It took a movie about subterranean carnivores to dig me out of the sodding horror rut of spring. I’m kind of geeking out right now, as a matter of record.
The past three or so weeks have found the playlist slogged with amateur productions possessing a death grip on the rail of mediocrity. Each time I’ve met and failed the laborious chore that is prying critical sway (one way or ‘tother) from good intentions fraught with either remedial talent and/or no budget. In a rut like this it becomes nigh impossible for me to conjure several hundred words of opinion about work that is itself opinionless.
Finally comes along J.T. Petty, a man with a wicked story to tell and the cinematic prowess to ebb all traces of the same small production constraints that plague the aforementioned opinionless films. THE BURROWERS is one of the smartest, most accomplished creature features to come out of America in years. Set in 1879, Petty blends genres to transport the viewer to the sparse expanse that is the Dakota Territories, narrowing in on a small band of men who set out to track the Indians who sieged the homestead of main character Coffey (Karl Geary), kidnapping those not killed in the process. Of course thanks to the opening a scene, we the viewer know that no man took those women.
We the viewer also have the broad foresight that is the title of the film. Worry not, though. Petty’s film is no rehash of TREMORS. The title and trailer, perhaps wisely, broadcast this misconception but the reality is far more delightful. The title is a mere reference to where the threat originates from, it tells nothing of their behavior. Even if it did, no title could adequately advertise how pulse poundingly badass the titular species is.
J.T. Petty, who steered the subversive metafilm S&MAN (review) when not pulling writing duties on several SPLINTER CELL games, spends the first half of the film playing the creatures coy. Petty opts to keep their presence more felt than seen, a play that pays off magnificently in the last half of the film. Normally holding off on the creature is an exercise in tedium. Not for THE BURROWERS. Setting it in 1879 pops the seal on the otherwise formulaic tracking/waiting game. It may not be as richly detailed as bigger budgeted forays into the time period are, but the era of Manifest Destiny permeates nonetheless, allowing for a rewarding conflict triangle between the settlers, the natives and the Union.
Filling in those three groups is a dynamic cast: Clancy Brown (he of STARSHIP TROOPERS, SHAWSHANK, and “CARNIVALE”) as the experienced rider, Karl Geary as the love bent Irish immigrant, William Wapother (he of “LOST”) as the stalwart ranch owner, Doug Hutchison (also of “LOST”) as the asshole Union captain, and Sean Patrick Thomas (he of SAVE THE LAST DANCE and HALLOWEEN: RESURRECTION) as his cook. The grizzled, the romantic, the weary, the leery, and the placeless ex-slave are kind of the standard mix for the ‘ole west but all are saved by the casting department and Petty’s script, which pushes each character beyond their typical orbit.
Pushing farther than even his own script is Petty’s guidance of its complete arch. He has an instinct for the whens and the hows of revelation, perpetuating an instinct for the craft of illusion first tested in S&MAN and now proven to marvelous effect in THE BURROWERS. The creature design alone is outstanding, exposing no gaudy seams between the digital and the practical effects, a feat made even more impressive when one steps back and remembers the setting. Petty, his special effects team and his cinematographer are harmonious in their caper, hiding questionable limbs in the shadows as the creatures approach, holding nothing back in their prime time revelation. I’m not sure if I’m more disturbed by their faces or their knees. Both will penetrate my eye lids tonight.
I don’t use the phrase often, but the final showdown is nothing if not riveting. Playing coy is out of the question. Petty shows everything in a balls out wonderment climax. This is no quick cut, shaky cam showdown either (cough, SPLINTER). Petty’s is a lengthy ordeal satisfying to the very end. Even what happens after the exhausting culmination of man vs subterranean beast is a riveting final knock to the chest.
I was hoping a decent movie might dislodge me from the rut. I wasn’t expecting to be blown away. I couldn’t recommend THE BURROWERS enough.