The Burrowers

The Burrowers could have been a really great horror movie. J.T. Petty (writer and director) certainly had all of the elements in place. There are really creepy underground dwelling critters. There’s a rather imaginative plotline (Picture John Wayne in The Searchers coping with the creatures from C.H.U.D.S.) and nubile, pretty prairie girls to be rescued. Even cowboys and Indians are thrown in the mix.

All of the ingredients were there to scare folks from prairie sod the same way Jaws scared a generation of Americans out of the water. With a bit of artistry, hammock sales across the Great Plains would have skyrocketed.

Unfortunately, The Burrowers fell absolutely flat. It fell flatter than the Nebraska cornfields. It fell flatter than the remarkable displays of blunt affect that passed for acting throughout this horrible disappointment of a movie. The viewing experience is like drinking a can of new Coke that had been opened the night before. It’s flat, disappointing and not nearly as good as it could have been.

What a crying shame.

Part of the problem seems to be that almost any movie can be marketed nowadays. We have the SciFi channel, Fearnet and a multitude of other outlets that have to fill so much space that it’s hard to find a movie that they won’t show. The demand for quantity is so high that quality can be sacrificed without anybody but the unfortunate viewers suffering. So filmmakers don’t have to make it good — they just have to get it done. Just stick to the formula and you can cash in.

The result is a plethora of really bad movies showing faux tough guys looking so studly that they could’ve just left a gay strip club to do their hunting of CGI-created menaces de jour. Come to think of it, a storyline of gay strippers versus aliens would be quite an improvement over this sorry genre’s standard fare.

Perhaps I’m being too hard on Petty. It could be that he was so dispirited by the whole scene that he didn’t recognize the diamond that he held in his hand. There are at least some attempts at craftsmanship, which, while making the failure of this film more painful to watch, should at least be credited.

The setup is promising. Something really nasty and unknown is munching on North Dakota homesteaders in 1876. Suspecting Indian attacks are to blame, a combined force of U.S. Cavalry, led by the evil Henry Victor (Doug Hutchison), Indian trackers and homesteaders try to track down some missing women and get some payback.

Unfortunately for all involved the creatures that attacked the homesteads are so nasty that they make a Lakota war party seem like a bunch of smurfs.

Petty actually makes an attempt to develop his characters. There’s Dobie (Galen Hutchison), a boy trying to become a man, “Walnut” Callaghan (Sean Patrick Thomas), trying to be treated like a man. Fergus Coffee (Karl Geary) is an Irish immigrant searching for his fiancé and Will Parcher (Will Mapother) is a weary Indian fighter on a last expedition before settling down with Dobie’s mom.

It’s a promising start (again) but it’s all for naught. The characters never gain any real depth because Petty feeds them like chum to a shark before they can really develop.

Another reason the characters fall short is Petty’s determination to portray every white person as either a cowardly, bloodthirsty idiot or at best an ignorant hick. I’m sure that it’s possible to make a pro- Native American movie without making their opponents look like complete idiots, but for some reason Hollywood has never bothered.

This convention is getting to be an insult to the Native Americans. After all, if your ancestors were defeated by a bunch of idiots what does that make you? It’s just lazy formulaic writing, which really detracts from the suspense of the film.

It’s also demonstrably false. The Sioux were quite efficient in dispatching stupid soldiers and unwary settlers as well as quite a few of the smart and wary. Besides, a movie is far scarier when the people stuck in a bad situation are tough and smart.

Steve Barker’s film Outpost shows this brilliantly as does Neil Marshall’s Dog Soldiers. The hapless clowns in The Burrowers seem like they could barely survive an afternoon at a Chucky Cheese.

The only people with any clue are the Native Americans who are — at least in some cases, amazingly — actually played by Native Americans. (Tatanka Means is a son of Russell Means the founder of AIM) The Sioux have some clue but it’s the Ute who are really on the ball.

Unfortunately, not even the ancient lore of the Ute is enough to save this movie. Usually I can watch a bad movie with good humor, but the broken promise of this flop makes me as irritable as Rocky Balboa’s grouchy old trainer. My offended sensibility yells out “Ya could’ve been a contender but you’re a bum!” What a shame.

The Burrowers does have one achievement in that the extra features are more watchable than the film itself. They are informative, concise and to the point. It’s a good thing, too, as they relieve a tedious and disappointing viewing experience.

RATING 3 / 10
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