Saturday, July 4, 2009

Top 13: Backwoods Horror

Welcome, Black Glove readers, to our first Top 13. This month we decided to focus on a sub-genre that always means a good time for the discriminating horror viewer: Backwoods Horror.
What is Backwoods Horror? Picture yourself, lost in a foreign environment, deep in the forest (or desert) where sane men dare not dwell. But this deserted place hides a secret, be it madness, cannibalism, torture, or just plain old ‘We don’t much cotton to no city folks here’, and it means death to the interloper. Backwoods Horror is the symbol of our fear of the antisocial element that exists on the fringes of our civilization, those who have turned their backs on social order and morals, where survival is the only law. And if they have to occasionally kill a trespasser and throw him in the stew pot…well, them city folk should know better with all their fancy clothes and book learnin’.
But from the examples of the best that sub-genre has to offer, there is an unspoken sympathy with the fringe dweller(s). They have shunned us, and usually for good reason. What’s so great about civilization anyway?
We’ve managed to completely screw the environment with our pollution, have nearly depleted the world’s natural resources, putting all of mankind in jeopardy, and, when it comes down to it, the social order we’re all so proud of is basically controlled chaos.
When the old order finally collapses, the smart money is on the loner—even if he does carry a blood soaked machete around.

Top 13: Backwoods Horror Films

13. Spider Baby (1968)

Director jack Hill’s infamous movie is known by several alternate titles, 'The Liver Eaters', 'Attack of the Liver Eaters', 'Cannibal Orgy', and 'The Maddest Story Ever Told', 'Spider baby' tells the story of a group of orphaned killers overseen by Lon Chaney Jr. in one of his last performances. The young crazies suffer from a fictional disease called Merrye Syndrome, which causes them to regress into violence during early puberty. Also starring horror icon Sid Haig, the film almost defies description in its strangeness as it depicts a family of mad murderers hacking and slashing their way through the supporting cast. And as an added bonus old Lon sings the nifty eponymous ditty.
Come on everybody...Spider Baby, Spider Baby...oooo...ooooo
This makes our Top 13 simply because you will never find another movie like it.

12. Frontier(s) (2007)

Xavier Gens’ film is a grim, dark hell ride. There’s almost no light to relieve this bleak outlook of humanity as Nazi zealots torture, kill and eat a small group of desperate fleeing bank robbers on the outskirts of Paris. Seriously, not since The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has a movie left me feeling so disturbed and sickened. This one makes our list because of its grim impact on the viewer.

11. Anthropophagus The Beast (1980)

An Italian splatter masterpiece of tension and gore, this movie has so many alternate titles there’s no room for them all. In portraying the story of a group of innocent Greek island hoppers finding a mysteriously deserted village and its hungry sole survivor, lovable gore movie scamp, Joe D’Amato, truly outdid himself with this one, even going so far as to show a pregnant woman’s fetus being pulled from the womb to be consumed before her eyes by insane cannibal, George Eastman. What this movie lacks in pacing, it certainly does make up for in over the top performances from the likes of Tia Farrow (Mia’s sister who starred in another splatter classic, Lucio Fulci’s Zombie). This one makes the list for D’Amato’s unswerving desire to never look away.

10. Calvaire (2004)

This one has everything a backwoods horror fan could want: pig fucking, a dark undercurrent of homosexual context, religious blasphemy and torture. This Belgian ‘delight’ seemed to come out of nowhere and left permanent emotional scars on its viewers. It is a scathing and unrelenting experience--not for the faint of heart--as we follow the terrible misadventures of an arrogant male lounge performer who breaks down in the middle of nowhere, and his subsequent imprisonment and physical, mental and sexual torture at the hands of some really unsavory people. But don’t let the gore and perversions turn you off; this one made the list for its excellent cinematography and deep emotional impact as well. It doesn’t play. It’s brutal viewing.

9. Wolf Creek (2005)

Another film that seemed to come out of nowhere to take the horror world by storm was this Australian backwoods horror. Directed by Greg McLean, it told the brutal story of three outback travelers who are drugged and imprisoned by a back-to-nature type serial killer. John Jarrett, who plays the killer Mick, does such a superb job of switching from an altruistic man of the hills to a gibbering, slavering torturer it’s spooky. The torture scenes alone are enough to make any viewer wince, especially since the first half of the movie takes the time to let us get to know the victims and really care for them. This film made the list because of its unforgettable bleakness and extraordinary alien looking scenery. Since Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes, isolation has never looked so realistic. The producers claim it was based on a real case, which leaves you pondering the film’s ambiguous conclusion.

8. The Final Terror (1983)

Directed by 80s action helmer Andrew Davis, this is his only attempt at a horror film. And one can see the action bent already, with a strong male and female cast who are anything but mindless fodder for the strange woodland, faceless killers who stalk them by day and night. Several firefighters in training go on a training mission deep in the woods, bringing along a group of women who want to camp where no man has been for a hundred years or more. But they soon find they’re not alone in the woods when they come face to face with a family of cannibals. This is one of the few films which does not employ the ‘final girl’ conclusion. It, in fact, becomes a surreal action movie towards the end as the survivors band together to trap and kill their stalkers. For that alone, this film does what few backwoods horror film have done: give a sense of empowerment to its victims.

7. Wrong Turn (2003)

Director Rob Schmidt can be thanked for almost exclusively bringing the backwoods horror film back to life with this film. Again, we have isolated travelers, this time in the backwoods of West Virginia where people tend to disappear without a trace, who must battle for their lives against a clever backwoods family of cannibals. And again, the director knows the value of making us care for the victims before he slaughters them, adding a whole wince factor when we see scenes of them being chopped into eating meat for the mutated killers. This one makes the list because it revived an ailing sub-genre and made it feel new again for even we jaded horror fans. The late great Stan Winston knew what he was about when he helped produce this one.

6. Just Before Dawn (1981)

Jeff Lieberman is the man responsible for some of the most cerebral and grotesque horror films of the 80s, including ‘Squirm’ and ‘Blue Sunshine’. His movies always have a deeper message. ‘Just Before Dawn’ is no exception in telling the story of a group of campers in the deep dark woods of Oregon who, again, run amok of a family of loners who do not like outsiders in their woods. But buried beneath this blood and guts thrill ride, and beautiful backdrop of waterfalls and forest, is a deeper examination of the consequences of man’s encroachment upon the natural world. Lieberman even goes so far as to place a deserted church in the woods where the killers congregate before they kill. This one makes the list for its intelligence and style. And the ‘final girl’ scene in this film is unbelievably grotesque and empowering.

5. The Old Dark House (1932)

The original backwoods horror film from famed Universal monster director, James Whale, ‘The Old Dark House’ is still a hell of a thrilling movie. There are no cannibals, no scenes of blood and guts, and certainly no T and A, but it does carry a pervasive air of oppression and manic energy. It also stars some of the biggest names of the period, Boris Karloff, Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton and Gloria Stuart who give, one and all, dynamite performances. When fellow travelers are stranded in the back country during a violent storm, they seek shelter in a seemingly abandoned mansion. But the mansion’s inhabitants are anything but sane and normal, and as the night progresses, their collective terrors are realized as a secret family member comes from the attic room and joins the party. This one makes the list because it still works and helped create a sub-genre, decades later.

4. 2000 Maniacs! (1964)

Directed by the Godfather of Gore, H.G. Lewis, this is the one that started it all: the blood and guts revolution. Sure, the effects by today’s standards and silly looking, and the acting is pretty dreadful, but the film’s strength is it’s over the top aesthetic, a no holds barred approach to showing on screen violence. The story is about a car load of ‘yankees’ traveling through the backwoods of Georgia, who find themselves the center of a town wide celebration. Little do they know these ‘rebels’ want some bloody revenge for the South’s Civil War downfall. There are no cut aways to trick the eye. Lewis went for realism and got pretty near close to it in most his scenes of mayhem and gore. In ‘2000 Maniacs!’ you’ll see a man rolled down a hill in a bucket lined with nails, a woman dismembered and eaten, a man drawn and quartered, and that’s not all. Lewis knew the value of shock and showmanship and this film oozes with the twin sense of sideshow huckster and the DYI filmmaker. This one makes the list because without Lewis’ willingness to jump over the line of good taste we would never have seen a blood and guts revolution in film.

3. The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

Wes Craven has always been a hit or miss director, but this is one he was he was hitting on all cylinders. And while the 2006 remake by director Alexandre Aja is a fine and gruesome film, it still doesn’t hold a candle to the original. This is the story of yet another family who find themselves stranded in the middle of nowhere, but this time we trade the familiar forest for an even bleaker California desert landscape, arid and empty. It is a film of battling family units. One must survive the elements and the killers, while the cannibals must gather their victims as food to survive. It is graphic in its depiction of violence, and tackles several taboo subjects in film: incest, rape, cannibalism, among them. It is still brutal viewing and is not suggested for those with weak stomachs.
This one makes our list because it still has yet to be topped in its brutality.

2. Deliverance (1972)

Director John Boorman practically created the modern backwoods horror movie with this classic tale of four good old boy hunters being stalked and killed in the Georgia woods by hicks who don’t like anyone messing in their woods. Starring some of the 70s top male actors, Burt Reynolds, Jon Voight, Ned Betty, and Ronnie Cox, the movie still makes one wince when these innocent city folk run afoul of men who treat them as animals to killed. Of course, there are the now iconic scenes of the mentally handicapped banjo playing boy and that gut wrenching ‘squeal like a pig, Bubba’ male rape scene. But more importantly this is a story that, like ‘Just Before Dawn’, examines the cost of man’s encroachment on the natural world. See, that the hicks have mistakenly assumed that the four innocent travelers are actually there from the power company to check out their land for construction. This one makes the list because it’s the granddaddy of the modern backwoods horror film.

1. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

So it’s not surprising less two years later, we come to our number one backwoods horror film, Tobe Hooper’s ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’. Because with the popularity of ‘Deliverance’, a big name movie, with big name stars, it was only natural that someone would come along with the all important indie cinema DYI attitude and do it even better. Better than ‘Deliverance’ you say? Yes, better. What makes this simple tale of five young friends running afoul of a family of Texas cannibals and BBQ entrepreneurs isn’t the graphic violence (because the film really doesn’t indulge in blood and guts violence) but the mental and emotional level of violence that inundates the film from the very first scene of a rotting corpse hanging in a ravaged graveyard. There is little attempt to create sympathy for the victims, because no one cares. This isn’t a tale of morality or ethics. It is a straight forward story of slaughter (ostensibly the slaughter of the 60s flower child mentality) and meat. Some of horror’s most iconic characters and mythos have come from this movie, including Leatherface and his fellow cannibals, and the modern attitude that strangers are not to be trusted. Hooper doesn’t have any qualms about killing a cripple, nor killing the supposed hero in the first reel. He also has no qualms hanging someone by a hook to be slaughtered like a pig for food. In short, Hooper wanted to shock and dismay, and he does so with a minimum of blood, and usually only the gut wrenching whine and rev of a chainsaw. If you own only one backwoods horror film this should be the one.

Join us next month for another Top 13, here at The Black Glove.

--Nickolas Cook