Why this might not seem so easy
The western is probably the most American of film and TV genres, one that conjures images of desolate landscapes, stoic, silent heroes and a sense of righteous valour. It is, generally speaking, a straight-laced, realistic genre – one that’s rooted in America’s building of its own identity, the idea of expansion and the mythology of its early heroes and villains.
But now imagine if you pop in some dinosaurs, a vampire or two, occasional cannibals, pacts with the Devil and maybe even some alien action. You’ve got yourself a weird western.
This might sound like a hodgepodge of elements, but that’s part of the fun. What makes the weird western so appealing is the unpredictability of each title, as elements of sci-fi, horror and the fantastical are cross-pollinated with the earthbound dustiness of the cowboy movie.
The term ‘weird west’ is relatively recent, originating in the 1972 DC Comics anthology Weird Western Tales. But the blending of these genres has been happening since at least the 1930s across pulp magazines, comic books, movie serials and B-movie westerns such as Riders of the Whistling Skull (1937).
These mash-ups had a heyday in the 1960s, particularly on the small screen, in episodes from Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, Bonanza and a whole series, The Wild Wild West, which ran for four seasons from 1965. At the cinema, Ray Harryhausen brought stop-motion dinosaurs out west for 1969’s The Valley of Gwangi.
Another TV boom came in the 1990s, with episodes of dark fantasy series The Outer Limits, Showtime anthology Dead Man’s Gun and the Bruce Campbell-starring The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. And the term has reared its head again, more recently, in relation to big-screen hybrids like the graphic, hyper-violent Bone Tomahawk (2015), with its ghoulish tribe of man-eaters, and the truly unmoored genre mishmash Bacurau (2019), which flirts with elements of sci-fi and horror within the context of a shoot-’em-up in the Brazilian sertão.
The weird west is wild, not properly charted terrain. If you’re heading out there, you’ll need a few signposts.
Where to start – Westworld
The history of weird westerns crosses both TV and cinema, so it makes sense to start your exploration with a franchise that straddles both media. Currently in its third season, the HBO sci-fi western series Westworld has its origins in the 1973 film of the same name, written and directed by Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton.
The core concept remains the same: in a western-themed amusement park, owned and operated by the Delos Corporation, life-like androids that are designed to entertain, serve and never harm the human park visitors start ‘waking up’ and gaining free will.
Starring Yul Brynner as a gunslinger android, the original film used pioneering digital effects to create the eerie point of view of the murderous robots. It inspired a sequel, 1976’s Futureworld, and an abortive TV series, called Beyond Westworld, in 1980. Then, in 2016, Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy returned to Crichton’s concept for a more expansive take for HBO.
The show furrows deeper into the psychology of the waking hosts (the show’s term for androids) as well as that of Westworld’s mysterious creators, its staff and the human visitors, who mostly attend the park to indulge in sex and violence. It takes an already juicy, high-concept premise and uses it to explore themes of humanity and free will. With a stellar cast including Anthony Hopkins, Evan Rachel Wood, Ed Harris, Thandie Newton and more, Westworld is an intelligently written, visually rich collision of sci-fi and cowboy movie mythology – one that’s generated a host of theories and fan speculation that’s almost as fun to dig into as the show itself.
What to watch next
Back in the 1960s, there was a trend for pitting legendary western heroes against horror cinema’s most iconic monsters, making for fun, campy films that attempted to double their audience by appealing to fans of both genres. Billy the Kid Versus Dracula (1966) is an enjoyable romp that pits the west’s deadliest gunfighter (exclamation mark!) against the world’s most diabolical killer (double exclamation mark!!) as they fight for a woman they both want. The effects are silly, but it’s full of low-budget, drive-in appeal. 1966’s Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter offers a similar recipe.
For a more up-to-date hybrid, the big screen offers Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987), which was overshadowed on release by another modern-day vampire picture, The Lost Boys (1987), but has become a cult classic. Only Bigelow’s second feature, it stirs gothic horror, noir and the western into a potent cocktail centring on a midwestern farm-boy who gets taken in by a group of wandering bloodsuckers.
A sillier late-80s entry is Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat (1989). Starring David Carradine (Kung Fu) and Bruce Campbell (The Evil Dead), the film sees a civil war erupt between a peaceful, artificial-blood-drinking race of vampires and others, who think vampires should always be predators, in the desert town of Purgatory. It would make a perfect double-bill centred on the old deserted settlements of the west with Ghost Town (1988), which sees a sheriff face the (un)dead residents of a forgotten outpost.
Although it’s set in South Africa, not the west, you should also make sure your journey includes Dust Devil (1992). Its director, Richard Stanley, is back in vogue now, following his recent cosmic horror Color Out of Space. Made 27 years beforehand, Dust Devil was his previous completed fiction feature, a long-term passion project that re-envisioned the South African serial killer Nhadiep as a supernatural, shapeshifting wanderer. Visually stunning, the film draws influences from Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s acid oater El Topo (1970) into a truly unholy mix.
A word too for a bit of an obscurity: 2004’s Dead Birds is a little-known but genuinely creepy and suspenseful horror film set in an abandoned plantation. Elements of ghost story and southern gothic infuse the tale of a group of civil war deserters hiding out after a bank robbery who discover they’re not the only ones inhabiting the old plantation house.
Where not to start
For the love of John Wayne, please don’t begin your foray into the weird west with Wild Wild West (1999), Barry Sonenfeld’s big-screen version of the cult 60s series – a bizarro steampunk Will Smith vehicle that features a giant mechanical spider as its main monster.
- Westworld series three is currrently on Sky Atlantic, Bacurau is on Mubi