These 10 weird westerns feature cowboys battling vampires, monsters, a lost underground civilization — and a few terrifyingly bad scripts.
Remember when Halloween was a one-day celebration of tricks and treats? In recent years, the entire month of October has been commandeered by All Hallows traditions, with new horror flicks at the bijou and scary movie marathons on television. Western fans don’t have to feel left out. Here are 10 weird westerns that will leave you shivering, either with fear or with laughter.
The Phantom Empire (1935)
Before Flash Gordon battled supernatural creatures in the golden age of movie serials, our planet was protected from bizarre unseen forces by none other than Gene Autry. In The Phantom Empire, the singing cowboy discovers that his famed Radio Ranch sits on a radium deposit that is coveted by unscrupulous land speculators. Lurking beneath the deposits is the lost civilization of the Muranians. Led by Queen Tika, the denizens of this subterranean culture battle surface-dwellers both good and evil with such futuristic devices as ... television! Thankfully, the job of defeating the Muranian robots and the evil Lord Argo still leaves Gene time to sing a few campfire tunes.
The Terror of Tiny Town (1938)
One of the worst movies ever made, The Terror of Tiny Town was Hollywood’s first all-midget western. A standard black-hat-versus-white-hat story is played out by a cast of 60 little people, led by Billy Curtis, who later appeared as a munchkin in The Wizard of Oz and Clint Eastwood’s sidekick in High Plains Drifter. At first the visual gags are amusing in a politically incorrect way — the cowboys ride Shetland ponies and enter the saloon by walking under the swinging doors — but when it becomes apparent that Tiny Town has nothing else to offer, the film quickly becomes tedious before mercifully ending after 62 minutes.
Johnny Guitar (1954)
The first adjective most critics jot down for Johnny Guitar is “Freudian.” For those who didn’t take Psych 101 in college, the term is shorthand for visual expressions of sexuality. Such images pervade this kinky story of black-leather-garbed bar owner Vienna (Joan Crawford), her boy toy Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden), and jealous rival Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge) culminating in one of the few girl-versus-girl showdowns in western history. Truth be told, this is a cult movie more popular among those who laugh at westerns than those who embrace them, but it’s worth a look to watch two scenery-chewing divas tear into each other.
Swamp of the Lost Monster (1957)
If the name K. Gordon Murray means nothing to you, that means you have good taste in movies. But those who wallow in the dregs of the medium celebrate Murray’s skills as an importer of fine Mexican cinema, which achieved a zenith of sorts with the 1964 classic Wrestling Women vs. the Aztec Mummy. Swamp of the Lost Monster combines the rubber-suited monsters of which Murray is so fond with a western tale of a cowboy (Gastón Santos and his horse, Moonlight) helping a family in peril. Gastón’s singing sidekick, Squirrel Eyes, may be one of the most annoying characters in movie history. There are a few scenes of cowboy heroics, but they are quickly overshadowed in the memory by the sight of a giant fish monster using a telegraph machine.
Teenage Monster (1957)
A meteorite lands on the Cannon family homestead in a little Western town, circa 1880. Pa is killed, and young Charles Cannon (Stephen Parker) is subjected to a strange ray that transforms him into a psychopathic furball. His mother (Anne Gwynne), fearing for her son’s safety, locks the boy in the basement. It’s what you’d expect from producer-director Jacques Marquette, the man behind such triumphs as The Brain From Planet Arous and Attack of the 50-Foot Woman. The special effects budget was so limited that a meteor is created by someone throwing a sparkler across the screen. Jack Pierce, the legendary makeup artist who designed the look of Universal’s greatest movie monsters, including Frankenstein and the Wolf Man, must have run out of money or materials when he got the Teenage Monster assignment, as his creation looks like a Cousin It costume from the 99-cent store.
Curse of the Undead (1959)
There have been, surprisingly, more than a half-dozen films in which cowboys square off against vampires. But movies about a cowboy vampire? Those don’t ride into town every day. Eric Fleming, just prior to landing the role of trail boss Gil Favor on Rawhide, plays Preacher Dan, a cattle town man of the cloth who investigates when young women start dying from massive blood loss. Suspicion falls upon Drake Robey (Michael Pate), a gaunt gun-for-hire with a strange aversion to sunlight.
Here’s the real shocker — Curse of the Undead is pretty good. Performances are much better than you’d expect, and the stark black-and-white cinematography effectively masks the movie’s low budget. Pate plays Robey as a reluctant monster who falls for a rancher’s daughter while resisting the temptation to turn her into a Happy Meal. He works as a farmhand for her family and uses his skills with a six-gun to fight off the threats of a rival landowner. The result is Shane meets Dark Shadows, with a climax that cleverly resolves the challenge of slaying a vampire with a bullet.
Long before Miami Vice, Don Johnson found steady work as the king of the counterculture cult film. Prior to appearing in such deservedly forgotten oddities as A Boy and His Dog and The Harrad Experiment, Johnson costarred in Zachariah, which was billed as the first “Electric Rock Western.” Unfortunately, nobody pulled the plug.
It’s the story of two wannabe gunfighters who join forces with The Cracker Band, a troupe of traveling musicians played by Woodstock vets Country Joe and the Fish. Other music in the film is provided by fiddler Doug Kershaw and The James Gang (not Frank and Jesse, but the Cleveland power trio featuring Joe Walsh before he joined the Eagles). Jazz drummer Elvin Jones, who played with saxophonist John Coltrane among others, plays a gun-slinging bad guy as well as the fastest drummer in the West. There’s also an appearance by Dick Van Patten, just the guy you’d expect to see in a counterculture western with a psychedelic soundtrack. The popular comedy troupe Firesign Theatre scripted the movie but promptly disowned Zachariah after one screening.
Rustlers’ Rhapsody (1985)
The idea was inspired — take a 1940s singing cowboy star and transplant him to a real rough-and-tumble Western town; imagine Roy Rogers riding Trigger into the HBO series Deadwood. Unfortunately, Rustlers’ Rhapsody squanders its one inspiration and impressive cast (Tom Berenger, Andy Griffith, Sela Ward, Marilu Henner) with silly lowbrow humor courtesy of Hugh Wilson, the man behind the Police Academy series. Though Wilson’s affection for the material is evident, he never strikes the right balance between the straight-shootin’ naiveté of singing cowboy Rex O’Herlihan (Tom Berenger) and the real-world sensibilities of a West that need not be censored for sex and violence.
Near Dark (1987)
Most of the movies on this list are worth seeing only for a few laughs, but Near Dark proves it’s possible to meld the horror and western genres and come up with something worth your time. Happy-go-lucky cowboy Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) meets a mysterious young girl who runs with a gang of outlaw vampires. She converts him with a bite, and as a new creature of the night, Caleb has no choice but to join the tribe, which includes bloodsuckers played by Bill Paxton and the always-creepy Lance Henriksen. But when the gang goes after his family, Caleb takes a stand.
Near Dark is bloody and vicious and profane, but there’s genuine filmmaking talent on display. A cast of reliable B-listers who know their way around the exploitation genre play the material for all its worth, and the odd choice of German techno-band Tangerine Dream for the soundtrack proves equally inspired. Scenes like the massacre at the roadside bar, selected by the Bravo network as one of The 100 Scariest Movie Moments, linger in the memory long after the movie is over.
The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. (1993–94)
In one way, this short-lived Fox TV series brings us full circle, back to the beginning of our list and The Phantom Empire. There was a nostalgic, whimsical quality to the science-fiction adventures of good-natured hero Brisco County (Bruce Campbell), and each episode ended with a “tune in next week” cliffhanger, just like the vintage serials. The results proved too quirky for most viewers, but 10 years on, the series still boasts a devoted cult following who await its inevitable release on DVD.
Photography: Gene Autry squares off against strange subterraneans in 1935's The Phantom Empire. Courtesy MovieGoods.com
From the September 2005 issue.