Watching a horror western hybrid like The Burrowers I become acutely aware that I come at it one handed. The number of Westerns I've seen in my life would barely break ten and so there's a wealth of genre context that I just don't have. In this case The Searchers, with which The Burrowers seems to share narrative fundamentals. But I guess it doesn't matter too much because this is a distinctly modern affair, posing as these things do that the West was not a melting pot of derring do and cultural creation myths but ugliness and violence despite blissfully attractive locations (this is shot in lovely New Mexico). It's not a serious study though, more an interesting backdrop. The story is of an Irish labourer about to propose to his beloved but finds her stolen away, possibly by Indians. So he joins a pack of Indian hunters for pursuit, but inevitably things get a bit weirder. The romance alas is contained in a brief opening, staying undeveloped, and while the low status of the Irish at the place and time is mentioned it provides no friction either underlying or ongoing. Likewise a black servant character proceeds with little discomfort although the racial situation of the time is also mentioned. And of course the main human villain is no more than an arrogant sadist. So the film doesn't really work on historical dramatics, but the setting suits the horror well. The titular burrowers are like huge and limbed maggots, crawling through the Earth to create and feast upon decay, and multiple top down shots establish the Earth as living thing, ground a flat, dull expanse of skin dotted by grass and trees as hair, humans with all their discord and violence invaders feeding the rot within. Makes for an interesting universal message that goes quite some way towards excusing other flaws in the conception.
It could all have worked out splendidly but unfortunately isn't all there. The quest isn't as pronounced as it should be, nor the villain as vicious or the creatures deeds as grotesquely gruesome in presentation. The villain is nasty and the creatures, announced by a sinister creaking sound, are scary, but only towards the end does the film lock down in the way that it should and even then the close is a bit too open ended to fully satisfy. But it's still a generally effective ride. Karl Geary, earlier seen in 90's art vamp gem Nadja makes for an engaging, sympathetically driven hero, Clancy Brown is a good old school tough but decent guy, William Mapother is a similarly effective goodie, Doug Hutchison plays loathsome like its second nature (not quite as repellent as in The Green Mile but he still works well) and Sean Patrick Thomas rounds out the mains nicely as a quietly smart, stoic servant who sure isn't a sap. I was disappointed that Jocelin Donahue only appeared for about a minute at the beginning though, when you have an actress so goddamned cute you could happily watch her watching paint dry you really ought to show her a bit more. There's some reasonably exciting Western style action and bloodshed and what creature nastiness there is neat indeed though there isn't enough of it. And the generally bleak, serious tone is well judged, atmospheric and compelling rather than cloying. So in the altogether this is worthwhile stuff. For all its imperfections it still offers a good bit to chew on and does fair justice to both its horror and western sides. Many may happily skip but for fans of the slightly off the beaten track this gets a good recommendation.