Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Evictors

The Evictors (1979)
Dir. Charles B. Pierce
Written by Charles B. Pierce, Garry Rusoff, Paul Fisk
Starring Michael Parks, Jessica Harper, Vic Morrow

Love the poster, although of course this doesn't actually happen. Poster guys back then really thought we'd get off on seeing creepy guys carrying women off, I guess just like now when they assume we'll go for any old cover showing a woman being unwillingly dragged off camera. What, are guys just more in the mood for a challenge more these days? I guess maybe that's a victory for feminism?

    Somewhere around the turn of the century in rural Louisiana, three unbalanced residents of a modest farmhouse are being evicted by the local cops. They refuse to go quietly, and instigate a typhoon of gunfire that riddles the house and the cops. Now, in 1940, a nice young couple has moved into the long-vacant former abode of the anti-evictors, only to find ominous signs that they, too, are not wanted here.

    It’s a classic rural siege movie in most ways, playing expertly on that fear that takes you in the middle of the night that maybe someone is in your house, and gradually building that creepy paranoia into a full-on panic. There are lots of elements here which play on your fears: the remote, vulnerable location, away from anyone who might help. The incoming residents, outsiders in a local community which seems to have dangerous secrets that they aren’t in on. The attractive, educated city folk feeling judged and ostracized by the country bumpkins who don’t think much of their high-falutin’ ways. The uncomfortable inner conflict of wondering if your fears are justified or just a product of your own anxiety.

    These are the ingredients to many horror movies, and particularly this kind of rural siege tale, wherein our protagonists are isolated and threatened by unknown, aggressive, unreasonable forces (for instance, CAPE FEAR, THE HILLS HAVE EYES, THE MIST, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, even non-horror stuff like STRAW DOGS or FORT APACHE). But the difference here is that director Charles B. Pierce is focusing on the aspects most often forgotten by horror directors: acting, atmosphere, motivation, time and place. The little things that happen in-between the big scare scenes. THE EVICTORS is rated PG (obviously it would be PG-13 now) and is small-scale and almost tame by the standards of something like THE HILLS HAVE EYES, but packs a punch because what it lacks in elaborate setpieces and crowdpleasing monsters it makes up for by making you care enough that the small stuff matters more.

For fucks sake, we just let you out, and now you want to come back in?!

    I mean, aren’t you supposed to cast James Marsden and Julia Stiles as your besieged couple? You know, attractive, bland white people in their early 30s who make a living being professionally victimized and looking attractive and unmemorable? Their job is to be white and sympathetic, it’s the killer that’s gotta be interesting. That’s where you’re gonna get your Klaus Kinski or Michael Ironside, maybe even a slumming De Niro or Jeremy Irons. But EVICTORS has it all backwards. We hardly get to see the killer, but the couple in question is (are?) Michael Parks and Jessica Harper, both easily interesting enough to qualify for a role as a teen-slashing psychopath, but here playing very sympathetic and relatable characters.

    They’re a young couple, but they’re not kids and they’re not disposable victims. Instead, they’re a believable and endearing couple of adults trying to make the best of a somewhat tense situation (the subtext is that husband Ben needs this job fixing cotton gins in order to avoid being drafted). Ruth (Harper) --home by herself all day and trying to stay positive about it-- is obviously the first to notice something is strange. But when Ben tries to console her by telling her that the creepy guy trying to get through the back door was probably just a drifter who didn’t know that the long-abandoned house was now occupied, he doesn’t sound like the typically obtuse horror movie boyfriend; he sounds like a guy who’s trying both to console and convince himself that everything is going to be OK because he’s up against a wall and trying to make things work. I think we’ve all been in the position of trying to comfort someone when a small part of us is pretty sure it’s actually not OK. But there’s nothing to do but hope.

Happiness is a warm gun and being married to Michael Parks. Also being in SUSPIRA.

Parks, of course, if forever a hero of American cinema for his unbelievably good turn in RED STATE, but he’s done a million things (Twin Peaks, KILL BILL, THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD, ARGO, DEATH WISH V, THE BIBLE: IN THE BEGINNING [where he played Adam at what I must assume was literally the beginning], and heck, he even played Josey Wales in the much-derided sequel THE RETURN OF JOSEY WALES). So we knew he was gonna be great, but I’d forgotten about Jessica Harper, (SUSPIRIA, STARDUST MEMORIES, LOVE & DEATH, THE PHANTOM OF PARADISE, MINORITY REPORT) who may give the very best performance in a role like this that I’ve ever seen. She’s fine with the terrorized stuff, but also unexpectedly great at everything in-between, finding a way to still seem sane, rational, and capable even as she has to stay alone in a house under assault by unknown forces. The direction keeps things getting ever-tenser without ever lapsing into complete historics, so it’s key that both the protagonists and the world feel equally believable.

    Director Pierce (primarily a set decorator for films like COFFY, THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH and whaddaya know, THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES) was something of a indie horror auteur, setting out on his own to make the ground-breaking (and still endearing, if also dated and silly) LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK and the early serial-killer classic THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN. Piece, a native of Arkansas since childhood, has a keen eye and ear for portraying his Southern locations in all their Southern Gothic glory. It’s funny, because it’s not exactly a realistic portrayal; just a better evocation of of that dreamy eerieness you want out of spanish moss and long country roads than most of those Hollywood goofballs can manage. A couple cast members even have genuine southern accents, how bout that? But even though Pierce is himself a Southerner, he still knows that our heroes are city folk, and hence any one of these shifty corn-fed confederates is suspect. Should we be worried about the traveling tinkerman, whose Louisiana accent is so authentic I can barely understand him? What about the too-friendly crippled old lady next door? And what about Ben’s Colonel Sanders-costumed boss? And what about their shifty real estate agent? Should we be worried about him just because he’s played by Vic Morrow (who gets top billing even though he’s hardly in it) and seems both sleazy and like he’s always on the verge of telling them something important?

    I suppose THE EVICTORS is too small-scale and tame to really resonate with most genre fans, but as far as I’m concerned this is one of the best stalker/slasher films I’ve watched in a long time. There’s a richness to the setting and relationships which lends unexpected beauty and weight, and even when it strains credulity it can back it up by playing surprisingly rough, even going for a genuinely blood-chilling grim ending. In most horror movies, you want a bleak ending to reinforce the horror that came before and make sure that audiences leave unsettled and disturbed (or, in the case of SINISTER, to make sure that they leave having had a juggalo unexpectedly yell at them one last time). Usually I’m all about that, but here you like the protagonists so much that the ending is actually kind of a downer, legitimately downbeat even as it works as a good horror twist. Pierce, who clearly has a lot of affection for his characters, even expressed regret at going for such an unforgiving finale. It pays off, though, as one of the most surprising and affecting parting shots I’ve seen in a horror movie in quite awhile. Lots of movies can say they scared or disturbed you. How many can genuinely say they made you sad? Pierce would go on to do a few more films (and even write the story for SUDDEN IMPACT) but to me this stands as his best work, a dreamy and melancholy evocation of the South as a impenetrable riddle where the violent past can unexpectedly lash out at the mundane present. 


LOVECRAFT ADAPTATION: No, "based on true events"
> or = HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS LEVEL GORE: A little blood, not really gore.
SEQUEL: the Bobby-McFerrin-starring sequel "THE MAY HAVE TO LITIGATORS" was a little tamer.
OBSCURITY LEVEL: Extremely high. Little-seen, out-of-print for years, somehow skipped DVD and went straight to Netflix streaming.
SLASHERS: Much of the slashing was done before the events of this film, but definitely a serial killer/stalker/stabber, so I'll say yes.
CURSES: None explicit.
Ruth and her creepy neighbor talk about the house's violent past.

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