I first became aware of J. T. Petty when his Mimic: Sentinel came through for review. I popped it on, expectations very low (it always seems to be a sign of a franchise’s last gasp when the digits are dropped from the titles of sequels), and was pleasantly surprised by a clever reworking of Rear Window. Soft for Digging, his feature debut, was just as interesting, and was a quietly effective little ghost story. He hasn’t been very prolific as a director (though he did find gainful employ scripting the first three excellent Splinter Cell games), and I missed his S&Man, but now he’s back in horror territory with a bleak western with monsters: The Burrowers.
There’s a bit of an echo of The Searchers in Petty’s set-up: a group of white settlers are abducted, and a posse is formed to hunt down the guilty parties and rescue the captives. While the searchers assume they are after a group of Native Americans, in fact their quarry isn’t human at all. What follows has the inevitability of tragedy (and, for that matter, of history): the posse (initially led by a psychotic military commander) perpetuates no end of atrocity against innocent parties, and it is pretty clear from the ferocious racism on display that these men needed very little excuse to start torturing and killing Native Americans. At the same time, the men are very vulnerable to attack from the burrowers of the title.
What follows is a series of worst-case scenarios. Don’t be expecting too many feel-good moments here. The pace is quite stately and relentlessly downbeat, and this is very much in the service of the artistic and thematic points Petty is making. Two things need to be underscored here: firstly, for all that the burrowers are a nasty, scary, threatening force, when you break down the body count, most of the actual killing is human on human. Secondly, the monsters, twisted and nasty though they be, are nonetheless a recognizable variation on the human form.
What do we make of this, then? Much, given that this is just as much a western as it is a horror film. The western is vitally concerned with the American myth, whether that concern be the construction or the deconstruction of said myth. The Burrowers‘ interest is emphatically in the latter. The slaughters is depicts are painfully and historically real, and so the monsters come to represent the dark underbelly not just of colonization, but of human nature itself. They are the darkness inside us that makes us turn on each other and rip our neighbours to pieces. They are also, sad to say, a pretty ineradicable aspect of humanity, hence their resilience in the film.
All of which makes this rather atypical monster fare. Viewers hoping for a fun and scary romp will be disappointed, and quite likely mightily put off by the ending. This doesn’t make The Burrowers any kind of a failure, though. Far from it. It announces its serious intent early on, establishes a dark but contemplative tone, and sticks with it. While there have been plenty of monster movies that mix both commentary with a good time (The Host is a sterling example), there are others that are not afraid to be explicitly metaphorical at the expenses of pure adrenaline – the original Godzilla being a case in point.
Dark, heady stuff, then. But well worth watching.