First glimpsed by Australian audiences at the 2009 Melbourne Film Festival, J.T. Petty's The Burrowers all but vanished from the public's eye. SCREEN-SPACE's second Retrospective Review aims to bring this undervalued creature feature the prominence it deserves.
Stars: Clancy Brown, William Mapother, Karl Geary, Doug Hutchison, Laura Leighton and Jocelin Donahue.
Writer/Director: J.T. Petty
An atmospheric, slightly loopy mix of western lore and monster movie shocks – best described as The Searchers meets The Thing – The Burrowers is a very cool movie. Director J.T Petty's nasty romp followed up Alex Turner's Dead Birds (2004) and preceeded John Geddes Exit Humanity (2011) in Old West/monster movie mash-up genre; it may well be the best of them.
In 1879, the earliest white settlers are barely surviving in homesteads far removed from civilisation. When a young family goes missing, a band of misfit idealists and gruff men of the land set out on a journey into the Dakota wilderness to find them. For Fergus Coffey (Karl Geary), the mission is personal - he was to marry the beautiful Maryanne (Jocelin Donahue); Will Parcher (William Mapother) and John Clay (Clancy Brown) are experienced Indian fighters, convinced the local natives have abducted and murdered the family.
At first relying on the sociopathic leader of the local army battalion, Henry Victor (Doug Hutchison, a veteran of similar monster-movie madness, having starred as ‘Eugene Tooms’ in The X-Files), the group soon break away to travel the open plains alone. But it is when night falls, and the long grasses near their campfire hum with the drooling evilness of the creatures from beneath the earth, that the film takes flight as a monster movie of shuddering effectiveness.
Petty adapts his own episodic internet series with many of the same cast, including Brown and Mapother (cousin of Thomas Cruise Mapother III). He knows these characters very well and fleshes them out to terrific comic and dramatic effect. But best of all, he knows what scares us. His sinewy monsters, stalking the unaware on all fours, their boney elbows and knees protruding like those of bats scurrying across open ground, are very effective. He keeps them and the mystery of their existence hidden for much of the film, finally unleashing their physicality and true horror in a final reel shocker.
Though shot on a measly US$7million budget, The Burrowers recreates the early West and envisions pure evil with an A-grade attention to detail. As a throwback to the great B-movies of years gone by, it echoes the middle America-vs-monster movie Tremors (1990), the astronauts-vs-monster movie Alien (1979) and the lost campers-vs-monster movie Prophecy (1979). Like those films, The Burrowers is a choice example of this paranoid, claustrophobic, tummy-tightening genre.