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The Burrowers (2008)

DVD Released: 4/21/2009

All Ratings out of
Movie: 1/2
Video: 1/2

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 4/19/2009

The key to making a good horror movie is the element of surprise. You have to give the audience something which they weren't expecting and would never see coming. Unfortunately, so many filmmakers don't understand this and in today's samey-samey re-tread world, we are rarely surprised by anything in scary movies. The Burrowers attempts to change this trend by shaking up a tired, old genre.

The Burrowers takes place in 1879 in the Dakota Territories. As the film opens, a family cowers in their root cellar as they anticipate an attack by Native Americans. We next see Fergus Coffey (Karl Geary), who is engaged to one of the women seen in the opening, investigating the scene. He is joined by John Clay (Clancy Brown) and Will Parcher (William Mapother), who have experience in tracking and both of whom are convinced that hostile Indians did in fact abduct the family. They are joined by Parcher's step-son, Dobie (Galen Hutchinson). Soon, they meet a cavalry, led by Henry Victor (Doug Hutchison), who agrees to join their search. Not long after that, they capture a Native American who talks about "burrowers". Victor assumes that this is the name of a heretofore unheard of Indian tribe. But, as the search progresses, the group discovers some odd things and soon begins to realize that something ominous may be hunting them.

I went into The Burrowers knowing that it was a horror film (and that's the primary reason that I wanted to see it), but had I not, I would have watched a good portion of the movie thinking that it was a straight-ahead western. We've seen plenty of hybrid films in the past, but typically when a period piece is crossed with something like science-fiction or horror, there is a modern feeling or a wink to the audience that we all know that the period setting is just an excuse for something to happen. However, we never get that with The Burrowers. At heart, this is a western, with cowboys, Indians, and frontier soldiers. The plot is actually somewhat similar to Ron Howard's The Missing, and the film doesn't pull any punches in its portrayal of the violence and racism of the time.

However, at the 38-minute mark, a discovery is made which lets the audience know that we aren't in the typical western. If you went into this movie not knowing that it straddled genres, this twist would be very shocking. (As it stands, even being aware of what I was getting into, this scene is disturbing.) From this point on, the audience is aware that the characters aren't just dealing with savage Native Americans. We quickly grasp that something otherworldly is taking place. This adds a certain level of suspense to the film, as we wait for Coffey, Clay, and Parcher to catch up with the rest of us and realize that something sinister is waiting in the tall grass of the plains.

And this leads us to the main problem with The Burrowers. Writer/Director J.T. Petty has done a great job of setting up the Indian kidnapping premise (which is believable in a historical context and certainly works for the characters in the film). And while 38-minutes is a little long to wait to offer the kind of twist which comes along in the movie, it's not unforgivable. However, following this, the movie drags as we wait for something to happen. We've already enduring scene after scene of the group traveling by horseback across the prairie and even when we realize that they are up against something that they don't understand, they just keep riding. After about an hour, an explanation of "the burrowers" is given. I don't know if there were budgetary concerns involved or if Petty was simply following the horror movie standard of not showing the monster, but we don't really see "the burrowers" until about the 88-minute mark. Does the movie pick up at this point? Some, but most viewers will be so bored that they won't care what is happening. And after all of that, we are treated to a downer ending.

Film historians who are more familiar with westerns than I am no doubt have theories as to why the genre all but died out. (Save for TV movies.) I would venture to guess that one reason is that they became very redundant and seemed to be telling the same story over and over. Thus, it's good to have movies like The Burrowers which attempt to inject something new into the old formulas. However, the film can't decide if it wants to be a true western or a scary movie, and the result is a monotonous ride which leads to a depressing conclusion.

The Burrowers emerges onto DVD courtesy of Lionsgate. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The image is sharp and clear, showing only a smattering of grain at times and no defects from the source material. The colors are OK, but the image is somewhat dark, making the action hard to see in some of the nighttime scenes. The image does show some noticeable artifacting and noise in some shots. The DVD carries a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track which provides clear dialogue and sound effects. The film relies on sounds from off-screen and this track does a fine job of representing this. The stereo effects are detailed and show good separation. The surround sound effects are nicely done as well, and we get the sense of something being behind us. The subwoofer effects aren't as strong, but they work in some key scenes.

The Burrowers DVD contains just four extras. We begin with an AUDIO COMMENTARY from Writer/Director J.T. Petty and actor Karl Geary. This is a pretty good talk, as the two joke about the production and share anecdotes from the set. They talk about the locations, the horses, the creatures, the story, and the other actors. "The Burrowers: Making a Horror Western" (6 minutes) offers a look at the challenge of making a period piece. Writer/Director J.T. Petty addresses his desire to make the film, while the actors weigh in on working with horses and guns. "Digging Up the Borrowers (sic): Creating the Monster" (5 minutes) offers comments from creature FX creator Robert Hall and a behind-the-scenes look at the creation and dressing of the monsters. The only other extra is the TRAILER for the film. A short prequel made by Petty is not included here. For some reason, the DVD box lists the running time at 124 minutes, but it's actually 96.

Review Copyright 2009 by Mike Long