Weird Western Films: Gallowwalkers (2012)


A notoriously troubled Wesley Snipes Western about a gunfighter who returns from the dead, along with everyone he killed. The story is hard to follow but the art direction is, at times, almost hallucinogenic.

By Max Sparber

"Gallowwalker" demonstrates a theory of mine, which is that an excess of art direction will almost make a movie interesting.

There are a few filmmakers out there who are capable of putting very striking images on the screen, but little else  — Tarsem Singh comes immediately to mind. His movies are gloriously excessive to look at. There is, as an example, a moment in the thriller "The Cell" in which Vincent D'Onofrio, dressed like the Queen of Hearts had been dipped in gold, unwinds Vince Vaughn's intestines on a spit while absent-minded humming to himself. There isn't much else to the movie — but for these fantasy scenes, it's a largely unremarkable retread of Thomas Harris's novels. But sometimes that's all I need.

Add Andrew Goth to this list of directors, at least with his famously troubled 2012 Weird Western "Gallowwalkers," I haven't seen Goth's other films and cannot say if they suffer from the same excess of art design, but his commitment to this film is total.

First, the troubles. The film stars Wesley Snipes, who was then looking at jail time for tax evasion, and so filming had to be halted. It feels like one of the stranger details of the film might be a concession to this fact, as a number of characters have to replace their skin every so often, which is a convenient way of replacing one actor with another.

Every critic complained that the story is impossible to follow. Some of this is because the movie has invented new monsters, the titular gallowswalkers, but is parsimonious with explaining what they are and why they exist. The story itself is relatively simple, and, if it had been presented directly, might feel like a genuinely inspired Western horror story: A gunfighter is killed, and his mother begs the devil to bring him back; the devil agrees, but will also bring back every man the gunfighter ever killed.

These are the gallowswalkers, an entertainingly inconsistent group of ne'er-do-wells. Some dress like cowboy priests, one with his mouth sewn shut. Some ride along with bags over their heads like a primitive Ku Klux Klan; one of these fellows wears a spiky metal helmet. One has, for some reason, grafted two lizard tails to the back of his head. Some constantly skin people and wear their faces ("Bless me father, for I have skinned," one says), while others remain unaffected, in their original skin.

The only thing they all have in common is that you must shoot them in the head to kill them, zombie-like. Snipes, playing the gunfighter, will frequently go one step father, tearing their heads off completely, along with part of their spinal column, which twitches like a snake.

The film presents all of this out-of-sequence, as though the origin of Snipes and his supernatural prey was some mystery that we would puzzle about, instead of the essential mythology that we should know within seconds of the film starting. The resulting film, which offers a few semi-exciting set pieces, a lot of unnecessary secondary characters, and some characters who are never really explained, is narrative unsatisfying.

But if it's narratively unsatisfied, the film is often visually amusing. The film was shot in Namibia, subbing in for the American South, and its blasted deserts and native fauna do not look like the American West. This sense of unreality is heightened by director Goth's sense of composition: It looks like a Spaghetti Western, but askew, always with people lurking on the edges of the frame; nothing in this world is centered.

The closing credits seem to have been done by Hellboy creator Mike Mignola, and it's hard not to wonder if he didn't also storyboard the film, which, at its best, has a Mignola sense of strangeness.

There is, as an example, an unrisen and mummified corpse that the Gallowwalkers carry around with them, sometimes hoisted in the air by an odd backback contraption, always crucified, and the image would feel very much at home in Hellboy. These moments are occasional, rather than frequent, and its too bad. Had these unreal, apocalyptic images been relentless, as with a George Miller film, "Gallowwalkers" would have exceeded the limitations of its storytelling, and become, at the very least, a visual masterpiece.

Should I discuss the performances? There doesn't seem to be a need. Wesley Snipes is mostly doing a Wesley Snipes character, and he's does it just fine. However, I am lead to believe he was unavailable to do the film's voice-over narration, and so a vocal double was found. The double does the Wesley Snipes performance just as well.


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