Like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, those shadowy apparitions destined to someday thunder out of nowhere into a world quite unprepared for their assault, so approaches a hard-charging herd of new Westerns in full-on, full-tilt fantasy mode. And yet nary a lookout has fired a warning shot, much less circled the wagons. So the surprises should come aplenty scant months from now, especially for unsuspecting Western traditionalists and purists, who are sure to be agog as the theaters are lit up with zombie-blasting, alien-stomping, wrangler-zapping, abomination-lassoing action, as howling hordes of frontier combatants decide who really rules the West.

What set off this storm of genre-mashup mayhem? Who the heck knows, but all of Hollywood has gotten the memo.

Sometime next year we’ll see the release of Jonah Hex, a live-action film version of the DC comic book of the same name. The IMDbPro Web site describes it this way: “In the Wild West, a scarred bounty hunter tracks a voodoo practitioner bent on liberating the South by raising an army of the undead.”

That’ll be joined by Death Keeps Coming, which is a “supernatural Western about an unspeakable horror that arises in the frontier and…a mysterious lone gunfighter who tries to save a victim of a horrific gypsy curse.”

And then there’s Cowboys and Aliens, which is set in the 1800s Southwest and is about cowboys banding with Native Americans to fight space aliens that have landed on Earth with plans to enslave humanity.

Meanwhile, Caliber: First Canon of Justice turns the Arthurian legend into Old West action, with a tattooed six-gun occupying the place of the Excalibur sword of Arthur’s day. This cowboy Arthur finds his place as a justice-bringer who is the only one who can fire the supernatural weapon, which “never misses.”

No sacred cows, or sacred cowboys, are left un-fantasized in this trend, as is shown by the fact that even the forthcoming feature film The Lone Ranger is supposed to have “supernatural elements.”

And it’s not as if this fare is being slapped together by movie-biz drifters. Warner Brothers is producing Jonah Hex, which stars Josh Brolin and Megan Fox.

Death Keeps Coming is a Quentin Tarantino production that will star Ernest Borgnine, Dee Wallace-Stone, and Martin Kove, as well as Tarantino’s father, Tony Tarantino.

Cowboys and Aliens is a Dreamworks SKG project. Stephen Spielberg directs.

John Woo is to direct Caliber. And The Lone Ranger is a Disney feature. Early reports indicate that Johnny Depp has signed to the project, to play the role of Tonto. The title role has not been cast.

So much for details. The obvious question: How will these pictures will sit with the Western-watching public? And what impact will these Westerns—some would likely not call them “Westerns”—have on the long-hoped-for resurrection of the now-moribund genre?

Doubtless, some observers will feel that this development bodes well—that even if diehard Western fans do not care for the fantasy elements, the mere inclusion of cowboy and Western subject matter could introduce a new generation of viewers to the Western. After all, today’s young people have cut their teeth on fantasy video games (see sidebar) and fantasy entertainment in general. The idea then would be that, after these viewers’ taste is (possibly) whetted by these offerings, they could someday develop a taste for the “real thing”—that is, realistic, traditional Westerns.

Conversely, it’s not hard to imagine a crowd that will denounce these intruders as something downright unholy… or a laughable.

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