Supernatural Westerns

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 14, 2014

Supernatural Elements in Westerns

In the 1940s and early 1950s, supernatural elements in westerns tended to be gentle and related to Christianity, as they are in 3 Godfathers.  During the 1950s and 1960s, other, more horrific (dinosaurs!) or surrealist (High Plains Drifter) elements crept in.  By the 1990s, some elements of Indian animism or mysticism were present in such mainstream fare as The Missing.  By around 2010, we were getting comic-book heroes or antiheroes (Jonah Hex), outright science fiction (Cowboys & Aliens), and Indian horror (Ravenous and The Lone Ranger, both of which feature a creature from Indian lore called a wendigo).  Given their current popularity on television and in movies, it was inevitable that even zombies and vampires would show up in westerns, too (Gallowwalkers).

In all of these categories we are not under the impression that the lists include everything that might be put on them.  We welcome your suggestions for additions to the lists—please leave a comment.

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Elements of Traditional Christianity

For the first half of the twentieth century, movies often had some form of overt reference to Christianity, which their audiences took for granted.  That was true of westerns as well.  Sometimes, as with John Ford’s 3 Godfathers (a story remade at least five times before 1948) or Heaven Only Knows, there was some form of the overtly miraculous.  More often, it was a more organic or naturalistic presence, with a preacher wearing guns, as in Stars in My Crown (1950, Joel McCrea), Count Three and Pray (1955, Van Heflin) or Heaven with a Gun (1969, Glenn Ford) or Quaker pacifism (Angel and the Badman, High Noon, Shoot-Out at Medicine Bend).  Sometimes it took the form of Mormons on wagon trains (Brigham Young, Bad Bascomb, Wagon Master).  Sometimes it’s simply an outlaw trying to reform, with religion running just under the surface (Four Faces West, 1948, Joel McCrea).  The more naturalistic depictions of religion do not appear on these lists; for those, see our post on Westerns and Religion.

By the 1960s, society’s consensus on the value of religion and its place in society began to break down.  Sam Peckinpah, for example, used R.G. Armstrong as a religious fanatic with whom the audience was expected not to identify in both Ride the High Country (1962) and Major Dundee (1965).  By the end of the decade, the figure of the crazed or renegade religious fanatic or the fallen preacher was becoming a more frequent character, as in Will Penny and Peckinpah’s The Ballad of Cable Hogue.  By now, overtly religious characters in westerns are routinely depicted as depraved, hypocritical, crazed or power-hungry, as with Jason Isaacs’ character in Sweetwater (2013), which was deservedly not seen by many.

In that sense, Pale Rider and Purgatory were throwbacks to an earlier time, when Christian figures could be more benevolent or helpful.  Even R.G. Armstrong, in Purgatory, his last movie, got to be the driver of a heavenly stagecoach and a messenger from God, a good religious character for a change.

Heaven Only Knows (1947)  An angel comes to save saloon owner/gambler; comedy.

3 Godfathers (1948)  Three outlaws sacrifice themselves to save a baby on Christmas.

Pale Rider (1985)  Preacher may have supernatural powers or background.

Purgatory (MfTV, 1999)  Outlaws stumble on a refuge for repentance.

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Elements of Surrealism and/or Indian Animism

7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964)  A Chinese magician in the Old West.

The Hallelujah Trail (1965)  The visions of Oracle Jones are fueled by alcohol consumption.

Mackenna’s Gold (1969).  Indian spirits cause earthquakes and landslides when unauthorized white men find hidden Indian gold.

High Plains Drifter (1973)

Young Guns (1988)  Billy the Kid and compatriots seek a vision for their future through peyote.

Quigley Down Under (1990)  Quigley and Crazy Cora are healed by aborigine magic.

Dead Man (1995)

Wild Bill (1995)  An aging Bill Hickok has opium dreams, often in black and white, with a skewed angle.

The Missing (2003)

Seraphim Falls (2006)

The Warrior’s Way (2010)  A Korean-made Chinese martial arts movie, set in a ghoulish American West, complete with surreal circus, dwarf, hordes of despicable outlaw thugs and invincible assassins.

Comic Book/Superhero Roots or Influence

The first three on this part of the list were low budget disasters and are deservedly seldom watched.  They’re included for completeness.  The rest had more upscale pretensions and larger budgets—sometimes, as with The Lone Ranger, quite large.  It is said that The Crow initially included a cowboy-figure as a guru/instructor to the hero, but that role ended up on the cutting room floor, so we can’t really include it.  Such a figure does appear in Tall Tale, The Golden Compass and Ghost Rider, though.  Some of these stories, instead of being westerns with supernatural elements, are supernatural stories with western elements.

Man or Gun (1958)  C-level magic gun story.

The Hanged Man (MfTV, 1974)  Lynching survivor has the power to read minds.

Ballad of a Gunfighter [Gunfighter] (1999)  C-level Hopalong Cassidy, magic gun.

Tall Tale (1995)  Pecos Bill as mentor to young boy.

The Big Lebowski (1998)  Sam Elliott as a cowboy angel in the cult classic.

Ghost Rider (2007)  Making deals with Satan, cowboy advisor (Sam Elliott again).

The Golden Compass (2007).  Girl in fantasy tale has Western figure (Sam Elliott) as mentor.

Jonah Hex (2010)  Bounty hunter Hex has the power to talk to the dead.

Cowboys & Aliens (2011)  Aliens invade Arizona Territory.

The Lone Ranger (2013)  Butch Cavendish is a wendigo.  The Ranger and Tonto are comic book characters.

Dead in Tombstone (2013)  Dead outlaw makes deal with Satan, and returns for vengeance.

R.I.P.D. (2013)  Western lawman returns as an undead enforcer to escaped souls from hell.

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Cover of Phil McClorey’s Horror in the West anthology, painted by Tony Taylor.  Cover of Weird Tales magazine, February 1924.  Supernatural tales set in the West are not a new phenomenon, although they seem to be picking up in the last couple of decades.

Gothic and Horror Westerns

The best movies on this segment of the list are The Stalking Moon (1968, a thriller more than a horror film) and Ravenous (1999).  Indeed, Ravenous almost made it on to the list of 55 Great Westerns, except that it is principally a horror movie, not a western.  None of the rest of these has its own post here (not yet, at least); most of them aren’t very good, and some are truly terrible.  For some reason, there seems to have been an outburst of zombie stories from 2006 to 2008, and they are occasionally still with us (Gallowwalkers, 2012).

As a cross-reference, we include below a separate list of horror westerns from our Italian and horror movie consultant, Adam Sorensen at Lionsgate Films.  There’s some duplication with our lists, but he includes a few others as well.  Lionsgate had long been known for releasing low-budget direct-to-DVD films, which many of these are, before it moved more into big-budget mainstream films like the recent Hunger Games movies.

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The Fiend Who Walked the West (1958)  Western remake of Kiss of Death.

Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966)

Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (1966)

The Stalking Moon (1968)  Suspense thriller.

The Valley of Gwangi (1969)—Cowboys vs. dinosaurs.

Westworld (1973)  Gunslinging robots go awry in a modern vacation retreat.

Into the Badlands (MfTV, 1991)  Three-part anthology with gothic/horror elements.

Sundown:  The Vampire in Retreat (1989)  Vampires and vampire hunters.

Ravenous (1999)  Wendigos and cannibalism.

The Quick and the Undead (2006)  Zombies in an alternative west.

Undead or Alive:  A Zombedy (2007)  Zombies and Apache curses.

Shiloh Falls (2007)  Lawman and outlaws join to fight powerful evil.

Dead Noon (2007)  Undead cowboy from hell seeks revenge.

The Burrowers (2008)  Undefined threat from below.

Dead West (2010)  aka “Cowboys and Vampires” at a modern theme park.

The Dead and the Damned (2011)  Bounty hunter and Indian fight zombies.

Gallowwalkers (2012)  Gunfighters and zombies.

Alien Showdown:  The Day the Old West Stood Still (2013)  Lone cowboy fights alien scout.

Bone Tomahawk (2015)  Rescuing captives from cannibalistic cave-dwellers.

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From our Italian and Horror Movie consultant, Adam Sorensen at Lionsgate Films:

A list of some western-themed horror films.  I’m sure there are more, but these are perhaps some of the most high-profile films in a relatively limited genre:

*The Living Coffin (Mexico, 1959)

*Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (1966)

*Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter(1966)

*High Plains Drifter (1973)

*Westworld (1973)

*Near Dark (1987)

*Ghost Town (1988)

*Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat (1989) – Bruce Campbell & M. Emmett Walsh!

*Grim Prairie Tales (1990)

*From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) – and its direct-to-video sequels

*Tremors 4: The Legend Begins (2004)

*Dead Birds (2004)

*Jonah Hex (2010)

*Gallowwalkers (2012) – haven’t seen this, but it is a supernatural western featuring Wesley Snipes.  Gunfighters and zombies.   Brazilian title:  “Caçador de Almas,” Hunter of Souls.

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  • Alec

    Thanks for the Crow shout out, I find it fascinating that the cowboy-mentor shows in comics (The Crow, Ghost Rider, RIPD) to mentor the modern vigilantes or lawmen.

    Also wonder if there’s enough material for western steampunk. I’m sure there’s plenty in fiction, but the examples from film and TV are not stellar (Wild Wild West, The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. for example). However, anachronistically advanced steam technology and other steampunk elements might have made their way into westerns generally.