A western-horror hybrid film made on an independent film budget is next to unheard of until now. Bone Tomahawk is a chill inducing film.

Paying homage to the old westerns of the 1950’s and 1960’s, Bone Tomahawk is about an honest law abiding sheriff who embarks on a mission with his deputy, an injured cowboy and a gunslinger to rescue three people kidnapped by a primitive cannibalistic Indian tribe, one of the kidnapped is the town doctor and the cowboy’s wife. What ensues is a journey akin to a John Ford epic, focused on the gore and savagery of that time.

There is a scene in The Searchers that still strikes and petrifies me to this day. It is in the near beginning when Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returns to his family’s home and must inspect the damage done by the invading Comanches. Outside of the blazing home there is a shrouded hut, in it he discovers the fate of his beloved Martha, the horror of which beyond anything we can imagine. The camera stays outside the door, not daring to pass the threshold. His nephew clamors to see what is inside, using all his might to get past Ethan. Bone Tomahawk uses that moment, but instead lets you push past Ethan and bathe yourself in all the grotesque viciousness unleashed.

Writer and director S. Craig Zahler uses much more than this moment to imitate a classic John Ford western. First there is the medley of characters, all of which have been clearly marked out by Ford films in the past. Then there is the way in which this motley group of characters band together, against horrible odds, to save their friends and loved ones from unspeakable evil. While on paper, Bone Tomahawk seems to fit the western bill, it misses the heart and soul we as an audience discovered along the journey with these characters and jumps right to a brutal conclusion.

And what a barbaric conclusion it is. I am a horror buff who relishes in fictional carnage and I was squirming with all my might to not look away at the severity of the scenes. Most of the gore is contained within the final third of the film, and is highly advised against for the faint of heart, a warning I rarely make.

As a hybrid film, it certainly fits in both milieus. It is also that which prevents it from shining in either. People watch westerns not for the gunslinging shoot-outs but because they yearn for the simpler time when there were strong sheriffs and gruff bad guys and a search for right or wrong. The characters were fully formed and interesting, a beacon of truth in self. People watch horrors because they want to be scared, they want to face that which terrifies them to their bones and feel the catharsis of surviving. Bone Tomahawk doesn’t really do or have either of these things, but is daring nonetheless.

As a first film, it is a commendable undertaking and accomplishment for S. Craig Zahler, especially on a budget of near minuscule size at $1.8 million. I wish the film had more of a core to it in regards to the characters and the group dynamic – and at 132 minutes, it had the time, just not the meritorious material.