Updated: Sep 17
Horror/westerns have been around since the early days of Hollywood. Even John Wayne had to square-off against a haunting in the 1932 ghostly showdown Haunted Gold, but like most of the early ventures into this rare genre, it was more Scooby Doo Mystery than horror. In the end, the cowboy’s monstrous adversary was just an evil rancher or greedy banker dressed as a ghost or phantom.
It wasn’t until the 1950s when westerns and monster movies were both at the top of the box office for young audiences and it was inevitable the two genres would occasionally cross paths. By the mid-50s, Willis O’Brien, the stop motion animation and special effects pioneer who brought King Kong’s world to life in 1933, wrote a story that would become The Beast of Hollow Mountain in 1956.
Unfortunately, O’Brien fell victim to the giant monster that is the business of Hollywood. The studio took his story, but hire someone else to do the special effects. The result was not King Kong quality, but it was the first time cowboys met a dinosaur on the silver screen.
13 years later in 1969, an even earlier cowboy/dinosaur script by Willis O’Brien was inherited by his former prodigy and now stop motion animation legend Ray Harryhausen. That resulted was The Valley of Gwangi and made a dinosaur in the Old West almost seem like a real possibility.
In 1957, Universal realized its classic horror films from the 1930s and 40s were just sitting around collecting dust, so they put them in a package and sold them to television under the title of Shock Theater. It introduced a new young audience to Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolfman, the Mummy, and the Invisible Man. By 1959, there was a gunslinger vampire in town, Sheriff and he was looking for bullets and blood in Curse of the Undead.
He wasn’t the fastest gun in town, but bullets went right through him, so in 1966 the studios brought in the big guns. Billy the Kid faced-off against a surprised Dracula.
Jesse James went toe-to-toe with Frankenstein’s Daughter wearing a World War II army surplus helmet and painted like the Mexican flag so no one would notice the costume flaw.
A werewolf or wolfman-type creature showed up on the plains of the Old West in 1958 in the form of a Teenage Monster, born not by the bite of a wolf, but by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. You see, Little Charlie was exposed to radiation from a meteor that landed near his dad’s silver mine. It turned young Charles into a hairy psychopath with the voice of Beaker from The Muppet Show.
Werewolves and vampires turned out to be the true monster scourge of the frontier and re-emerged decades later in Mad at the Moon (1992), Blood Moon (2015), Cowboys & Vampires (2013), and A Vampires Tale (2014).
There are two horror/westerns that aren’t actual westerns but deserve an honorable mention. First, there is Westworld (1973). Yul Brynner’s cold-blooded killer android character is obviously based to his character in The Magnificent Seven (1960), so that’s a give me in my book.
Second, there is Godmonster of Indian Flats (1973). Again, not a true western, but the crazy people in this 1970s nutty Nevada town dress and act like it’s the Old West. However, some of the townsfolk dumped the horses in favor of a Chevrolet Impala convertible buggy ride. Best of all…they battle a giant mutant killer sheep monster!
Zombies became the monster of choice in the latter part of the 20th Century and into the new millennium. Hollywood took notice and set the zombies’ brain-eating fury loose on unsuspecting pilgrims west of the Pecos in House II: The Second Story (1987), Death Valley: The Revenge of Bloody Bill (2004), The Quick and the Undead (2006),The Dead and the Damned (2011), Revelation Trail (2013), Cowboys vs. Zombies (2014),and Undead or Alive (2007).
Before you ask Marshal Matt Dillon for help, remember he was once the killer carrot creature from outer space in The Thing from Another World (1951), which brings up Cowboys & Aliens (2011). I know it’s technically a science fiction/western, but we’re talking monsters here and it makes for an easy and perfect transition to Ship of Monsters, original title, La nave de los monstruos (Mexico- 1960).
Here is a plot synopsis. Sexy space aliens land on Earth. They meet a singing cowboy. Together they solve a crime with the help of a robot. They sing and dance. They fall in love. They capture monsters. The monsters escape. They battle the monsters. One of the sexy space alien babes tragically turns into a vampire, and everyone lives happily ever after and we the audience leave the film with a smile of confusion.
It is the only science fiction/horror/drama/musical/film noir/vampire/romantic comedy/western I know of in existence.
Although the horror/western is a rarity, it is by no means an endangered species. I’m sure at this very moment, a screenwriter or producer is struggle to come up with a cinematic vision that includes Darth Vader, The Avengers, Godzilla, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.