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Daughters of Darkness screening at Fantastic Fest!

Weird Westerns Part 3: Lost Worlds and Final Frontiers

‘I opened my eyes upon a strange and weird landscape. I knew that I was on Mars; not once did I question either my sanity or my wakefulness. I was not asleep, no need for pinching here; my inner consciousness told me as plainly that I was upon Mars as your conscious mind tells you that you are upon Earth. You do not question the fact; neither did I.’ – Edgar Rice Burroughs, A Princess of Mars (1912) 

Pulp writer Edgar Rice Burroughs’ serialised adventures of John Carter and his other seminal hero, Tarzan set the standard for science fiction and adventure tales when they were debuted in 1912 — two of the most iconic characters and sources of literature — along with Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World, also published the same year. Both writers had built on the romanticism set out by English writer H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines (1885) — where he had defined the lost worlds literary subgenre of science fiction and fantasy — and with subsequent Allan Quartermain adventures, presented a blueprint for what was to follow. After Tarzan’s adventures were collected and published as Tarzan of the Apes in 1914 and John Carter’s own in A Princess of Mars (1917), pulp magazines grew more in popularity with the likes of Weird Tales (1923) and Amazing Stories (1926), succeeding the revamped Argosy magazine — considered the first ‘pulp’ from 1896 — and The Popular Magazine first launched in 1903. As cheap reading material, they tapped into what was popular and, as highlighted in the previous parts of this series, similar to the comic books that sprang up alongside popular movie stars, TV series and obscurities.

As a forerunner to Superman, once John Carter is transported to Mars he is blessed with superhuman strength as he leaps the red planet’s chasms in a single bound. Similarities can also be found in later science fiction such as Frank Herbert’s first Dune novel (1965) and George Lucas’ original Star Wars (1977). It is also crucial to note that as a civil war veteran, Carter is also the first hero to be transported from the American landscape to outer space and, inevitably a new frontier that offers its own form of savagery and conflict amongst its alien tribes.

From the red planet to the frozen wastelands of Antarctica in H. P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness (1931) — where ancient interdimensional beings shape our very existence — these open vistas, final frontiers of outer space and the space between spaces have continued to capture our imaginations. Yet these tales have, over the years, been relegated to pulp literature and magazines — often discarded as lowbrow entertainment.

Talking about low brows, it is in these pages that Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian made his first appearance in Weird Tales magazine in 1932. The Texan developed a world and mythology-based around what he called the Hyborian Age and gave birth to the sword and sorcery sub-genre. Howard’s stories were more about building new worlds rather than lost ones and set the standard for fantasy writers of the time who revelled in bloodshed and scantily clad women.

From Skull Island to Shangri-La, it is interesting to see how exploration and colonialism inspired familiar stories, much like H.G. Wells’ Dr. Moreau displaying the disturbing side of British masculinity and imperialism. Although Wells’ work was always about looking ahead, the original novel of The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) paints a horrific picture of western civilisation and their treatment of other races. Moreau’s experiments may appear to be only beasts on the surface, but — as with Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) — underneath they are far more human than the man who plays God and surveys his own small world.

A sense of adventure was lost amongst Universal monsters — a different breed completely that latched onto pure horror and its traditional roots through the lens of Hollywood. Erle C. Kenton’s adaptation of Wells’ classic, retitled Island of Lost Souls (1932) took full advantage of the popularity of James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) and, pre-code, leaned as heavily towards the weird as it could. In complete contrast, Frank Capra’s adaptation ofJames Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon (1933) in 1937 made every effort in building on the lost worlds sub-genre and sense of adventure. Although a commercial flop, Capra’s film is absolutely a definitive example of embracing some of W. Rider Haggard’s storytelling. Due to its original source material, Capra’s film didn’t reflect the US of the time, other than its degree of optimism, and other than the serial adventure films it inspired, it was more about a journey east than west — a rather grand but pedestrian film, instead rooted in British sensibilities.

With the popularity of the creature feature brought to prominence through Willis O’Brien’s stunning use of stop motion on King Kong (1933), Ray Harryhausen went onto to popularize the technique further. Although Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and his Sinbad Trilogy (1958-1977) remain the epitome of myth and adventure it is the more obscure and often overlooked The Valley of Gwangi (1969) that begins to embrace both the Western and the lost world sub-genre.

Looking at the film objectively, Jim O’Connolly’s cowboys vs. dinosaur effort is as throwaway as its gimmick would suggest, with Harryhausen’s superb sequences lifting the film beyond forgettable. But what The Valley of Gwangi does display is a prime (or primal) example of genre filmmaking that owns its B-movie methods — a more than confident step towards the blockbuster territory launched 6 years later — where Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) changed audiences’ perceptions overnight. The last remnants of traditional B-movie fodder had fallen on the pulp classics as their source. Kevin Connor’s The Land That Time Forgot (1975)always delivered the perfect midweek matinee when you stumbled across it after teatime. Doug McClure — now finding his footing in second-hand sci-fi and fantasy adventures — was always fit for purpose following up in quick succession with Connor’s next films The People that Time Forgot (1977) and Warlords of the Deep (1978).

More than reminiscent of these films is the Image comic book series, Manifest Destiny. First published in (2013), writer Chris Dingess and artist Matthew Roberts deliver another excellent example of how comic books have continued to champion Weird Western stories. Playing like the X-Files (1993-2018) meets The Revenant (2016), the series follows an expedition through the uncharted American frontier in 1804 as they discover all manner of monsters that lurk in the wilds and ‘manifest’ themselves in many weird and wonderful ways. It’s pulpy, fun and screams to be made into a film or TV series that mixes the Western perfectly with horror and science fiction.

Robert Zemeckis has perhaps come the closest in terms of exploring the Western via science fiction in Back to the Future: Part III (1989), which is a better big-screen version of the TV series Wild Wild West (1965-1969) than its train crash Will Smith vehicle from 1999. This was followed a year later by Ron Underwood’s Tremors (1990) — basically a less epic Dune that replaces a great white shark with man-eating mutated worms known as Graboids. An effortless entry-level monster movie, Tremors never fails to raise a smile with its rickety small town and characters stuck in the middle of nowhere. Yes, it’s a modern setting, but due to its backwater location, the film remains a timeless B-movie and a perfect example of a monster movie Western laced with comedic undertones that help place its tongue firmly in its cheek.

This notion of exploring the monsters of America has become a major part of the nation’s cinematic landscape. Rather than remove itself play into extra-terrestrial or supernatural phenomena, using the idea of something less alien and instead part of the natural eco-system, makes more sense within a Western setting. Set in the Dakota Territory of 1879 J. T. Petty’s The Burrowers (2009) presents creatures that are the result of what human intervention has destroyed ­— the rape of the landscape and decimation of the buffalo — leading to these ‘things’ seeking out alternative meals. Petty mixes a locust with naked mole-rats and a komodo dragon — their lifecycle having to rely on coming to the surface only twice a generation to feed — all of which adds to their mythology and elusive nature. ‘It was important that they weren’t demons or some sort of supernatural nightmare like that. I like the idea that the world can continue in balance until the settlers show up.’

Where the independent nature of The Burrowers keeps it well below ground, in complete contrast there is the dumb fun of Jon Favreau’s Cowboys & Aliens (2011) that burns $175 million dollars right before your eyes via Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig’s paycheques and full-blown CGI chaos. It’s a film that would never have been made unless it fell into the hands of such a confident filmmaker as Favreau, and on the back of kick-starting the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Iron Man (2008), it is interesting to see such an obscure comic from a little-known publisher brought to the big screen. It turns out that is what happens when the former president of Malibu Comics, Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, pitched the original idea to Universal Pictures and DreamWorks before forming his own company, Platinum Studios to pursue adapting Cowboys & Aliens and other Malibu Comics properties into film and television. Savvy to say the least.

Talking about weird big budgets oddities, let’s take a look at Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger (2013). Having already dabbled in the realms of the Weird West via animation with Rango (2011) and mashing pirates and zombies together for theme park blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean (2003), Verbinski is no stranger to exploring the potential of genre mash-ups. Rango, in particular, was not only a brave move in genre storytelling but also in how the filming process was developed by literally staging the scenes and the actors to performing the entire film — not through motion capture but something closer to a stage play — the footage of which was then used purely as reference material for the animators. It’s a gorgeous piece of work, heightened all the more through Roger Deakins’ consultation on the cinematography. Say what you like about Verbinski’s often misjudged work, there is no doubt that he’s a risk-taker and one of the few directors to push film towards the direction of source material that would never see the light of day.

Costing just under $250 million, Verbinski’s reimagining of the long-running TV series The Lone Ranger (1949-1957) only made $260 million at the box office and, much like John Carter (2012), the film was considered a failure at the box office — both films of which became a huge thorn in Disney’s side. Criminally overlooked, due to poor investment and marketing, both Carter and Ranger remain the most maligned films so far this century and, aside from the ridiculous amounts spent on their budgets, there are far worse examples out there. Verbinski set out to break the mould with The Lone Ranger and do for Westerns what he did for Pirates — an unabashed, bombastic piece of entertainment that unfortunately never found its audience. As this series is highlighting — have they ever?

Although it’s never painted as pure horror, the Western landscape, and its fiction, has always remained one of the most brutal and horrific places to visit. With Cormac McCarthy’s bleak, relentless outlook and even the likes of Larry McMurty’s wonderful renderings of the female — set against an often-bleak backdrop of small-towns and isolated ranches — it is in the sudden and explosive violence which we are shocked the most… and they don’t come much more shocking than S. Craig Zahler’s debut, Bone Tomahawk (2015). As with Petty’s perfect companion piece, The Burrowers, Zahler’s film is more than often compared to John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) and Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980), the former film of which Petty is more than transparent with as a major influence. Both films are centred on rescue missions but if you dig deep enough — not too deep obviously, with those bloody mole-rat locust ‘things’ lurking under the surface — you will find that Zahler’s work is influenced far more by literature, pulp fiction and classic comic strips of the 1930s. Take a moment to read this passage from H. Rider Haggard’s Allan Quatermain, first published in 1887.

‘Another minute passed, when suddenly something round fell with a soft but heavy thud upon the stone flooring of the veranda, and came bounding and rolling along past me. For a moment I did not rise, but sat wondering what it could be. Finally, I concluded it must have been an animal. Just then, however, another idea struck me, and I got up quick enough. The thing lay quite still a few feet beyond me. I put down my hand towards it and it did not move: clearly it was not an animal. My hand touched it. It was soft and warm and heavy. Hurriedly I lifted it and held it up against the faint starlight. It was a newly severed human head!’

This grim scene remains a prime example of the writer’s work in not only delivering a rather harrowing adventure but also exploring the lost worlds sub-genre he defined. As a sequel to King Solomon’s Mines, Haggard’s ‘lost race romance’ is fully developed by this point — both in retrospect to Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864) and the pulp magazines that followed towards the end of the 19th century onwards. It is this primal human nature and observation of its savagery that intrigued Haggard. In the opening chapter of Child of Storm (1913) — part of Haggard’s Zulu Trilogy — Quartermain states, ‘We white people think that we know everything.’ Quartermain is the old-fashioned hero — the great white hunter who must live with the fact that his skill as a marksman has helped destroy the country he finds so much solace in. He sees himself as ignorant and uneducated and therefore learns to respect the land and its people.

Sir Henry Rider Haggard’s sense of adventure was born from his involvement with agricultural reform throughout the British Empire. His stories were shaped by the discovery of mineral wealth and the ruins of lost civilisations across the continent, and his eponymous hero was based on those larger than life characters he had met during his years spent in South Africa. Having lost a son, it seemed Quartermain would also share the same grief, and many other Haggard characteristics and personal experiences — in most ways, his perfect avatar.

As a huge appreciator of Haggard’s ‘lost tales’ and the worlds he set in motion, it is no coincidence that the central premise of Allan Quatermain — and indeed the questionable characters that frequent his work — bare some resemblance to those who inhabit Bone Tomahawk, from each member of the posse to the Troglodytes and their domain in the ‘Valley of the Starving Men’. In Haggard’s original novel a woman is abducted by so-called savages and a rescue mission unfolds as our main protagonists travel beyond mountain ranges, discovering a white-skinned warlike tribe isolated from other African races. Zahler even goes as far as killing who some would believe to be the main protagonist — all the while ramping up the horror for one of the most unforgettable scenes in the history of cinema. The film delivers on every level imaginable.

Bone Tomahawk deals with cannibalism but it isn’t Ravenous (1999). It deals with the Western archetypes but it isn’t any of John Ford’s films… more John Milius. Zahler dresses up what could be seen as an exploitation piece as an earnest piece of work directed with genuine craft and gusto — a traditional eye melding the best parts of any art form — a novel that happens to be a film.

With James Mangold’s Logan (2017), even the superhero genre delivered a more than solid rendition of the Western with its damaged anti-superhero setting out to stick a middle claw up at other movies of its ilk. In all its ferocity, Logan is a film that channels its comic book roots perfectly while also wearing its cinematic influences on its sleeve — X marks the spot for Mangold as he takes the reluctant title character of Shane (1953), John Flynn’s neo-noir thriller, Rolling Thunder (1977), with a touch of Ted Kotcheff’s First Blood (1981), and Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992) thrown in for good measure. In the process, despite the comic book origins of Logan and the other X-Men films that preceded it, it remains one of the most grounded examples presented during this series. Despite born from the pages of America’s great mythology of comic book superheroes, Wolverine isn’t Superman or John Carter and despite his own ‘uncanny’ origins — those weird mutant abilities, the search for a missing past and where he belongs in the world — he reminds us all that the West isn’t that weird after all… remaining a blood-filled landscape populated with characters who are more human… more normal than we would ever care to admit.

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About Rich Johnson

Rich Johnson's baptism with celluloid was during the Golden Age of VHS. He is a lecturer in film studies and graphic design, hosts @filmandpodcast and is one half of @mondomoviehouse. Writing credits include: Little White Lies, Hotdog, Network, Rebeller Media, Shots and Fangoria along with up-and-coming film commentary and boutique label essays. His Devil’s Advocates book on Bone Tomahawk is due out late 2020.

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