Bone Tomahawk (2015)

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Directed by S. Craig Zahler

Starring Kurt Russel, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, Lili Simmons and Richard Jenkins

132 minutes

USA

Recent years have seen a Western revival of sorts going on. The massive success of the Coen Brothers’ True Grit re-imagining and Tarantino’s rambunctious Django Unchained seems to have spurned this on, with everyone from the big studios to indie productions throwing their cowboy hat into the ring. Results have varied from the Seth McFarlene’s dire excuse for a genre spoof, A Million Ways to Die in the West, to John Maclean’s awesome directorial debut Slow West. Just like with the indie Horror bomb in recent years, new talent has been coming up with ways to make a genre nearly as old as cinema itself feel fresh, as today’s film demonstrates.

Bone Tomahawk is the brainchild of seasoned writer – first time director S. Craig Zahler. Its story is as classic a tale as one could be imagine. On a frontier town in the 1890s, a man and woman are kidnapped by couple of strangers in town, leading to a posse of four men to ride out to rescue them. So far, so John Ford, but Bone Tomahawk is no Channel 5 mid afternoon film. Without giving too much away, the  aforementioned strangers in town are not bandits or Indians, but cannibals. Bone Tomahawk is just as much a Horror Film as it is a Western, and is a supreme example of genre mash-up that doesn’t feel forced or gimmicky.

A great deal of Bone Tomahawk feels minimalist. There’s very little music. Like, any great Horror or Western, it has a slow build up. We spend a lot of time getting to know the characters, and all of them are well defined with great personalities brought to life by the brilliant cast. Snake Plissken himself, Kurt Russel, is as bad ass as he’s ever been as Sheriff Franklin Hunt. Richard Jenkins provides great comic relief as the decrepit, motor-mouth deputy Chicory (a memorable moment sees him randomly debating on the logistics of a flea circus after a particularly violent display of bloodshed). Matthew Fox plays the slimy gentleman gunslinger John Brooder, who considers himself superior to the other men because “smart men don’t get married”. Rounding out the posse is Patrick Wilson as Arthur O’Dowey, a man refusing to let a little thing like a a broken get in the way of him riding out to rescue his beloved wife. And Lilli Simmons is no mere damsel in distress as Samantha O’Dowey, a woman unafraid to berate her would be – rescuers for some of their more questionable decisions.

The slow pace of Bone Tomahawk might put off some viewers. This is a film that takes its time, letting the viewer get to know the characters and the world, which just makes the second half of the film all the more terrifying. In the final act, Bone Tomahawk feels like the characters from a John Ford Western have entered into a torture porn film. The violence is extremely brutal, and no one is safe. Characters who might consider sacred cows in a standard western are fair game here. An equal parts engaging and grisly debut, I look forward to seeing what Zahler will follow this with.

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Man From Deep River (1972)

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aka The Man from the Deep River, Deep River Savages, Sacrifice! 

Directed by Umberto Lenzi    

Starring Ivan Rassimov, Me Me Lai

93 minutes

Italy

Umberto Lenzi’s 1972 Man From Deep River, is often listed in the same breath as other Italian cannibal films such as Cannibal Holocaust or Cannibal Ferox, but the film isn’t really like those at all. As the film which kick-started the whole cannibal trend, Man From Deep River suffers form early installment weirdness, in that it is essentially a story of ones man’s journey into a tribe on the border between Thailand and Burma, and from there becomes a combination of a showcase of the tribes customs and rituals and a love story. It is much more influenced by Mondo movies and the 1970 western A Man Called Horse (hence the similar title), which featured a white man who became integrated into a tribe. What little cannibalism is featured, is done by a tribe who themselves are feared by the tribe that is the films main focus, and it is not lingered on or indulged in as it would be in later films in the cannibal genre.

The dreamy Ivan Rassimov is our star as the British photographer John Bradley, on business in the Thai area to photograph the local culture and customs. He gets into a bit of trouble in a bar brawl and subsequently makes it to the Bangkok border where he has made plans to travel down river to get some shots, but it isn’t long before he finds himself at the mercy of a native tribe who believe him to a fish-person. John is subsequently subjected to a series of humiliating tortures, but along the way he and the tribe start to become more understanding towards one another. He befriends the sole English speaker in the tribe, a missionary child left their years before, and develops a romantic interest towards the beautiful Maraya, played by Me Me Lai.

Man From Deep River differs drastically in tone and style from the cannibal films that would follow in its wake. Lenzi imbues the film with a sense of fun and adventure that is a million miles away from the coitus and carnage mentality of the later films. The lush cinematography of Riccardo Pallotini and sweeping orchestral score from Daniele Patucchi do nothing to foreshadow the scuzzy ambiance and porno synth score of Lenzi’s later Cannibal Ferox. From the lively opening scenes in Bangkok you know you’re in for an adventure, the shots of the local culture and landmarks have a real travelogue feeling. This aesthetic can be put down the influence of Italian Mondo movies, faux documentary pieces which liked to contrast beautifully shot footage of exotic locales with footage of violent and bizarre local customs (often times staged). The intention here seems to have been to bring the Mondo sensibility to an adventure story, and the film really benefits from its this more subdued approach when compared to some later ‘cannibal’ films which go straight for the jugular.

That’s not to say that Man From Deep River doesn’t have its fair share of irreversible mutilations and unspeakable tortures. The North American poster highlights one of these, as John is suspended in a bizarre bondage contraption which spins around on the spot as the natives fire darts onto spots on his body that have been painted on. This delirious sequence is one of the films most memorable images, and it seems obvious why they decided to highlight it on the poster artwork. Of course, it would be amiss to talk about this film without mentioning the animal cruelty which plagues so many of these Italian cannibal pictures. Thankfully the version I saw had a lot of it cut out, but I didn’t get off lightly, witnessing a goats throat being cut and monkey brains being eaten. These scenes are another hold over from the Mondo mentality of film-making, where directors would go to extra lengths to capture the most shocking and brutal scenes. Arguably the removal of these scenes robs the film of some of its “Raw power” but that’s a never ending debate which I won’t get into here.

Man From Deep River is essential viewing for fans of Italian exploitation, for representing a turning point in the country’s genre film making in the early 70’s. However, if you go into it expecting a gut munching-fest a a la Cannibal Holocaust you might be disappointed. Go into it expecting an adventure from beautiful 70’s Bangkok, down the river and into the jungle, I guarantee you’ll enjoy what you see.