When supernatural menaces of horror fiction are injected into a Western setting, it creates the horror Western. Writer G.W. Thomas has described how the two combine: "Unlike many other cross-genre tales, the weird Western uses both elements but with very little loss of distinction. The Western setting is decidedly 'Western' and the horror elements are obviously 'horror.'"
Of all the many subsets and genre mashups of horror, the horror Western seems like a match made in heaven. The isolation (almost impossible for our modern sensibilities to comprehend, with smart devices and social media), the ever-present danger of starvation or brutal conditions, and the rougher way of life in Westerns make for a great foundation for horror stories. And both the Western and horror genres are fond of exploring unknown frontiers.
As perfect as that sounds, actually making a great horror Western film has proven difficult. There are only a handful of truly inspired ones, like S. Craig Zahler’s ‘Bone Tomahawk’ and J.T. Petty’s ‘The Burrowers’. There are a lot more messy ones that fall under the “guilty pleasure” category, like Antonia Bird’s ‘Ravenous’, Alex Turner’s ‘Dead Birds’ and Anthony Hickox’s ‘Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat’. Then you have schlock like ‘Billy the Kid Versus Dracula’, ‘Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter’ and ‘The Valley of Gwangi’, which used special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen's talents to pit cowboys against dinosaurs.
Victor Sjöström’s 1928 silent classic ‘The Wind’, starring Lillian Gish as a stranded pioneer woman driven insane by the incessant wind and drought-plagued frontier environment, wasn’t a horror Western. It was a silent romantic film, widely regarded as one of the greatest. Writer Teresa Sutherland and director Emma Tammi have adapted the same source material, Dorothy Scarborough’s 1925 novel of the same name, but their film is far different. For starters, it features a lot less wind, while adding in more shape-changing nightmare demons.
It begins with a cold colour palette, a boldly composed shot akin to something from a John Ford’s film, and then the horror: Lizzie (Caitlin Gerard, ‘Insidious: The Last Key’) emerges from a dark cabin, her clothes stained with blood, bearing a stillborn baby. The baby is not hers, but that of Emma (Julia Goldani Telles, ‘Slender Man’), who has shot herself. Her husband, Isaac (Ashley Zukerman), and Emma’s grief-stricken husband, Gideon (Dylan McTee), bury the bodies.
From here, ‘The Wind’ flits backwards and forwards in time. We see Emma and Gideon arrive to settle the nearby land, a welcome intrusion on Lizzie and Isaac’s years of solitude. Unfortunately, Emma is from Germany, hates Texas, and is a little weird. Similar themes of paranoia and isolation as ‘It Comes At Night’ emerge as she becomes obsessed with what she thinks are supernatural beings haunting the frontier (a religious pamphlet warning settlers - specifically, women - of the dangers of demonic temptation also figures prominently in the film). In the present, Lizzy is dealing with what she feels is a sinister presence visiting her at night and tapping on her door to torment her. The Macklin home is alternately her haven and her prison. Not even a visiting priest (Miles Anderson, ‘La La Land’) can comfort her.
The story is simple, but every distant wolf howl and squeak of a rusty hinge crawls into your ears and wriggles down your spine to increase the tension.
The story is simple, but every distant wolf howl and squeak of a rusty hinge crawls into your ears and wriggles down your spine to increase the tension. ‘The Wind’ relies on Tammi’s carefully composed images and an impressive lead performance by Gerard, whose long, still face tells the story as events continue to worsen. The cinematography by Lyn Moncrief and spare but effective production design (occasionally the clothes are a little too clean) also are notable.
In the negative column, the use of flashbacks leads you to believe that there is a deeper mystery than there actually is. The glacial pace is used to create a tense atmosphere while reinforcing the point that idle hands (and minds) are the devil’s playthings – add in a sinister goat and you’ll be reminded even more of ‘The Witch’. However, unlike David Egger’s film, the slow pace also makes this 86-minute movie feel considerably longer than it is.
Still, horror Westerns are incredibly hard to accomplish, and director Emma Tammi’s boldness and imagination makes ‘The Wind’ a spooky breath of fresh air.