Those of you who’ve incorporated this blog into their weekly reads might recall that I believe heartily that the Weird West represents a fertile ground for all manner of fiction. Those that haven’t can probably hazard a guess that a guy writing something called Zombie Ranch would have such a belief.
As a swift recap for those just joining us, Wikipedia defines a Weird West offering as “a combination of the Western with another literary genre, usually horror, occult, or fantasy”. In the past I’ve talked up what I considered to be some high-quality examples, such as the Role-Playing Game Deadlands, or the Undead Nightmare DLC for Red Dead Redemption, or there’s the television series of “The Wild, Wild West” or the Jonah Hex comics.
But then again, there’s the movies. If you enjoyed the cinematic versions of “The Wild, Wild West” and/or “Jonah Hex”, I’m not going to sit here and argue that, no, you didn’t… that’s your prerogative. Too many people end up wasting their breath on such back-and-forths. What I will say is that I personally found them by and large to be formulaic products of Hollywood that didn’t really pay too much attention to what they were adapting beyond the surface trappings. You can argue that they weren’t exactly adapting Shakespeare… I can argue that “Shaun of the Dead” wasn’t paying tribute to Shakespeare either, but still managed to be a smart and soulful film… something that felt like a labor of love instead of a means to a paycheck.
The saddest thing for me though is that I feel the same emptiness in the “Transformers” movies, but the Transformers movies continue to break box office records while film after film attempting to tell a Weird West story fails to connect with mainstream audiences, even with big budgets and big stars backing them up. As a caveat, I have yet to go see “Cowboys and Aliens”, so I won’t speak as to its quality… but regardless it’s barely made half its budget back since it opened. It’s such a dismal performance that Disney just outright pulled the plug on its planned “Lone Ranger” movie, which was all set to have the Lone Ranger and Tonto fighting werewolves. After reading that article I’m not so sure I liked what they were planning (far as I know Weird West never really figured into the Lone Ranger mythos), but it’s a moot point now: if Harrison Ford, Daniel Craig and Olivia Wilde couldn’t get your butts in the seats, I suppose they figured Johnny Depp can’t, either.
And this after Depp and Gore Verbinski already rescued the pirate genre from the depths of obscurity and made it cool (and profitable) again. Disney isn’t banking on a second helping of lightning in the bottle. If there’s a film out there waiting to be made that can cause cowboys to be hot stuff again, much less the Weird West, “Lone Ranger” won’t be it.
I mean, I can’t honestly say there was any time period that the Weird West was ever super popular, not in the way pure Westerns were all but a dynasty for several decades, first in books, then radio, then film and TV. We get brief flare-ups from time to time (the “True Grit” remake being the most recent), but the Western is still by and large considered Hollywood’s past, not its present or future. Throw aliens, robots, or (ahem) zombies on top of that and you’re going to have a rough time pitching it, especially since none of the films mashing them up have so far enjoyed either critical or commercial success.
Is the Weird West just too weird for the great majority of the ticket buying public to wrap their heads around? I know people will ask me at conventions what Zombie Ranch is about and I still have never quite mastered the art of rattling off a quick answer to the question, or at least a quick answer I don’t feel is leaving major elements out. Zombie Ranch is probably weird even for the Weird West, and then beyond that I see a really simple idea like “Cowboys fight Aliens” fail despite all the money and pedigree it boasted.
So I suppose it’s a niche within a niche (within a niche?), and that’s not enough for today’s filmgoing public. The good news is, despite repeated failures at the movie box office, the Weird West doesn’t show any signs of dying out as a concept, and I’d still like to think that’s because, hey, it’s a good concept with a lot of potential still to be mined. We have our books and we have our comics and video games, and every so often someone tries a TV show or film, and sooner or later I have faith that lightning will suffuse that bottle on the big screen like a prairie thunderstorm. “Pirates of the Caribbean”, after all, only came after decades of failures at reviving the genre (“Cutthroat Island”, anyone?).
For the moment, though, I’m happy with the niche.