that must be overcome. It features scenes of demonic possessions—one or two nicely executed. But how about exploring personal demons, maybe the contradiction of being an agent of God who sins on purpose to serve Him?