The Burrowers on DVD

Sunday, 12 July 2009 08:01

“The Burrowers” dares to be a bit different from the rest of the horror crowd, at least in its setting. The year is 1879, and all is not right in the Dakota Territories. Bad blood pervades everything; the whites’ hatred for indigenous red Indians and blacks, and disregard for immigrants from Ireland serves to keep nerves jangling and hands hovering over their loosely-holstered six-shooters.

Irish farmhand Fergus Coffey (Karl Geary) intends to pay his future financée a visit, but instead stumbles on the scene of an apparent Indian attack. Corpses abound, but it looks like some of the inhabitants survived and have been kidnapped. Coffey forms a search party which includes the dependable William Parcher (William Mapother – Ethan from Lost), upstanding lawman John Clay (Clancy Brown – Highlander, Carnivale) and a gloweringly-righteous soldier, Henry Victor (Doug Hutchison – also of Lost, The X-Files and Space: Above and Beyond).

The Burrowers come to DVDAs our uneasy band of searchers travel deeper and deeper into the barren plains, macabre, outlandish evidence begins to mount up, suggesting that they have more than just the ferocious Indian tribes to worry about. Bizarre, man-sized holes litter the landscape; live human corpses are unearthed, paralysed and bearing a trademark gash to the neck. It is not long before members of the search party begin to be picked off by unseen, silent assailants, and our less pig-headed protagonists start piecing the evidence together. Will they figure it out before there is nobody left to tell the tale?

With a cast littered with highly-regarded Cult TV and film luminaries, and an intriguing premise, “Burrowers” has a lot going for it. Shot in a delicious ultra-widescreen format, every scene drips with Western promise. Wind-swept plains give way to parched scrubland, which in turn leads into gloomy, foreboding forests. Every shot is tinged with sun-blanched colours and brooding shadows, and director/writer JT Petty successfully draws his audience into the period setting.

The soundtrack echoes these vistas; music is a rarity amongst the crickets, birds, snorting horses and rustling grass. The film follows a regular day-night-day-night cycle, and each phase is accompanied by its own soundscape. The naturalistic, night-time cacophony of rasping, chattering and knocking noises means that the characters and viewers are never quite sure if something more unworldly is lurking just out of sight.

Whilst the film establishes its era very well, unfortunately some of the characters are less well-defined, and do not inspire much concern for their well-being. However, special mention must go to both Clancy Brown as the honourable Clay, and Doug Hutchison’s despicable Victor; both characters deserved more screen time than the plot allows.

Whilst much of the film depicts night-time fireside chats, I felt it seemed to concentrate more on the build-up to the next burrower attack, rather than a chance to really flesh out the characters. And on the subject of night-time scenes, fifty percent or more of the film is shot at night, and – perhaps because of the DVD picture transfer – it is frequently almost impossible to tell what is supposed to be transpiring on-screen. These scenes do present a dramatic contrast to the bright, wide-open landscapes of the daytime; at night, only the flickering camp fires provide any respite from the claustrophobic, encroaching darkness. The director knows he cannot reveal his hand too quickly, and the burrower creatures are restricted to fleeting, half-seen flashes for two thirds of the film. However, even then it is nearly impossible to tell which characters are involved, or what they are doing. Any tension is undermined by audience frustration; flipping through the various contrast and gamma settings on my TV set made very little difference.

When we do finally see the burrowers in all their “glory”, I am glad to say it is not a let-down. Those who come across the Region 2 DVD box will get an instant, none-too-subtle impression of what lies in store for them; in an ironic reversal of the norm, the Region 1 case features a much more atmospheric and imaginative illustration that does not give the game away. Anyway, because the UK release is so blunt, I have no qualms in saying that the creatures physically resemble the future predators from Primeval – though they behave more on instinct than intelligence. The effects that are clearly visible are impressively designed and realised.

Perhaps in keeping with the movie itself, the bonus features are a disappointment: a five-minute making-of, and a four-minute creature effects featurette are all you get. Having said that, my appreciation of the effects rose even more once I had seen the latter – no CGI appears to have been utilised, so genuine credit is due to the monster-wranglers and stunt people.

Finally, the film does make an interesting, and topical point; the burrowers originally kept out of people’s way and fed on the plentiful buffalo. Now that mankind has slaughtered the buffalo, or affected their migration patterns, the burrowers have had to find a new source of food...And therein lies an ecological lesson for us all!

“The Burrowers” (certificate 15) is released on DVD on 13 July, 2009, RRP £12.99, or less from www.culttvstore.com

 

“The Burrowers” (JT Petty, 2008)

Last modified on Thursday, 10 May 2012 16:37

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