Deriverance: Do parodies still rob genre film trends of their effectiveness?

My friend Mike Malloy is stealing my chair today to discuss one of my favorite subgenres: backwoods thriller and horror films. So pull up a stump and set a spell…

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 [1999] or PARANORMAL ACTIVITY [2007]) 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:

 “Since I have cameras, since I know how to shoot film, how can I get into the film business cheap? What attracted me about it was I needed a genre where I could create something to happen and get those people alone as quick as I can. That cuts down on all of the costs. If you look at this—let’s just say “the DELIVERANCE genre”—it’s almost true in every one of them.”

But the director is realistic about his film’s status relative to that of his inspiration.

 “DELIVERANCE … is a very good film,” says Crow. “But they got what they had isolated so they could play with it extensively. We just didn’t play with ours extensively. But we got it isolated. And that’s what was the attraction of that.”

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.

0 Response Deriverance: Do parodies still rob genre film trends of their effectiveness?
Posted By Walker : April 27, 2012 4:32 pm

I like that part in Walking Tall where Buford Pusser sodomizes the Baptist preacher while the hooker looks on and strokes the goat. What about you?

Posted By Walker : April 27, 2012 4:32 pm

I like that part in Walking Tall where Buford Pusser sodomizes the Baptist preacher while the hooker looks on and strokes the goat. What about you?

Posted By dukeroberts : April 27, 2012 7:39 pm

Wait. What?

Posted By dukeroberts : April 27, 2012 7:39 pm

Wait. What?

Posted By Juana Maria : April 28, 2012 5:40 pm

Hey y’all! I don’t think us Southern folks are represented correctly. Yeah, that’s right I’m Southern,south of what? South of the Border? South of the Mason-Dixon Line? Does it matter? I’m gonna quote my favorite bad guy,Liberty Valance:”I live where ever I hang my hat!” Which by the way looks pretty dang good on me. I have seen some of these examples of “backwoods” movies and have found them appaling! Not just for the content but the way they portray people near and dear to my heart. And yes..lots of us Southern folk have “Indian” blood, remember long time ago the Indians lived all over, and the whites and the Indians intermarried, nothing inbred in that! Hmph! I’ve known Yankees more inbred than most of us Southerners! Truly, I knew a man from NJ whose mother and father were first cousins! I wanted to throw my two cents in that Keel Setter wrote about “Whiskey Mountain” on Sept.12,2010,whichs stars John Davis Chandler. He was born in WV so he really is a Southern boy. Which brings me to yet another movie,”Ride the High Country”,which features a lot of bonafide Southerners:L.Q.Jones(born in Beaumont,TX); Warren Oate(bornin Depoy,KY);John Davis Chandler(born in Hinton,WV). I have some questions that have been nagging at me for some time,1.Where in the “code of the hills” does it include raping a bride on her wedding night with all the males on the “clan”? 2.How many “backwoods” men really have a hankering for fat white guys that squeal like pigs? I think the way the Clampetts on the “Beverly Hillbillies” and “Ma & Pa Kettle” come closer to the truth! Sure, them and the ones in Hooterville on the “Green Acres” program. I am the self-appointed defense for Southern folk since it ain’t fair not to have legal representation! Discrimination without representation is what y’all are doing. It ain’t right and it’s gotta stop!!!

Posted By Juana Maria : April 28, 2012 5:40 pm

Hey y’all! I don’t think us Southern folks are represented correctly. Yeah, that’s right I’m Southern,south of what? South of the Border? South of the Mason-Dixon Line? Does it matter? I’m gonna quote my favorite bad guy,Liberty Valance:”I live where ever I hang my hat!” Which by the way looks pretty dang good on me. I have seen some of these examples of “backwoods” movies and have found them appaling! Not just for the content but the way they portray people near and dear to my heart. And yes..lots of us Southern folk have “Indian” blood, remember long time ago the Indians lived all over, and the whites and the Indians intermarried, nothing inbred in that! Hmph! I’ve known Yankees more inbred than most of us Southerners! Truly, I knew a man from NJ whose mother and father were first cousins! I wanted to throw my two cents in that Keel Setter wrote about “Whiskey Mountain” on Sept.12,2010,whichs stars John Davis Chandler. He was born in WV so he really is a Southern boy. Which brings me to yet another movie,”Ride the High Country”,which features a lot of bonafide Southerners:L.Q.Jones(born in Beaumont,TX); Warren Oate(bornin Depoy,KY);John Davis Chandler(born in Hinton,WV). I have some questions that have been nagging at me for some time,1.Where in the “code of the hills” does it include raping a bride on her wedding night with all the males on the “clan”? 2.How many “backwoods” men really have a hankering for fat white guys that squeal like pigs? I think the way the Clampetts on the “Beverly Hillbillies” and “Ma & Pa Kettle” come closer to the truth! Sure, them and the ones in Hooterville on the “Green Acres” program. I am the self-appointed defense for Southern folk since it ain’t fair not to have legal representation! Discrimination without representation is what y’all are doing. It ain’t right and it’s gotta stop!!!

Posted By Commander Adams : April 28, 2012 9:05 pm

A problem with spoof or parody films is that young audiences who are introduced to particularly venerable genres initially or exclusively through them may wind up seeing them as only worthy of parody. This has happened to most pre-1970s horror and science fiction and to a lesser extent, the pre-revisionist Western and war films.

Posted By Commander Adams : April 28, 2012 9:05 pm

A problem with spoof or parody films is that young audiences who are introduced to particularly venerable genres initially or exclusively through them may wind up seeing them as only worthy of parody. This has happened to most pre-1970s horror and science fiction and to a lesser extent, the pre-revisionist Western and war films.

Posted By Juana Maria : April 29, 2012 8:31 pm

Commander Adams:Very good points,sir. Do you see any validity to my previous statements,sir? Sir,thankyou,sir!(yes,I have relatives in the miliatry)

Posted By Juana Maria : April 29, 2012 8:31 pm

Commander Adams:Very good points,sir. Do you see any validity to my previous statements,sir? Sir,thankyou,sir!(yes,I have relatives in the miliatry)

Posted By Ryan : April 29, 2012 11:10 pm

Don’t forget “Evil Dead!” Campy backwoods at its best.

Posted By Ryan : April 29, 2012 11:10 pm

Don’t forget “Evil Dead!” Campy backwoods at its best.

Posted By Juana Maria : April 30, 2012 11:09 am

I know a lot of boys named Ryan, I wonder if you are one of them? “Campy backwoods at its best”? realy, is that some sort of pun? Where do people go camping? In the woods, right? “Evil Dead” starred Bruce Campbell, yeah my sister and I would stay up late watching that on the Amc tv channel. Those were wacky but quite scary! Not in a realistic way of being scary though, I mean c’mon time travel and monsters! Those movies were a mix of lot stuff that came before! Like H.G.Wells”Time Machine” and some of the magic and wonder of Merlin & Camelot. Think about it. Anyway…Am I the ONLY one who is gonnaa speak up for Southern people? Hmmm? Anyone else? C’mon y’all, don’t leave me out here alone havin’ to defend us.

Posted By Juana Maria : April 30, 2012 11:09 am

I know a lot of boys named Ryan, I wonder if you are one of them? “Campy backwoods at its best”? realy, is that some sort of pun? Where do people go camping? In the woods, right? “Evil Dead” starred Bruce Campbell, yeah my sister and I would stay up late watching that on the Amc tv channel. Those were wacky but quite scary! Not in a realistic way of being scary though, I mean c’mon time travel and monsters! Those movies were a mix of lot stuff that came before! Like H.G.Wells”Time Machine” and some of the magic and wonder of Merlin & Camelot. Think about it. Anyway…Am I the ONLY one who is gonnaa speak up for Southern people? Hmmm? Anyone else? C’mon y’all, don’t leave me out here alone havin’ to defend us.

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