Horror Westerns, while not unheard of, are something of a rarity, so news that the talented young director JT Petty was making one had me genuinely excited. I’m sad to say that The Burrowers, while fairly solid, still struck me as a disappointment. The movie blends together the creature feature genre with nods to Days of Heaven and The Searchers, but is less successful as a Western than as a fright flick. A big part of the reason for this is because Petty paces the movie more like a horror film. More than most genres, westerns need to celebrate the landscape and take their time to really create a convincing atmosphere. This stands in opposition to the thrill-seeking mode of horror that The Burrowers tries for. The fast editorial rhythms and visual atmospherics of the scary scenes ensure that when Petty tries to make a visual reference to Malick or Ford, the image barely registers as a moment of majestic beauty.
From time to time, Petty does reap the benefits of his generic fusion, though. He is able to locate horror in a few instances directly within the conventions of the Western. An Indian’s scrotum serves as a tobacco pouch. A brief scuffle between a posse and a group of Natives is far bloodier than usual. When the film makes reference to The Searchers, by talking about shooting out a corpse’s eyes to condemn the spirit, Petty zooms in for gory detail.
But The Burrowers has to satisfy horror fans as well, so it keeps moving back and forth between genres, derailing itself with regularity. To be fair, Petty does avoid letting this monster movie degenerate into a series of chase scenes, and he does devise an ending that is more resonant than a hunt to kill the monsters. The problem is that The Burrowers squanders its potential for more by not taking its time to serve both of its generic masters.