It’s been a few years since I first saw Bone Tomahawk (2015) at the cinema, my friend enjoyed it far more than me. I could see by his visceral reaction, definitely a horror fan who had been thrilled by the dark experience of this Horror-Western. My mind was still lingering on the graphic images of violence, the splitting of a man down through the legs after a scalping. Not your average western in terms of the images that you’d generally get to see. As I reflect back on this film I am again reminded of how it references The Searchers (1956), how the themes more so in the case of this later film have been weaved into this captive rescue Western. I needed to revisit to build on my understanding of what’s become an interesting oddity in the genre.
My original review was based on my initial thoughts less than 24 hours from taking in the film, I don’t have that experience so much to rely on now. I came to this viewing with an expectation of knowing that image would be waiting for me. That didn’t put me off either, instead I was getting myself ready and excited to be taken back to those moments in the screen 3 years ago. I remembered the lines about how many arteries in the throat that needed to be cut in order to kill and a man, delivered so dry as a normal conversation, all part of the job that was so sloppily carried out by two robberies who got what they had coming to them. In-fact most of the dialogue’s written to reflect more the time period than contemporary America. Laced with a sense of decency and politeness that would usually be found back East, civilisation is making its way West.
The opening of the film takes us briefly into this dark world of cannibalism, meeting a dark figure in an out of focus shot that gruesomely kills the older of the two fools to walk through the sacred ground of the not so sacred Troglodytes that roam this region of the Wild West. Before cutting back to Spring Hope, a frontier town that where we meet the main characters of the film. The slow pacing of the dialogue reflects the atmosphere of this almost too polite town. Arthur (Patrick Wilson) man laid up on the sofa for 12 weeks with a broken leg faces a period of great boredom if it wasn’t for his nurse wife Samantha (Lili Simmons) doing her best to take his mind off the pain. Still enjoying his marital duties in one scene, telling us this is not your standard Western, we’re being taken into the domesticated West where couples could make a life for themselves. Sheriff Hunt (Kurt Russell) is a law man whose known to be trigger-happy when pushed. Joined by his back-up deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins) making up a classic double act. We also meet the Ethan Edwards of the film Mr Brooder (Matthew Fox) a gentleman on the surface alone, go a little deeper and you find a racist with a gun that’s waiting for an excuse to shoot them dead.
With the scene set, there’s still no sign of these Troglodytes until the next morning after a black stable boy has been found brutally murdered and the jail found completely empty. Civilsation has been tainted by the dark forces which we are still yet to see or fully understand. We get a brief description from resident Native American The Professor (Zahn McClarnon) who shares all he knows about this dark off-shoot of a Native American tribe that no-one dares mention. Taking a dark path that even he won’t take to help them. Here the use of the Native American’s used to replace the radical Islamist terrorists who have been radicalised and subverted their own holy book The Quran to explain their insane actions upon the rest of the world. The only Native present in the film’s seen as a respected part of the community that no longer sees him as a threat, instead he’s been assimilated onto their world.
Unlike the Troglodytes that we are still yet to meet. The four men we met earlier set off into an eerily cold Wild West, scenery we know to know to be synonymous with the genre yet there’s something different in the air this time. We have no soundtrack to accompany this wide open space, just our thoughts of the impending danger they are about to find. First having to contend with the stubborn Arthur who shouldn’t have left his home, wanting to find his wife. Whilst his old rival Brooder feels duty bound to rescue her too. Whilst the sheriff and deputy buddy act gets underway. Hunt tries to keep them moving and in line, Russell really suits this role, as he swagger’s around the wide open landscape, it like he’s come from that time period. Again playing the leader, whilst Jenkins Chicory is a beautiful homage to a Walter Brennan type chatting his way through the nervous wait of the long journey.
Our wait is a long one, it’s painfully nail-biting at times as we finally enter the caves of the Troglodytes, it’s not long until they are first ambushed after seeing such a hopeful start to the rescue mission that for a while goes so terribly wrong. The two survivors join Samantha in a cave of torture, there’s no other words for it, just waiting for the inevitable. If not for the limping husband Arthur who by rights should have been killed by now hobbles along to save the day. What they see confounds their belief system, members of the Christian community unable to comprehend what theses cannibals are doing. Survival is the only way forward, it’s gruesome for everyone who have to make choices they would never consider back home.
My thoughts on the connection to The Searchers is somewhat different, there is a search which is more defined and much more restricted, no scope for the open vastness of the mythical space such as Monument Valley. We have a more open discussion between the characters on racism. The era of hating the Indian is over in this Western, it’s time to focus on the future, find this relic and rescue the defenceless woman, who this time can talk back. The heroes (if you can call them that) are shown and seen to be interacting in the others environment, far more than in previous films, you have to explore and ask the question – why would people do such things? before you can leave with your life. Brooder who is clearly the Ethan of the film’s sidelined here, allowed to travel with the men, however his actions are more directly questioned and fought against. Whilst Ethan has to the power to walk all over those who ride with him for a most of the film. It’s his presence and knowledge of the Comanche that make him both valuable and a danger to those who are searching for the Edwards daughters after the raid.
Leaving Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) to question his thinking and eventually persuade him to rescue and not kill Debbie (Natalie Wood) who he believes to be tainted, no longer a white person after her time with the Comanche. Brooder is more generalised racist who has let his hatred for Native American’s seep into that for other non-white nationalities that see him become a loose cannon with the men. His gentlemanly guise is a thin veil for something that fine clothes and manners cannot hide. Whilst Ethan (John Wayne) wears is it plain-sight in his speech towards even his distant family. Martin who he rescued as a child, who had since been adopted, is seen as a mistake in his eyes, he’s no kin of his. It takes the course of the film for him to change his view.
So what’s my view on Bone Tomahawk now? It’s still a film that leaves you taken aback, the images stay with you, the ideas are now even stronger, I’ll probably sleep better having got that first viewing under my belt. It’s a very rich film that gently plays out until you’re hit with the horror of the other that America is still dealing with today in terrorist attacks and the attempts to prevent Mexican’s and other South American’s crossing the border. It’s a very prevalent film that speaks of a nations fears that won’t go away anytime soon.
Another foreign film that I have been aware off but wasn’t in a rush to watch, waiting for a TV airing instead, which surprisingly paid off. I remember hearing good things about A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), a Iranian horror, with a rare female focus which is honestly very refreshing. You could easily say this is a feminist horror. With a female protagonist whose the titular girl who we follow. Beginning of a false footing with a quietly macho guy Arash (Arash Marandi) who we see loitering around a fence, before climbing over to rescue a cat, his cat. The opposite to what Marlon Brando would do (not rescue a cat), more likely o kick in the fence, venting his pent-up anger. Arash is not your typical male hero, if anything he’s the opposite of that in Bad City and fictional Iranian ghost town where the film’s based.
We see that Arash’s walked all over by his father (Marshall Manesh) drug dealer/Pimp Saeed (Dominic Rains) coming for more money that his heroin addicted father owes. His son is doing his best to look after him, who has clearly turned to drugs in the wake of his wife’s death. It’s unusual to see the son living at home and looking after his father on the screen. Of course this a more contemporary situation that Hollywood would never depict, instead it would be the daughter, looking after her father. It reminded me of Westerns, the unmarried daughter staying at home with her elderly father – sometimes blind or very ill and/cranky. This is the way I read the film after some time. A thread that I will pick up on later.
We’ve not even seen the titular girl, or so I thought we had when Saeed meets the first woman, Atti (Mozhan Marnò) in the film, who turns out to be one of his prostitutes who just wants her cut before we finally see the girl (Sheila Vand), dressed in a Hijab, not unusual in itself, but the lone figure in the dark scaring plays upon our inbuilt fears of the Islam and turning it on itself. The fear of the unknown figure within its environment inciting fear to other Iranians. At this point we are held at a distance, unsure of what real danger she poses. Interrupted at a forced sex act, fear is all the figure conveys at this stage.
Following the girl home to her basement flat, seeing her next as just a normal girl, whose shy and reclusive yet beautifully innocent features, how could this be the same girl under the hijab? We have an outsider who enjoys indie music on vinyl and seems to enjoy her own time. It’s the next few scenes that unveil her true identity and power as she lures Saeed to his demise at the hands of a female vampire. This I really didn’t see coming. I took the title too literally here which if anything has surprised me The lone stranger who walks the streets is the one you least suspect, a young woman, a vampire that to some extent is a lone gunfighter prowling the streets at night.
It’s a clever premise, playing on our fears of Islamic extremism and building on that in one of the countries whose dominant religion is Islam. Writing this review after such a horrific week, I feel this film is more relevant. We need to remember the power of fear and what it can do those who it’s inflicted upon. This fear has been confronted to an extent in A Girl Walks Home… instead if fearing the hijab for no reason other than that of extremism, we are actually given something to fear, the supernatural, a being who has take human form, nothing to do with Islam, merely the form of the vampire takes.
I’m reminded of Bone Tomahawk (2015) which played on similar fears, using the Native American and really going far out and giving the characters something to really fear and the audience too. Which leads me nicely back to the Western comparison which started with the role reversal placing Arash in the classic female role that falls for the stranger, the gunfighter, who ultimately tames him and they ride off into the sunset, or leaves her with her father. He falls for the strange girl, whose startled by the emotion that he brings out in her, she like any gunfighter is not used to such attention and the thoughts and feelings that they experience. Fighting against her natural urges and actions, doing what a vampire does best. Placing all this action in Iran is even braver.
A female lead, who plays on the fears of Islamic extremism in the guise of a horror. Does that make a female lead more acceptable, or get under the radar of censorship? Either way it’s playing against type completely for not just the horror genre but for cinema as a whole. Placing a woman in the protagonist role, the bad guy who has to be either killed or tamed. I couldn’t see a way to her demise happening. Could Arash have seen beyond her perceived innocence to see the truth? That’s the question we are left with, after all the violence she has caused, for good or bad she has done her bit to clean up Bad City the only way she knows how. As a gunfighter can only use his guns – using violence to bring peace to the town/city they are in.
In terms of horror it’s maybe not as scary as you hope, the ideas it explores and subvert make up for the lack of horror. When we do get it, it’s all about the build up, wondering how she will bite. Its the final attack that leaves you in awe as she rescues the damsel in distress. The moments which are slowed down create a sense of real awe and spectacle heightened by the black and white cinematography, be them horror or not. For me the real strength of the film is gender swapping of roles a Western in the guise of a horror, which for me is an added bonus. Ultimately it’s a refreshing film that takes our fears, placing them in a completely foreign country.