Nobody makes westerns anymore, and it's a damn shame, if you ask me. Also, until "The Sixth Sense," nobody made ghost stories, either. Needless to say, most attempts at ghost westerns have been dismal flops. "Into the Badlands" and "Grim Prairie Tales" failed, despite having James Earl Jones and Helen Hunt between them. It's too bad, because westerns and horror movies have a lot in common, dealing as they do in human desperation and fear. "Trigon: the Legend of Pelgidium" is one of a very few movies that actually get the difficult mix right. It hasn't been released commercially yet, but I managed to get into a screening anyway (I'm sneaky like that, plus I went to high school with the director), and I was impressed.
The story concerns a settler woman who, after her husband and son are killed, finds her way into a rundown town, ten days' ride from nowhere, which is beholden to a predatory gang of bandits led by a crazed ex-Confederate, who, it is whispered by the terrified townsfolk, cannot be killed. There is a supernatural, cosmic good-and-evil theme that runs through this movie like a shark just under the waves. Too often, movies make the mistake of spelling out their ghostly elements too literally. Fortunately, the writer, Robert Ray, and the director, Alex Erkiletian, have the good sense to keep it subtle. The supernatural is more effective when it is not fully known. There is clearly something going on beyond the town-under-siege we've seen in a million old movies, but its specific nature is left properly ambiguous.
The movie takes place in 1865, when the psychic wounds of the Civil War were still fresh, and hundreds of men wandered West whose only lives were killing and allegiance to a lost cause. The hallmarks of this tragic chapter in history are all over this movie in subtle ways; the bad guys wear fragments of rebel uniforms and fly a tattered Dixie flag, the town preacher is left hollow and beaten by what he saw in the war, and everyone looks tired and uncertain.
The cast, mainly of unknowns and under-knowns, turn in some great performances. Denise Crosby (ah, Lt. Yar, we hardly knew ye) shows understated strength as the woman who wanders into this nightmare. Robert McRay is mesmerizing as the villain, who has a cold smile that would make a rattlesnake cringe. The supporting cast is good, too. As bandit sub-chief Suicide, Zen Gesner (of TV's execrable "Sinbad") gives his character affecting, surprising humanity, even while slicing someone's hand off. Jamie McShane's icy, slow-talking Victor makes an impression, as does Scott Eberlein as the hapless thug Danny, whose final moments make up one of the movie's most creepy and memorable scenes. Stefan Gierasch does a quirky turn as a shopkeeper, and George Murdock makes a vivid judge in his single scene (but it's a good one). But the best, good-to-see-him-again performance comes from Angus Scrimm (famed for "Phantasm," playing second banana to a homicidal steel softball) as the Preacher, whose spirit and faith are almost, but not quite, broken by the horror of the world. When he says that God despises a violent nature, you ignore him at your peril.
Too often, directors shoot a movie from a "Dramatic Elements Playbook" from which they never deviate ("Ah, emotional moment? Sez here use a soft-focus close-up.") Erkiletian avoids the cookie-cutter approach, shaking up our conventional expectations of westerns, and movies in general. One of my favorite scenes was one where Crosby comforts her young daughter after they have buried the father and son. Most movies would do this in close-up, so we could see the gleaming tears, etc., but Erkiletian places the camera at a detached distance. We hear the quaver in Crosby's voice and see the grave in the foreground, as the Arizona sky rolls impassive and uncaring behind them. It's very effective.
To be fair, this is not a massive-budget movie, and it shows in a few places. A couple of the minor performances are a bit perfunctory, and a number of people expire from gunfire by clutching their bloodless stomach wounds and staggering around a bit. But overall, this movie reminds me of the occasional gem that turns up in the sludge of late-night cable and direct-to-video shelves. It's well-made, smart, and entertaining well beyond its weight class. One can only hope it gets picked up.