On December 6, two competing Westerns hit store shelves, and they offer two very different possibilities for the genre’s future. Cowboys & Aliens is a big studio Western that mixes in sci-fi, CGI and noisy blockbuster elements, seeming distrustful that today’s audiences will accept a straight-ahead Western.
The Scarlet Worm (on DVD and Blu-Ray from Unearthed Films/MVD), on the other hand, is a glowingly reviewed independent Western that proves a horse opera can still capture the public’s imagination – even on a low budget – as long as its story offers something fresh and original within the traditional framework.
“We feel there is still new ground to break with an old plow,” says the film’s associate producer Mike Malloy. “But if you look at the recent major-release Westerns, they have either been remakes like True Grit and 3:10 to Yuma or genre hybrids like Jonah Hex and Cowboys & Aliens. We wanted to make a film that resorted to neither extreme. Plain and simple: Make a straight Western with a story you haven’t seen before.”
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Exactly how original is the Scarlet Worm story? “It’s the first Western ever to center around abortion, insofar as we know,” says screenwriter David Lambert. But he’s quick to add, “This is not an advocacy movie that makes any generalizations about the abortion controversy. I wasn’t interested in writing a message movie.”
The plot of The Scarlet Worm has a gentleman assassin named Print (Aaron Stielstra) hired to rub out a cruel brothel owner (Spaghetti Western veteran Dan van Husen) who mandates abortions on all his whores. Considering himself an artist, Print normally has style and flourish to all his killings, but this latest job presents two challenges: He is being told by his employer to get it done “quick and dirty,” and he is forced to train a young understudy while working.
While it’s a story set-up that allows for crowd-pleasing traditional elements of gunplay (replete with real practical squibs) and romance (which includes some whorehouse nudity), the film also has plenty of room for highbrow prestige elements, as introduced by the intelligent, highly original script.
And those elements are getting noticed, both in the form of festival selections and advanced praise. With this press and word of mouth, The Scarlet Worm has cut through the throng of other low-budget Westerns, which are mainly just direct-to-video shootemups.
Although Scarlet Worm’s cast includes a fistful of veteran Spaghetti Western actors – Dan van Husen, Montgomery Ford, Mike Forest and Ted Rusoff – the film is not a Spaghetti homage. It instead seeks to recapture the gritty realism of the early ’70s American Westerns – films like Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid or Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller.
“We aspired to be like those intelligent Westerns,” says Lambert, “And while The Scarlet Worm delivers plenty of traditional genre excitement, we’re so pleased that we’re not being lumped in with the low-budget action Westerns coming out these days.”