Ride ‘Em Cowboy: Devil Rider (1991)

Dave bemoans the rootin’, tootin’, cowboy shootin’ perp in this obscure horror-western whose spurs are a little blunt.

The horror-western is a fusion of genres too rarely tapped, especially considering the themes of retribution, isolation, and good versus evil that are so mutually entwined. Those that have donned a bloodied spur have been met with deserved acclaim, with Grim Prairie Tales (1990), Dead Birds (2004) and The Burrowers (2008) considered modest entries alongside the Fordian dominance of Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987) and John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998). DARK RIDER stays well below the realm of these laudable classics – but as a super-obscure curiosity, it just about warrants an hour and a half of your time.

The story is one that concerns a familiar western trope, where a group of young prospectors mosey onto some land that a cowboy regards to be his own. Well, by ‘prospectors’ I mean some investors who are keen to build a dude ranch, and by ‘cowboy’ I mean a guy who’s been dead for a hundred years and casts a haunting presence over his former territory.

It’s a back of the napkin premise in terms of depth, and the laboured start is a patience-tester owing to a sixteen-minute prelude that offers little apart from padding. This lengthy prologue eventually sees the titular character hanged, and has all the hallmarks of an amateur Civil War re-enactment gone rogue, but it’s only when it evolves into a modern day setting that Devil Rider finally comes to life.

Hunkered down in a deserted ranch, the film’s ponderous transformation into Rio Bravo (1959) lite is both unexpected yet welcome. The ensemble – led by co-producer and stunt co-ordinator Rick Groat – are a disparate and watchable lot, although it’s Tag – Groat’s real-life sibling – who struggles to embody the Devil Rider with any degree of menace or dread. Cosmetically, he shares a correlation with the fearsome Jimmie F. Skaggs, the ominous outlaw from Richard McCarthy’s far superior Ghost Town (1988). However, without John Carl Buechler’s flesh-rotting make-up, and devoid of Skaggs’ smirking terror, there’s a limit to what you can do with cowboy boots and an exaggerated laugh.

Screenwriter Bud Fleisher would go on to pen the superior Silent Hunter (1995) for Fred Williamson, and recently his son revealed that Devil Rider was all shot on a limited supply of two-hundred-foot film reels which meant that they could afford just one take for each scene. That has no bearing on an imbalanced structure or a half-cooked evil-doer, but it certainly allows a tip of the Stetson to San Franciscan director Vic Armstrong for assembling a picture that’s both, at least, coherent and professional in appearance.

The sole UK release for Gothic, a mysterious distro who bestowed it with the catalogue number ‘GOT 666’, Devil Rider found a more well-established home in America. It hit rental stores on 30th May 1991 via Magnum Video – the home entertainment stable responsible for introducing John Hayes’ Grave of the Vampire (1973) to a modern audience with its ‘90s reissue on tape.

USA ● 1991 ● Horror, Western ● 83mins

Tag Groat, Rick Groat, Deborah Norris, Wayne Douglass ● Dir. Vic Alexander ● Wri. Bud Fleisher

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