One of the rarest breeds of cinematic subgenres is the horror movie western. Although such schlocky B-grade examples include early outings such as The Curse of the Dead, Billy the Kid Versus Dracula, and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter, the subgenre remains nearly as barren as the dusty landscapes featured in many American westerns.
However, the 1970s began a fertile breeding ground for high-quality horror westerns that would continue to evolve over the next four decades. The subgenre has attracted such directorial talent as Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, John Carpenter, and more. Let’s check out the cream of the crop when it comes to this relatively niche category of cinema.
10 The Burrowers (2008)
J.T. Petty’s atmospheric horror-western The Burrowers was adapted from his own short film entitled Blood Red Earth. The period-set creature-feature stars Clancy Brown as John Clay, a veteran tracker who leads a mission to find missing family.
Set in the Dakota territories of 1879, Clay and his men are tasked with finding a family thought to have been kidnapped by the Sioux tribe. However, a species of subterranean flesh-eating creatures known as Burrows in Native American lore come up to hunt the whole search party.
9 Dead Birds (2004)
One of the better horror westerns to come out in the last two decades includes Dead Birds, directed by Alex Turner from a script penned by Simon Barrett. The film follows a unit of criminal Confederate Soldiers in the Civil War who get far more than they bargained for upon an attempted bank heist.
Michael Shannon, Henry Thomas, Patrick Fugit, Isaiah Washington, and Mark Boone Junior star in the film, which takes place in Alabama in the 1860s. Once the crew holes up in a condemned plantation after a bank robbery attempt, they are systematically stalked by a supernatural scourge of unknown origin.
8 Vampires (1998)
While it may rank low in his own personal filmography, John Carpenter’s Vampires is still one of the better examples of the neo-western-horror mash-up.
James Woods stars as Jack Crow in the film, a grizzled vampire slayer hell-bent on avenging the bloodsucking ghouls that wiped out his entire crew. On his quest to slay as many vampires as possible, Crow and his new team forge a dusty western landscape in search of a Catholic artifact that, if obtained by the vampires, will allow them to be exposed to sunlight without harm.
7 The Wind (2018)
One of the more recent examples of a terrifying horror-western includes The Wind, Emma Tami’s directorial debut about a woman’s hardscrabble existence on the American frontier in the late 1800s.
Written by Teresa Sutherland, the film follows Lizzy Macklin (Caitlin Gerard), a woman who falls victim to her lonely isolated existence and begins to lose her mind out of a paranoid sense of cabin fever. With the titular terror tormenting her at every turn, Lizzy slowly loses her psychological grip on reality.
6 Pale Rider (1985)
One of the more subtly ambiguous horror-westerns is Pale Rider, the eleventh feature film directed by Clint Eastwood. The iconic western movie legend also stars as the title character, itself a coy indication that his true nature is a ghastly apparition.
When Preacher (Eastwood) suddenly storms into town, he vengefully protects a small town from a ruthless industrial mining corporation moving in on their land. Preacher uses a series of tactics that indicate his sinister supernatural spirit.
5 Westworld (1973)
Written and directed by famed novelist Michael Crichton, Westworld served as the direct inspiration for the 2016 hit HBO series of the same name. The film is set in an adult theme park modeled after the American wild west.
Just like the TV show, things turn horrific when the robotic hosts inside the park malfunction and begin stalking and hunting the human guests. Yul Brynner stars as the Gunslinger, a sharpshooting cowboy robot that goes ballistic ahead of a kill-crazy rampage. A follow-up film entitled Futureworld was released three years later.
4 Bone Tomahawk (2015)
S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk is one of the most barbarously violent horror westerns of recent memory. The film stars Kurt Russell as a small-town Sheriff who helps make a stand against a Neanderthalic race of underground cannibals.
When the cannibalistic ghouls overrun the town of Bright Hope in the 1890s, Sheriff Hunt (Russell) rounds up a gang to help save a local doctor from attack. Hunt, Brooder (Matthew Fox), and Chicory (Richard Jenkins) ride into enemy territory where they are unkindly met by a flesh-starved pack of savages.
3 Ravenous (1999)
Speaking of cannibalistic horror-westerns, none top Antonia Bird’s breathtaking 1999 film Ravenous. The film boasts an all-star cast in a story that finds a group of westward expansion settlers driven to flesh-eating madness when stranded at a snowbound outpost.
Following a cowardly act during the Mexican-American War, Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce) is demoted to a snowy outpost at Fort Spencer. There, he meets a starving group of marooned men driven to cannibalism. One man, in particular, Colonel Ives (Robert Carlyle), becomes possessed by a wendigo, a mythical demon that grows stronger upon eating more and more human flesh.
2 Near Dark (1987)
Before winning an Oscar for Best Director for The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow delivered one of the all-time best neo-western horror mash-ups ever assembled. Co-written by Eric Red, Near Dark melds the iconography of the American western landscape with the terrifying tableau of a vicious vampire film.
The film follows Mae (Jenny Wright), an attractive vampiress who lures unsuspecting victims into her van of traveling bloodsuckers. When they pick up their newest victim, Caleb (Adrian Pasdar), Mae gives him a week to assimilate. As the gang marauds the west, Caleb is forced to save his kidnapped sister while fending off his vampiric transformation.
1 High Plains Drifter (1973)
The greatest horror-western ever made belongs to Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter, his second directorial feature. Eastwood stars as The Stranger, a mysterious enforcer who rides into Lago and uses his influence to clean the town up.
Much like Pale Rider, the title High Plains Drifter refers to the subliminal fact that The Stranger is a supernatural entity. Through subtle hints, hidden clues, and detailed production designs, the film slowly reveals that The Stranger is a vengeful spirit sent to protect the town from widespread corruption and violence.
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