As horror movies increasingly seek to distinguish themselves by way of a cleaver premise or novel gimmick, the genre mash-up is a tried and true method for producing relatively watchable fare. Zombies in the Dark Ages. Vampires in Hollywood. Psychopaths in space. These are the kind of potboiler concepts that are just fertile enough to yield something worth renting on a Friday night or filling the rows of movies you like to scroll past for 45 minutes each time you fire up Netflix and end up not watching anything. But amid such a checkered pedigree, some gems do emerge, and one such is Bone Tomahawk, a surprisingly tight, engaging and visceral horror story that succeeds not so much in spite of its incredibly tight budgetary restraints, but perhaps because of them. Bone Tomahawk is the kind of story that makes you think, if this is what cash-strapped indie horror cinema can produce, then no horror movie should ever get a big budget ever again.
The story takes place in the 1890s, near a small Old West town called Bright Hope. There, a dangerous criminal drifter names Purvis floats into town, chased by a band of mysterious and unseen murderers who begin killing and abducting the townspeople, including Samantha O’Dwyer, assistant to the town doctor. The marauders, it turns out, are a tribe of cannibalistic cave-dwellers who hail from the Valley of the Starving Men, a place long avoided by the local Native Americans. Samantha and the other abductees will surely face a grim fate if not rescued, so the tough yet polished Sheriff Hunt forms a posse to save the day. Accompanying Hunt are his faithful and amiable (but dim-witted) deputy Chicory, the smooth-talking gunman/Indian fighter Brooder, and Arthur O’Dwyer, a local foreman and Samantha’s wife. Arthur is nursing a broken leg but insists on helping save Samantha, and one can’t help but wonder if it’s because he needs to be his wife’s savior, or he worries what might happen if the handsome and womanizing Brooder were to do it. Despite their differences, and Arthur’s leg, the group pursues the Starving Men, heading deep into uncharted territory where there is no help to expect, and plenty of territory more friendly to the enemy. When our heroes make contact with their quarry, they will find that all of their educated talk, firearms and sense of civility will provide a poor shield against the force of savagery so unfettered by conventional morality as to seem the mindset of some other kind of creature altogether. Bullets and pocket watches mean little against stone-tipped arrows and bone hatchets skillfully wielded by those who have been hunting and killing their fellow man their entire lives. Every hunter must remember that they, too, are something’s prey.
Bone Tomahawk really embraces its hybrid structure with a long, slow burn that introduces its characters gradually, allowing them plenty of screen time to interact, reveal the different sides of their character, and engage in some of some of the most entertainingly written period drama to grace a Western. The gilded nature of an educated tongue faced with such brutal opposition gives the sense that for these four heroes, civilization is wherever they go; for all else is elemental predation. And while we wrap ourselves up in that initially, enjoying the slow reveal of these characters and the sheer joy of hearing well written dialogue artfully delivered, there comes a creeping dread with it all—that these heroes may think themselves able rescuers, sent from history’s forward progress to save their own from the dark recesses of primordial man. But that only carries you so far into the wilderness. And soon, our heroes—and ourselves, as well—realize that their mission takes them too far into the Hinterlands for their success or survival to be even odds, let alone a sure thing.
There is virtually no music in Bone Tomahawk, just ambient sound and big, open landscapes to reinforce the vast emptiness of this world, and the sudden nature of its violence and depravity. There is no typical buildup to be had here, no horror movie tropes to rest on. Just a story that begins in the Old West, with all the trimmings, and slowly, inexorably ventures into a horrifying spot off the map that has a tendency to accept living people and spit out nothing but bones. There is nothing quite so unsettling as seeing characters have enough time to subvert our expectations that they might buy the farm, and then seeing them dispatched from the story with no ceremony or mercy. This is a survival story that doesn’t lose its characters at convenient narrative points, but at the point in their mission when it’s most likely for them to die. It’s almost like the characters themselves haven’t realized they wandered from one genre to another, and are hopelessly unprepared for it. With that comes a subtle shift in pacing as we realize that something very bad is about to happen, and we have no clue where or when it will take place or who it will involve.
By the time we finally get the kind of violent resolution a movie of this kind must eventually deliver, we have plenty of questions about the antagonists Sheriff Hunt and his men are looking to bring to justice. But the more that answers begin to reveal themselves, the less we wish they had never been asked. There is a moment of shocking violence in Bone Tomahawk that punctuates its intent with a huge, bloody stain, but the moment of truth comes afterward, as some of our characters are given a glimpse into the details of the lives of the Starving Men—specifically how they propagate themselves. Some things are better left unexplained, especially when you are face-to-face with a kind of horror that reminds us of the most brutal truth of all: there are no monsters more savage than human beings.