Ever since Death Proof Quentin Tarantino has left us wondering if he’d ever revisit the horror genre (some would argue that he barely approached it with his half of the Grindhouse double bill, but I digress). In a career that’s seen him drift between genres, sampling here and there, you sense that horror has never been too far from his heart, even if he hasn’t completely worn it on his tattered, blood-stained sleeve. Between his penchant for ultraviolence and the nigh-preternatural sense of doom lingering over most of his work, it’s fair to say that horror has been a guiding force. The Hateful Eight leaves little doubt of this, so much so that we might as well stop waiting for Tarantino to make his horror film. This is it.
From the moment Ennio Morricone (providing his first “Western” score in 40 years) opens the film with an ominous suite of haunting strings and spooky chimes, The Hateful Eight feels like a dirge, one that stands in stark contrast to Tarantino’s delirious, exuberant exercises in recent historical revisionism. Morricone’s eerie cues continue to bleed over from the overture, overlaying a foregrounded statue of an agonizing Christ; in the distance, a stagecoach deliberately approaches, the lone sign of life in a desolate, snowy wilderness. Filmed in glorious Ultra Panavision 70, it’d be a gorgeous sight if it weren’t shaded by the sinking feeling that we’re watching damned souls being unwittingly ferried across this arctic Hades.
It’s a classic horror movie opening, complete with our two travelers—hangman John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh)—collecting a couple of hitchhikers who may be hiding ill intentions. Among them are bounty hunter and former army major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and Confederate terrorist and newly minted sheriff Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), an unlikely and combustible pairing that only heightens the sense that this is a doomed voyage. Despite Ruth’s reservations, he grants this duo passage to the town of Red Rock, a final destination we sense they’ll never actually see, thanks in no small part to the blizzard welling in the distance.
Just as an ominous thunderstorm might strand a band of travelers at a foreboding old dark house, this driving snowstorm eventually forces this group to seek sanctuary at Minnie’s Haberdashery, a lonely, purgatorial outpost in the Wyoming wilderness. As is often the case in a horror movie, a seemingly inviting location quickly turns foreboding: proprietor Minnie is nowhere to be found. In her absence, a quartet of other travelers have shacked up, each of them likely hoarding secrets and ulterior motives hiding behind faces that range from disinterested old cussedness (Bruce Dern, playing a retired Confederate general) to disconcerting amiability (Tim Roth as another hangman).
Somebody—or perhaps everybody—is not what they appear to be, something that feels obvious enough to the audience before Ruth bluntly says it aloud. To hear Kurt Russell insist that he distrusts anyone he’s locked up with during a snowstorm obviously conjures up The Thing (Morricone’s score even features his own unused cues from John Carpenter’s masterpiece), an homage that not only solidifies the horror trappings but also hints at Tarantino’s aim with The Hateful Eight. While couched in a Western setting, the film is more of a drawing room Agatha Christie tale where nearly every element is a red herring, including many of Tarantino’s filmmaking choices. He may have tapped Morricone to score his first Western in years, but you’ll find nothing grand or majestic; he may have chosen to resurrect the 70mm format, but the grandeur of sprawling vistas is sparse.
Instead, Tarantino deploys this widescreen format as if it were a microscope observing the crucible that is Minnie’s Haberdashery. Tarantino’s most intimately pitched film since Reservoir Dogs, The Hateful Eight inverts the expected scope and channels it for intensity: once everyone is gathered under one roof, the film becomes a meticulously arranged pressure cooker, with each frame serving to draw the audience into this confined, suffocating space. To say Tarantino puts you right into the room is apt; you’re not a fly on the wall so much as you’re a fly in the soup, constantly hovering around these characters, waiting for them to come undone.
Make no mistake: the first half of the film may be expressly dedicated to settling in with this motley crew, but a perceptible tension brews throughout. In a proper horror movie, this is the stretch where everything only seems relatively fine. It’s the part where the audience begins to catch hints that something is set to go very awry. Missing those hints is impossible in The Hateful Eight, a film that all but announces its intentions to prey on paranoia from the outset. Tarantino puts his own spin on this overly familiar premise by twisting it into a loquacious stage play that leaves everyone involved hanging on every word, glance, and exchange. Menace hangs thick on every syllable: even the bonding between the two Confederate sympathizers doesn’t come without the realization that the two are essentially strutting and trolling in the presence of a former slave who later fought for the Union. Typical horror movies may feature ominous thunder or inexplicable sights; The Hateful Eight simply leaves one with the uneasy feeling that they’ve been stranded with a band of lunatics with no moral center to which to cling.
This becomes most apparent towards the end of the first act, when Major Warren decides he can no longer submit to the perverse sense of decorum that asks him to share a room with men who once fought to oppress him. His confrontation with his Confederate counterpart is a pure Tarantino moment: while it begins with the pretense of shared respect between two grizzled veterans, it quickly degenerates into an extravagant flashback straddling the fine line between hilarious, vulgar, and wildly provocative (“Silent Night” may be sullied forever by this sequence). Truly the film’s point of no return, this anecdote shoots dialogue like bullets aimed right at the heart of the elephant crowding the room: if it weren’t already abundantly clear, this is the moment the film completely unhinges itself. Suddenly, you realize that Tarantino has remade The Thing, only everyone in the room is The Thing, each of them diseased by a strain of madness, paranoia, and bloodlust that will lead them to destroy each other.
When the climax to this exchange punctuates the first half and shuttles us to the intermission, it arrives at just the right time. You almost need the breather in order to process and reorient yourself. Comfort never feels like it’s a priority for Tarantino, but he at least provides the faintest illusion of it for a while. Some kind of axis seems to form on the backs of Ruth and Warren, violent roughnecks though they may be (the former is all but introduced violently putting Domergue in her place multiple times). They may be scoundrels, but they’re our entry point—if not practically our tour guides—in this unforgiving frontier. Everyone else feels like an outsider.
Tarantino is both keenly aware of this dynamic and deeply intrigued by promptly burning it to the ground. How else do you explain his ruthless insistence on completely dismantling everything he’s so delicately crafted before the intermission? Almost immediately, he sets to dousing it in gasoline with whiplash-inducing reveals and sharp narrative diversions. Minnie’s Haberdashery is not exactly a cabin in the woods, but The Hateful Eight soon transforms into a cabin-in-the-woods movie, complete with crimson-soaked walls, exploding heads, geysers of viscera, and a blood-spattered Final Girl. Sharp-eared viewers will catch snippets of familiar cues hailing from The Exorcist II and The Last House on the Left. Hell, there’s even something lurking beneath the floor, unseen, waiting to introduce even more chaos into a situation that doesn’t exactly demand any.
Taking a cue from cue from gore-tinged spaghetti Westerns like The Cut-Throats Nine and Django Kill, Tarantino transforms The Hateful Eight into a full-on splatter movie. What looks to be a potboiler (in the most literal sense imaginable, as it so happens) swiftly sprawls into outright mayhem. There is murder and even a brief mystery, but, again, Tarantino seems to have little interest in observing genre conventions. Besides, after already tipping his hand during the first half, it should come as no surprise that he embraces the notion that everyone is a suspect. Determining who is orchestrating the chaos becomes secondary to reveling in it. This is Hitchcock’s “bomb under the table” theory writ large, as Tarantino reveals previously hidden accomplices and guns, going so far as to arrange his pieces in a lengthy flashback. That this sequence highlights a game of chess feels appropriate because we’re witnessing all of the pieces being maneuvered into place—only to see Tarantino promptly flip the board over, sending its contents sprawling all over the floor.
Violence has often pulsed throughout Tarantino’s oeuvre, yet rarely has it felt as blunt and ugly as it does here. In many of his previous films, it’s been the inevitable result of revenge quests or gangster plots; here, it merely feels inevitable, as if each of these men were destined to incite bloodshed as a matter of fact. Each enters the room with varying motives, all of which seem to become less important as the situation unravels around them. Tarantino’s typical brand of moral relativism crumbles along with it, eventually plunging into sheer amorality.
The director has similarly made a living out of crafting charismatic rogues throughout his career, and he doesn’t exactly divert from that in The Hateful Eight. In fact, this may be his most galling pack of thieves, liars, and murderers because they’re all so slippery: regardless of what side of the law on which they stand, none can be considered upstanding individuals, yet they all have their moments where you want them to assume the role of a stabilizing force, to guide us through the murky waters Tarantino is treading.
He’ll have none of it, though, as Tarantino allows the characters to shift, often from one moment to the next. You love the Russell’s brusque, gritty reprisal of R.J. MacReady (by way of John Wayne) until it guides his mean-spirited abuse of the captive Domergue. You begin to feel a faint sense of sympathy for Domergue (particularly since no one ever quite enumerates on her deeds) until she unlooses hell, her gore-soaked face cackling like the witch everyone has assumed her to be. You sympathize with Warren’s righteous fury until he, too, reveals his capacity for deception and wanton destructiveness. You think, perhaps, that Dern’s former general deserves the abuse Warren directs towards him, but you catch a melancholy glimmer of desperation and regret before he’s compelled to violently respond. You deeply distrust Mannix, who has spent much of his adult life terrorizing black communities as Confederate lost-causer, yet you can’t deny his good-old-boy charm (he won me over with “I’ll be double-dog damned,” his signature catch phrase that’s deployed with a disarming southern twang).
Perhaps more than any other character, you want Mannix to do “the right thing,” whatever that may be. Since that’s never exactly made clear, you settle for the realization that you’re stuck with a bunch of bastards, and, as Tarantino verbally reinforces here, “a bastard’s work is never done.” You begin to wonder if the director doesn’t include himself in this company since he seems to be lurking the background, chuckling mischievously as he lights his matches. Not only is he purposely unraveling The Hateful Eight, but he also seems hell-bent on setting fire to the indulgent revisionism of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained.
This almost seems too obvious when the film eventually resorts to pairing Mannix and Warren, another duo looking to navigate a hostile environment despite their difference in skin color. Unlike King Schultz and Django Freeman, however, these two are joined not by altruism or a desire for justice; rather, they only find kinship in their shared desire to survive. Whatever bond they have is built upon a lie, their triumphs hollowed and dulled by the utter savagery of their ordeal. Ultimately, The Hateful Eight reimagines what Django Unchained might have been like if its title character had detonated Candieland while standing inside of it, content to be engulfed by the same flames that consumed the plantation.
No longer concerned with righting the historical wrongs of those films, Tarantino instead wallows in the ugly, spiteful truth of post-Civil War America, an unforgiving land not too far removed from our own in its horrid racial politics. When a character insists that the only time white people feel safe is when black people are afraid, it’s a patently unsubtle bit of finger-pointing that forcefully suggests that the scene in The Hateful Eight is a wholly American allegory. Tarantino has taken the Cold War paranoia that fueled both Howard Hawks and John Carpenter’s versions of The Thing and directed it back towards a country whose entire existence has been marred by racial strife. We don’t need to look for outside scapegoats when confronted with the nihilistic truth: we are all of us infected by an epidemic that provokes self-destructive violence until it consumes everything. Worse yet, Tarantino can only find a bleak, black-hearted absurdity in it all, as if he has no recourse but to find the gallows humor between bouts of indignation. If that’s not the premise for a horror movie, then I don’t know what is.