Posted by Richard Harland Smith on April 27, 2012
Italy used to be the world’s foremost progenitor of genre film fads, and the trajectory of Italian film cycles got to be pretty predictable — parody films would always signal the end of a fad. After a good five years of making dead-serious Spaghetti Westerns, for instance, the goofy “Trinity” Westerns were released, and the Italian Western craze was all but finished. But more recently, genre film fads—regardless of nationality—don’t seem to be following any sort of clear pattern. Zombie parodies SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004) and FIDO (2006) certainly didn’t kill the zombie cycle; if anything, they helped jumpstart a third wind that is still lumbering forward with both straight entries like TV’s THE WALKING DEAD (2010-present) and comic takes on the genre like A LITTLE BIT ZOMBIE (2012).
Starting last year, the backwoods horror film began getting skewered, when the subgenre received a parody in TUCKER AND DALE VS EVIL (2010). And now the archetypes and generic conventions of backwoods horror cinema are experiencing a total subversion in THE CABIN IN THE WOODS, currently in release. What effect will these two films have on the recent spate of serious movies set in the deep, dark backwoods—films like WRONG TURN 3 (2009), DON’T GO IN THE WOODS (2010), and A LONELY PLACE TO DIE (2011)?
It’s a longstanding subgenre that actually straddles both action and horror cinema, these films about tenderfooted townies hunted by primitive locals in the tangled wilderness. To rewind: The formula was born with John Boorman’s Oscar-nominated DELIVERANCE (1972), featuring four “everyman” protagonists (well, okay, three everyman protagonists and one Burt Reynolds). Oh sure, there had previously existed “man hunting man” plots compounded by “fish out of water” complications, but films like THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (1932), RUN FOR THE SUN (1956) and THE NAKED PREY (1966) featured experienced heroes that were safari guides or other adventurers.
So it was Deliverance‘s addition of the out-of-their-element everyman protagonists that cemented the blueprint. Before the next ten years had passed, DELIVERANCE‘s basic story had already been recycled as such white-knuckle survival yarns as the Canadian-made RITUALS (1977) and the swampy SOUTHERN COMFORT (1981).
And distinctly Horror variants on this premise, like THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974) and THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977), took the material into slightly more fantastic (if still short of supernatural) territory through their villainous rural clans of cannibals and irradiated deformed persons, respectively. And when the slasher films hit big in the early 1980s, this new horror movement appropriated the now-shopworn woodsy survival scenarios for such movies as FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980) and JUST BEFORE DAWN (1981). While the teeny protagonists and gratuitous T&A may have made these feel like a fresh cinematic subset, they were really just a continuation of the previous decade’s Tried and True. JUST BEFORE DAWN writer/director Jeff Lieberman has credited his sole screenwriting reference point as DELIVERANCE; he says he was not trying to make a slasher film.
In the new millennium, the concept has apparently become spoofworthy. TUCKER AND DALE VERSUS EVIL is a smart parody of the backwoods horror formula, allowing us to see the events from the hillbillies’ point of view instead. We learn that not all primitive backwoodsmen are depraved homicidal maniacs after all. In fact, sometimes they’re on vacation just like the city folk. And sometimes, a series of gory killings is just a freakish chain of accidents and misunderstandings. (For the record, some serious-in-tone backwoods survival movies have also told their tales from the rednecks’ viewpoint, like 1982′s BAKER COUNTY U.S.A., which even delves into the domestic squabbles of the villains. But this storytelling angle saps all the tension right out of the plot of a serious backwoodser. DELIVERANCE and its most effective imitators let the viewer see—and know—only as much as their protagonists do. When, for the first time, we spy DELIVERANCE‘s mountain men emerge from the brush in a wide shot, we almost miss them. We do the same double take that Jon Voight’s character does.)
THE CABIN IN THE WOODS, while commenting also on the supernatural EVIL DEAD-type woodsy horror, features a story that suggests all the warhorse archetypes of backwoods horror are archetypes for a reason: There’s another another, (literally) deeper level of plotting at work (and to say any more would be to spoil the fun). The proceedings turn foreboding for our heroes right away, with the obligatory fuel-up at a remote country filling station, where a less-than-friendly local gives the clichéd presage of evils ahead (some variation of this scene appears in DELIVERANCE, THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, THE HILLS HAVE EYES and FRIDAY THE 13TH —remember Crazy Ralph’s “You’ll never come back from Camp Blood” bit?). But these lighter genre entries won’t keep future big-screen city folk from taking their ill-advised trips into woods full of degenerate mountain men. This is not only because parodies no longer quash cinematic fads, but also because backwoods survival movies are, to use an outdoorsy term, “perennials.”
Yep, any time you have a hit movie whose successful ingredients aren’t expensive to re-create, you have a flood of imitators. Remember how PULP FICTION (1994) temporarily shifted tough-guy cinema from exploding helicopters to conversations in diners about minutiae and pop culture? It ushered in a spate of knock-offs, where even micro-budgeted efforts like Joe Carnahan’s BLOOD, GUTS, BULLETS, AND OCTANE (1998) could hop on the bandwagon and find distribution. And now, with every found-footage frightfest (think THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT  or PARANORMAL ACTIVITY ) that hits big, many more handheld horrors abound.
But the films derivative of DELIVERANCE (or “Deriverances,” as they’re better termed), may be the most prolific example of this phenomenon. The Deriverances began during the final days of the drive-ins and grindhouses with such films as OPEN SEASON (1974) and GOD’S BLOODY ACRE (1975). Then the 1980s home-video boom brought another wave of wilderness survival films, including HUNTER’S BLOOD (1987, with Billy Bob Thornton as a hick bit player) and RAW COURAGE (1984, written by and starring Ronny Cox of DELIVERANCE, maybe in an effort to recapture some former glory). Now, the digital microbudget revolution is doing it all over again, unleashing titles like BACKWOODS BLOODBATH (2007) and MADISON COUNTY (2011).
During the video boom, director Dean Crow made a film called BACKWOODS (1987), ostensibly the first film to bear that oft-used, generic film title (although Crow actually shot the movie under the working title GEEK in reference to chicken-head eating by one of its inbred villains). He explains the subgenre’s allure:
But the director is realistic about his film’s status relative to that of his inspiration.
About the effectiveness of this formula, Crow adds, “That’s how come you’ll see little films come out of [this subgenre] and all of a sudden be this tremendous hit.” And he’s right. WRONG TURN (2003) had a big wide release—and spawned three sequels—despite being a straight backwoods-horror rehash that added nothing new to the basic premise.
So sure, this subgenre has built-in filmmaking practicality, but on the other hand, it’s odd that this type of story has persisted so strongly for so long. The idea of primitive pockets of rural American existence was still somewhat credible in the pre-Internet, pre-GPS 1970s. In fact, actor Bruce Glover says he patterned his hillbilly performance in HUNTER’S BLOOD after seeing a wide-eyed rural Tennessean on the set of 1973′s WALKING TALL. “We were shooting out a distance, at one of the locations,” says Glover. “And suddenly out of the bushes came walking this girl. She was barefoot and she had one of those dresses you used to get in a cereal package back in the ‘30s … It was like we were creatures from Mars. I don’t know if she was mentally challenged in some way, but probably more likely she was in awe of this weird kind of thing.”
But today, likely no Deriverance productions are helmed by filmmakers with first-hand experience of this sort of bygone backwoods primitivity. And so the subgenre will probably just increasingly cannibalize itself for all its archetypes and conventions, becoming more and more cartoonish. No wonder backwoods horror cinema is being parodied.
© Mike Malloy, 2012.
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