Thursday, 19 April 2012

From the archives: Don't go down to the woods

This article was published around December 2005 in ZERO magazine. With the impending release of a film called 'Hick' just around the corner I decided now was as good a time as any to dust this old thing off.

 Moonshine Mountain (Herschell Gordon Lewis) was the birth of the Hixploitation flick. There followed a host of movies indulging in southern American stereotypes of race relations, corrupt law enforcers and ‘White Lightning’ rackets. Merle Haggard’s classic Vietnam-era country anthem ‘Okie From Muskogee’ tells us everything we need to know about the values of the decent God-fearing country folk of the USA. They don’t smoke weed but they do like moonshine; sandals are out, leather boots are in and they don’t let their hair grow long and shaggy, by golly.

Then in 1969 two peaceful hippies went in search of America and what they found was white-hot shotgun death at the hands of buck-toothed, crew cutted, cranially challenged rural types who objected to their haircuts. Despite displaying mild disapproval for the fashions of San Fransisco Merle Haggard never sung a verse that explicitly mentioned hippy killing so it appeared that there was more to the Hick versus Hippy debate than contemptuous distrust!

Right turn Clyde
Despite ‘Easy Rider’ popular seventies cinema pursued the hick flick as a source of light hearted entertainment replete with gentle morons, intellectually challenged sheriff’s, self-deprecating losers, bare-knuckle boxing and beer drinking ape sidekicks. But from that small acorn a series of films would bring a darker vision of the mysterious denizens of the countryside to mainstream cinema and they would deal primarily with the inhabitants of the darker reaches of the Southern USA.

Deliverance (1972) taught us a few more lessons that Merle Haggard failed to mention. Four thirty-something upwardly mobile go-getters leave the city and politics debates behind and head to the country for some old fashioned R&R, male bonding style. After a mishap with a local the characteristics of these city slickers are tested to the utmost not by the communist menace overseas but by their own countrymen. The fact that the four main characters are not particularly likeable started a trend in this kind of movie, which was picked up in Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort. Keith Carradine and Powers Boothe are members of a National Guard unit on manoeuvres in a Louisiana Swamp who steal canoes from, and fire blanks at, locals. Their resulting ordeal is a barely veiled metaphor for the Vietnam experience as the squad are slowly but surely picked off by the untrained but highly experienced local knowledge and know-how of the swamp dwelling simple folk. The Guardsmen are an unsympathetic lot and frankly deserve everything they get.

In 1973, in the original Walking Tall, Joe Don Baker portrayed the simple living small town sheriff who dealt with issues of vice and Nixon’s crime-ridden and liberal America by dealing out vengeance of old testament proportions to the antagonists in his once peaceful hometown. Walking Tall was based on the true story of ex-wrestler Buford Pusser.

Both ‘Deliverance’ and ‘Walking Tall’ address the old country’s way of dealing with the new America and its fresh ideals and liberties, but another American liberal intellectual had already been taught a valuable lesson by country folk, this time in England. Sam Peckinpah’s controversial 1971 thriller ‘Straw Dogs’ was banned in the UK for almost eighteen years for it’s vicious portrayal of how a man must abandon his pacifistic and intellectual ‘weaknesses’ and be reborn through blood and violence in order to deal with his aggressors. Peckinpah was a legendary Man’s Man and the message behind Straw Dogs was basic and primal. For all of our pretensions to higher living you are NOTHING if you cannot take care of your own. Because of his inability to realise this earlier Dustin Hoffman’s character must suffer humiliation after humiliation. In an excruciatingly misogynistic scene which would never make it past script stage in today’s climate his wife must be brutally gang raped and his home surrounded and threatened before he steps up to the plate and despatches his assailants not with guns, but with his bare hands and any available household objects, thus is he reborn. ‘Straw Dogs’ is perhaps the most disturbing example of Hixploitation because the director’s own values lay uncomfortably close to those of his villains, and his talents as a director and editor elevated the movie above any other example of the genre bar ‘Deliverance’.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre arrived in 1974 to take the idea of inbred, murderous fucksticks to a new level and was loosely based on notorious killer Ed Gein. In 1957 Gein had been revealed to the American public in all his gory glory when he admitted that he had murdered and disembowelled a local woman in Plainfield, also known as the Cold Dead Heart of Wisconsin. Audiences now knew that for every TCM or its like there was someone out there living in a normal looking house making nipple belts and preserving vulvas in jars.

The Hills Have Eyes in 1977 was Wes Craven’s second horror movie and, like Last House on the Left it was brutal, highly charged and visceral. It had in common with his first movie the theme of the collective villain. Inspired by the true story of Scottish 16th century Cannibal Alexander ‘Sawney’ Bean, the film explores the dynamic of the feral cannibal family and was unusual in horror films, as was Last House on the Left, in that it demystified the villains. Like ‘Straw Dogs’ the protagonists only survive by lowering themselves to the savage level of their enemies. The Hills Have Eyes was the last of the truly original Hick Horror Flicks and with the end of Nixon era America the public began to realise that Vietnam was not the huge budget Hixploitation TV show they’d believed it was. The previous perception was of young American soldiers as surrogates for the people watching at home, venturing into the woods and jungles to face the horrors of a savage and uneducated enemy jealous of their freedoms and values. In actuality the American soldier was often no better educated than his enemy and was responsible for more than his fair share of atrocious acts of savagery.
Undeterred by this demolition of the American Dream the Slasher flick stepped from the wings to take on the decline of the family and put a stop to the sexual revolution. With the close of the seventies the vicious killer hillbillies faded into the stuff of legend but the recent upsurge in seventies culture and stylings has resulted in a comeback of sorts. TCM was remade successfully, largely thanks to a demented performance from R. Lee Ermey, and other, more left-field titles such as ‘Monster Man’ and ‘Cabin Fever’ hark back to a golden age of terrifying yokels and shotgun wielding cretins, providing a welcome relief from the parade of self-referential slasher movies.

Hick flicks have much in common with their natural descendants, the eighties Slasher flicks. Slasher movie antagonists are often small town retards or mutants themselves (for example Friday 13th), but their motives are distinct from the redneck posse. Slashers punish us for being liberated and eschewing conservative family values. Hicks punish us for being middle class, comfortable and liberal. Hillbillies fear diversity so they attack it. Usually we deserve it, as the average Hixploitation protagonists are smug, supercilious white bread shit-heads who believe that Hicks screw their siblings, make moonshine and spend their days blowing into jugs with cousin Otis.

Rob Zombie’s pair of horror homages to the seventies exploitation genre ‘House of a 1000 Corpses’ and ‘The Devil’s Rejects’ play this out perfectly and successfully tease the audience into sympathising not with the normal city folks, who are all tools, but with the psychopathic, murderous retards who ultimately we admire because of there utter disdain for the rules of society. They are 21st century rebels. It's amazing to think that after The Devil's Rejects Zombie was being widely proclaimed as the future of horror. Sadly he made the risible Halloween remake and sequel and is now regarded as a fluke flash-in-the-pan.

Outside of Hollywood there is a new movement of movies exploring the depths of the forests and the unseen reaches of the cornfields and they’re coming from the rest of the world. In Fabrice Du Welz’s blackly comic Calvaire, a French hillbilly horror, pigs and cows take on sinister new proportions and the vicious yokels would terrify Tod Browning.

From Australia comes ‘Wolf Creek’ the tale of what happens to unassuming road-trippers when the mirror universe, anti-matter Crocodile Dundee, Mick, decides that Haute Tension was in fact a pile of crap and he must play knifey-spooney in order to prove it. This pair of latter day hixploitation classics strip away the inter-textual, knowingly tongue-in-cheek approach of recent American efforts at the genre and reduce the formula to it’s constituent parts. They may be funny in places, uncomfortably so, but the violence is stark, traumatic and hard edged and therefore, because you have no time or pause to be amused, you can only be effected. A rare commodity in modern horror films is the truly terrifying villain and of all the horror movie antagonists the hick, hillbilly or yokel is the most unsettling because they’re not supernatural, they wear no masks and they live only a short drive away from any of us and THAT’s scary. Despite all of their shortcomings as human beings we like to watch them do their thing though, especially to those suburban tools from the city.

The city dwellers respond to being out of their depth by patronising and condescending to those they view as their inferiors, those they perceive to envy their higher values, intellect and culture. Kind of like the modern facebook 'lol at the idiots' mentality. Fortunately for us and our taste for gore and spectacle they rarely realise that the envy reaches a point where the targets of their thinly veiled disgust will happily fuck them up the arse and perhaps even eat them, whether to teach them a lesson or because they are compelled to do it as a dysfunctional survival technique. The horror movie hillbilly appeals to the audience’s primitive fears in the same way as fairy tale monsters did in folk tales, they are the trolls under the bridge waiting for the sound of our hooves. We suggest wearing soft shoes!

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

From the archives: Sin City

This feature was originally published in late 2005 in ZERO magazine...

Comic books, graphic novels, call them what you will but Frank Miller’s ‘Sin City’ stories are amongst the most striking and original examples of the art form. They are visceral, beautiful, sexy and excruciatingly violent. The news that they were to be adapted into movies was not met with universal approval by the fan community, but as has been well proven screaming geeks on the internet wield little influence over movie producers.

“Instead of trying to turn it into a movie, which would be terrible, let’s try and turn cinema into this book.”
Robert Rodriguez.

Auteurs do not exist in popular cinema but a few people come close and one such individual is Robert Rodriguez. Rodriguez is the restless director, writer and editor of the ‘Mariachi’ films and ‘From Dusk ‘Til Dawn’, the movie that made A-list material of George Clooney, tequila sexy and horror movies profitable business once more. So when Rodriguez and ‘Sin City’ were mentioned in the same sentence the movie became a substantially more appealing prospect, and his announcement that he intended to use the source material as his script and storyboards resulted in more drool spattered keyboards than the dream I had about Rick Wakeman having a stroke. Indeed it is a testament to Rodriguez’s artistic integrity that not only did he endeavour to faithfully translate Miller’s stories to celluloid, but also insisted on Miller receiving co-director’s credit, a move which was opposed by The Director’s Guild Of America. In response Rodriguez resigned from the DGA, a move that would him his next job helming the adaptation of Edgar Rice Burrough’s classic science fiction fantasy ‘Princess Of Mars’, and duly credited Frank Miller as co-director prompting in 2012 a beautiful 'what-if?' scenario. Rodriguez at the time had said that he intended to give his John Carter movie the look of a moving Frank Frazetta painting.

This wasn’t Miller’s first foray into movies (he penned the lamentable screenplays for the disappointing Robocops 2 and 3) but 2005 has undoubtedly brought Miller to the masses with ‘Sin City’ conquering the world and the return to form of the Caped Crusader, ‘Batman Begins’ being heavily influenced by Miller’s own dark take on the Dark Knight in his graphic novel ‘Batman: Year One’. Little wonder then that another of his works is receiving the big budget Hollywood treatment with Zack Snyder (fresh off his debut success with Dawn Of The Dead ’04) currently filming ‘300’, based on Miller’s graphic novel of the same name depicting an episode during the Persian invasion of Greece where 300 Spartans held off a force of over 100,000 Persians at Thermopylae. It remains to be seen whether his vision will be as flawlessly adapted as was ‘Sin City’. Opinion may be divided on the 'quality' of the adaptation but 300 proved to be an even bigger worldwide hit than Sin City.

“When we started casting this strange things started happening, people were turning up who looked like my drawings.”
Frank Miller

Rodriguez is proving himself, like his compadre Tarantino before him, to be a director who can redefine actors’ careers. The sheer quality and profile of the cast of ‘Sin City’ harkens back to the ensemble disaster movies of the seventies such as ‘The Towering Inferno’ but issues such as top billing on the poster are irrelevant with Rodriguez’s artistic vision elevating the project to a level way above a simple all star vehicle like ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ and giving A-list stars and fading character actors a new dimension in which to play.

Bruce Willis has a habit of recreating himself in groundbreaking movies and his turn as the physically ailing Hartigan, a cop entering the last hour of his thirty year career, ranks alongside his portrayal of over the hill boxer Butch Coolidge. Willis’s movie star career forms a perfect arc beginning with ‘Die hard’ and charting his maturation through ‘Pulp Fiction’ and now ‘Sin City’, all his other movies form the links between these massive punctuation points.

Phoenix-like is perhaps the most appropriate way to describe Mickey Rourke’s performance as Marv, a sympathetic monster to rival Karloff’s, and the best example of acting through latex since Howard Sherman’s Bub in ‘Day of the Dead’. After a post eighties downturn in his fortunes (see ‘Harley Davison And The Marlborough Man’) and a brief career as a boxer Rourke has, with quiet dignity, been re-establishing himself as a character actor with roles in a number of well received films such as ‘Man On Fire’, ‘Spun’, Rodriguez’s own ‘Once Upon A Time In Mexico’, and as a transvestite convict in ‘The Animal Factory’. If there had been any lingering doubts that he is not one of the most charismatic and gifted actors of his generation then Marv has smashed them to a bloody and bony pulp.

‘Sin City’ is littered with flawless performances by household names, often in the smallest of roles. Rutger Hauer is onscreen for only a couple of minutes each but leaves an indelible mark in his role as the twisted Cardinal Roark. Most remarkable of all is Elijah Wood as ‘Kevin’, in terms of screen time a small role but significant and memorable as Wood defies any risk of typecasting after his several years in the public eye as a Frodo-sexual to beat the snot out of Rourke’s ‘Marv’ and disturb audiences world-wide as a sociopathic cannibal with the voice of an angel.

Brittany Murphy picks up where she left off in ‘Spun’ and again proves herself the queen of battered wife chic and Jessica Alba shows why she’s such hot Hollywood property as well as proving that she’s a really, really good dancer.

The only disappointing aspect of the casting is that Leonardo Di Caprio turned down the role of Junior/Yellow Bastard. Nick Stahl did a creditable job of creating the loathsome character but I for one would have got a real kick out of seeing Leo play a disfigured and castrated child molester.

‘Sin City’ the movie concentrates on three of Miller’s stories "The Hard Goodbye" (Marv,) "The Big Fat Kill" (Dwight and the hookers) and "That Yellow Bastard" (Hartigan and Nancy), as well as the short "The Customer is Always Right" which forms the pre-credit introduction. That sequence was filmed in one day as a test in order to show Frank Miller the possibilities of what can be achieved by making a 100% digital movie. By no means the first movie of its kind it is definitely the first to use the technology to create a living world that services the plot and the source perfectly, essentially delivering Rodriguez’s vision of converting our cinema screens into the moving image of Miller’s imagination.

Over the years we’ve seen many comic book adaptations come and go, some good ones, some colossal turds and with Hollywood desperately short on originality the comic form is increasingly ripe for the plunder, ‘A History Of Violence’ being the latest graphic novel adaptation to hit our cinema screens. Now we know it can be done right, and we know our tales of excruciating violence, bloody vengeance and hot chicks with Uzis can have artistic merit AND be mainstream.

‘Sin City’ is the way and with an unrated director’s cut on DVD released in the US in December and ‘Sin City 2’ coming in 2006 let there be plenty more light.

2012 update: Sin City 2 never happened and the terrible reception to Miller's solo directorial effort The Spirit has damaged his cache somewhat but Rodriguez has recently stated that shooting may commence in mid-2012...