The Hollywood Western was once one of the most popular of genres. Set in the late 19th century, attentive to Old West myth-making, folk heroes, and morality tales, it was an altogether American invention.
Tying these familiar genre trappings with those of horror and fantasy is also a long tradition, one that goes at least as far back as the serials of the 1930s, when weird westerns like The Phantom Empire (1935) had singing cowboy heroes duking it out in gothic and sci-fi settings or as was the case with Riders of the Whistling Skull (1937), rasslin’ with the odd living skeleton or menacing mummy, too.
Rest assured, the list that follows, will not include anything so schlocky as William Beaudine’s Billy the Kid Versus Dracula (1966), but there’s definitely a guilty pleasure or two on here, we reckon. There’s also a few titles that will most assuredly rob you of a night’s rest, as the stuff of nightmares definitely occupy the top slots that are to follow.
Also included are a handful of Honorable Mentions and we encourage you to join the discussion in the comments section that follows.
Now saddle up, stay on the path, and don’t gallop too far off course. The trail ahead gets treacherous and something might try to pull you in from the dark.
10. House II: The Second Story (1987)
Screenwriter Ethan Wiley had a surprise hit on his hands with his 1985 horror-comedy House, and while it’s 1987 sequel is somewhat middling, it’s affectionately remembered by many and playfully adopts a Western theme that makes it a more than memorable time waster.
Working from a story by Fred Dekker (Night of the Creeps , The Monster Squad ), Wiley also got to direct this loose sequel that, while sorely missing the original’s William Katt (aka Ralph Hanley from TV’s The Greatest American Hero), this supernatural comedy stars Arye Gross as Jesse, who inherits the mansion where his parents were killed.
Aided and abetted by his his girlfriend Kate (Lar Park Lincoln), his bff Charlie (Jonathan Stark), and Charlie’s wannabe pop diva girlfriend Lana (Amy Yasbeck), the group of friends explore the creepy old house, uncovering, amongst other oddities, that Jesse’s great-great-grandfather (Royal Dano) is now a zombie cowboy, affectionately nicknamed “Gramps”.
Hilarity ensues (“Look at me, I’m a 170-year-old far, a goddamn zombie!”), along with an assortment of reanimated corpses and demons all after a crystal skull of Aztec origins. If it all sounds a little convoluted, rest assured that it is, but it’s also a shit-ton of fun, especially if you grew up in the 1980s, an era with similar horror-adjacent films such as this one. Yee-haw!
9. The Burrowers (2008)
This creepy creature feature from writer/director J.T. Petty is a surprisingly effective and eerie prairie horror picture that wisely and slyly comments on corrosive capitalism and the ill-got gains of Western expansion.
Set in 1879 in the Dakota Territory, The Burrowers focusses in on a forlorn rabble of pioneers, now a ragtag rescue party led by John Clay (Clancy Brown) threatened by humanoid underground creatures attacking their settlement, edging them all ever closer to becoming residence of ghost town.
The creatures, referred to as “the burrowers” by the battle-weary Native Americans, have recently begun targeting humans because their food supply, the once plentiful buffalo, are now scarce thanks to our colonialist protagonists. And since the only people who’ve faced these creatures and won, the local Native American tribes, are being decimated by the overzealous American Cavalry, it’s hard to know who to really root for.
Petty takes this western horror motif most seriously, with an authentic frontier sensibility, complete with nods to classics like John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), with great period details and several startling set-pieces. While more than a few entries in this list swerve into parody or black comedy to balance the various mash-up elements, The Burrowers maintains an alarming and intriguing inscrutability throughout.
8. Tremors (1990)
Who knew that this low budget sci-fi/horror/comedy would become a modest sleeper success — later blowing up big on home video — and spawn 5 direct-to-video sequels and a TV series? Lovable losers Val and Earl (Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward) finally decide to leave their one-horse dead end desert town on the exact day that giant, carnivorous, grumpy, subterranean worms – dubbed “Graboids” from local fixture Walter (a hilarious Victor Wong) – who hunt using sonar and rows of nasty razor-sharp teeth.
Tremors, directed by Ron Underwood (City Slickers ) and written by Brent Maddock and S. S. Wilson, is a surprisingly solid B-movie melange. It’s funnier than one might expect, owing to the smart script and solid direction, sure, but the ensemble cast, including Michael Gross, Reba McEntire, and Finn Carter, are all peaceable and comedic. The concept, which could’ve easily flopped in lesser hands, gets evinced for all it’s worth.
One of Tremor’s many thunderbolt moments involves the gun-loving Gummers, Burt (Gross) and Heather (McEntire). As a commentary on gun culture tenacity and red neck lunacy, the Gummer’s stockpile ordnance and entitled bravado is both side-splitting and a little bit scary.
Is it really a “Horror Western”? Well, moreso the sequels, but the setting, and hayseed characters certainly build for a strong case that it is just that. See it for yourself and you’ll be satisfied either way.
7. Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat (1989)
The first and perhaps only thing you need to know about this incredibly entertaining late-80s horror-western from Anthony Hickox (Waxwork ) in that it features Bruce Campbell as a bumbling Peter Van Helsing. And while peak-era Campbell is brilliantly cast and utilized, Ash Williams himself isn’t even the best thing going on in this campy cult classic about the vampiric residents of an isolated desert town, aptly named Purgatory.
The undead residents of Purgatory, who apply copious amounts of sunscreen when necessary, rely on synthetic blood as a means of peacefully co-existing with humans, even though this does have the rival vampiric schools often at each other’s throats (pun intended, sadly).
In one corner is the more peace-oriented flock led by Count Mardulak (David Carradine), and the more old-school cruel Ethan Jefferson (Ethan Jefferson), and before you can say “I don’t need your civil war” the two factions, along with the hayseed humans caught in the middle, are all about to get red in tooth and claw.
This cheeky, semi-parody from Hickox (who would later reunite several cast members in Waxwork II: Lost in Time ) will amuse western fans but is more customized for horror buffs and also features additionally awesome cast members like a pre-Twin Peaks Dana Ashbrook, Coen Brothers’ staple M. Emmet Walsh, Valley Girl (1983) star Deborah Foreman and 1982’s Miss America, Elizabeth Gracen. So why aren’t you downloading this awesome movie right now?
6. Vampires (1998)
John Carpenter’s surprisingly smart and savvy revamping (ouch!) of the Western genre with lots of unremitting action and classic horror components, Vampires stars a decidedly overdone James Woods as Jack Crow, a Vatican-sponsored vampire hunter.
Designated a “master slayer” by the Catholic Church, Crow roams the New Mexico badlands leading a battle-weary team of vampire killers (including Daniel Baldwin, Tim Guinee, and Sheryl Lee) who, like him, are ably assisted by the church via financial support and vampire-specific weaponry.
On the trail of a particularly powerful and implacable vampire nasty named Jan Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith), Vampires is adapted from aptly named author John Steakley’s 1990 novel “Vampire$” and though it performed modestly at the box-office, barely breaking even, it spawned a pair of direct-to-video sequels and has garnered a cult following.
A stripped-down and stylish thriller, which is enjoyable largely because of Woods’ badass snarky performance but also due to Carpenter’s semi-regular cinematographer Gary Brian Kibbe’s expert lensing.
Kibbe, who’s shot a total of seven Carpenter films (including 1988’s They Live and 1994’s In the Mouth of Madness), goes all out capturing the Wild West distinction and refinement of classics like Rio Bravo (1959) and The Wild Bunch (1969), adding chic layers to Vampires that are absent in other films of its ilk from that era.