Terror on the Prairie (2022) Review
“Terror on the Prairie is both just like every Western you’ve ever seen and also nothing like any Western you’ve ever seen. The biggest factor is that you get a truly strong female character. You see her struggle, you see her fail, you see her endure, and you see her overcome. She doesn’t do it alone, and she grows as a character along with her family.”
Terror on the Prairie is set on the Montana plains in the decade after the American Civil War. Two middle-aged ranchers, Hattie and Jeb McAllister, are struggling to keep the farm afloat thanks in part to Jeb’s gambling and stubbornness. As we come to discover, he’s a former Civil War veteran from Missouri who turned from the Confederacy to the Union at a decisive moment in the war. While he’s away one day in town, four vagrants with mysterious intentions approach the ranch asking for food and assistance, and Hattie discovers their horses are lined with human scalps. Realizing they’re murderers, she is forced to barricade herself and two children inside her cabin with a shotgun until help arrives.
The film is very much in line with the stories the former producers of Cinestate have thus far produced with Daily Wire. Run Hide Fight and Shut In are both grindhouse thrillers about women who are trapped in violent situations and must fight their way out from male violence using their wits and protecting their loved ones in the process. Female-oriented revenge thrillers seem to be their forte. It’s thus far proved a functional, if repetitive, format for the fledgling company to rely upon, creating films that are both overtly sentimental, morally binary, and heavy-handed in their political subtext — often to their detriment but well suited to its conservative audience.
What sets Terror on the Prairie apart is its performances from Gina Carano and Nick Searcy. Carano has a limited range as an actress, a trait she shares with other MMA stars turned actors and actresses, but she’s very good when cast in the right part. The Mandalorian used her to great effect, creating a character that was overtly aggressive and lively but grappling with deeply buried wounds. Carano’s character here doesn’t have that benefit, as she’s playing a much more subdued and normal character. The film mostly relies on Carano’s stature and strength to emphasize just how hard-bitten and cruel life in the west could be when the battle of civilization and chaos rolled up to an average person’s front door. Again though, Carano is an MMA fighter so at times she exudes the same overbearing muscular features that Ben Affleck did in Live by Night, being a massive physically imposing figure in a story that called for more vulnerability.
Searcy ends up carrying a lot of the film as its villain, a brooding and angry preacher’s son roaming the mountains seeking vengeance for past transgressions, quoting self-satisfied Bible verses about vengeance and justice as he brutally murders those he despises — a contradiction the film loves indulging. While his full intentions don’t become clear till late in the film, he does a good job driving the film’s conflict almost single-handedly. At first, the implication of his arrival has a dark sexual subtext, carrying the fear of a woman alone in a room full of four violent men and all the baggage that implies. Quietly though, the film slowly reveals his more personal motivations for seeking out the McAllister homestead.
Even for a film with a limited budget, the Terror on the Prairie looks very good and benefits from beautiful natural backdrops and nicely furnished production design. The film was shot on location in Montana, and anyone who has driven through the American heartland can tell you that the countryside has some of the most breathtaking vistas and scenery anywhere in the world. It’s a beautiful, unforgiving landscape that serves the same purpose to the mise en scene as it does in every western, becoming a battle for the souls of men and for civilization itself.
Terror on the Prairie mostly ends up being a retread of western settings and themes, although that’s not a terrible thing. There have been thousands of western films and most of them repeat the same handful of plots and themes. The way to judge a good western from a lukewarm or bad western is how well it interrogates its setting, using it as a vehicle for some understanding of the struggle of identity, civilization, and humanity in a world where justice is meted out at the end of a gun. In that regard, the movie is passable, as it charts out a story of personal struggle and inner fortitude in the face of one’s past coming to haunt them.
The result is that Gina Carano’s comeback film is pretty good but doesn’t quite hit a deep stride. It’s a beautifully shot movie, filled with good performances and moments of sporadic intensity, but it never hits the pure catharsis and brooding terror it wants to hit. Most audiences I’ve read seem to find the film tense and brutal, but it’s relatively tame compared to previous films from these producers. The script, direction, and performances don’t elevate the story in the way producer Dallas Sonnier’s previous collaborations with S. Craig Zahler elevated Bone Tomahawk and Dragged Across Concrete into seething masterpieces.
Given that Terror on the Prairie is meant to represent the Daily Wire’s biggest foot forward into alternative media filmmaking, one wishes it could deliver a harder punch. If this is meant to be the proof of concept, that proves major stars can move forward without the benefit of mainstream Hollywood financial support and social media approval, it succeeds but only just. If this film punched in the weight class of a film like Bone Tomahawk, it would become the biggest cult hit of 2022. Sadly, it doesn’t hit that high watermark.