Weird Western Films: Grim Prairie Tales (1990)


"Grim Prairie Tales" is a Western anthology of short supernatural pieces, scripted and directed by Wayne Coe, whose background seems to have been as a storyboard artists and never again made a feature film, although his IMDB page suggests he's attempted to get some additional Weird Western pieces off the ground.

Coe has given the film a genuinely entertaining wraparound story, in which two weary travelers on the frontier regale each other with spooky stories around a campfire. It benefits enormously from the fact that the two roles are played by James Earl Jones and Brad Dourif, although the dialogue has its own pleasures. Jones is a grizzled bounty hunter toting a body, and he is eccentric to the point of madness, while Dourif is a twitchy writer with dapper clothes and suspicious manners.

The anthology has four stories, and, at the film's release, critics claimed the stories were unmemorable and undercooked. This seems like a fair criticism, as I saw it years ago and mostly forgot about it, but for one story about a pregnant woman and a traveled that culminates in the most gynophobic sequence I have ever seen on film. I will not bother to discuss this sequence, as, rewatching, its sudden and unexplained body horror is the least interesting story in the film, if the most memorable.

No, the other three stories interest me, because they attempt something more complicated than a simple genre mash up. All three try, with various degrees of success, to make their horror indigenous to the west, rather than grafted to it. The first tells of an old man who disturbs an Indian burial mound and suffers the consequences, the second tells of a lynching, and the third tells of a gunfighter haunted by the man he killed.

Of the three, I think the middle one is the most successful, and, oddly, so do Jones and Dourif, who have a funny habit of acting as both storytellers and critics. There is nothing supernatural about the tale, but it tells of a pioneer child who discovers her father (played by the ever-oily William Atherton) is a murderous racist — and then coming to terms with the fact.

This story barely seems to qualifies as a Weird Western tale, but it is a horror story in its own way, with its own monster. Lynchings certainly weren't unique to the old west, but Coe suggests that they had their own quality on the frontier. Atherton is new to life on the frontier, owning a mile of land he hasn't even started to plow, when the lynch mob comes to call, and one very quickly gets the sense that if he refuses to play his part, he will be cut off from the settler community. We also get the sense that everybody knows this would be fatal for him and his family. So the frontier has created this sort of impossible circumstance, where survival is contingent on joining in with murder.

The story of the old man and the Indian graveyard works worst of all. It is brief and confusing, and while I like the fact that it addresses the original sin of the West — the destruction of the indigenous population — Indian burial grounds are a woeful cliche of horror. There is something satisfying about the old man's fate, in that he is buried alive in an Indian burial mound, which I haven't seen before and is specific to the west. And yet it wasn't clear what his trespass was, and why it was fatal.

The story of the haunted gunfighter is mostly set in a room in a brothel, where the gunfighter starts to unravel. His meltdown involves an animated dream sequence in which he become a bullet, and the animation resembles something Bill Plympton might have animated hopped up on peyote. The man's emotional collapse is signaled by him becoming very fussy about his appearance, and both this and the animation are unexpected, if not terrifying.

But there is something to be said for the unexpected. There's something to be said for a movie that looked at old Western movies and said, you know, without changing too much, these could be horror movies.

There have been a few films like that. "High Plains Drifter" has a lot in common with Clint Eastwood's other cowboy revenge movies, except he might be a ghost. "Ravenous" is a sort of gloss on actual frontier cannibal stories, but goosed with the Native American Wendigo legend. The recent "Bone Tomahawk" is essentially "The Searchers," but with cavemen at the end of the trail.

I find my preference is for this sort of film, even when, as with "Grim Prairie Tales," it's not quite successful.

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