Thursday, December 17, 2015

Bone Tomahawk: Into a Moral Crucible of Cowboys & Cannibals

An Interview with Bone Tomahawk writer-director S. Craig Zahler

by Gilbert Colon

“I want you to know that all these savages are gonna be massacred.­­ The cavalry’s on its way and they’re gonna butcher every last one of these godless things.” – Sheriff Franklin Hunt 

As the first of three Westerns in three months, Bone Tomahawk beat both The Hateful Eight and The Revenant into theaters.  (And that does not even count the Adam Sandler comedy The Ridiculous Six!)  In a timely coincidence, Bone Tomahawk stars Kurt Russell, just like The Hateful Eight, and arrives on Blu-ray and DVD on December 29th, around the same time as those other two Westerns land in cinemas:

In an age of postmodern and faux-spaghetti Westerns, Bone Tomahawk is for the most part a straightforward classic Western (though with a twist).  S. Craig Zahler, a novelist with two published Westerns to his name (Wraiths of the Broken Land and A Congregation of Jackals), took the directing reins himself when nobody filmed any of the more than twenty screenplays he sold.

In interviews for Cowboys & Indians, Henry’s Western Round-up, and Ain’t It Cool News, Zahler waxes poetic about what draws him to the Western, consistently using phrases like “the frontier is a moral and physical crucible” and “my favorite westerns are physical or moral adventure stories...where the characters face a physical and moral crucible that is the frontier.”  He defines that crucible, and “what a western is,” as “[t]he idea of a man going out into the wilds, and bringing whatever morals and civility he has in him into the wild, and imposing it on his group, or who he encounters.”  It is no wonder that Zahler “adore[s] John Wayne.”

What distinguishes Bone Tomahawk is one significant element of horror that rears its hideous head in the final act.  As in The Searchers, a posse (Russell, Richard Jenkins, Matthew Fox, and Patrick Wilson) saddles up to rescue a kidnapped town doctor (Lili Simmons) and another local.  In Zahler’s tale, however, it is not Native Americans who abduct the girl, but rather a ghastly tribe of man-eating troglodytes from a forbidden territory called the Valley of the Starving Men–the local Indians describe them as “a spoiled bloodline of inbred animals who rape and eat their own mothers.”  

Zahler’s writing is informed by the pulpwood literature he avidly collects and consumes–Adventure, Argosy, Operator #5, The Spider, and Weird Tales.  Being well and widely read, he brings a literary bent to his fiction, be it novels or screenplays.  One of his five Western screenplays, The Brigands of Rattleborge, has been picked up by Park Chan-wook (Oldboy), and Michael Mann (Last of the Mohicans) is in talks to direct his crime thriller script The Big Stone Grid.  

Meanwhile, Zahler generously made himself available to discuss his film with bare•bones, and also to share his passion for what is perhaps his favorite topic, pulp and genre fiction: 

Q: You told Rue Morgue that your film deals with “this idea that, at this later point in the west, what’s still out there in the wild, what’s still dangerous, that could endanger a group like this?”  It seems obvious that far more than science fiction, horror elements blend seamlessly into a Western wilderness setting where dangers are yet unexplored and untamed, where every encounter with the unknown holds the potential for discovery, death, or both.  Yet there have been Western films incorporating science fiction (e.g., Westworld, Wild Wild West, Cowboys & Aliens), but fewer containing horror (Ravenous, or perhaps High Plains Drifter).  Why do you think this is?

SCZ: My goal was to create something original with the antagonists, but I don’t see this as science fiction, unless “fictional anthropological extrapolations in the past” make it science fiction.  I didn’t see Cowboys & Aliens, because it seemed like gimmicky garbage.  The movie Wild Wild West I unfortunately saw, and Westworld (the original movie) has some of the trappings of a western, but is more of a ‘What if?’ science fiction piece about technology gone amuck.  Ravenous I’ve also never seen.  

So I can’t speak with any authority on these pictures nor what others do, but only what I did: I set out to make a western that exemplified my definition of what a western should be—a period adventure tale where the western frontier provides a moral and physical crucible for the protagonists.  This approach garnered me a terrific cast, who also consider it a western.  Added to this were dark elements and weird ones that go further than do most westerns, but the style of the movie is consistent and the character explorations and relationships are still the central focus, even when their world is inverted and things become horrific.  

Q: Russell told IGN, “I would never refer to it as a western horror.”  Is there a better term for this hybrid genre? 

SCZ: I don’t see Bone Tomahawk as a hybrid: I see it as a western, but people can certainly describe it however they’d like—classifications can be useful, even if I don’t agree with the chosen adjectives.  It has scenes that people find horrifying (and traumatizing, according to some), so it makes sense that many people call it a horror western, and because westerns aren’t a financially viable to many demographics, it makes sense that it was marketed as a horror movie to some extent.  

By for point of comparison, I ask you this: Is Deliverance a “horror adventure”?  To me, that excellent movie is a disturbing adventure movie that is focused on characters and their relationships and their harrowing journey, and yes, things get very horrific at times, but I wouldn’t label it a “horror adventure.”  In the end, this is just semantics.  

And to be clear, I adore horror movies, but if I set out to make a “horror western,” there would’ve been many more scenes of overt horror in the finished product.  

Q: Robert E. Howard wrote some “weird Westerns” like “Valley of the Lost,” and Richard Matheson penned the supernatural Western Shadow on the Sun.  In some interviews, you mentioned Max Brand’s “A Garden of Eden” (published in Argosy All-Story Weekly) as a possible inspiration.  As one whose attendance at the Gotham Pulp Collectors Club betokens a love of literature, which authors and stories would you recommend to those seeking an experience comparable to Bone Tomahawk?  

SCZ: One slight correction: I wrote Bone Tomahawk in 2011 and I read “A Garden of Eden” in 2015, so the latter wasn’t an inspiration for the former, but rather the only ‘lost race western’ I am aware of.  And it’s really a borderline case of being that, and not my favorite tale by the great Max Brand, who wrote more than 200 western novels in the pulps (and created Dr. Kildare).  

Other than my own dark western novels—Wraiths of the Broken Land and A Congregation of Jackals—there are no books that I know of that compare to Bone Tomahawk, though I read lots of pulps and genre paperbacks and am happy to recommend a bunch of stuff that I enjoy…  

For sharp dialogue in noir settings, I recommend, The Friends of Eddie Coyle (George V. Higgins) and Shoot the Piano Player and Street of No Return (David Goodis) and The Damnation of Adam Blessing and The Twisted Ones (Vin Packer); 

For atmospheric mystery, I suggest Brood of the Witch-Queen and The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu (Sax Rohmer), and for a terrifically humorous and extremely bizarre take on this genre that displays an unrivaled storm of creativity, I suggest The Riddle of the Traveling Skull and The Case of the Two Strange Ladies (Harry Stephen Keeler); 

For well-plotted and atmospheric adventuring, I point to the stories of Arthur O. Friel and L. Patrick Greene that were published in the superb pulp magazine, Adventure

For the most vivid, fluidly written action prose ever committed to the page, pulp or otherwise, I suggest the hero pulp novels of The Spider that were written by Norvell W. Page—King of the Red Killers and The Spider and His Hobo Army and The City Destroyer are three favorites; for shocking modern horror, I push Island and In the Dark, by the hardcore horror legend, Richard Laymon; 

For mind altering science fiction, check out Diaspora and Quarantine and “Dark Integers,” two novels and a novella collection by the incomparably brilliant hard sci-fi master, Greg Egan; for lost race novels, I most strongly recommend the superb, rarely equaled, prototype, King Solomon’s Mines (H. Rider Haggard) and the gorgeous, dreamlike jewel that’s entitled, The Abyss of Wonders (Perley Poore Sheehan); 

For westerns, five favorites are The Ox-Bow Incident (Walter Van Tilburg Clark); Lonesome Dove (Larry McMurtry); Valdez Is Coming (Elmore Leonard); Beyond the Outposts and Singing Guns (Max Brand).  Beyond the Outposts is a great place to start with the inhumanly prolific Max Brand—its moral complexity and unpredictable plotting are wonderfully enhanced by the conflicted voice of the storyteller.  And the first eight chapters of Singing Guns is a mythical, philosophical, and poetic meditation on nature, man versus nature, and man’s nature.  The rest of the book is good, albeit more plot driven, but this first atmospheric chunk is incredible.

You mentioned Robert E. Howard, who I’ve been reading for 30 years, and just last week read his fun weird western, “The Horror from the Mound” in Weird Tales April 1932 (a really great issue), but I feel like some of his less famous inspirations were his betters.  I must point specifically to the fabulous, epic, and wonderfully crafted stories of Harold Lamb.  These tales (e.g., “Alamut”; “Changa Nor”; “The Star of Evil Omen”; “The Grand Cham”; Durandal; etc.) display Lamb’s commanding grasp of ancient times, places, and mentalities and have a slightly removed, almost Biblical quality to the prose so that they often read like history, albeit very engaging, exciting, and unpredictable history.  What H.P. Lovecraft is to horror, and what Max Brand is to the western, and what Norvell W. Page is to action, and what David Goodis is to noir, Harold Lamb is to adventure fiction—a master storyteller with a unique style who is my personal favorite in his field.  

And for those interested in learning about pulp magazines, there’s no better reference guide than The Blood ‘n’ Thunder Guide to Pulp Fiction [from Murania Press], by Ed Hulse, which is how I learned about a lot of the better and more esoteric stuff.  

Q: Bone Tomahawk’s cannibalistic, cave-dwelling “lost race” appears to have its own society, burial customs, and other tribal ways.  Did you delve into any specific anthropology or adventure fiction about primitive cultures and practices?  

SCZ: The troglodyte culture is invention and based on no known society or tribe.  My goal here was to have unique antagonists in a western setting—antagonists that were also a bit of commentary upon the setting itself.

Q: Your film uses no computer-generated imagery.  What can you tell readers about the special make-up artists who provided the grislier effects?  Is it harder and costlier, in the digital age, to find talent who can create the realism of practical effects by such legends as Tom Savini, Dick Smith, Rick Baker, Rob Bottin, or Stan Winston?  

SCZ: Hugo Villasenor was the key make-up artist, and as with everybody involved on this shoot, he had an unfair and nearly impossible amount of work to do in a very short period of time.  I do not want to give away the tricks of how these things were accomplished, but in terms of crafting fake body parts and very realistic skin textures and appliances, I do not think I could have found somebody better than Mr. Villasenor.  Some stuff would have been faster and cheaper had I been open to digital effects, but when considering that digital FX often look “digital” in movies that are literally 50 times the budget of Bone Tomahawk, I wanted to do everything practical on the set.  It needed to convince me in reality before I felt comfortable putting it in the finished movie.  

Q: Will the success of Bone Tomahawk bring more attention to your other Western novels, one of which I believe is out of print?  

SCZ: A Congregation of Jackals is in need of a publisher to do a reprint—Dorchester Publishing collapsed and most print copies now list for $100 and up.  The book was really well reviewed, nominated for both major western awards [The Peacemaker by the Western Fictioneers and The Spur by the Western Writers of America], and sold out its press run.  I regularly get requests from fans who want the thing, especially now with the western movie out.  

Thanks for your interest!


GILBERT COLON has written for publications ranging from Filmfax and Cinema Retro to Crimespree Magazine and Crime Factory.  His interview with filmmaker Abel Ferrara (Bad Lieutenant, The Funeral) for Mystery Scene’s Ed Gorman was anthologized in the book They’re Here, and he is an occasional contributor to  Read him at Gilbert Street and send comments to  

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