Saturday, October 16, 2010

#94: Two Thousand Maniacs! (Herschell Gordon Lewis, 1964)

I nearly made the same mistake with Herschell Gordon Lewis I made with Mario Bava in my last post. I erroneously reported that Twitch of the Death Nerve was my first exposure to Bava's films. I later updated with the corrected information about seeing Bava's science fiction film Planet of the Vampires on the big screen as part of the Austin Film Society's global science fiction series several summers ago. I also nearly forgot that Two Thousand Maniacs! wasn't my first exposure to the films of H.G. Lewis, the "Godfather of Gore." I saw his biker chick movie, She-Devils on Wheels, on the big screen at an old motor speedway a few miles outside of Austin for an Alamo Drafthouse Rolling Roadshow makeshift drive-in theater event. It was the first film on a double bill with Russ Meyer's Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and Tura Satana and Hajji were there in person. The show was plagued with technical difficulties, stifling heat, and not enough restroom facilities (it was the first Rolling Roadshow event and procedures hadn't been nailed down yet), but I got to see some garage bands play live, watch a couple of cult classics on the big screen, and hear Tura Satana talk about her sex life with Elvis Presley.

At any rate, Lewis made biker chick movies, sexploitation, and children's adventure films, but he's better known as the man who invented the gore film, beginning with Blood Feast in 1963. His second film, Two Thousand Maniacs!, is probably the only gore film inspired by Brigadoon, though if you can think of any others please let me know. Two Thousand Maniacs! doesn't have it all, but it does have murderous Southern rednecks, a 1963 Playboy Playmate, the worst Southern accents captured on film, terrible acting, buckets of red paint, fairly decent suspense, some surprisingly powerful images, iconic moments in the history of horror/gore, amateurish camera work, a fascinating 1960s time-capsule quality, a Twilight Zone-esque twist ending, and an above-average bluegrass score.

The film opens with a pair of hillbillies hiding out on the side of the highway. One is up in a tree with binoculars, the other hides behind some tall grass next to the road. When Binocular Boy spots a car coming, Tall Grass Boy removes the "Augusta, Georgia - 110 Miles" sign and puts up his own detour sign leading the unsuspecting tourists to the town of Pleasant Valley instead of their destination. They need six Northerners to be the guests of honor at their centennial celebration. We never forget this because the phrase "guests of honor" is repeated at least 428 times. Why Northerners? You'll find out later in the film. Why six? That's never explained. The six Northerners they snag with their wily street sign switcheroo have many things in common. They all drive convertibles, they share stereotypical early 1960s fashion sense and good looks, and they can't act.

The film's depiction of small-town Southerners is so grotesquely over-the-top that it moves beyond the realm of stereotype and into some strange land of surreal, parodic homage. We get the fat, well-dressed mayor who likes to take off his pork-pie hat and provide you with overbearing Southern hospitality. We get the big dumb handsome guy, the regular-sized dumb ugly guy in a straw hat, the amply cleavaged Southern belle, and a lot of other goony, inbred dummies. We get a lot of dialogue like "We got us some good'uns! Dogged if we don't!" and "Yay doggies!" and "Yee-haw! We got us a mighty fine centennial!" We get moonshine in a jug.
This stereotypical setup is complicated by the twist ending, and the reason for the centennial. In 1865, near the end of the Civil War, a group of Northern soldiers killed and mutilated everyone in Pleasant Valley. It's now time for some revenge, Dixieland-style. The Northerners are separated from each other and forced to participate in twisted versions of normal centennial-type events like a barbecue, a horse race, a barrel roll, and a dunk tank. The blood flows copiously in these scenes, which are much more violent and gruesome than other films of similar early-1960s vintage.

Finally, it's up to our heroes, school teacher Tom (William Kerwin) and Terry (Playboy Playmate Connie Mason), the pretty lady who picked him up on the highway when his car broke down, to find out what's going on and plot their escape. Will they succeed? And what is going on? I'll let you find out for yourselves, although, if you're familiar with Brigadoon, I probably spoiled the twist ending.
The action is accompanied by a quality bluegrass score credited to the fictional band The Pleasant Valley Boys. In addition to the Lester Flatt covers, the score also includes some songs written and performed by Lewis himself, "Rebel Yell (The South's Gonna Rise Again)" of particular note. Lewis might have made a career for himself as a musician if he hadn't been too busy pushing the envelope of cinematic violence. Besides the score, the film's virtues are inseparable from its flaws. The awesome and terrible intermingle to such an extent that they become a single, lovably disgusting entity. This is a weird-ass movie, truly deserving of its cult-classic, midnight-movie status. It's Lewis' favorite of his own pictures, beating out such contenders as Color Me Blood Red, The Gruesome Twosome, The Wizard of Gore, and The Gore-Gore Girls.

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