It's a horror monster movie Western. That's what I thought it was, anyway. This is probably why I was slightly underwhelmed and why this fairly good movie didn't get a theatrical release and went straight to DVD.
What's interesting is that you could almost write out the monsters. You'd need to replace them with something else, but that could be almost anything since their exact nature isn't particularly important for the story. We don't even see them much. We're an hour into the film before we even glimpse our first Burrower, then there are only fifteen minutes left by the time we get any kind of good look at one.
Instead the movie's about a group of people in the Old West who are trying to chase down and rescue some of their friends who've disappeared. They think it was Red Indians. Furthermore this isn't a ridiculous idea since there are many native tribes in the area and a good deal of bad blood between them and the white folk, which we see illustrated in the form of a near-psychopathic Doug Hutchison. For most of the film, we're just following these guys. They don't know about the monsters. The natives do, but there's a communication issue. What's more, our heroes would still have been saying and doing the same things if they'd been right in their assumptions and there never were any monsters. This is a dour, occasionally gross film with a fairly sour view of human nature and an interest in how these settlers go about identifying and solving their problems. Sometimes of course this translates as "misunderstanding" and "making worse".
Obviously the Burrowers play a major role in Act Three, but note the film's ending. This is a movie with more to say than "monsters are eating people!"
There are at least two themes, possibly related. The lesser one is environmental. The white settlers have caused their own Burrower problems. However this could be seen as a spin-off of the larger theme, which is how these people will tend to interact destructively with the world around them and especially with people of other ethnic groups. (Note also how many of their injuries are self-inflicted.) There's an Irishman and a black man. There's a variety of natives, all of which have different knowledge and levels of hostility towards the whites. In fact, it could be argued that the Burrowers aren't our heroes' biggest problem, since it would have been possible to organise a strategy to fight them if everyone had just shown sense and shared their information. Unfortunately communication isn't these people's speciality. This is metaphorically underlined by the variety of languages, which isn't just restricted to English and the natives' language but includes French too.
In hindsight the insect shots are perhaps a bit confusing, though. However I've dug up an interview with J.T. Petty in which he says, "The idea of the bugs is to keep the grass alive." You could link that into the environmentalism.
Actually, while I'm talking about Mr Petty, he sounds interesting. He's not a big fish in the movie business, but he's written some high-profile video games (Splinter Cell, Batman) and he'd previously written and directed S&MAN, which sounds startling and is about the underground horror world and the people who make or get off on neo-snuff movies. It's apparently a documentary. Oh, and The Burrowers is apparently based on a seven-part TV series, while he's also made an 18-minute prequel to it, called Blood Red Earth and this time done entirely in native language.
Oh, and another good thing is that realising the Burrowers themselves involved practical effects, puppeteers and three years of concept sketches. They're not flamboyantly over-designed monsters, but sober and realistic in their disgustingness. Perhaps a little mole-ratty.
I might recommend this movie, but only to people who weren't going in with misplaced expectations. It's not Tremors 5. Quoting Petty again... "I like Tremors, but don't invite the comparison. Not much into camp." Personally I love horror Westerns, but this wasn't entirely a benefit since it means I'd been looking forward to something I didn't get. Instead, this is a modest, understated movie with more substance than that. Overall, it's quite good. You wouldn't call this film brilliant, but it's a solid, respectable piece of work with themes and things to say about them. The fact that it went straight to DVD says far more about how the studios see horror movies and Westerns than it does about the film itself.