The Magnificent Seven opens this weekend, and it’s pretty good. Since we’ve already shared seven great Western actors, it’s time to shine a light on some films in the genre that take risks and push boundaries. Or are just plain weird. Here are seven great unorthodox Westerns.
Sukiyaki Western Django
If you want a weird Western, look no further than Takashi Miike’s Sukiyaki Western Django. Quentin Tarantino makes a bizarre cameo to kick off this tale of bloody gunfights and madcap, samurai sword-swinging action. Set against a backdrop of hokey, matte-painted sets, this movie has a cylinder-full of cinematic weirdness and an itchy trigger finger.
Sukiyaki Western Django is a mishmash, a remake of a remake. The story follows a nameless gunman as he intervenes in a feud between rival gangs, the Heike and the Genji. It takes many of the same beats from A Fistful of Dollars, which in turn took its cues from Yojimbo. At the same time, it’s a hyper-violent Tarantino-esque retelling of the Heike Monogatari, a famous historical epic out of Japanese history. Oh, and did I mention that all of the dialogue is in English?
The film ultimately accomplishes a bizarre feat by being an homage to spaghetti Westerns, Jidaigeki samurai films, and the strange interplay between the two. My guess is that the “Sukiyaki” in the title is an allusion to a Japanese song that gained popularity in the U.S. after WWII, called “Ue Wo Muite Arukō.” To make the song more appealing to western audiences, it was inexplicably retitled “Sukiyaki” after a dish that had also gained popularity. Like that song, the film is part-Japanese, part-American, and a harmoniously discordant union of their unique and mutually-fascinated cultures. [Robert Mitchell]
High Plains Drifter
This was the first Western Clint Eastwood directed, and he also starred as the mysterious Stranger. At first, it looks like any other of the Dollars films Eastwood became famous for. A nameless nomad wanders into a dusty town that’s under the grip of criminals. The Stranger starts clearing out the bad guys, only to find out that the leader of the gang and his posse are due back in town.
Sounds cliché, no? Well, High Plains Drifter takes a turn for the weird as the Stranger enlists the townsfolk to paint every building red and rename the town, “Hell.” And it seems that the Stranger might be the reincarnation of a marshal who was whipped to death in the middle of town while the residents stared on and did nothing. The conclusion of the film isn’t some badass shootout but rather an eerie massacre of the gang that killed the marshal.
High Plains Drifter tricks you into thinking it’s just another typical Western, and then it morphs into a horror movie. The unexplained nature of the Stranger and the oddness of his actions make this a delightful change of pace from your standard Eastwood Western. This is a great entry point for those who want to start checking out weirder Westerns. [Drew Dietsch]
Mad at the Moon
Mad at the Moon was one of those forgotten movies that used to line the shelves of Kroger Video, Roadrunner, Red Giraffe and the various similar haunts of the early ’90s. The film was a frontier Western about a woman marrying a farmer with a dark secret. While the Western motif hung over every inch of the movie, Hart “Ellis” Bochner wasn’t a gunslinger. He’s a rogue that doesn’t quite understand what his farmer brother sees in the virginal Mary Stuart Masterson.
The couple doesn’t really sleep together, and the poor farmer shutters himself away at night. Things are going great until one night, Masterson hears her new husband making animal noises outside. She sleeps through it and wakes up to find him in front of the house. The kicker is that he’s totally naked and has no memory of the previous night. After some livestock goes missing, Masterson reaches out to her mother and the townspeople for an idea of how to handle her husband.
This leads Hart Bochner into being released from the county jail and sent to keep an eye on his bizarre brother. While Masterson and Bochner grow closer, the truth about our poor farmer comes out. He’s not a weirdo with an aversion to girls. Poor farmer brother is a werewolf. What follows is a frontier siege, where the limited materials of the Western frontier come together to stop a werewolf attack.
The film is hard to find now unless you still have a working VCR. Due to the film’s budget, the werewolf transformation sequences are virtually non-existent. What you do get is a nice period Western that works around not having many gunfights or horror violence by including a werewolf. If that wasn’t enough, there’s Ellis from Die Hard as a werewolf hunter. Ticket sold. [Troy Anderson]
The Good, the Bad, the Weird
If you ask me to describe one of my favorite Westerns, I can sum it up thusly: there’s a steely-eyed bounty hunter, a focused assassin, and a roguish thief that plays both sides against each other. Sounds very familiar, doesn’t it? What if I also added that it takes place in 1930s Manchuria, has an all-Korean cast, and slapstick humor?
The awesome-sounding movie I’m describing is Kim Jee-woon’s The Good, The Bad, The Weird. Heavily inspired by Sergio Leone’s classic The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, Kim’s movie takes a lot of traditional Western conventions and adds his own flair to them. Some of those tweaks are subtle variations on characters and motivation; others are more grand and anachronistic.
It helps that the leads are up to the task. The Good, played by Jung Woo-sung, adds gravitas and a smirk to the noble, taciturn bounty hunter. The Bad, played by Lee Byung-hun, is devilishly charismatic and single-minded in his pursuit of his prey. Finally, The Weird, played by Song Kang-ho, is the quintessential trickster who has more savvy and skills than he lets on.
The fact that this film has a lot of humor (mainly from the jokes and antics of The Weird) sets it apart from other traditional Westerns. The time period it’s set in also allows for a unique blending of conventions, mixing the old and the new for some very kinetic action set pieces. There’s a traditional train robbery that immediately transitions to a motorcycle chase. You see a gunfight in a town that flows and moves similar to a martial-arts movie. It all contributes to a realistic, yet exaggerated world that these characters are in.
If you’re looking a Western that’s off the beaten path, I can’t recommend this movie highly enough. [Bob Aquavia]
Dig deeply enough into the layers of the Western genre, and eventually, you’ll hit El Topo. It’ll take you a while, but just when you think you’ve seen the weirdest Western ever made, you push ‘play’ on El Topo. Directed by master arthouse weirdo Alejandro Jodorowsky, this 1970 “Acid Western” stars the director as a black-clad gunman who rides around the desert on a black horse, carrying a black umbrella.
But that doesn’t sound so weird, right? Well, it’s pretty apparent just a few seconds in that Jodorowsky is up to his usual avant-garde weirdness. The gunman, known as El Topo (Spanish for “The Mole”) rides around with his young son, who only wears a hat and a pair of shoes. The two of them arrive in a small desert town where nearly every person and every animal lies dead in a river of blood.
After hunting down the (very goofy) criminals responsible for the massacre, El Topo parts ways with his son and joins up with a woman who challenges him to duel the four greatest gun masters in the world. The setup doesn’t sound so bizarre, but the film takes a completely bonkers turn halfway through. It never quite returns to feeling like a Western. Jodorowsky has always been prone to flights of religious fantasy, but the second part’s story of mystical rebirth is where El Topo sheds much of its Western feel and gets truly baffling.
While I hesitate to call the film essential viewing, there comes a time in the life of every arthouse cinema fan when they should experience Jodorowsky. And if you also happen to like ’60s and ’70s Westerns, El Topo is probably a good starting point for understanding Jodorowsky’s absurd, obscene style. [Travis Newton]
Westworld is a science fiction classic dressed in Western clothing. The film stands as Michael Crichton’s best effort on paper and behind the camera, and there is no denying that it is one of the most influential genre movies in cinema history. Westworld may suffer from a handful of minor production flaws and a few pacing issues, but it is still an entertaining and amusing ride.
The setup hinges on the premise that a theme park fully outfitted with perfectly assembled humanoid robots will indulge and serve your every need and want. There’s an area of the park that resembles the Roman Empire, a section that is set in the European Middle Ages and of course, Westworld. Tourists get to visit the old West, fight gunslingers and become the sheriff of the town. It sounds like a blast.
Two friends, played by James Brolin and Richard Benjamin, visit Westworld at the worst time possible. The robots have begun to malfunction and an outlaw droid is gunning for them Terminator-style. The whole park becomes a bloodbath and the final act completely devolves into a fight for survival. Westworld set the bar in terms of killer robot movies and no one who has ever seen it can forget the menacing look on Yul Brynner’s face as he hunts down his prey while looking exactly like his character from The Magnificent Seven. [Andrew Hawkins]
A delightful smash-up of the Western and horror genres, Tremors is as fun and special today as it was upon its release in 1990. This combination of sagebrush, old mines, simple folk, and subterranean monsters is as charming as charming gets. The surprising pairing of Fred Ward, Kevin Bacon, Reba McEntire, and Michael Gross is something that could only happen as the 1980s came to a close.
The real star of the film is the Graboids. These S.W.A. (Sandworms with Attitude) quickly entered the hallowed halls of movie monsters and have allowed the film to spawn a legitimate franchise. They may not have Clint Eastwood’s steely glare, but can he burst from the ground beneath a car and take out a family?
Here’s how seminal Tremors is and how well it has endured: legitimate A-lister Kevin Bacon is rejoining the franchise in an upcoming Amazon series. [Nick Nunziata]