Sunday, August 1, 2010

THE EVICTORS (1979)

Charles B. Pierce may be the first director I was really cognoscente of. You can’t even call his style distinct, though. Most of his work looks and feels like it was produced for the Wonderful World of Disney. But that’s part of its appeal. The guy made flicks based around dire urban mythology with the warmth of a 1950s family film. It’s a baffling concoction that works, which makes him a director of note in my opinion. I’m sure the subversive presentation is wholly unintentional, though.

Pierce’s “The Legend of Boggy Creek,” a hybrid of documentary and dramatic film making, is grossly underestimated as a pop culture influence. I have no doubt that television programs such as “In Search Of” and "Unsolved Mysteries" would not exist had it not been made. If you haven’t seen it, the movie basically explores the urban myth of a big-foot like creature which allegedly roams the swampy recesses of Fouke, Arkansas. What really sets it apart from other documentaries of this nature though are the dramatic re-enactments, which Pierce executes with relish in his desire to scare the pants off of his audience.

Several years later, Pierce followed up with “The Town That Dreaded Sundown,” a film that feels kindred to Boggy Creek. More fully dramatized, the movie details a real life masked serial killer who wrought bloody havoc on a TexArkana lover’s lane following World War II. This is probably his grizzliest treatment, but it still retains that weird Disney-esque voiceover, which lulls you into thinking you’re in a friendlier place.

I had seen a handful of other films from his catalog, but “The Evictors” had eluded me until recently. I wasn’t too sure what to expect here since I’d read several reviews which stated that this was a lamentable way for American International Pictures to go out. Granted, it’s not nearly as graphic as a lot of their other releases from the seventies, it’s still a worthy release, and far from representing a low point for either AIP or Pierce.

Our story begins in the days of yore, during the great depression. Some dude tries to serve an eviction notice, and gets the documentation blown plum clean out of his hand by the property owner, thus inviting open fire from yokel authorities inexplicably armed with Tommy guns. We’re cut off mid proto-Waco, and thrust forward into the forties.

One of the weirdest things about this movie is that it feels incredibly dated. And this has nothing to do with the fact that this is a period piece. This thing was shot in 1979, but it feels more like something that was filmed a good ten years earlier. We do not feel like we’re at the cusp of the eighties in terms of production value.

Anyway, moving right along, we join a young couple as a realtor shows them the death house from earlier. The couple takes a fancy to the rustic joint and move right on in. It isn’t before too long, though, that the couple receives some of the most polite letters of harassment I have ever seen. Case in point, the first letter reads, “I want you to move.” I mean, it’s not written in semen, or blood, and they don’t even use any profanity. Nevertheless, that’s enough to put the couple on the defense.

Over the course of the next week or so, the wife is told numerous stories from the town’s folk about the gruesome fate of several other families who lived in the house during the 30s, all revealed in unnecessarily sepia-toned flashbacks.

These particular scenes are perhaps the greatest detriment to the film’s story. In one instance we’re told that one woman was trampled to death by a donkey as we’re lead into a flashback. But in the flashback itself we’re treated to the horrific reality that she was beaten to death by a culprit with a horse shoe on a big stick. I was a little annoyed, because I think they reveal too much here, but the idea of the horse shoe stick won me over.

By this point, we’re well aware that someone is out to bump the couple off. The story itself is fairly obvious, and there are a few surprises along the way. But ultimately the payoff and the twist are nonsensical. In spite of the flawed script, Pierce proves to be a fairly capable director and manages to provide us with some genuinely creepy and suspenseful moments. As always, the movie stays well within G-rated territory in spite of the fact that it was obviously influenced by the emerging slasher genre. Yet still, it’s effective when it needs to be.

This is Grade-A Pierce. If you enjoy his movies you'll get absolutely everything you'd expect or want out of this thing. We even get that patent blend of real yokels on screen. I've heard some people criticize Pierce's decision to use locals in his films, stating that they think they come off as wooden, but I think it adds an odd realism to his films since most people in real life are pretty stiff anyway.

Jessica Harper ("Suspiria," "Phantom of the Paradise") is the life’s blood of this movie. She turns in a legitimately strong performance as the paranoid house wife at the center of small town secrets. Harper is one of those chicks who possesses a remarkable charisma that will not fade. Seriously, if I ever get famous, her husband better lock that shit up because I will destroy it.

Sure, this movie has flaws, but it has some redeeming qualities as well. Anyone who calls this AIP's sad last whimper however is delusional and needs to go back and look at some of the bullshit they put out.

When I watched this film for the first time this week, I was overcome with a strange feeling of nostalgia. Strange only because I usually only experience this with films that are directly linked to my childhood. A Charles B. Pierce production is infested with overwhelming vibe, which is its ultimate vindicating value.

This film is not yet available on DVD or BluRay.

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