April 23, 2013–
“He that fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche
“Eat me.” – Anonymous
(Opening quotations from Antonia Bird’s Ravenous )
The Western genre has long been representative of the horror of man’s inhumanity to man. Fittingly then, the “Weird Western” is so named for any “fantastical” genre blend (sci-fi, fantasy, etc.), including a mixture of Western tropes with those of the horror genre. Indeed, one wonders if the so-called Weird Western is “Weird” at all. Two of the weirdest genre blends fitting the supernatural horror genre in the 1990’s are Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) and Antonia Bird’s Ravenous (1999). Both films use horror and Western tropes and a healthy dose of gory, gruesome black comedy in concert with siege/raid narratives to tell increasingly horrific tales of the Western frontier at its most base and vile.
In some sense, for films which turn Western and horror tropes on their respective heads (and then decapitate those heads), it is perhaps appropriate that both From Dusk Till Dawn and Ravenous begin with authorial misdirects – albeit a couple of different types. In the former, ala’ Psycho, we are introduced in the first shot to Sheriff Earl McGraw (Michael Parks), an aging cowboy civilized somewhat by modern times, walks into a convenience/liquor store, evoking the classic image of the sheriff wandering into the saloon. Yet, although the camera establishes him as ostensibly the focus/hero of the story, we soon learn that robbers, kidnappers and murderers Seth and Richie Gecko (George Clooney and screenwriter Quentin Tarantino, respectively) are in fact the film’s focus. Although an entirely different sort of animal, Ravenous too begins with first one perception of the film’s hero and then another. In this case, we are plunged into the year 1847 and introduced to Mexican-American War hero Captain John Brody (Guy Pearce, fresh off neo-noir L.A. Confidential). After being commended for taking an entire enemy encampment alone, it is soon discovered that the squeamish, vegetarian Brody did so by hiding under the corpse of a fallen comrade and performing a sneak attack on his foes. He is punished with a rather backhanded promotion to third in command at weigh station Fort Spencer at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountain range under the command of the convivial Colonel Hart (Jeffrey Spencer, later of Deadwood, equally convivial).
In the former film’s opening pre-credit sequence, turning a phrase with typical Tarantinian pop culture reverence, Seth warns the proprietor (John Hawkes, also later of Deadwood), “I will turn this place into the fucking Wild Bunch if you fuck with us.” However, as threatening as Seth’s warning comes across, and classic though his film reference may be, establishing this film in a long-standing Western canon, it is violent brother Richie’s unpredictable volatility which will soon be at issue. Richie kills the sheriff, shocking his brother, because he thinks the proprietor of the place signaled him to their presence, thus doing away with the apparent Western hero with whom we’d previously identified (however briefly); this ultimately will come as something of a non-event compared to what lies in store, however. Nevertheless, the scene turns into a violent, bloody, fiery shootout with the ill-fated proprietor before the establishment is blown to bits, foreshadowing both the standoff and, ultimately, the explosion in the film’s Mexican location at the story’s end.
As both films go on, the respective lead “heroes” Seth (Clooney) and Boyd (Pearce) are revealed to be anti-heroes of the highest, ahem, caliber. Seth is a violent bank robber with somewhat of a too-cool-for-school attitude befitting a Tarantino creation, while Boyd lives up to and then attempts to live down his cowardly (if rewarded) acts in the face of true evil. Both men are presented as having codes to live by in the process – Seth’s being established through his attempts to maintain a sense of order with the erratic Richie, while Boyd’s is established through run-ins with horrors unimaginable to even the most, ahem, seasoned soldier.
As the former’s plot unfolds, it’s quickly revealed that the Gecko brothers, staying at a local motel with an extremely ill-fated female bank teller as a hostage, are outlaws seeking sanctuary in Mexico and while trying to make a move toward the border, they have a run-in with a family: widowed former preacher turned half-hearted blasphemer Jacob (Harvey Keitel); daughter Kate (Juliette Lewis) and younger son Scott (Ernie Liu, a newcomer) staying at the same motel and driving an RV. Their siege of this family and commandeering of their RV (with the family’s forced assistance) is a bit like the frontier family in a wagon train being marauded by hostile Indians (the Gekkos). Their arrival in Mexico at a large biker/strip club called the Titty Twister soon provides the crucial difference that their mutual survival becomes imperative. This slow-burn approach to a phantasmagorical sleazefest of over-the-top grindhouse violence, right in Tarantino’s wheelhouse, is also evident in Ms. Bird’s film. Brody is scarcely able to acclimate to his surroundings in the snowbound Fort Spencer with newfound comrades Knox (Stephen Spinella), a drunk doctor (a Western trope, also prefiguring Deadwood); icy blue-eyed blonde soldier Private Reich (Neal McDonough); Private Toffler (Jeremy Davies), the chaplain; Private Cleaves (David Arquette), a pot-smoking cook and his Native American buddies George and Martha (Joseph Running Fox and Sheila Tousey) who “came with the place,” before the arrival one night of the frostbitten Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle), a Scottish soldier who has witnessed some horrific misdeeds in his camp. Apparently, someone by the name of Colonel Ives has turned to cannibalism, eating every member of the camp to survive (except for Colqhoun, who has escaped). Colqhoun admits that he too resorted to cannibalism to survive but couldn’t take it anymore. Nevertheless, his antics give us the immortal line “He was licking me!” George, the local Native American guide and hired gun, believes that it may relate to the Indian myth of the Wendigo in which “a man eats (often an enemy’s) flesh only to steal (his) spirit but gains craven, insatiable hunger” as a consequence. Enter the weird. Meanwhile, Hart determines it’s their duty to go to the camp, which is in a cave in the mountains, in order to stop Colqhoun’s comrade. However, upon arriving at the cave, and Boyd discover that Colqhoun has killed the camp and evidently eaten of them himself (he is or is impersonating Ives). Colqhoun/Ives ambushes everyone, killing Hart, Reich, George, Toffler, and causing the coward Boyd to jump off a cliff and hit every branch of multiple trees on the way down before falling into a hole with Reich’s corpse, which he again uses to mask his having lived before resorting to eating it to survive the cold, harsh night. Hardly the attitude of a hero, even if he’s a survivor.
It’s worth noting that, in a sense, these roles are revised and reprised, so to speak, by Clooney’s intertextual casting in Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight (1998) and Ocean’s trilogy (2001-07), as well as David O. Russell’s Three Kings(1999), with Pearce likewise reprising the role of a grimy, grizzled man at the edge of the frontier struggling with a moral quagmire in John Hillcoat’s and Nick Cave’s Australian Western The Proposition (2006).
As with many Weird Westerns, From Dusk Till Dawn establishes the unique weaponry of its custom-designed world in the early-going, including a retractable phallic-shaped double-barrel revolver which shoots out from the leather crotch area of the whip-wielding friendly biker Sex Machine (Tom Savini); later, he uses a pencil to stop a still-beating heart that’s been torn from a man’s chest. When the truth comes out that the Gekkos and their fellow human customers have fallen into a trap – a biker bar run by and for vampires – they must retreat into a cavernous back room where they discover, in a riotous montage of typical, fetishistic Tarantino cool, tons of contraband, including inventive amalgamations such as a six arrow crossbow, a squirt gun filled with Holy water balloons (condoms?), a baseball bat and sawed off shotgun crossed together into the shape of a deadly crucifix, and finally Seth’s pneumatic stake driver. For their part, the hero and villain in Ravenous seem to prefer knives and swords (when not dealing with teeth) to guns, suggesting the intimacy inherent in this kind of rugged “vampirism” preferable to the detachment associated with long range weapons (it’s worth noting that anyone who fires a gun in the film seems to die). Ironically, (spoiler!) the film ends with Boyd tricking Calqhoun/Ives into a giant bear trap shaped like a sharp toothed-jaw, killing them both, with Boyd lying on top of a seemingly deceased Calqhoun (a neat reversal of sorts) as the credits begin to roll.
Philosophically, both films seem to share similar attitudes about death and the meaning of life and how that comes into question when the nature of life changes. In Rodriguez’s film, when vampires begin killing the humans one-by-one, both lapsed Preacher Jacob and his son Scott beg their daughter/sister Kate to kill them if/when they turn. Likewise, in Bird’s film, a (spoiler alert!) resurrected and cannibalistic Colonel Hart (Jones) returns from not quite the grave to join Calqhoun in recruiting the still squeamish and morally justified Boyd to their inhuman cause. Calqhoun, tellingly, lets slip his somewhat ironic view of the frontier notion of Manifest Destiny – that come spring throngs of gold-hungry Americans will be the target of this flesh-hungry Scot and his bretheren. Hart, however, is weak-willed and “cannot take this life anymore.” He too begs Boyd to kill him and then kill Calqhoun and, finally finding his courage, Boyd does so, realizing that nobody is any longer who they are. In both films, human consumption causes a chain reaction of physical and spiritual change resulting in somewhat existential crises in the guise of gory action extravaganzas.
For whatever similarities the two may have, however, there are myriad differences. From Dusk Till Dawn seems to rely on a house band and songs by ZZ Top and an undistinguished score to accompany the rough-and-tumble Mexican desert and bar set, whereas Ravenous is beautifully and uniquely composed by Michael Nyman, who performs a repetitive, playful theme first with an accordion and cowbell and then with an electronic keyboard evoking the rugged frontier on display in Bird’s snowy Czechoslovakian locales (filmed on a Prague soundstage).
What may most make From Dusk Till Dawn a Western is its appropriation of the tropes of a siege movie, especially those by horror director John Carpenter. A fervent admirer of Howard Hawks and frustrated by being pigeon-holed into the horror genre at an early age, Carpenter nevertheless found (as I discovered last term) unique and innovative ways of paying homage to, cribbing from and, to some degree, parodying Western tropes in even his most horrific films. Appropriately, his first wide-released feature was Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), in which a traumatized man witnesses a violent street gang kill his daughter in cold, senseless blood and seeks vengeance and then sanctuary in a nearly abandoned police station on its last night in service. Rodriguez and Tarantino are obviously aware of the debts their vampire siege movie owe Carpenter by having teenage boy Scott wear a “Precinct 13” T-shirt.
Ravenous, by contrast, is a somewhat less self-aware pitch black comedy about horror at the previous turn of the century. However, both films are clearly amongst the Weirdest of so-called “Weird Westerns.”