Film Reviews

31 Days of Halloween: Bone Tomahawk & My Tribute to Sid Haig

When I first walked past Sid Haig’s booth at Kansas City Crypticon in July, I didn’t see Captain Spaulding or any of the other characters he played in Rob Zombie movies. Similarly, his blaxploitation days opposites Pam Grier – sometimes as her boyfriend (like 1972’s The Big Bird Cage), more often as her enemy (as in Black Mamma, White Mamma and Coffy) – were clearly far behind him. Instead, what I saw was a kind old man happily signing autographs, gracious with his time and more than willing to hear someone rave about The Devil’s Rejects.

He brought that same generosity to a later panel appearance where he and several other elder statesmen from the horror scene traded stories about their times in the filmmaking trenches. All of this was happening on the actor’s 80th birthday, a fact not lost on the organizers. They actually advertised the entire weekend as a birthday celebration for Haig, a man who got his start filming westerns in the early 1960s.

Not even a full two months after Crypticon, Haig suffered a fall in his Los Angeles home. By the end of September, he was gone, felled by complications from an infection.

It’s been that kind of year for horror and cult cinema fans. Legends like Creature from the Black Lagoon’s Julie Adams have passed. Other genre icons – like Rutger Hauer, Larry Cohen, John Carl Buecher, and Billy Drago – who were still relatively active and seemed so vital have also passed. Now Sid Haig is gone, and just in the past few days, we also lost Robert Forster.

There is, of course, a lovely story about Haig and Forster and it revolves around Quentin Tarantino’s Pam Grier vehicle Jackie Brown. Famously, Tarantino recruited Forster to the project by discovering the B-movie legend visited the same restaurant and sat at the same table every morning to drink coffee and read the paper. I’ll let this old interview with the actor tell the rest of the story:

I’ve previously detailed how exactly Grier became Jackie Brown. Haig, however, also has a part in Jackie Brown, a quick cameo as a judge. It was his first project since semi-retiring five years earlier and studying to become a hypnotherapist. It had also been ages since Haig and Grier had been in the same room together. To maintain the surprise, Tarantino didn’t tell Grier who was playing the judge until she showed up on set to film the courtroom scene. Her reaction, reportedly, was to run over and hug Haig.

In Hollywood – as with normal life and normal jobs – you always say you will keep in touch with old friends and co-workers but rarely ever do. Here, thanks to Tarantino, were two old blaxploitation veterans finally catching back up.

Well, shit. Now I just want to stop all of this and re-watch Jackie Brown. However, this is meant to be my review of the 2015 horror-western Bone Tomahawk, the latest entry in my 31 Days of Halloween feature. The problem is I picked the film because I’d never seen it before and I wanted something starring Sid Haig. I had no idea, spoiler, he dies in the opening scene! As a Sid Haig tribute, I chose poorly, but was it also a poor choice if all I wanted out of it was a quality horror-western? Well….

What’s It About?

Cave-dwelling cannibals vs. Old West lawmen.

Care to be a Little More Specific?

A pair of drifters (Sid Haig, David Arquette) in the Old West set about their nasty business of killing small traveling parties only to then be ambushed themselves by gray-skinned behemoths from a nearby cannibal tribe. One of drifters escapes, the other – Haig, sadly – is thoroughly brutalized. However, the escapee inadvertently leads the tribe straight to a nearby town. Soon enough, the drifter, a deputy, and the town nurse (Lili Simmons) are kidnapped and taken back to the cannibal’s cave. It’s up to the local Sheriff (Kurt Russell) and a small posse of men (Matthew Fox, Richard Jenkins) and the nurse’s husband (Patrick Wilson) to rescue them. They have no idea what they’re about to walk into. Being scalped is the least of your worries with these people.

Why I Watched It

It fit the criteria: a Sid Haig film I’d never seen before that was available to stream. Plus, even outside of any Sid Haig considerations Bone Tomahawk has been on my radar for years now.

Did I Like It?

S. Craig Zahler – who started out writing novels and selling screenplays which never got produced before switching to directing his own scripts – has carved out this unique little space for himself in Hollywood. With the Dallas-based, Oil money-fueled film studio Cinestate behind him, he has become a purveyor of throwback exploitation pictures that have a sneaky – and sometimes not-so-sneaky – right-wing subtext. In Bone Tomahawk, the enemy is an uncultured “other.” In his subsequent films – Brawl in Cell Block 99 and Dragged Across Concrete – a similar formula plays out.

As Medium’s Jacob Garfinkle pointed out: “It’s pretty clear that S. Craig Zahler has a formula for his fiction. Irredeemably evil minorities + damsel in distress threatened with sexual violence + heroic Aryan(s) + violent climax = jackpot!”

To be sure, Zahler has leaned further into this with each new film and now practically flaunts it by courting Hollywood Republicans like Vince Vaughn and Mel Gibson to be his leading men. This means that Zahler has evolved from a director with a real eye for realistic violence and a clear love for 70s exploitation filmmaking and into someone who might just side with Clint Eastwood’s ongoing odes to rugged American individualism and probably didn’t get the true point of the original Death Wish.

As Zahler’s directorial debut, however, Bone Tomahawk isn’t quite as upfront with its ideology. There are actually several nods toward progressivism. For example, the damsel in distress is a highly capable nurse who hates the whole lot of the town’s men, including her husband, for their stubbornness and stupidity. The one Native American in town is so fearful/disdainful of his cave-dwelling relatives he refuses to go with the posse and is rather unflinching when he says accusatory things like, “To your eyes, they would like just like any other Indian, but to our’s, we know better.” When the cannibals kill a black man but refuse to eat him out of prejudice, the killing mixed with the inherent racism seems to strike all of the characters as further confirmation of the pure evil they are up against.

Bandaids, perhaps, but at least signs of a writer/director somewhat trying to engage with what can often be a rather regressive genre.

The problem with Bone Tomahawk is less with what it has to say about the world and more with how long it takes to say it. For a film with a rather straightforward rescue story, there’s simply no reason Bone Tomahawk needs to be 130 minutes long. It has the length and shape of an Ari Aster movie, heavily backloaded with gore and violence just like Hereditary and Midsommar, but there isn’t any real dread baked into the first two-thirds. We’re not on the edge of our seats waiting to see what happens when the heroes finally catch up to the cannibals. Instead, we’re watching scenes of quarreling dudes setting up camp for the night, or Patrick Wilson’s character limping along on his own, refusing to quit even as a serious leg injury would otherwise cause a less resolute man to turn back.

Bone Tomahawk is thus far heavier on the western part of horror-western. It’s a western story about a diverse group of heroes – Kurt Russell, as we already knew, is tailor-made for this genre – racing to rescue some loved ones from evil others. When the violence hits, it hits damn hard, and there is a certain WTF thrill to seeing such a great cast being put on notice: none of you are safe.

There is a shocking brutality to what ends up happening in the cave, and on that level – a western which turns into a punch-to-the-gut cannibal movie – Bone Tomahawk is a commendable work of genre fusion, bringing horror and gore to the western. It’s too long for my liking, however, and Sid Haig’s screentime is far too short.

In his older age, this is the kind of work Haig did, popping by for short cameos. That’s why he’s barely in Rob Zombie’s new film 3 From Hell and why he actually has two other films which will now receive a posthumous release.

Did It Scare Me?

More than anything else, realistic violence filmed with almost fetishistic detail in horror movies causes me to wince the most. So, it was tough going for me and Bone Tomahawk’s cave sequences.

Where to Stream

According to JustWatch: Currently, you are able to watch “Bone Tomahawk” streaming on Amazon Prime Video, Hoopla. It is also possible to buy “Bone Tomahawk” on Vudu, PlayStation, Apple iTunes, Amazon Video, FandangoNOW, YouTube, Google Play Movies, Microsoft Store as download or rent it on Vudu, PlayStation, Apple iTunes, Amazon Video, FandangoNOW, Google Play Movies, YouTube, Microsoft Store online.

31 Days of Halloween So Far:

Next Up: Bong Joon-ho takes on the monster movie and finds a surprising enemy.

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One comment

  1. I think I saw this title once while checking Russel’s filmography and was reminded again after your post. It’s 130 minutes long? At least it’s still shorter than Hateful 8, which I haven’t seen yet.

    “We’re not on the edge of our seats waiting to see what happens when the heroes finally catch up to the cannibals. Instead, we’re watching scenes of quarreling dudes setting up camp for the night…”

    I kind of like the build-up. That I don’t know whether there’s still someone to rescue in the third act or things will just get worse. It helps that the characterization and the acting were strong. I like the “quarreling dudes” part.

    “This means that Zahler has evolved from a director with a real eye for realistic violence and a clear love for 70s exploitation filmmaking and into someone who might just side with Clint Eastwood’s ongoing odes to rugged American individualism…”

    I haven’t seen his later films but this is an interesting point. Mel Gibson, Clint Eastwood, add to that the new Rambo. In the movie Patrick Wilson’s character said that it’s all Sheriff’s and Brodder’s fault. They won’t be in that situation in the first place if Hunt didn’t shoot the drifter. One thing leads to another. And you kind of think they deserve it and yet you still root for them.

    And the gore. Did you notice Russel’s character was watching the whole thing in that cave scene?

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