Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Deliverance (dir by John Boorman)


1973’s The Exorcist is often cited as the first horror film to ever be nominated for best picture and technically, I guess that’s correct.  It was definitely the first best picture nominee to ever deal with a battle between humans and a malevolent supernatural force and no one can deny that The Exorcist has influenced a countless number of horror films.

That said, I think you could make the argument that Deliverance, which was nominated for best picture the year before The Exorcist, was in its own way, a horror film.  Certainly, every crazed hick slasher film that has come out since 1972 owes a debt to Deliverance.  Deliverance‘s ending has been imitated by so many other horror films that it’s become a bit of cliche.  Though there might not be any supernatural creatures in Deliverance, the film still features its own set of horrifying monsters.  The toothless redneck rapists (played by character actor Bill McKinney and rodeo performer Herbert “Cowboy” Coward) seem as if they’ve jumped straight out of a nightmare and into the movie.  Of course, they aren’t the only monsters in this film.  There’s also the (fictional) Cahulawassee River, which is due to be dammed up and seems to be determined to take out its anger on anyone foolish enough to try to navigate it.

Much as with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (which came out just two years after Deliverance), the main theme here seem to be that you should be careful about going off the main road.  Just as the unfortunate hippies and college students in Texas Chainsaw Massacre proved to be no match for a clan of backwoods cannibal, the four middle-aged men at the center of Deliverance discover that they’re no match for either nature or its inhabitants.  At the start of the film, we watch as three of the men deal with the locals in a condescending and rather smirky manner.  Only one of them actually tries to be nice to the locals, engaging in a banjo duel with a young boy who clearly loves his banjo but who still refuses to smile or shake hands.  The boy knows what the men are getting themselves into them.  The boy knows what awaits them.

If you grew up in the South, as I did, you’ll recognize all four of the men.  It’s not just that they’re played by recognizable actors.  It’s that each one of them is a common archetype of the type of men you find down here.

For instance, there’s Lewis (Burt Reynolds), the self-styled alpha male with his leather vest and his bow-and-arrow and his constant talk about how society is eventually going to collapse and only the strong are going to survive.  You know that Lewis is full of it from the minute you see him but he’s so charismatic that you can also understand why the other three men have fallen under his control.

And then there’s Bobby (Ned Beatty).  Bobby is quick to laugh and quick to talk and quick to make a bad joke.  When he says that he’s a salesman, you’re not surprised.  From the start of the film, Lewis complains that Bobby isn’t strong enough or serious enough and, when the mountain men attack, Bobby is the one they target.  And yet, towards the end of the film, Bobby is the one who sells the hastily concocted story about what happened on the river.

Drew (Ronny Cox) is the nicest of the men.  With his glasses and his guitar and his rather touching belief that everything will be okay if everyone just tells the truth, Drew’s the prototype of the Southern liberal.  One can imagine him teaching in a community college and vainly trying to convince his relatives that segregation and nostalgia for the Confederacy is holding the South back.

And finally, there’s Ed (Jon Voight).  Ed smokes a pipe and it’s obvious that he’s someone who has a very secure life.  Ed is the one who is everyone’s friend.  He’s the one who sticks up for Bobby.  He’s the one who reminds Drew to wear his life jacket.  He’s the only one who can get away with (gently) mocking Lewis.  Ed seems like a nice guy but, at the start of the film, there’s a strange emptiness to Ed.  You get the feeling that the reason Ed is friends with everyone is because he doesn’t have any firm beliefs.  Instead, he just adapts to each situation and says whatever everyone wants to hear.  You can’t help but wonder what Ed believes.  By the end of the movie, of course, both Ed and the viewer have learned what Ed is capable of doing.

Cox, Voight, and especially poor Ned Beatty are all perfectly cast in their roles.  Burt Reynolds reportedly felt that this film was his best performance and he was probably right.  Director John Boorman captures both the beauty and the menace of nature, leaving you both in awe of the the river and fearful of what it can do those foolish enough to try to conquer it.  Interestingly enough, while Boorman was directing Deliverance, he was offered The Exorcist.  He turned it down, feeling that the script was too exploitive of the possessed child.  Boorman would, however, direct The Exorcist II: The Heretic (co-starring Deliverance‘s Ned Beatty).

(At the same time, Jon Voight was offered the role of Father Karras in The Exorcist but, like Boorman, turned the film down so he could work on Deliverance.)

While the film is best known for its sequences on the river, one should not overlook the haunting scenes of the survivors once they make their way back to civilization.  After having spent the previous 80 minutes or so presenting everyone in the backwoods as a threat, the final third of Deliverance actually emphasizes the decency of the townspeople.  When one of the men breaks down and starts to cry in the middle of dinner, everyone is quietly respectful of his emotions.  Towards the end of the film, as the survivors are driven out of town, they find themselves stuck behind the old country church, which is being moved upriver.  “Just got to wait for the church to get out of the way,” their driver says while the church’s bell mournfully rings for both the death of the town and the death of innocence.

(Of course, even with all the kind townspeople around, there’s still a somewhat menacing sheriff.  It’s just not a Southern film without a scary sheriff, is it?  “Don’t you boys ever do nothing like this again,” he says at one point.  The sheriff is played by James Dickey, the author of both the novel and the screenplay on which the film is based.)

Deliverance was nominated for three academy awards.  In the directing and the editing categories, it lost to Cabaret.  For best picture, it lost to The Godfather.  Deliverance, The Godfather, and Cabaret, all competing against each other?  1972 was a very good year.

Lisa Cleans Out Her DVR: Illusions (dir by Victor Kulle)


(Lisa is currently cleaning out her DVR.  It’s taking forever and she’s loving every minute of it.  This is almost as fun as a Degrassi marathon.  Lisa recorded the 1992 psychological thriller, Illusions, off of Indieplex on March 1st.)

Illusions gets off to a pretty good start.  In a blue-tinted room, a man and a woman make out, with the whispered dialogue suggesting that they’re doing something that they’ve specifically been told not to do.  The woman is worried when an older woman opens the door but the man assures her that the older woman can’t see.  Soon, the film is switching back and forth, from the forbidden lovers to the old woman chopping up a huge chunk of meat.  The opening reminded me of the classic Italian horror film, Beyond The Darkness.

It’s an enjoyably surreal scene, one of many to be found in Illusions.  When we first meet Jan Sanderson (Heather Locklear), she’s waking up from a nightmare.  She’s in a hospital, recovering from some sort of earlier breakdown.  Her doctor (Susannah York) doesn’t think that Jan is ready to leave the hospital but Jan disagrees.  Jan can’t wait to rejoin her husband.

Her husband is Greg Sanderson (Robert Carradine), an archeologist who is currently working at a dig and who doesn’t appear to have much in common with Indiana Jones.  When Jan leaves the hospital, she moves into a house near the dig, one that Greg is renting.  As soon as Jan moves into the house, strange things start to happen.

For instance, she meets the caretaker, George (Ned Beatty).  George is an alcoholic, one who has recently been abandoned by his wife and his children.  According to Greg, George has a skill for telling scary stories.  For instance, there’s the one that he tells Jan about a murder that occurred in the house years ago.  Maybe George isn’t exactly the guy you want to have talking to someone who is recovering from a nervous breakdown?

However, before Jan can spend too much time getting freaked out about George, something else happens.  Greg’s sister arrives.  From the minute that Laura (Emma Samms) arrives, it’s obvious that she and Jan don’t like each other.  That Jan is nervous around her sister-in-law is understandable.  I love my future sister-in-law and I still spend hours worrying about whether or not she thinks I’m as cool as I think I am.  What’s strange is that Laura seems to view Jan as almost being a romantic rival.  From the minute that Laura arrives, she and Greg are whispering to each other and sharing flirtatious jokes.

(The fact that Greg and Laura were the couple in the film’s opening scene certainly doesn’t do anything to make them any less creepy.)

Jan finds herself suspecting that Laura may be conspiring against her.  When she orders Greg to tell his sister to go home, Greg says that he will.  When Jan wakes up the next morning, Laura’s gone.  Greg says that he kicked her out.  But Jan is haunted by a nightmare in which she murdered her sister-in-law and Greg helped to cover it up…

WHAT’S GOING ON!?

Well, you probably already know.  You’ve seen Gaslight, right?  You’ve seen Diabolique.  Maybe you’ve even seen a few Lifetime films.  You know how this stuff works.  Illusions is not exactly a surprising film and the movie itself occasionally feels disjointed.  The use of body doubles during the nude scenes is jarringly obvious and Jan’s narration was supplied by an actress who clearly wasn’t Heather Locklear.  Locklear, Beatty, and Samms all gave good performances but Robert Carradine was oddly cast.  His presence in the film made me think of Illusions as being Sam McGuire: The Early Years.

And yet, I still kinda liked Illusions.  It’s got just enough weird dream sequences for me to enjoy it.  You know me.  There’s nothing I love more than a weird dream sequence.  Many a mediocre film has been saved by blue mood lighting.

 

 

A Movie A Day #150: Back to School (1986, directed by Alan Metter)


Thornton Melon (Rodney Dangerfield) started with nothing but through a combination of hard work and chutzpah, he started a chain of “Tall and Fat” clothing stores and made a fortune.  Everyone has seen his commercials, the one where he asks his potential customers, “Do you look at the menu and say, ‘Okay?'”  He has a new trophy wife named Vanessa (Adrienne Barbeau) and a chauffeur named Lou (Burt Young).  Thornton never even graduated from high school but he gets respect.

However, his son, Jason (Keith Gordon), doesn’t get no respect.  No respect at all.  Jason is a student at a pricey university, where he is bullied by Chas Osborne (William Zabka) and can’t get a date to save his life.  Jason’s only friend is campus weirdo Derek Lutz (Robert Downey, Jr.).  When Thornton sees that his son isn’t having any fun, he decides to go back to school!

Back to School is a predictable but good-natured comedy.  It is like almost every other 80s college comedy except, this time, it’s a 65 year-old man throwing raging parties and making the frat boys look stupid instead of Robert Carradine or Curtis Armstrong.  On the stand-up stage, Dangerfield always played the (sometimes) lovable loser but in the movies, Dangerfield was always a winner.  In both Caddyshack and Back to School, Dangerfield played a self-made man who forced his way into high society and showed up all of the snobs.  While Back to School is no Caddyshack, it does feature Rodney at his best.

Rodney may be the funniest thing about Back to School but a close second is Sam Kinison, who owed much of his early success to Rodney Dangerfield’s support.  Kinison plays a history professor, who has some very strongly held views about the Vietnam War and who punctuates his points with a primal screen.

Also, keep an eye out Kurt Vonnegut, playing himself.  Rodney hires him to write a paper about Kurt Vonnegut for one of his classes.  The paper gets an F because Rodney’s literature professor (Sally Kellerman) can tell that not only did Rodney not write it but whoever did knows absolutely nothing about the work of Kurt Vonnegut.

So it goes.

Cheers for THE LAST AMERICAN HERO (20th Century Fox 1973)


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The world of NASCAR racing takes center stage in THE LAST AMERICAN HERO, a fictionalized biopic of legendary driver Junior Johnson. But this isn’t just a film about stock cars; it’s an extraordinary character study of a young man from the backwoods of North Carolina who discovers himself and what’s important to him. Jeff Bridges is outstanding in his first full-fledged starring role, demonstrating at age 24 the acting chops that have carried him to a long and prosperous film career.

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Junior Jackson hauls moonshine for his Daddy on the winding backroads of  the Carolina hills, his tactics eluding the cops at every turn. He’s cocky and confident, and pisses the local law off so much they bust up Daddy’s still and send him back to prison. Junior decides to use his only marketable skill to raise money for the family while Daddy’s away – driving. He enters a demolition derby…

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Star Vehicle: Burt Reynolds in WHITE LIGHTNING (United Artists 1973)


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Burt Reynolds labored for years in the Hollywood mines, starring in some ill-fated TV series (his biggest success on the small screen was a three-year run in a supporting role on GUNSMOKE) and movies (nonsense like SHARK! and SKULLDUGGERY) before hitting it big in John Boorman’s DELIVERANCE. Suddenly, the journeyman actor was a hot property (posing butt-naked as a centerfold for COSMOPOLITAN didn’t hurt, either!), and studios were scurrying to sign him on to their projects. WHITE LIGHTNING was geared to the Southern drive-in crowd, but Reynolds’ new-found popularity, along with the film’s anti-authority stance, made it a success across the nation.

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WHITE LIGHTNING takes place in rural Arkansas, and Gator McKluskey (Burt) is doing a stretch in Federal prison for running moonshine. His cousin visits and tells Gator his younger brother Donnie was murdered by Sheriff J.C. Connors, the crooked boss of Bogan County. A raging Gator tries to escape, but is immediately caught, so he…

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A Movie A Day #9: Gator (1976, directed by Burt Reynolds)


gatorposterGator McClusky is back!

Since the events in White Lightning, Gator (Burt Reynolds) has been released from prison and he’s now living in the Okefenokee Swamp.  Other than running moonshine, Gator is laying low and keeping to himself.  Gator may be done with the feds but the feds are not done with him.

Gator’s old friend, Bama McCall (Jerry Reed), is now unofficial boss of Dunston County and both the Department of Justice and the Governor of Georgia (played by talk show host Mike Douglas) are determined to take him down.  Federal agent Irving Greenfield (Jack Weston) is convinced that he can get Bama on charges of tax evasion.  But Irving’s from New York and he does not know how to talk to the good ol’ boys.  He needs someone on the inside and that’s where Gator comes in.

Gator not only starred Burt Reynolds but it was his directorial debut as well.  Though it’s a sequel to White Lightning, Gator feels like a very different movie.  Whereas Joseph Sargent kept White Lightning relatively serious, Reynolds take a more jokey approach with Gator.  Reynolds has his famous mustache and his hairpiece in Gator and the self-amused attitude that went along with them.  Gator is full of car chases, fist fights, willing women, and corny jokes.  It also has Lauren Hutton, playing a familiar character who would appear in all of Reynolds’s movies, the sophisticate who cannot resist Burt’s good ol’ boy, country charm.  In the 1970s, audiences couldn’t resist Burt’s good old boy charm, either.  Critics hated Gator but it made a lot of money.

Gator is dumb but fun.  The most interesting part of the movie is seeing Jerry Reed playing a ruthless villain.  Reed is thoroughly convincing as a Dixie Mafia crime boss, the type of redneck who earlier inspired Buford Pusser to pick up a baseball bat and destroy pool halls.  One year later, Jerry would play Burt Reynolds’s best friend in Smoky and the Bandit so it’s interesting to see them playing deadly rivals in Gator.

For tomorrow’s movie a day, Burt’s a football player in jail in The Longest Yard.

A Movie A Day #8: White Lightning (1973, directed by Joseph Sargent)


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A year after co-starring in Deliverance, Burt Reynolds and Ned Beatty reunited for another movie about life in the backwoods, White Lightning.

White Lightning starts with two hippies, bound and gagged and floating in a canoe.  While a banjo plays in the background, two rednecks use a shotgun to blow the canoe into pieces.  They watch as the hippies drown in the swamp.  It turns out that one of those hippies was the brother of legendary moonshiner and expert driver, Gator McCluskey (Reynolds).  Gator is doing time but when he hears that his brother has been murdered, he immediately realizes that he was probably killed on the orders of corrupt Sheriff J. C. Connors (Ned Beatty).  The Feds arrange for Gator to be released from prison, on the condition that he work undercover and bring them enough evidence that they can take Connors down.

Back home, Gator works with a fellow informant, Dude Watson (Matt Clark), teams up with local moonshiner, Roy Boone (Bo Hopkins), and has an affair with Roy’s girl, Lou (Jennifer Billingsley).   Connors and his main henchman, Big Bear (R.G. Armstrong) both suspect that Gator and Dude are working for the government.  Since this is a Burt Reynolds movie, it all ends with a car chase.

A classic of its kind and a huge box office success, White Lightning set the template for almost every other film that Burt Reynolds made in the 1970s and 80s.  There is not much to the movie beyond Burt’s good old boy charm and Ned Beatty’s blustering villainy but if you’re in the mood for car chases and Southern scenery, White Lightning might be the movie for you.   Joseph Sargent also directed the New York crime classic, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, and he gives White Lightning an edginess that would be lacking from many of Burt Reynolds’s later movies.

For tomorrow’s movie a day, it’s the sequel to White Lightning (and Burt Reynolds’s directorial debut), Gator.

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