Wednesday, April 27, 2016

In short: Grim Prairie Tales (1990)

Somewhere in the Old West, after the US Civil War. City guy Farley (Brad Dourif), and shaggy rider Morrison (James Earl Jones) encounter each other at the former’s campfire right in the middle of nowhere. After displays of nervousness from Farley (probably induced by the corpse Morrison has packed on his second horse), and of sublime grumpiness by Morrison, the two start to bond by telling each other tales of horror.

The first one concerns an old man paying dearly for desecrating an Indian burial ground, while the second tells of a city guy riding through the prairie who encounters a pregnant woman and the rather absorbing turn their meeting will take. Tale number three – the only one told by Farley – is somewhat more subtle fare about a girl having to learn of her father’s Ku Klux Klan involvement. Last but not least, a gunman loses his nerve and is either haunted or going a bit crazy. These tales are interspersed with Farley and Morris doing prairie literature criticism on the them.

As far as horror anthology movies go, Wayne Coe’s Grim Prairie Tales certainly isn’t one of the most brilliant ones, nor is it one of the most complex. However, Coe (who also wrote the script) is clearly very conscious of what a – in this case very literal - campfire tale is supposed to be and do, how much depth it can carry, and what’s a good point to end such a tale on. There’s a difference between simple-mindedness and simplicity, and the film’s tales are most certainly of the latter type and not the former one, with a certain sardonic wryness in the delivery that echoes EC comics, even though, unlike at EC, not everybody who gets it here actually deserves it, and not everyone who’d deserve it, gets it.

Apart from this approach, Grim Prairie Tales also has two not-so-secret weapons in the forms of James Earl Jones and Brad Dourif, both in full-on larger than life modes, though Dourif (ironically) does a larger than life portrayal of a guy who isn’t really all that larger than life. In any case, if there weren’t any horror stories at all surrounding them, it would still be a joy to watch Jones and Dourif play off each other, both men giving their characters intensity as well as basically sparkling with a sense of fun.

That might not add up to the greatest horror western anthology ever made, but it’s a fun time, indeed.

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