In and out of development since 2005, Andrew Goth’s Gallowwalkers is about two-thirds of the way to being a genuinely interesting and provocative film. Unfortunately, the missing third is the one containing a decent structure.
Set in the old West, the film takes place in and around a chain of mountains that somehow connect our world to Hell. One of the side effects of this connection to the other side is that the dead are prone to coming back to life, a situation not helped by the fact that one of the most vicious killers around is a cursed undead bounty hunter named Aman (Wesley Snipes) whose victims invariably return as powerful zombies with a penchant for wearing people’s skin. Usually nothing more than a minor inconvenience, this curse proves disastrous when Aman decides to track down and kill the gang of psychotic murderers who raped and killed his mother. When the psychos return and take over a local town, Aman is forced to recruit a non-cursed sidekick (Riley Smith) in order to put the zombies down and find some form of redemption.
Gallowwalkers is easily one of the most visually arresting horror films in recent memory. Shot on the bone-white sands of Namibia, the film forgoes the traditional play of light and shadow in favour of a bleached wilderness in which the only colour is blood and the characters’ colourful costumes. The most obvious point of reference here is Alejandro Jodorowsky’s surreal and psychedelic western El Topo where the dusty palette of the spaghetti western is drowned in so many signs and allusions that every street corner and massacre acquires its own occult significance. Unsurprisingly, Goth does not share Jodorowsky’s love of symbolism and so replaces El Topo’s mind-bending tableaux with guns, gore and posturing professional wrestlers.
To say that this is two-thirds to the way of being a genuinely interesting film means that the combination of genre silliness and artistic beauty ultimately fails to mesh and the cause of this is undoubtedly the structure. The reason that films like El Topo tend to favour unconventional structures and lack of dialogue is that these allow filmmakers to draw the audience’s attention to the stuff that they consider important (such as the use of carefully juxtaposed images). The problem here is that while Goth does pay a good deal of attention to his film’s imagery, the imagery is really more decorative than evocative and the meat of the piece lies in its characters, fight-scenes and general silliness. A more conventionally structured plot would have given the characters room to breathe and so allow audiences to appreciate their surreal qualities. Taking an intensely serious and portentous approach to a script that contains lines like “Forgive me Father, for I have skinned!” and people talking about the benefits of sewing dead lizards to your face is not just ill-conceived, it’s downright wasteful.