Thursday, January 17, 2008

Southern Comforts

Arguably director Herschell Gordon Lewis' 1964 MOONSHINE MOUNTAIN gave birth to a whole new type of exploitation film—"hixploitation."

The typical hixploitation movie was filled with inbred, wild-eyed hillbillies, horny farmers' daughters, corrupt big-bellied cops, and chainsaw wielding maniacs wreaking havoc over "normal" citizens unfortunate enough to head south crossing the Mason Dixon Line.

During the 1970s, the drive-in was bursting with a whole heap of hixploitation, which tackled violence, sex, and comedy with plenty of bar brawlin’, ass whuppin’, car crashin’, and barnyard screwin’.

It wasn’t hard to find local passion pits running double features like MIDNIGHT PLOWBOY (1971) and COUNTRY CUZZINS (1970); SOUTHERN COMFORTS (1971) and TOBACCO ROODY (1970); or THE PIGKEEPER’S DAUGHTER (1972) and SASSY SUE (1972) – southern-fried sex/comedy flicks that made the drive-in rounds throughout the wanton 1970s.

The problem with these movies (all of which are available via Something Weird Video), is that when you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying to avoid these hee-haw humdingers – it’s just that the cornpone gags squeezed between the copious pulchritude has the same numbing effect as drinking kerosene-spiked shine from an old fruit jar.

In other words, there’s better hixploitation out there. Good films bypassed by indoor theaters that were busy making their dimes on “legitimate” movies like STAR WARS. The notes that follow analyze some of the best movies that have transcended their dubious place in the hixploitation subgenre.

WALKING TALL (1973)
Directed by Phil Karlson

WALKING TALL brings us into the nightmare world of the Deep South with non-corruptible sheriff Buford Pusser (Joe Don Baker) continually getting his ass whupped by the praetorian local yokels.

They don’t cater to Pusser’s conviction that running moonshine, managing whorehouses and operating gambling dens are not activities conducive to the basic tenets of southern hospitality. Because Pusser busts stills with a big stick, the corrupt powers-that-be decide to make the sheriff’s life as miserable as possible. Pusser shies away from physical violent retaliation – that is until his wife Pauline (Elizabeth Hartman) is murdered, sending the baseball bat-wielding sheriff over the edge, cracking skulls instead of stills.

What makes WALKING TALL so great is its over-the-top reactionary stand making DIRTY HARRY (1972) seem outrageously liberal in comparison. WALKING TALL reeks of Old Testament stuff and vengeance is the platter du jour – especially relevant during the early '70s when the "system” was seen as totally corrupt thanks to Richard Nixon's White House follies.
At that time, everybody felt a little like Buford—abused by those in power, helpless in the wake of violence (think Vietnam) and looking for good old frontier justice.

WALKING TALL, based on a true story, was so successful that it spawned two sequels—WALKING TALL PART II (1975), and THE FINAL CHAPTER – WALKING TALL (1977), and a TV show called WALKING TALL (1981). The sequels and the show starred Bo Svenson as Pusser but Baker's strong performance in the original attributed to that film's long lasting legend.
WALKING TALL was remade in 2004 and starred The Rock – not as Buford Pusser but as a character named Chris Vaughan! The remake – directed by Kevin Bray – tanked at the box office most likely because its anti-authoritarian disposition didn’t ring true like it did in the original. The 1973 film tapped into a burgeoning social breakdown that gripped the U.S. citizenry fed up with an impending governmental crush. Its sentiment still holds today. The remake was anything but subversive addressing nothing but the fact that The Rock can’t act.

That said – now more than ever – we need Buford Pusser. Unfortunately, Rhino’s DVD of 1973’s WALKING TALL is presented in a pan and scan format, taking away much of the films scenic power.

MACON COUNTY LINE (1974)
Directed by Richard Compton

Remember back in 1999 when people actually thought THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT was real? Even folks who copped to the film's phoniness whispered a conversation ending caveat, "But you never know..."

The myth, first introduced via the Internet, was a major marketing coup. THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT became a moneymaking event. And the film itself, despite its detractors, turned out to be a tidy piece of indie film work—atmospheric, claustrophobic, and psychologically twisted.

But in 1974, all it took to get the buzz going on MACON COUNTY LINE was a clichéd but ominous teaser line splashed across the screen before the movie started — "This story is true. Only the names and places have been changed."

No Internet. No Sundance. No Roger Ebert platitudes.

MACON COUNTY LINE is pretty simple—two brothers, Chris and Wayne Dixon (played by real life brothers Alan and Jesse Vint), get violently mixed up with a psychotic Southern sheriff (played to the hilt by Max "Jethro Bodine" Baer, Jr.) resulting in plenty of bloodshed and a pretty effective shock ending. The film's deliberate pacing and sharp juxtaposition from comedy to horror are still fairly unsettling. The acting throughout is natural and director Richard Compton utilizes a documentary feel to the film, which is shot under all-natural lighting.

In 1974, on the outdoor screen, the grainy images became an extension of the surrounding landscape adding to the movie's stark quality. On DVD, the film is a visual revelation—almost painterly.

According to Compton, when MACON COUNTY LINE played to test audiences, nobody liked it. Then, when producer and star Baer, Jr. decided to put the teaser at the start of the film, MACON COUNTY LINE box office broke wide open. The film's final production budget was $225,000. It brought in a remarkable $18.7 million playing almost exclusively at Midwest and Southern drive-in theaters. The key to its resonant success was the perpetuated myth—people believed the events in the movie really happened. And nothing spreads the word quicker than a duped audience.

COCKFIGHTER (1974)
Directed by Monte Hellman

Writer Charles Willeford – known as the “pope of psychopulp” – wrote one of the best little-known novels ever about filmmaking obsession. “The Woman Chaser” was down and dirty, Southern California sleaze with dialog that bristled better than David Mamet.

Willeford was also responsible for the screenplay of one of the best drive-in movies of the early ‘70s – COCKFIGHTER, which was based on Willeford’s novel of the same name and directed by underrated filmmaker Monte Hellman (THE SHOOTING; TWO LANE BLACKTOP; CHINA 9, LIBERTY 37) . Even though the script to COCKFIGHTER has its share of salacious down home spun nuggets, the lead character, Frank Mansfield (Warren Oates) doesn’t speak.

Mansfield, a veteran cockfighter, rambling from hick town to hick town, rooster in hand, makes his living battling chickens. In fact, he’s the Minnesota Fats of cockfighting, with every two-bit rooster rounder wanting a piece of his action. Mansfield’s reputation precedes itself and, because he threw a career-making fight, he takes a vow of silence until he can come out on top again. But the only way for Mansfield to do so is with roosters armed with spurs tearing up some of the most blood-soaked cockfighting pits in the south.

Hellman didn’t care for Willeford’s screenplay, which emphasized the sheer brutality of the “sport,” while coming up short on the redemptive aspects of the story and Mansfield’s obsessive character. Hellman wanted COCKFIGHTER to be more lyrical – a rumination on living in this depraved world of animal cruelty while finding nobility by trying to be a winner in life. Hellman didn’t have a lot of time to rewrite the script and producer Roger Corman wanted to make sure the movie had plenty of money-making action and skin.

Subsequently, COCKFIGHTER plays like a poetic cross between the meditative cinematic explorations of BADLANDS-era Terrence Malick and the contemplative yet alcohol-soaked bloodbath of Sam Peckinpah’s BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA. With COCKFIGHTER, Hellman almost seemed heir apparent to Peckinpah. If you ran COCKFIGHTER, ALFREDO GARCIA, and JUNIOR BONNER on a triple bill, you’d swear they were all directed by Peckinpah, particularly when the camera slowed down to emphasize the brutality of two roosters ripping each other apart.

Yet Hellman was able to transcend Peckinpah with COCKFIGHTER by its overt romanticism especially as seen in the relationship between Mansfield and his lost love Mary Elizabeth (Patricia Pearcy). Where Peckinpah seemed uncomfortable exploring a loving connection between a man and woman, Hellman seemed at home with the idea even though it’s inevitable that the love will quickly shatter.

Hellman shot the film in 23 days with a keen eye on the French Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) movement of the 1960s, with cinematographer Nestor Almendros (who shot Malick’s DAYS OF HEAVEN) inspired by the cinema of Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut and, to a certain extent, the emotional, unblinking lens of Eric Rohmer. Almendros used natural lighting outdoors as well as indoors, giving the film a spontaneous feel with long shots languid while bird fights were cut with whiplash precision by Lewis Teague.

As poetic as Hellman’s intents may have been, Corman wanted a slam-bang drive-in film and when the movie was ready for release, the producer had no idea how to promote it. He had the film recut, inserting a car chase and some T&A, and ran those segments in the film’s trailers. Struggling to attract an audience, the film was released with three different titles at different times: BORN TO KILL, GAMBLIN’ MAN and WILD DRIFTER. None of this helped and COCKFIGHTER faded into relative obscurity.That is, until it was released in Europe, where film critics lauded it as a masterpiece in American cinema. Except for England, where COCKFIGHTER was banned for its depiction of animal cruelty.

COCKFIGHTER is currently an out-of-print DVD released by Anchor Bay.

ROLLING THUNDER (1977)
Directed by John Flynn

The late '70s boasted a long list of fucked-up-from-the-war Vietnam Vet flicks including, but not limited to, Martin Scorsese's TAXI DRIVER (1976), Jeremy Paul Kagan's HEROES (1977), Hal Ashby's COMING HOME (1978), and Michael Cimino's THE DEER HUNTER (1978). All eventually culminating with Francis Ford Coppola's napalm-cum-acid drenched opus – APOCALYPSE NOW (1979).

But one heavy vet-on-a-rampage flick called ROLLING THUNDER somehow, sadly, slipped through the cracks after it finished the rounds on the drive-in circuit in 1977. In retrospect, ROLLING THUNDER—written by Paul Schrader, not long after he and Scorsese blew cinema apart with TAXI DRIVER—is just as incendiary as the Scorsese flick but not nearly as complex.

Where Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) was constructed with an almost impenetrable degree of motivational ambiguity in TAXI DRIVER, Schrader, with ROLLING THUNDER, writes the character of Charles Rane (William Devane) in wholly black and white terms.

Returning from Vietnam after 2,500 days in a POW camp, Rane and his friend, Johnny Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones), have a difficult time adjusting to life in the "world." When Rane's family is shot up by a bunch of hick thugs (psychotically spearheaded by James "Roscoe P. Coltrane" Best), the vets head down to Mexico on a bloodletting spree of murderous revenge. Pretty straightforward, pretty simple. But that doesn't lessen the film's power. While certainly not a dumbed-down version of TAXI DRIVER, ROLLING THUNDER, with its linear plot and minimal dialogue, was definitely written for the drive-in masses.

Director John Flynn shoots the scenes in Mexican brothels with grainy film stock that glows with bleeding reds and oranges. His south-of-the-border saloons are stocked with boozed up gringos and slippery Pancho Villa types—not unlike the festering chili dumps prowled by Warren Oates in Sam Peckinpah's BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA (1974). Flynn's cathartic violence is operatic yet less extreme than the slow-motion styling of Peckinpah's THE WILD BUNCH or the final hallucinatory tabloid nightmare of TAXI DRIVER. But that doesn't make the explosive finale of ROLLING THUNDER any less potent. While Flynn's overall direction is relatively static, the impact of Schrader's minimalist words has the power to permeate and haunt long after the final credits roll.

Okay, so ROLLING THUNDER isn’t out on DVD – but it should be. For now, hang onto those worn out VHS copies.

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February 8, 2010 at 1:05 PM  

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