Grim Prairie Tales

(aka Hellbent, Wayne Coe, USA, 1990)


The low-budget, independent American feature Grim Prairie Tales – with its title changed to Hellbent on the Australian video release, perhaps in a vain attempt to make it seem like a regular horror movie – features two fine actors, Brad Dourif and James Earl Jones, as cowpoke storytellers stuck around a campfire for a night. It’s a haunting prairie in the middle of nowhere.


Like in that great Australian film, John Heyer’s The Back of Beyond (1954 – not to be confused with this), storytelling seems like a form of survival for these starkly different wanderers. The ritual swapping of yarns sparks all manner of games, contracts and exchanges.


The stories they tell – duly illustrated by Coe and (later) famous cinematographer Janusz Kamiński – are basically tall horror tales, escalating from a ho-hum fable of American Indian payback, to more tantalising, troubling parables of pioneer civilisation and its discontents. Coe skilfully finds, in this material, the connecting line between the Western and horror genres.


The film is afflicted with a certain dainty self-consciousness, like Orlando  (1992) or Poison  (1991), rather too eager to spell out its intentions and pull its punches. It did not lead to a directorial career for Coe, whose main line of film work has been in art departments, poster design, and in the storyboarding of title sequences (including Se7en, The Island of Dr Moreau, Spawn and Dead Man on Campus). He apparently envisaged a sequel titled Grim Prairie Takes: Rescue Party that has never eventuated.


Still, it’s an intriguing oddity playing in the margins of popular cinema. And it has one wonderfully horrific scene devoted to the male nightmare of what really goes on inside the belly of a pregnant woman.

© Adrian Martin September 1991 / July 1993

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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