Hixploitation: Hillbilly Horror
Sure, there are regional differences, but they aren't as vast as people sometimes seem to think, where we imagine northerners sipping lattes while puzzling about how to best raise taxes and then spend that money on wasteful social welfare programs while southerners polish their shotguns, hole up in makeshift bunkers, and sleep with their cousins. Both are grotesque and unfair stereotypes, although, it must be said, one of them does make for a hell of a movie villain.
Exploitation movies are oftentimes like the exposed nerve of culture. They're that sore tooth that you can't just stop prodding. If there is something that people find shocking, or tasteless, or criminal, or insane, exploitation films will gleefully dramatize it, often with an absolute minimum of tact or skill.
This makes for difficult viewing sometimes, because of the incompetence of the filmmaking and its willingness to toss in people's faces exactly the sorts of things people don't really want to have tossed in their faces. But this same quality makes exploitation films fascinating.
Let's take the subgenre called "hixploitation" as an example. It's an unexpectedly broad term, encompassing films about moonshiners and truck drivers. In some films, outlaw southerners are heroes, in others, child brides. There are also hillbilly horror films, in which rural southerners are villains. There's not much room for subtlety in these films, but they tend to be outrageously entertaining, assuming you view them with a generous taste for camp.
We'll start our survey of hixploitation films with a brief round up of some of our favorite hillbilly horror films. This list is by no means complete — and isn't even limited to horror films. Instead, we offer a sampling of films in which southerners are treated as being monsters mere for being southern, or rural, or poor. We'll soon get around to movies in which these same characters are treated as being heroic, but, for now, let's take a look at a cinematic world in which the south is a very scary place.
Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964)
Herschell Gordon Lewis was never a great filmmaker, but he could be a damned effective one. In 1964, he lensed "Two Thousand Maniacs!," which was part of a trilogy of films targeted at drive-in theaters and dedicated to the proposition that people were ready to see abundant gore onscreen.
He was right. Not only did his films make a fortune, they also birthed an entire genre of cinema: The splatter film. But we're not interested in Lewis for his dubious contribution to the art of the moving picture. No, instead, we're fascinated by the fact that this film takes the northern nightmare about the south, in which, as soon as you cross the Mason-Dixon Line, you're in hell.
The film goes totally wild with this premise. How wild? Well, for one thing, "Two Thousand Maniacs!" is based on "Brigadoon," Lerner and Loewe 's Broadway musical about a Scottish town that only appears once every 100 years. Except, in this case, its a southern town, destroyed by the north during the Civil War, that has returned on the centennial event to enact its revenge on any Yankee who happens to be passing.
Truthfully, by contemporary standards, the gore in this film is both relatively tame and unbelievable — films in the 60s and 70s liked their blood bright red, and it looks cartoonish now. Lewis does get creative, though, basing a few of his kills off the sort of violent queries children ask each other on the back of a bus: would you rather be torn apart by horses or rolled down a hill in a barrel full of nails?
Even more effectively, Lewis presents us with a town full of affable townsfolk, and infuses it with menaces mere by giving all of them Confederate flags to wave. It's no wonder that the film's hapless northern victims, upon blundering into the town, immediately start asking very suspicious questions, despite the fact that they seem to have simply stumbled into a centennial parade.
There doesn't seem to be any reason for hapless protagonists to panic like that, but, then, there are those flags, those damned stars and bars, and they're everywhere. What results often looks as though a page from an EC Comics tale had made its way to the screen, including the comic's grim taste for visual jokes. An example: You could make a drinking game out of this film merely by taking a shot every time you see a jug of moonshine. The town's mayor, for instance, has at least three in his office.
If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? (1971)
For people looking for real-life confirmation of their fears of southern small-mindedness, this film provided documentary evidence — sort of. Because here was a film that demonstrated Richard Hofstadter thesis that "American politics has often been an arena for angry minds," which appeared in his 1964 essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics."
In it, he described a right wing America, filled with of paranoiac vision of an apocalyptic battle between Christian American and armies of nefarious cabals scheming to infiltrate and destroy the United States.
That mindset has never really left us, but it reached its hysterical peak in 1971 in a film titled "If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do?," based around the preachings of one Rev. Estus Pirkle, a bespectacled Baptist minister from Mississippi whose tweedy looks might otherwise have found him cast as a milquetoast and cuckolded husband, were he an actor. One can imagine him appearing in a softcore nudie cutie film made by some poverty row exploitation director, such as Ron Ormont, who lensed such bewildering b-pictures as "The Monster and the Stripper" and "Teenage Bride."
Pirkle and Ormont came together, but not in that way. Ormont was nearly killed in an airplane crash in 1968, and, afterward, found both Jesus, which led him to Pirkle, and so if you have ever wondered what the fire and brimstone world of a southern preacher would look like if tackled by an exploitation filmmaker, well, here you go.
It's a statically filmed portrait of an America taken over by Communists, who regularly torture and gun down Christians (in one especially delirious scene, they decapitate a child for refusing to step on a portrait of Jesus). It's about as poor an example of filmmaking as you're likely to find, but that seems somehow appropriate for the subject matter: Pirkle's spittle-flecked ravings about a world that has rejected Christ and chosen miniskirts and sex education benefits from amateur theatrics. The sex ed scene, for instance, has a mutton-chopped and thin-mustached teacher preparing to explain to his presumably pre-pubescent students "the seven erotic zones of passion in every woman."
Prime Cut (1972)
Lee Marvin is an enforcer for an Irish mob in Chicago, dispatched to Missouri to clean up after a renegade gangster played by Gene Hackman — who is no slouch himself, having sent the last enforcer back to Chicago as sausages.
Hackman runs a prostitute ring like it's a cattle farm, displaying his wares in pens by draping their naked and drugged bodies over hay bales, including a very young Sissy Spacek, who has been raised from childhood to be a hooker. Marvin promptly rescues her, but he and his redheaded fellow mobsters are ill-prepared for the army of coverall clad killers Hackman sends after her, some carrying shotguns, one in a thresher.
Lee Marvin drops his deadpan cool in this environment — in his shiny suits and skinny tie, he's a city mouse trapped in a country mouse's world, and the country mouse is murderous. He's outnumbered and out-of-his-depth, and so, in the end, there is only one thing to do: grab a submachine gun, hijack an 18-wheeler, and aim it directly at Hackman's farmhouse. The results are, as you might guess, explosive.
This film on our list is the closest the genre of hillbilly horror films even got to respectability — and with three Oscar nods, it was pretty darned respectable when it debuted in 1972, and it made stars of both Burt Reynolds and Ned Beatty. It's one of those films where even people who haven't seen it know two scenes from it: Ronny Cox and an inbred mountain boy playing "Dueling Banjos," and Ned Beatty's rape at the hands of two shotgun-wielding hillbillies who demand that he squeal like a pig.
It's worth noting that James Dickey, who authored the novel, and both adapted it for the screen and appears in the film, hailed from Georgia, where the story is set, and the movie's four central characters are likewise southerners. The horror of this film isn't one in which the whole south is suspect, as is often the case in films made by northern filmmakers, but rather the rural world that is dangerous.
In "Deliverance," once you get out of the city, people change, as this film's four canoe-trip buddies discover. Suddenly, nobody bathes and most are orthodontically challenged. They live in shacks, all of them are related to each other, and they produce subhuman children, presumably by incest. And God help you if any of them follow you into the woods.
This was to be the template for dozens — perhaps hundreds — of exploitation movies. It was, frankly, unfair to actual rural mountain people in America, who were, in general, poor rather than monstrous and neglected rather than murderous. But it made for good box office, even if it marked the surprising and unwelcome cinematic turn of the hillbilly from a humorous bumpkin into a monster.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)/Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)
Texas-born filmmaker Tobe Hooper brought his vision of murderous hillbillies to the drive-in just two years after "Deliverance," and the formula has already mutated. Hillbillies always threatened to eat you, which was hinted at in both "Two Thousand Maniacs!" and "Prime Cute," but "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" put that theme front and center.
Astonishingly, Hooper had hoped for a PG-rating, and so "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" has surprisingly little graphic bloodletting. It didn't matter — the sweaty madhouse atmosphere created by Hooper (reportedly caused by the fact that the film's tight schedule overworked everybody into a state of genuine hysteria) caused the finished film to be banned in many countries, including the United Kingdom. And the film's final 30 minutes, in which the only comprehensible dialogue is screaming and the only onscreen action is one young woman fleeing through a house, chased by a leather-masked man with a chainsaw, remains an astonishing exercise in visceral terror.
Hooper returned to the story 12 years later, but revamped his tale with a liberal dose of black humor and a knowingly hip soundtrack (including tunes by The Cramps and Stewart Copeland). The sequel disappointed a lot of people, as it is both sillier and a lot less frightening than the first film, but it is easily as batshit as anything ever put up onscreen, including a protracted scene in which a cigar smoking Dennis Hopper, here named "Lefty" Enright, takes a chainsaw in each hand and destroys an entire house.
Poor Pretty Eddie (1975)
All the tropes of the crassest of 70s exploitation are in this film about a northern soul singer who is held as a sexual hostage by a redneck Elvis wanna-be somewhere in the rural south, so viewers beware. There's rape, racism, animal abuse, Shelley Winters, and scenes of violence shot in extreme slow motion.
But like the horror movie "The Last House on the Left," which was based on a 13th century Swedish ballad (and Ingmar Bergman's film "The Virgin Spring"), this film comes with an unexpected pedigree: It's apparently loosely inspired by Jean Genet's play The Balcony — in fact, Winters was in the 1963 film version of "The Balcony," playing a similar character.
There's a sort of mind-warping aesthetic to this movie — it's filled with all sorts of florid arty flourishes, and is surprisingly restrained on the sexual violence. Some 70s films used rape to titillate, but this film's director (or directors; two are listed) were sensitive about dramatizing the act, cutting away frequently and never showing their victim, Leslie Uggams, naked. They also deliberately framed scenes of sexual violence to be as disturbing as possible, at one point intercutting with images of dogs rutting. It's not fun to watch, but it shouldn't be.
What makes Poor Pretty Eddie truly memorable is its finale, which involves the actor who played Lurch in the "Addam's Family," Shelley Winters in a wedding dress, Slim Pickins as a town sheriff, a shotgun, and the slowest scene of bloodletting ever put on film — it's filmed in the sort of slow motion usually reserved for showing arrows piercing apples. Genet would have been proud.
Just Before Dawn (1981)
You could be forgiven for mistaking this 1981 release for a slasher film. After all, it is so very, very like a slasher film, including a gang of nubile young adults, a trip to the woods, a hulking figure with a machete, and a showdown between the murderer the last surviving girl.
But director Jeff Lieberman wasn't especially interested in making a slasher film — no, his influences were "Deliverance" and Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. The resulting film was little-seen during its theatrical run, but has attracted a substantial cult following since then, and for one simple reason: It's darned scary.
Lieberman lensed the film in Oregon's Silver Falls State Park, but the location stands in for any rural woods, and this one is full of filthy mountain people who peer out from shacks and burned out cars, and who all seem to be twins.
Because Lieberman filmed in an actual forest, and because he knows how to frame a shot, the film's most effective quality is its sense of remoteness. These characters are hundreds of miles from any of the protective elements of civilization — including hospitals and police. The closest thing they have to a protector is a stir-crazy Park Ranger, played by George Kennedy, and it takes him almost a day to work his way up the mountain on horseback.
A lot can happen in a day, especially when you're being stalked by a dangerous mountain man with a penchant for taking keepsakes from his victims and an unnerving habit of showing up one place when he should logically be someplace else. The film capitalizes on this in an especially effective way: as the film's doomed youth go about their dull bits of business, Lieberman allows the killer to stay into shots at unexpected moment, sometimes way in the background and sometimes out of focus, until, by the end of the film, you start suspecting he may be lurking in every darkened corner.
There isn't much graphic bloodletting in this film — it doesn't need to rely on gore when it can so effectively frighten you with an image of a man smiling down at you through a hole in a roof.