I have a spreadsheet that contains everything Michael Eklund has acted in and my goal is to watch all of it and blog about it along the way. There will be spoilers.
A gunslinger, a vengeful ex-slave, and a runaway discover their train is haunted by a sinister force.
When a movie is classified as a “supernatural horror western hybrid” it gets my attention. I like all those things! I also adore movies that take horror and wrap it up in another genre, taking the tropes from both and intertwining them. If this film wasn’t already on my list thanks to the spreadsheet I think I would watch it just for the genre.
WEST OF HELL is set in Georgia, 1872 on a train bound for Atlanta (or so we’re led to believe) with a small cast of cliche characters. The players read like a silly joke: A priest, a gunslinger, a runaway and an ex-slave seeking revenge walk onto a train… It would be less grievous if the characters had a broader background or even darker personalities, but it’s variations on a theme. Clue has more interesting characters. All of the characters have sins and a dark past which they’re running from, with the exception of Jericho (Lance Henriksen) an ex-slave who is seeking revenge for his daughter who was scalped by his former master. The man who scalped his daughter happens to have his own daughter on the train and Jericho has his eye on exacting revenge eye for an eye style by scalping her. Roland (Michael Eklund) is being paid $500 to protect her and deliver her safely to Atlanta.
The characters think they’re going to Atlanta and it turns out they’re on a train going to Hell. That’s the plot and I wish I could tell you that it’s a good movie. The plot is flat, barely delving below the surface and it suffers from the tropes and scenes that are ripped from other movies. While both horror and westerns are well known for their tropes and I can’t condemn the movie for reusing them, the writers didn’t add anything to them and the movie suffers because of it. It seems desperate for a movie to have a full on gunfight less than five minutes into the movie that’s including the lengthy and confusing opening. Did you not find it necessary to explain what’s going on? These characters just met each other! Maybe have some exposition or begin developing the characters so we actually care about what happens to them?
I cared about Michael’s character Roland because he was playing him. I think he did a good job with the material he was given and as is his acting style he did disappear into the role. Is Roland an interesting character? Not really. He’s surface level interesting. He’s out for himself and even when he takes on a job it’s for the money. If my D&D alignment understanding is correct he’d be chaotic neutral swaying to chaotic good at the end, holding similar qualities to “Joe” from FISTFUL OF DOLLARS. His “dark secret” that he’s keeping is that he killed his brother who was fighting on the opposite side of the Civil War. Sigh. It’s just not interesting! All their sins are boring!
Roland: Killed his brother in the war
Annie: Killed her abusive husband
Priest: Sins of the flesh
And the other characters are mostly that they let things happen. There is a slave owner too, who deserves to go to Hell and they make sure to make her the most unpleasant woman possible. Jericho, who I assume we’re supposed to empathize with and maybe even consider a good guy is the only one who killed a bunch of people and wants to scalp a young woman. Sigh, again.
I struggled to figure out what, if anything I enjoyed about this movie. The answer is not much. It’s got a few good qualities and I’m grateful that it doesn’t rely on jump scares to ramp up the tension (there isn’t much tension) and the moments of gore are powerful, but brief. Given how few special effects are in the movie I’m guessing their budget went to these gore scenes. It suffers from being big. If the movie had been condensed into an anthology piece I could forgive some of it’s shortfalls and I think it would have a bit more impact. Place this into Tales from the Crypt or an anthology horror film like V/H/S with serious editing and it would be far more palatable.
That said, my favourite scene is near the end of the film with Roland walking into Hell. He made a deal with the Devil to give him his soul so Annie has a chance to go back to Earth. Naturally she opts instead to become a mercenary for the Devil which I guess is a twist, but I found it more like a cop out ruining a good redemption scene for Roland. The whole scene is deeply unsettling with him walking into the dark surrounded by disembodied hands reaching out to pull him in. He doesn’t scream or struggle; having accepted that he has to pay for his sins he’s willing to accept his fate. It’s a little scary and well put together.
Is this movie bad? I think so and I tend to like movies others think are awful. But I’ll let you judge for yourself. It is on Youtube in full, your choice if you want to watch it there.