Starring: Zoé De Grand, Olivia Grace Applegate, Nicholas Logan, Clé Bennett, Sam Trammell
Director: Michael Patrick Jann
Mood: If you really like discovering indie movies and want to watch a violent thriller Western that has plenty of pros and cons worth debating.
I rarely have time to explore new movies on streaming services, but the other day I was looking for a Western that was recommended in my Facebook group, and Prime was like “HEY WEIRDO! We think you’d be into Organ Trail.”
Horror. Western. And that title, on a blood-splattered promo pic? Okay, Amazon. You see me.
But Organ Trail isn’t a horror flick – it’s horribly mismarketed. And that realization probably pisses off and alienates the people who watch it expecting a splatter film, so they give it a shitty rating.
If you go into it ready for a cold, harsh Western that’s occasionally sweet and occasionally bloody and violent, and frequently achieves quality beyond its low budget, you might actually like it. With some tweaks to the script and a director experienced with making Westerns or thrillers, Organ Trail could have been a real contender.
Organ Trail opens on a dark, blizzardy night in the 1870s. A family of four is struggling through the mountains on – you guessed it – the Oregon Trail.
The father is trying to get them down the treacherous mountain. His wife ominously says they never should have gone. They’re traveling alone and are low on food, so you know they’re screwed.
I mean, come on, it’s called ‘Organ Trail’.
While out hunting, the father and son come across a wagon massacre. A barely alive woman named Cassidy (Olivia Grace Applegate) is pinned to a tree by arrows through each of her hands. They rescue her, then for some reason stay in the area for the night EVEN THOUGH THEY AGREE THE KILLERS ARE LIKELY STILL NEARBY.
The bandits return and, of course, murder the family and take young Abigale (Zoé De Grand Maison) and Cassidy prisoner.
Will Abby escape? Will Cassidy survive? And what the heck is the significance of the arrows? All is revealed in the gory climax, which actually does belong in the horror genre.
I liked Organ Trail. The individual elements are good. Yet somehow the total package *just* misses the mark.
Like, the cinematography is top-notch. Gorgeous wide, scenic shots of wintery Montana that evoke isolation and hopelessness. Thoughtful close-ups. Brutally realistic action and gore, with excellent SFX makeup. Compelling score. But the indoor sets and costumes feel a little too new and unused, which pulls you out of it.
Then there’s the diverse collection of characters. Most of them get enough backstory to pique your interest. But some plot points and choices make no sense or are basically impossible – which would be fine if Organ Trail wasn’t otherwise extremely realistic – and the uneven pacing outside the action scenes is mildly distracting.
And of course, I was misled to believe that it was a horror movie, so I spent the first half eagerly looking for the horror. Blizzard with eerie wind and swinging lanterns, and a young man alone in a barn – splatter horror? Mysterious woman with a haunted face found in the snow, meticulously pinned with arrows – supernatural horror? Or is she bait for a horrific monster?
Realizing halfway through that it wasn’t a horror was like losing a sneeze. I didn’t NEED the sneeze, but because it was promised and my body was committed and ready, I was disappointed.
The acting in Organ Trail is mostly fantastic. SPOILERS AHEAD!
- Olivia Grace Applegate has the most nuanced character (Cassidy) and spends most of the movie looking frostbitten and half dead; it’s an unexpectedly layered and captivating performance
- Nicholas Logan is f*cking brilliant and terrifying as the sadistic killer (Rhys) who can’t feel pain, and his delivery almost covers up the weak spots in the dialogue
- Zoé De Grand Maison defines ‘tough’ in her portrayal of Abby; there isn’t a single scene where her face isn’t telling you a full story, and obviously I love that she does everything in the name of getting a horse back
- Clé Bennett is great as Erik, although at times he felt a bit too modern (also a script issue); with that said, it’s a fresh change of pace to see the Black characters come out on top
- The actors who play the unfortunate pioneer family (Mather Zickel, Lisa LoCicero, and especially Lukas Jann) all feel authentic and give memorable performances
- Character actor Thomas Lennon appears just long enough to make you go “oh hey, it’s that guy!” and have his eyes gouged out
And then you have Sam Trammell. He’s supposed to be playing the leader of a murderous cowboy gang, but it’s not believable. He’s not charismatic enough to have someone like Rhys following him, and he doesn’t seem particularly smart, strong, or strategic – as evidenced by how easy it is to kill him. His accent is also questionable.
When Rhys turns out to be the REALLY bad guy it’s a relief and things really pick up – but the script makes another couple of fumbles that, again, detract from the gruesome action. Rhys’s motivations in the final scenes don’t quite work, his dialogue feels forced, and he shoots his lunging enemy in the knee. The KNEE!
I can’t let this go: I genuinely think that if Organ Trail had been better marketed, it would have made up for most of the little hiccups in the production and done justice to the quality of the cast, effects, and cinematography.
And because part of my real-life job is literally giving people marketing advice, I’m going to wrap up by listing the top five mistakes I think they made marketing Organ Trail, and how they could have done better:
- Wrong Genre: Either call it a thriller Western or an indie Western, period.
- Misleading Title: There’s no actual trail of organs! It needed a dark indie title to find the right audience, like a mysterious one-word title or simply ‘The Trail’ – because at different times all of the characters are on the trail of something or someone.
- Misleading Promo Pic: The splatter is clickbait. Something showing a bit of blood on snow and an arrow in a tree (with or without a hand) would have been sufficient – or something with a lantern, because holy shit are there a lot of lanterns in this movie.
- Wrong People on the Cover: You see Sam Trammell at the top and you think True Blood, then you remember how annoying his character was and you think ‘I won’t like this’. If we’re not going with my promo pic suggestion above, then put Abby, Cassidy, Erik, and Rhys (without skin) on the cover and you have a winner.
- Confusing Trailer: At first it looks suspenseful, but then they speed it up like a blockbuster action flick and splice so many clips together that you’re seeing stabbing and kissing and what looks like a supernatural creature and it’s just a dumpster fire. Instead, they should have played up the underlying theme of women surviving harsh, realistic terrors like ice and violence and men.