Friday, January 21, 2011

Movies: As far as Mr. Sullivan is concerned, the whole "y'all got bigger penises" thing is all the reparations anybody has got a right to expect.

An unnecessary sequel to an uncelebrated remake of pretty trashy film, 2001 Maniacs: Field of Screams marks a step back for a young director who has yet to take any appreciable steps forward.

I have a soft spot for this flick's grandpappy. I'll honestly admit that Two Thousand Maniacs! (Lewis's punctuation, not mine) provides a completely unjust and tawdry revanchist thrill to what little Dixie pride I might have, but that is not the film's chief claim on my nostalgia. Rather, my predominant attitude towards horror as a genre was formed by Lewis's cheapee little splatfest.

First, as a child of the slasher besotted 1980s, horror's dreariest era, I was pleasantly shocked by Herschell Gordon Lewis's general disdain for his supposed protagonists and his blithe willingness to off them mercilessly. Compared to the jump-scare-to-the-kill spasms of slasher flicks, character's in TTM! suffered fates worse than death and then died. Watching, one got the sense that the survivors got out not because they were privileged - like the schematic final girls of slasher cinema - but rather because Lewis's cruelty, like that of cat, is bounded only by his ability to get bored easily. It was as if he'd simply had his fill of blood (or run out of money to buy more red paint), announced the martini shot, let his remaining near-victims go free, and called it a day. Whether this was a genuine insight into the narrative strategies Lewis was trying to employ or not, it left me with an exhilarating, teasing sense of horror cinema as something that was played without a net. To this day, if I can tell in the first reel who makes it to the last reel, I feel played for a sucker through the rest of the flick.

The second, and perhaps weirder legacy, has to do with a single scene in Lewis's original. In the 1964 flick, one of the victims gets placed in a wooden barrel and sealed in. Then long metal nails are driven into the sides of the barrels. Finally, the barrel is rolled down a hill. At the bottom of the hill, the barrel is opened to reveal that the nails have done their fatal work and the victim is a bloody mess. The redneck cannibals go wild! Ever since I saw that scene, I've been obsessed with the idea that there's got to be some way to survive this trap. I haven't fully figured it out yet. I'm convinced that a person desperate enough to survive could, in fact, push against the sides of the barrel and brace themselves throughout the ride. This would send nails into your back, which admitted would suck a billion kind of ways. But I'm pretty sure it wouldn't be fatal. In fact, it may just be what saves you, as being impaled from the start might help you from bouncing around the inside of the barrel. The problem is, as I see it, even if you survive the ride down, you've ended up at the bottom of the hill severely injured and surrounded by a mob of pissed-off ghouls. That's the sticking point: how to get out of the barrel and use the lead you've gained by rolling down the hill to your advantage. I'm still working on that part. Anyway, the important thing is that it started in me an obsession with watching films with an eye towards thinking, "How would I get out of that?" This isn't your standard "victims are stupid" stuff - on the contrary, perhaps my least favorite aspect of slasher cinema is its cynical formula that dooms certain characters from the start, essentially robbing characters of the opportunity to genuinely fight to live - but rather a fascination with what humans could do if facing impossible odds.

The two things are connected, of course: to get the sense that you're able to battle against the odds, one has to get the sense that there are still odds. A cinema without a safety net is the only cinema in which you can feel people are really struggling and the outcome is always in doubt. And that, oddly, is perhaps my criteria for what makes good horror, though I know it's inadequate to solving genre disputes or helping folks bash Twilight: a good horror film pits humans against the most extreme consequence, without the consolation of a predetermined end.

Oh, here I've rambled on and not discussed 2001 Maniacs: Field of Screams. Though, honestly, I'm okay with that.


Unknown said...

It's not a horror film, but "Thunderbolt and Lightfoot" kicked my keister when I first saw it. I was probably ten, and when Jeff Bridges stroked out I was screaming inside. The whole movie before that was rough-house fun, and then pow! I realized after that the some of the best movies don't always play fair.

Adam said...

Are you allowed any tools inside the barrel? Perhaps a trusty pocket knife or leatherman? ie maybe strategic bending of certain nails would make it survivable by creating a flat section you could press yourself into. I'm guessing the lead time isn't that great though. Perhaps a couple of makeshift internal handles, by bending adjacent nails towards each other.

Presumably that would also give you a MacGyverish chance to take the lid off at the bottom of the hill.

The problem I see with getting stuck in the back that a lot of vital organs are not that far in.

CRwM said...

Bill - I'll have to check you Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. You've got me curious.

Adam - Interesting points (HA!). I've always assumed you go in with no significant tools or weapons, though I don't recall the ghouls ever searching their victims for anything. It wouldn't be cheating to assume whatever you might regularly carry on your person could come into play.

As for the depth of nail penetration, this is in no way something I've scientifically tested or anything, but I'm thinking that if you really pushed the entire surface of your back against the barrel, instead of just your shoulders or something, then you might get some measure of benefit from the bed of nails effect: with the force of each jolt being distributed across multiple nails, each nail penetrates less. That's the theory anyway.

Adam said...

Thunderbolt an Lightfoot is FANTASTIC. You have been semi-spoiled now though, but it shouldn't detract from the ride.

TTM! is easily my favorite HG Lewis film, I was ambivalent about the first remake and have heard dreadful things about "Field of Screams."

Great write-up, per usual.

Anonymous said...

Great write-up, sir! That's the best non-review of a film I've read in a long time. I'm a fan of most of Lewis' work (even when he seems to be phoning it in), but my favorite is still the one that broke my Herschell Horror Hymen: Blood Feast.


Cliff Evans said...

Based on the interview with Lewis I read in Incredibly Strange Film, I think the "ran out of red paint (and animal innards)" theory is pretty well supported. I haven't seen all of 2001 Maniacs, but Blood Feast was easily one of the weirdest movies I've ever seen for its combination of really explicit gore with a cheesy late-60s aesthetic. It felt like I'd stumbled into some nightmare world where the cops on Dragnet routinely investigated horribly mutilated corpses.

Great blog, BTW. I think I found you via Castle Vardulon, and consider me a fan.

Adam said...

Hmm, I can see where you're going with the bed of nails, but like you say only if there were a lot of them packed at a high density. I wasn't thinking the ghouls would be that patient. Part of the reason the bed of nails trick is so effective is that they don't break the skin, presumably.

Anonymous said...

Me again...just dropping by to let you know that I chose this as one of the best posts of January.

Check it out!