A Brief History of Horror-Westerns
Brief History is a column that tells you all you need to know about your favorite — and not so favorite — pop culture topics. This entry looks into the history of horror-Westerns set in the old frontier.
Westerns have a tendency to depict the frontier in a savage light. The Old West represents the intersection between chaos and social order. Death is everywhere. Throw in the superstitions, legends, wild beasts, and killers of the time period, and the Western makes for a fitting bedfellow with horror.
The heroes in traditional Westerns are the protectors of civilization. In that regard, they aren’t all that different from the beast slayers who conquer fantastical threats in scary movies. Both genres are concerned with the idea of good and evil. That’s why filmmakers have found interesting ways to bring them together for decades. With this in mind, let’s take a brief tour through the history of horror-Westerns.
Lightning Bryce (1919) and The Haunted Range (1926)
Westerns and horror began flirting with each other during the silent film era. Lightning Bryce is a fifteen-part serial about a treasure hunt that’s fairly traditional fare for the most part. But it does contain some spooky scenes featuring a mystical powder that causes wolf hallucinations.
Haunted Range, meanwhile, centers around a mystery of a ranch that’s supposedly home to a phantom. The supernatural element is merely a ruse, but the film is one of the earliest examples of an Old West ghost story on the screen.
Riders of the Whistling Skull (1937)
Based on William Colt MacDonald’s pulp novels, The Three Mesquiteers series is one of the longest-running Western film franchises out there. Fifty-one movies were churned out by Republic Pictures between 1936 and 1943, all of which centered around trios of cowboys having all kinds of adventures.
Riders of the Whistling Skull marked a brief foray into horror territory for the series. The story sees the titular threesome embark on an expedition to find a lost city. This brings them into contact with a Native cult and some mummies. The premise is outlandish, but the movie is quite entertaining.
The Beast of Hollow Mountain (1956) and The Valley of the Gwangi (1969)
Here’s a great double bill for those of you who want to see cowboys take on dinosaurs. Both movies boast a similar premise, but that’s because they’re based on an idea by Willis O’Brien, the stop-motion effects king who brought King Kong to life.
O’Brien wrote a script for a movie called Valley of the Mists. That never got made, but he repurposed the script with Robert Hill and Jack Dewitt to create The Beast of Hollow Mountain. The story follows an American rancher who blames his Mexican counterparts for stealing his cattle. In reality, they’re being feasted on by a prehistoric beast.
The Valley of the Gwangi is a more direct adaptation of O’Brien’s original idea. The film also boasts special effects from his protege, the great Ray Harryhausen. In this movie, a cowboy captures an Allosaurus for the circus, but the creature ends up escaping and going on the rampage. This movie is the better of the two, but both are solid.
Curse of the Undead (1959)
This one is notable as it’s the first Western with a vampire gunslinger. Movies about these fiends are common within the subgenre, and they include gems such as Sundown: A Vampire in Retreat (1989) and From Dusk Till Dawn III: The Hangman’s Daughter (1999).
In Curse of the Dead, a bloodsucking bounty hunter is on the loose, and he’s feasting on the women of a small town. It’s up to a preacher to put a stop to him. The film is also interesting due to its incorporation of European vampire folklore, which set it apart from other Universal monster movies about bloodsucking ghouls at the time.
Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966) and Billy the Kid Versus Dracula (1966)
There are gazillions of Westerns that chronicle the adventures of Jesse James and Billy the Kid. They’re two of the most romanticized historical figures of the Old West, after all. That’s why they were the ideal heroes to pit against horror icons.
Both of these movies were also directed by William Beaudine, a prolific director who made movies faster than regular people cook hot meals. He also made each movie within eight days and they were subsequently released as a double feature. The quality of each flick is a bit iffy.
In Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter, the titular outlaw takes refuge at a castle only to discover that there are horrible experiments taking place within its walls. The title is also quite misleading, as the eponymous daughter is really the evil doctor’s granddaughter.
Billy the Kid Versus Dracula entails the villainous Count preying on women in the Wild West. But he targets the wrong one when he goes after the wife of one of the most legendary outlaws in the land. This one stars John Carradine, a great actor who made some really questionable movies.
Godmonster of Indian Flats (1973)
Movies about ranchers being forced to take up arms are commonplace in the Wild West genre. Usually, they have to defend their livestock from bandits who want to steal it. In Godmonster of Indian Flats, though, the livestock is the threat.
The movie centers around a mutant sheep that is causing havoc in an Idaho town. The rampaging ram’s mother was exposed to a chemical from a nearby mine, and the sheep develops monstrous tendencies. If you’re already sold on this premise, I promise that Godmonster of Indian Flats doesn’t disappoint.
High Plains Drifter (1973) and Pale Rider (1985)
Clint Eastwood is the best actor to ever put on a cowboy hat. His most iconic roles are in Westerns. That said, these movies represent the actor and director at his most underappreciated. Perhaps they’re overlooked because he is riffing on The Man With No Name character in both. But they’re original films in his Old West oeuvre.
High Plains Drifter sees Eastwood play a possible avenging spirit who returns from beyond the grave to brutalize the townspeople. The status of his pulse is never confirmed, but it’s implied that he’s one of the undead. The plot is quite derivative of other revenge-themed Westerns, but the overall movie is strange, spiritual, and often hilarious.
Pale Rider, meanwhile, is a thematic sequel in some ways. He once again plays a gunslinger who’s out to take down some vicious bandits. But it’s also implied that his character is either a ghost or Death himself. Whatever he is, this is Clint in his laconic, trigger-happy comfort zone.
The Adventures of Brisco Country, Jr. (1993)
Most Bruce Campbell fans consider The Evil Dead or Bubba Ho-Tep to be his finest work. For me, though, The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. is his true masterpiece. Unfortunately, the TV show was canceled after one season, and that makes it Petition Worthy.
Campbell plays a bounty hunter who’s out to avenge the death of his father at the hands of an outlaw gang. During his travels, however, he discovers a mystical orb and encounters ghosts, ninjas, pirates, and bikers. Anything is possible in this world.
This version of the Old West is still fairly grounded in genre archetypes, but the sprinkled-in fantastic elements are what makes the show truly original. The series embraces the core components of traditional Westerns, and then it gets weird.
Ravenous (1999) and Bone Tomahawk (2016)
Ravenous and Bone Tomahawk are totally different movies, but they’re also similar as they deal with the topic of cannibalism. They’re also two of the best films the genre has produced. Go read our Top 10 best horror-Westerns list to find out why.
Ravenous is a darkly comic interpretation of Algonquian Wendigo mythology. The characters are human, but the film explores the idea that eating human flesh imbues one with the victim’s strength. In the movie, a cowardly soldier and a cannibal engage in a battle of wits in a fort. Guy Pearce and Robert Carlyle bring the characters to life.
Bone Tomahawk is like a Burt Bacharach adventure movie that takes a detour into Cannibal Holocaust territory in the final third. In the film, a sheriff leads a rescue mission to retrieve a woman who’s been captured by flesh-munching troglodytes. That’s when things get nasty, especially during a scene where a man is literally split in half.
Dead Birds (2004) and The Burrowers (2008)
These movies feature different types of scenarios, but they are similar in the way in which they probe America’s history of racial injustices through the prism of fright flicks.
In Dead Birds, some robbers find themselves stuck on a plantation that was once home to disturbing atrocities. The bandits are Confederate soldiers who defected from the army, but they’re still forced to confront their sins. It’s also worth noting that this was penned by Simon Barrett, who went on to score modern cult hits with You’re Next and The Guest.
The Burrowers follows a rescue party in search of a family that goes missing in dangerous terrains. Native Americans are initially blamed for the disappearances, but the heroes soon discover that underground creatures are responsible. And they have good reason to be angry at humans.
It turns out that the creatures are only feasting on people because the settlers took all their buffalo. The movie is a great commentary on how America was robbed from its Native denizens after being swarmed by settlers from Europe and beyond. The monster action is an added bonus.
The Wind (2018)
Let’s face it. Westerns are predominantly macho movies that focus on tough men in savage lands. Emma Tammi’s The Wind is refreshing as it comes from a woman’s perspective, and it delves into the less enlightened aspects of the old frontier.
The story takes place on an isolated prairie and follows a woman who’s being tormented by a demon. Maybe it’s all in her head, but part of the appeal is trying to figure out what’s going on. At its core, The Wind is a sociopolitical allegory about repression and a study of madness. Fans who like their horror heady and moody will eat it up, too.
The movie has been compared to The VVitch due to its slow-burn style and lead characters who are closed off from civilization. The dreary cinematography is also very reminiscent of Robert Eggers’ movie, but Tammi and screenwriter Teresa Sutherland deserve all the credit for having their own distinct vision.
The Pale Door (2020)
Joe R. Lansdale is a writer of Westerns, horror, and a combination of the two. It was only a matter of time before he lent his talents to a movie that encompasses all of these genres, even if it is in a producer role.
The Pale Door isn’t based on one of Lansdale’s books, but it’s the type of story that could spawn from his imagination. The terror tale focuses on a gang of outlaws who take refuge in a ghost town after a job. But they end up falling prey to a brothel full of witches. Think From Dusk Till Dawn, only with witches instead of vampires.