Movie Review: Old West goons face a monstrous Native Spirit in the “Black Woods”

My heart goes out to any aspiring filmmaker who takes a shot at making a Western with no money. All horror takes is a bit of makeup, some fake blood and — in the case of a cheap zombie movie — ragged clothes and tubs of ashen gray makeup.

But a Western? You have guns, and cheaping out on having an armorer on the set is what killed Brandon Lee. You have horses, and need to hire actors who look like they know which end is which, as well as wranglers. And you need some undeveloped, less-spoiled corners of the American West, and a director of photography who can give your picture a look that feels documentary real, sepia-toned nostalgic or dust and sweat and blood and sagebrush Sergio Leone.

“Black Wood” has a novel setting, the under-filmed wilds of South Dakota’s Black Hills, and every now and then an image pops on screen that looks just right — fog in the rocky, forested hills, a rider galloping down a prairie ridgeline. But writer-director Chris Canfield’s debut micro-budget/no-budget feature — a horror/horse opera hybrid — doesn’t do either genre justice.

The performances are uneven, with a few players having experience on obscure, equally malnourished and overreaching indie film sets, and others outright amateurs. There are continuity errors, with shots not quite matching up — scenes with fog when shot from one angle, bright sun from another.

The “beast,” a Native spirit called Wendigo, is just another dude in a fur suit and antler head. And the gold — remember, there was a gold rush in the Black Hills during “Deadwood” days — is plainly spray painted rocks.

Tanajsia Slaughter plays a tormented Lakota woman named Dowanhowee who comes to Coyote Junction looking for a horse. She ends up killing a guy to get one. Guided by “The Great Spirit,” she has a date in the “Black Woods.”

Bates Wilder, who was in the even more misguidedly ambitious “The Great War,” an attempt at making a World War I movie is the pine forests of Wisconsin if memory serves, plays Dutch Wilder, a limping hardcase who leads a gang of five that fetches things that can’t be fetched and does other dirty deeds, for a price. It was one of his men who lost his life and then his horse, and he had all their cash in his saddle bags.

It doesn’t matter that the sinister schemer Pickerton (Kara Rainer) has sent her right hand man (Glenn Morshower) to lead the gang to a mining claim they’re to help steal, a “You know to kill people, I know how to find shiny things” deal. First things first.

Amusingly, neither the Native tracker (Casey Birdinground) nor Dutch’s field glasses can figure out they’re hunting a woman, even after they get close enough to wound her. She’s led them into the Black Woods, but even she is afraid of the creature that they might run into there — Wendigo.

“Twice as tall as a man,” tracker Two Feathers growls, “with the claws of a wolf, the teeth of a cougar and the strength of a bear.”

As we’ve already seen the film’s no-expense-spared depiction of disemboweling injuries, we can believe it.

I like Canfield’s efforts at giving us a West we can buy into. The town is very DIY and sloppily thrown together. None of this Hollywood’s Finest Craftsman construction. The streets may be grass — never seen that in a place where horseshoes and wagon wheels turn thruways into dust and mud — but the place feels lived-in, with high mileage hookers, two-fisted cowpokes and virulent racist drunks.

“You goin’ soft on feather heads?”

But even in those stretches where the acting is passable and the locations pretty enough, the movie all this effort was inspired by is dawdling drivel, a pokey tale with dialogue that’s basically one long series of profane, blood oath threats and translated Lakota and a story that we’ve seen 1670 versions of already, virtually none of them any more memorable than this.

Rating: R for violence, gore and language.

Cast: Bates Wilder, Tanajsia Slaughter, Glenn Morshower, George Thomas Mansel, Casey Birdinground, Stelio Savante, Andrew Stecker and Kara Rainer

Credits: Scripted and directed by Chris Canfield. A Saban release.

Running time: 1:35

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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