Ladies and gentlemen and children of all ages, we’re going to present for your approval a novelty picture with an all-midget cast, the first of its kind ever to be produced. I’m told that it has everything, that is everything that a Western should have.
Despite the announcer going on to warn the audience that The Terror of Tiny Town (1938) shouldn’t be taken too seriously, there is no escaping that — despite its attempt to parody the Western genre — the film was clearly exploitative. Listed on most bad movie lists, it is no surprise that this was the launch pad (sorry) for little actors; the majority of which followed the yellow brick road straight to Munchkinland for more song and dance numbers… less weird west and more Wicked Witch of the West.
As with most origins of genre film, it is no surprise that even the earliest examples of genre-mashing were found in the early serial films. The Phantom Empire (1935) was the perfect vehicle for Gene ‘The Singing Cowboy’ Autry (hence the title of the first episode) and mixed the Western with musical numbers and science fiction resembling a proto Buckaroo Banzai. As a precursor to the Flash Gordon serial, The Phantom Empire was a poor imitator of the original Alex Raymond comic strip but, all the same remains a fascinating entry into the hybrid nature and history of genre filmmaking. As a decade, this Golden Age was rife with decadence and glamour where the larger studios played to the system delivering a safe diet of bankable stars and output. As a result, the byproduct of the ‘weird’ fell into parody or exploitation and therefore these serials were never taken seriously.
The post World War II era saw the popularity of Western star, Tim Holt with the release of his own comic book from Magazine Enterprises. Introduced within its pages in 1949 was the first incarnation of the comic book character, Ghost Rider. Inspired by the song ‘(Ghost) Riders in the Sky: A Cowboy Legend’ (1948) by American songwriter, film and television actor, Stan Jones, Ghost Rider’s original short-lived alter ego, Rex Fury — created by writer Ray Krank and artist Dick Ayers for Tim Holt #11 — would go on to appear in horror Western stories through the remaining run of the publication, before the implementation of the Comics Code.
When the rights lapsed, Marvel Comics took hold of the character with editor Roy Thomas, writer, Gary Friedrich, and original Ghost Rider comic book artist Dick Ayers at the reins debuting a new alter ego, Carter Slade. But with the introduction of Marvel’s supernatural version of the character in the 1970s — inspired by the counterculture movement — horseback replaced motorbike and the original Western-inspired Ghost Rider was renamed ‘The Phantom Rider’.
In the same way the classic and pulp literature of H. Rider Haggard, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard all influenced each other, the natural pulp roots lay within the birth of the comic book in America during the 1930s. By the mid 1950s, publisher Entertaining Comics — otherwise known as the infamous EC Comics — focussed on defining some of the most well-known and influential works of the 20th century; where they specialised in crime fiction, satire, war stories, dark fantasy, science fiction and, most predominantly, horror through their Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror series.
Originally owned by the pioneering comic book publisher, Maxwell Gaines — who originally specialized in educational material but after his death in a boating accident in 1947 — his son William inherited the company and went on to develop more ‘grown-up’ stories. Noted for their strong sense of storytelling across genre; their socially conscious and progressive themes would often deliver gut-punching and unforgettable endings.
However, in 1954, psychiatrist and author Fredric Wertham published his book, Seduction of the Innocent. When a highly publicised Congressional hearing on juvenile delinquency criticised the impact of comic books on American youth, Gaines was forced accept the Comics Book Code and rethink his publishing line. For such a short-lived run, both Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror have remained hugely influential for tapping into a minefield of material (and crossing over genre) for both film and television.
Aside from the influence of the pulps and comic books, it is impossible to discuss the nature of Weird Westerns without delving into cult cinema. This is where the sub (or sub-sub) genre is most at home. But the ‘cult’ in cinema is not always defined by how these films are made, rather by the audience they attract — whether a small group or devoted and obsessed horde of fans — ‘odd’ and ‘weird’ films, we would hope, attract more open-minded spectators and cinephiles alike.
Although Nicolas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954) is classed as a cult Western, it is a prime example that defines how a genre film smashes tropes and convention; especially during a time where risk taking and reinvention was far too radical for McCarthy era America. With Joan Crawford (literally wearing the pants) and Sterling Hayden’s reformed gunslinger painted with Trucolour and framed within exquisite set pieces, this is a masterpiece in placing the female protagonist front and centre. It would take over 40 years for Crawford’s Vienna to be even closely matched with Sam Raimi’s quirky The Quick and the Dead (1995) with Sharon Stone paying more than a homage to Eastwood’s eponymous Man with No Name. The oddity of Johnny Guitar lies within its subversion of the genre and the way it is constructed where it doesn’t so much borrow from other genres but instead closely considers how a film is constructed. In this sense, based primarily on the film’s title and title track by Peggy Lee, Johnny Guitar resembles a musical or, more closely a dark and uncanny fable.
The idiosyncrasy of Ray’s film was matched two years later with another ‘Sterling’ effort in the shape of Joseph H. Lewis’ Terror in a Texas Town (1958). Lewis, a master of the B-movie, had managed to elevate a number of films above their station including the outstanding noirs Gun Crazy (1950) and The Big Combo (1955) where his supreme use of mise en scène highlights how economic he was as a director. These nourish undertones are at the forefront of his final film before moving into television.
A blacklisted Dalton Trumbo wrote a script that was another prime example of the McCarthy era; displaying one of the most iconic openings to any film where out Sterling Hayden’s protagonist confronts a one-handed ‘man in black’ figure with his father’s harpoon. This is a western that makes every effort not to pick up a gun, explicitly highlighting Trumbo’s opinions on nationalist America at the time. Instead, Hayden’s Swede resembles a vengeful Ahab taking down the white whale with one single blow; the roots of Melville grounded rather than lost at sea.
But amongst these B-movies, the late 1950s were to usher in all manner of genre crossovers with teenagers vs aliens or turning into werewolves. Amongst the cacophony drive-ins and delinquency, Universal Pictures’ put their stakes back in vampire territory with the horror Western, Curse of the Undead (1959). Director Edward Dein set the film apart from most of the time; most notably in an effort to return to the original European roots and folklore instead of harkening back to Universal’s classic filmography.
With Hammer’s fresh retake on Dracula (1958) released the previous year — aside from the cinematic trope of transforming into a bat — the outlaw vampire, Drake, has a curse rooted in the mortal sin of suicide. It is here that the American vampire takes hold and burns tradition in the face of the hero Preacher; where he is able to walk by day as well as prey by night. Curse of the Undead still remains an earnest film of the period and is certainly a crucial entry into the melding of the genre.
Released the same year, an obscure Mexican film, El Grito de La Muerte (The Living Coffin, 1959) delivers a dusty display of madness as a ranch is haunted by evil spirits that include an early rendition of the vengeful villainess, La Llorona. Amongst the ghoulish inhabitants of the ranch, central hero Gastón and his sidekick Coyote are not only involved in classic shootouts and saloon showdowns but also take on roles as detectives. Coyote, in particular, lends light relief with slapstick elements boarding on Abbott and Costello only adding to the film’s diverse nature. Director Fernando Méndez delivers a wonderfully weird supernatural Western; a fun and accessible film that never falls into the cheap ‘shockorama’ double bills of Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (1966) and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966).
The supernatural Western, as with any ghost story, owes a lot to history. The aforementioned B-movies are a fun watch but, aside from their efficiency in production, lack any real depth or originality. The same could be said for Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987) and Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) that harken back to vampire lore and the revisionist approach to filmmaking born out of New Hollywood. However, what elevates these two films in particular is there ability to fool the audience into thinking they are watching something else entirely. Where Bigelow builds atmosphere and reinvents the bloodlust as something more akin to heroin addiction (the V word is never uttered) and the forgotten remnants of society, Rodriguez (via Quentin Tarantino’s script) presents a violent crime caper until the Gecko brothers take refuge in a sinister strip joint and Salma Hayek shows off her snake. Both films are modern neo-Westerns but the core elements and archetypes remain with anti-heroes, outlaws and showdowns drenched in blood and gore.
With the early noughties embracing a more independent approach after the success of The Blair Witch Project (1999), surprisingly, there are few examples of supernatural Westerns. Witches tend to lend themselves more to period and puritan pieces whereas ghosts in the West are trickier to contain. Set during the American Civil War, Dead Birds (2004) from Director Alex Turner sees a group of Confederate deserters rob a bank and head to a deserted mansion located on an abandoned plantation. The film embraces the supernatural by containing the central characters within a confined space. As alluded t already, this isn’t so much a Western but a period piece with all perspective and geography of the frontier contained to a moment in time rather than the open space and iconography we are familiar with; the result is a traditional haunted house film laced with Lovecraftian undertones and imposing dread. Although the film lacks on plot and weak script, it makes up for it with economy, atmosphere and a solid cast that keep you intrigued enough until the speculative ending.
Where Dead Birds consciously confines its characters, The Wind (2019) — reminiscent of Lillian Gish’s 1928 silent film of the same name — blows open the frontier and constantly reminds us how isolated our protagonists are. The wind itself is a constant unseen presence and although it delivers an impactful horror Western, it would seem, by how ‘unheard’ of The Wind that audiences still demands a more physical presence in their Westerns. Even if they are a ghost.
In the next part of this series, ‘Painting the Town Dead’, we will touch once again on how the supernatural crosses over into the Western genre with Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter (1973) and what sets it apart from the films discussed so far. With parallels to DC comics’ Weird Western Tales, the acid western sub-genre and East meets West… the weird is about to get ‘hell’ of a lot weirder.