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A great "thinking man's film"
I think this is a "lost" film that never truly found its audience. It was billed as a mainstream horror film, but it actually transcends true genre classification. This is more of a thinking man's movie. The terror is almost entirely psychological, but it is more of a quirky drama than horror.
This is a real overlooked gem. I don't want to build it up too much because I realize it isn't everyone's cup of tea. Just read a few reviews from dim-witted critics and you will see that generally this film was not well received. Maybe those reviewers should have stuck with classics such as "Face-Off" or "Armageddon". No need to use that brain if there are enough explosions.
I can tell you that "Grim Prairie Tales" is one of those movies that I have to watch every so often because it sticks with me. It has a winning combination of high-caliber writing, directing, cinematography, and acting that really gets in the back of my mind and emerges at times. There is just something memorable about it. Dare I say it it is haunting.
The film stars James Earl Jones as a want-to-be bounty hunter who encroaches upon the camp of a schoolteacher (Brad Dourif of "Chucky" fame) in the middle of the desert. Soon, sitting under a still moonlight night by the fireside gives rise to some strange tales (making this an anthology film). It seems that the two share little in common, except for a love of great storytelling.
The first yarn is from Jones' character, Morrison. It is about an old man and his fear of dying, which manifests itself as religious intolerance and some general crotchety-ness. While I believe this is the weakest tale of the movie, it does employ some clever devices that broach the subject of mortality. My main problem with this segment is that it uses day-for-night shots unsuccessfully. I have a hard time getting past a technical shortcoming such as that. Don't judge the movie solely on this aspect, though.
Deeds (Dourif) is impressed with the craft and mechanics of the story, but not its shock value. Morrison takes it as a challenge to make a stronger impact with a more intense story. He relates another tale designed to both titillate and disgust the schoolteacher on the surface. Lurking beneath those still waters is a narrative that raises questions about the more base nature of even the most pious man.
The next segment stars none other than Jimmy Olsen Marc McClure. He plays Tom, a wayward husband on his way to meet his wife. Along the way, he meets Jenny - an attractive pregnant woman. Tom decides to act as her guardian. The woman reluctantly agrees, and that night the campfire reveals that her "pregnancy" was only a trick to try and protect herself from potential assault. She writhes in ecstasy, and while her mouth is gently whispering "no" her eyes are begging for Tom to have his way with her. Without spoiling too much, what follows is one of the most intriguing "encounters" ever filmed. To my knowledge, it is entirely unique and original (albeit disturbing).
Upon completion of the story, Deeds is thoroughly disgusted. Morrison suspects that Deeds was, in fact, excited by the tale and was forced to cover-up his reaction by masking it with disdain. Deeds then must redirect with his own campfire story.
Similar in theme with Morrison's last tale regarding underlying sin, Deeds spins a yarn that also involves an idyllic pioneer life that is not quite as it seems. It is a new beginning where Arthur (William Atherton from Die Hard), an upstanding and religious man, marries a woman nobody else would have as she was pregnant out of wedlock. Life looks promising. That is until Arthur's stepdaughter sneaks out to see how her new father is helping the community.
The innocence of the daughter is permanently marred as she witnesses true hatred and betrayal. The family unit continues, despite the sojourn through evil. The most shocking part is how the daughter can bury the atrocities in her mind to gain some semblance of normality.
Morrison is astounded. The well-crafted tale gets the wheels turning. Now the gauntlet has really been thrown. He can't let Deeds have the best story of the night. Finally, after some soul-searching, Morrison attempts to top his story-rival.
The last story is the most visceral of the quartet, both visually and psychologically. It is about a gunslinger contest to be the best in the west. The favorite is the focus and the story is about his reconciliation of conscience and actions. There is an animated dream sequence that, while entertaining, feels tacked-on. Otherwise, this story is one of the best tales. "One bullet!" - great line.
Deeds concedes the victory to Morrison. As the sun rises in the east, both must continue their very different journeys. The tale ends with another interesting twist, as well.
I am hoping that this gets released to DVD soon, and hopefully with some sweet extras. As it is now, you can only get used VHS copies of it. If you like thinking about the film you are watching, and don't really go into the film expecting to see a horror film, then you might really enjoy "Grim Prairie Tales".