With "Grim Prairie Tales" (selected theaters), debuting writer-director Wayne Coe attempts to revive on the screen the art of storytelling for its own sake. It's a splendid notion, something which Cecil B. De Mille exemplified for decades, but one which Coe is hard put to fulfill. Indeed, only one of his four stories is really effective; Coe has the right idea and a good sense of humor and atmosphere for his tales of the Old West but on the balance comes up short in inventiveness.
His framing story is nifty: Brad Dourif's Farley, a tenderfoot merchant, and James Earl Jones' Morrison, a robust, long-haired bounty hunter with a corpse slung over his horse, cross paths one night on a vast prairie. Keeping each other company over a campfire, they regale each other with tall tales.
Morrison's first two tries delight Farley, but it's hard to understand why. One involves the dire fate that befalls an old man (Will Hare) who unthinkingly desecrates an ancient Indian burial ground, and the other is about a young man (Marc McClure) who comes to the aid of a pregnant woman (Michelle Joyner) apparently wandering in the desert. (The risque payoff may prove troublesome for TV viewings, which is too bad, for "Grim Prairie Tales" would otherwise be more at home on the tube than on the big screen.)
Now it's Farley's turn, and his choice proves to be a stunner, a chillingly incisive vignette in which Coe reveals the process by which decent individuals adjust to living with evil in the absence of viable alternatives.
William Atherton and Lisa Eichhorn are a homesteading couple with a young daughter (Wendy Cooke) who have just staked their claim and are preparing to build a home. They seem perfectly ordinary but we soon realize that they are living with a terrible secret. Atherton and Eichhorn are the film's standouts, and we wish we could see more of them. Cooke is entirely too contemporary for a 19th-Century adolescent.
As in the first two tales, Morrison returns to the supernatural for the final story, which involves two gunmen (Scott Paulin and Bruce Fischer) facing each other down on a frontier town street in order to win a job as a hired gun for a wealthy rancher (Tom Simcox).
When dawn finally breaks and Morrison and Farley are to go their separate ways, Coe saves up a nice twist as a send-off. "Grim Prairie Tales" (rated R) is too slight to be able to recommend it, but it does have its moments.
'GRIM PRAIRIE TALES'
A Coe Hahn release. Executive producers Rick Blumenthal, Larry Haber. Producer Richard Hahn. Co-producer Andrzej Kamrowksi. Writer-director Wayne Coe. Camera Janusz Kaminski. Music Steve Dancz. Production designer Anthony Zierhut. Associate producers Chet Halperin, Ron Wilton, Evan Brownstein. Film editor Earl Ghaffari. With James Earl Jones, Brad Dourif, Lisa Eichhorn, William Atherton, Wendy Cooke, Will Hare, Marc McClure, Michelle Joyner, Scott Paulin, Bruce Fischer, Jennifer Barlow, Tom Simcox, Dan Leegant, William M. Brennan.
Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes.
MPAA-rated: R (younger than 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian).