Two Thousand Maniacs! (U.S., 1964) * 1/2
D: Herschell Gordon Lewis
I've long considered myself a dyed-in-the-wool horror fan without having seen any films by legendary gore-meister Herschell Gordon Lewis, so for this month-long marathon I thought I'd sample his product. I chose Two Thousand Maniacs not because I was a 10,000 Maniacs fan in high school, but because I've always been haunted by the description of one of the murders of the film--a man trapped in a barrel with exposed nails sticking into its interior, bouncing against them bloodily as he's rolled down a hill by rednecks. Yes, that scene's in the movie, along with another in which a woman is held to a table by the town mayor while another Southerner chops her arm off, and another in which a woman is smashed by a giant boulder that's dropped on her bound body, after the titular maniacs release it by tossing a rock at a dunking-booth-style target. It all comes from Lewis' demented mind. Filmed in Florida, but set in Georgia, it tells the story of a handful of Northerners who are lured into town for the centennial of something--the end of the Civil War, they figure, but actually the residents are marking the memory of their ancestors' massacre at the hands of Union soldiers. (I'm telling a white lie to hide the big "twist" ending, which you can figure out anyway, but never mind.) Slowly these tourists are separated and slaughtered in carnival-like games for the amusement of the bloodthirsty townspeople. What makes the film notable is its use of explicit and lingering gore shots, revolutionized by Lewis in his previous outing, Blood Feast (1963). But also notable is the fact that the film is so widely known while being so obviously terrible. The acting is a few notches below Manos: The Hands of Fate. When dialogue is looped, it seems to be coming from another dimension. The staging is also inept, although occasionally fascinating: the slaughter scenes are filmed as though they were a magic act in a particularly perverse children's show. Which is basically what Lewis is after, I think: he is, really, the kind of kid who would put on a magic show for all the other kids on the block, and saw his sister in half and add lots of ketchup to scandalize the neighborhood. In this film he's a showman, a carnival barker, and he lures you into the tent, grabs the cash, and runs. What you see inside the tent is almost beside the point. There's a germ of a good satire here. It opens promisingly with images of confederate flags fluttering in the wind, and some of the townspeople setting up a fake "detour" sign to lure in their prey while, on the soundtrack, we hear a folk song that might be described as Southern Power. With a better script and decent acting, this could have fit easily into that subgenre of horror films that explore America's uncomfortable cultural divides--think such socially-aware pictures as Night of the Living Dead or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. A remake could only improve on the material, but one suspects its moment has passed.
An American Werewolf in London (U.S./U.K., 1981) * * * *
D: John Landis
My admiration and outright love for this film grows each time I see it, and I've seen it dozens of times. It's one of the greatest horror films ever made (my list of those, by the way, is forthcoming). In 1981 Landis was at the peak of his career, coming off the successes of Animal House and The Blues Brothers. He was thought of as a comedy director. But An American Werewolf in London was his dream project--he'd written the script over a decade before. While there are plenty of moments of Landis' trademark humor and satire, it's a very straightforward genre film. Two American college students, hitchhiking across England, are attacked by a wolf in the moors. One of them, Jack (an excellent Griffin Dunne), is killed. But David (David Naughton) survives, and is taken to a London hospital where he suffers from persistent nightmares and ultimately a visit from the undead Jack, who warns him that he'll turn into a werewolf and kill others unless he kills himself first. Landis has an attention to character detail that elevates American Werewolf into the classier ranks of Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist. Jack and David are convincing as friends, and even when Jack becomes a rapidly-decomposing corpse, he manages to retain his familiar demeanor ("Have you ever talked to a corpse? It's BORING.") while finding time to deliver grave prophecies. Naughton is just OK by comparison, but nonetheless convincing as a naive young man; it helps that he's flanked by Dunne and Jennifer Agutter, as radiant as she is ubiquitous in British productions of this period. This is her best role. Since the plot requires a long delay before David becomes a werewolf, Landis cleverly packs jolts into the narrative before the big reveal, and they're genuinely shocking. The transformation scene itself won the first Oscar for Best Makeup, and it couldn't look much better if done today with CG augmentation; the visceral, revolting quality would probably be lost, as would the immediacy of the effects: what you are seeing is really there, really happening, as his bones stretch and contort into new shapes. Nothing, however, is more shocking than the first, effects-free pangs, shot in a single take, as David, reading a book calmly on an armchair, suddenly screams horrifically, springs from the chair, clutches at his body, and rips off all his clothes. Incidentally, Roger Ebert panned the film, declaring the ending disappointingly abrupt. He apparently wanted a more action-packed conclusion. The film ends when it does because there's nothing more to say. It's a splash of cold water. It's a shivering waking from a nightmare. And, in Landis' hands, it's a punchline.