Sunday, April 30, 2017

Share the Wealth



Jake (Danny Nelson) with Mr. Stone (Ray Walston) in BLOOD SALVAGE (1989).



I normally don't watch that screeching elitist skankmonster Rachel Maddow because someone being paid $30,000 a day to vomit forth corporatist war-mongering propaganda and pass it off as news makes me wanna spew burrito chunks. Plus those smug faces she makes unleash a homicidal fury from within that will result in me putting my foot through my TV and then how the hell will I watch the THE HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS FEAST on glorious Blu-ray? Anyway, I had the misfortune to catch a segment in which she used archival news footage to compare the surge of support for Trump to George Wallace's 1968 and 1972 campaigns for president. Enlightened trust-fund liberals everywhere began to tremble with fear and outrage: Donald Trump was just a new version of that ol' segregationist crabapple George Wallace! Definitive proof those blue collar slobs are just a bunch of racist yahoos!
"Yeah, I wish," I snarked. "Wallace was at least pro-union and wanted to expand social security. That tree-huggin' hippie even passed some environmental protection bill as governor of Alabama, too!"
An analysis of the different factors that motivated working class and middle class people to support Wallace or the Trumpinator would have required insight. But Mad Cow Maddow sure as hell won't have any of that on her show. Instead, she spewed back the anti-democratic master narrative that working and middle class people in Middle America are really just a bunch of angry, bigoted suckers who need a Berkeley professor to hold their hands in the voting booth.
Thus began the rallying cry of both faux-progressive politicians and whinemeister celebrities alike that Donald Trump is the "worst Republican candidate since George Wallace."
"Foul, you neoliberal numskulls," I sneered. "Wallace was a Democrat!"

George Wallace is primarily remembered for his opposition to civil rights, the villain in the morality play of 20th century America, and now a long-dead boogeyman resurrected to remind us of our country's racist history. However, this also eliminates the populist elements of his political career, a large part of his appeal to voters in Alabama and the rest of America. Academia isn't all that kind to populists. William Jennings Bryan, "The Great Commoner," who championed the small businessmen, laborers and farmers of the South and the Midwest over the elite, is now mostly remembered as a Bible-thumping fuddy-duddy thanks to the ever-mendacious play, INHERIT THE WIND. Huey Long is remembered more for his autocratic, corrupt methods in governing Louisiana and as some kind of redneck would-be fascist boogeyman rather than for his anti-corporate, anti-establishment agenda or his programs that benefitted working people.  As Jeff Taylor writes in his excellent book, Where Did the Party Go?, "Academia and the media are the main bestowers of respectability in American society. Both are largely dependent upon the Power Elite" (Taylor, p. 128)
Wallace was deeply flawed (I mean, he was a politician, after all) but he was not the racist monster he is often portrayed to be either. His legacy in Alabama is both positive and negative. People seem to have a lot of trouble with moral grey areas, but hey, the truth is always more complex than simple divisions into heroes and villains -- and the truth offers more important lessons to learn. Today, my darling readers, I'm giving a history lesson, so put down your beer bongs and your Twitterphones and pay attention.


George Wallace campaigning, 1968


Wallace's story plays out like a Shakespearean tragedy. He was born and raised in rural Barbour County, in southeastern Alabama during the Great Depression. His father was an alcoholic, plagued by upper respiratory ailments and prone to violent fits of anger. The family struggled, but their straits were not as dire as some of their neighbors, thanks in part to the efforts of his cultured (she was once an aspiring pianist) and resourceful mother. "We have plenty to eat," she said. "And we have screen doors." As a young boy, Wallace spent much of his time with his grandfather, the county doctor and often went along with him on housecalls. "It bothered George to see people being without food, people who had to pay with a potato or a chicken," Wallace's second wife, Cornelia said. "They just didn't have money out in the country. The Depression years made an indelible mark on his life. It was a very desperate time" (McCabe & Stekler).
Bright and ambitious, Wallace was a fighter in every sense of the word; his stint as an amateur boxer in his teens and college years later earned him the nickname "The Fighting Little Judge." As a law student at University of Alabama, he worked odd jobs -- washing dishes, selling magazines, driving a dump truck and even serving a stint inoculating dogs in his home county -- to put himself through school. With little money to spend on textbooks, he borrowed them from friends in order to complete his course work.  Upon his graduation, short on funds, he gathered up and sold all of his clothing (with the exception of one winter suit, two shirts, two pairs of trousers and some underclothing) as well as the wire hangers (metal was in short supply due to wartime) in his closet. In need of work, he rode the bus out to an Alabama Highway department encampment whose district engineer had advertised for truck drivers. Wallace had never driven a truck, but assured the district engineer that he had experience and was hired on the spot at thirty cents an hour. Wallace then approached another driver in the camp, offered the man a quarter on payday if he would show him how to drive a dump truck. After a quick lesson, Wallace took off on his first assignment, driving to nearby Elberta City (Lesher, 42-43). Whatever his other faults, Wallace was scrappy.


George Wallace as an amateur boxer


At 27, he began his political career as a state legislator, the youngest in state history. Among his accomplishments during his tenure were the Wallace-Cater Municipal Bonding Act, which attracted a variety of industries to the state using tax incentives, including General Motors, Chrysler, Procter & Gamble, Sony, Michelin, U.S. Steel, Boeing, Monsanto, Kerr-McGhee and Mitsubishi; the State Vocational and Trade School Act, which chartered five new trade schools; and increased funding for Tukeegee College, the historically black college founded by Booker T. Washington.
He even asked to serve on its board of trustees (Lesher, 87).
In 1952, he was elected Circuit Court Judge for the Third Judicial Circuit, where his rulings in favor of working people - black or white - over elites earned him a reputation as a progressive. J.L. Chestnut, Jr., who would become one of the leading civil rights attorneys in the South, and who had argued before Judge Wallace remembers, "George Wallace was for the little man, no doubt about it...George Wallace was the first judge to call me 'mister' in a courtroom" (Lesher, 95). Another young black lawyer who would also play an important role in civil rights history, Fred Gray (he defended Rosa Parks) also impressed by Judge Wallace. In a case involving fifty black clients who had been displaced from their homes by an urban renewal project in Barbour County, Wallace found in favor of the plaintiff and the jury, at Wallace's recommendation, awarded the plaintiff's more money than the housing authority offered -- and in some cases more than the plaintiffs had even requested. Gray rose at the end of the trial to thank Wallace: "Your honor, I have practiced in many courts, but I have never been treated more fairly by a judge, by the jurors, by the officers of the court, than I have here" (Lesher, 92-93).
However, in 1953, he was also the first judge in the South to enjoin local officials from removing railroad-station signs that denoted "white" and "colored" facilities (Lesher, 95). This schizophrenia towards racial politics would continue throughout his political career.


George Wallace as Judge of the Third Judicial Circuit, circa 1958
George Wallace as Third Judicial Circuit Judge circa 1958


But Wallace's real goal was the governorship. In his first campaign for Governor of Alabama in 1958, Wallace espoused the populist ideals he had championed throughout his early career: improving public school education, building trade schools, increasing old-age pensions, building highways, reforming a corrupt state government, and attracting industries to Alabama (Lesher, 116). While not a supporter of integration, his views on racial issues were considered moderate; after all, the programs he advocated were to help all working people. Wallace also denounced the Klan and was endorsed by the NAACP.
His opponent in the gubernatorial race had other ideas, however.
Many white Alabamians felt under siege as the mass movement for civil rights began to take shape and the federal government made its first attempts at integration. John Patterson, who had used his position as Attorney General of Alabama to drive civil rights activists from the state, ran an openly racist campaign for governor. Patterson's campaign even had ties to the Ku Klux Klan, which normally would have cost him the support of moderates.
Patterson won in a landslide.
Wallace was devastated by the loss.
It's at this point in the story that historians say the one-time progressive made a Faustian bargain, selling out his principles for political power as Wallace returned campaigning for the governorship in 1962, this time as a hard-line segregationist. Where he had once lashed the investment class, the Black Belt plantation owners, the country club gentry and the corrupt Bourbons, the new enemy was an intrusive federal government interfering in state matters. The gubernatorial candidate who denounced the Klan now even employed one of them, Asa Carter, as his speechwriter (aside: Asa Carter would later go on to write a series of Western paperbacks under a pseudonym, including the novel that would be adapted to screen as THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES).
Where in the 1958 campaign, he proclaimed, "If I didn't have what it took to treat a man fair regardless of his color, then I don't have what it takes to be governor of your state," in his 1962 inaugural address, he made his most-quoted pledge: "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever" (McCabe & Stekkler).
However, in addition to race-baiting demagoguery, Wallace articulates a populist agenda: promises for honesty and economy in state government, to end the corrupt liquor agent system in Alabama, to raise educational standards, to bring new industry to the state and to better the lives of workers and senior citizens. He ended the speech with a prayer "that the Father who reigns above us will bless all people of this great sovereign state and nation, both white and black." If you are so inclined, you can listen to the whole speech thanks to the wonder of YouTube:




Wallace still presented himself as a fighter for working people, but unfortunately as Ray Jenkins, the editor of the Alabama Journal stated, "Poor blacks and poor whites are in the same boat...Poor whites come first with Wallace" (Palmer, 108). In his first term as governor he doubled educational appropriations (including free textbooks for all students grades 1 through 12 and raising teacher salaries by 40%), opened 14 new junior colleges and 15 new trade schools, expanded the University of Alabama Medical Center, chartered University of South Alabama in Mobile, implemented the largest highway construction and maintenance program in state history, lured $2 billion in capital investment to Alabama resulting in 100,000 new jobs and increased wages, launched statewide programs for mentally handicapped children and programs to arrest water pollution, increased funding for state mental institutions and increased medical benefits for the elderly and for the indigent. Despite his segregationist posturing, his programs benefitted both white and black (Lesher, 368).
The same Wallace who opposed the civil rights movement also, upon receiving a letter from a poor black woman who plead for help because she could not afford clothes for her teenage son, personally mailed the woman a box full of boy's clothes (Palmer, 163).
On the other hand, the Wallace who denounced an over-reaching federal government also ruled Alabama with an autocratic ruthlessness, using state police to harass and intimidate his political opponents and civil rights advocates as well as intervening when local school boards in Huntsville and Mobile chose to desegregate. And while he abolished the corrupt whiskey-agent system and cracked down on predatory loan practices, his administration was also was also riddled with corruption involving overreaches of power and kickbacks from state contracts. Opponents argued that while Wallace had succeeded in attracting new industry to the state, it was mainly of the low-skill, low-wage variety with the corporations reaping more benefits from the state than they provided.
Wallace also never reformed the state's regressive tax structure, which would have greatly benefitted working class Alabamians and increased available funds for the educational and social programs Wallace claimed to support.
His vocal opposition to civil rights ironically led to Alabama integrating at a faster rate. However, it also created a hostile, violent climate that left the state with deep scars.
And while Wallace's policies did some good for Alabama, you could argue that he could have benefitted the state far more if he had devoted his time to state administration instead of national campaigns. Wallace may have cared for Alabama's working folks, but his ambition came first.
If Wallace was a monster, he was Jekyll and Hyde.


George Wallace with his wife, Lurleen, and children


Wallace never allowed his grip on Alabama to slacken. When the state constitution forbid the governor from serving consecutive terms, he had his wife, Lurleen, run as a surrogate. Lurleen agreed, in spite of her ill health (she would die of uterine cancer while in office). Despite running as a proxy governor for her husband, the shy but feisty Lurleen had an appeal all her own; warm and genuine in dealing with constituents, blue collar Alabamians saw her as one of their own. She was, both as first lady and as a governor, also an advocate for mental health and disabled children.  But while Wallace maintained control of Alabama, his political ambition moved him from the state level to the national. After an unsuccessful run for the Democratic primary in 1964, in 1968 he campaigned for the presidency as an independent.

1968 marked a bitter split in the Democratic Party: Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, a leftie populist, campaigned for the presidency on a promise to end American involvement in the Vietnam War. McCarthy was the favored candidate of young people, and won the popular vote for the nomination. However, a rigged primary ensured that an establishment, Wall Street-funded pro-war candidate received the nomination (sound familiar?). History books generally view Wallace's 1968 campaign in similar apocalyptic terms: white Southerners and blue collar whites in the Rust Belt flocked to Wallace in a backlash against progress made by the civil rights movement. At this turning point in history, the working class (as well as some middle class) reacted against a changing American culture by abandoning the Democratic Party and embracing a new, reactionary conservatism in the latter half of the 20th century. There are some grains of truth, but this narrative leaves out several pieces of the puzzle. It doesn't explain the McCarthy supporters who backed Wallace once McCarthy was no longer in the race. It ignores the support Wallace received from the counter-culture such as hippies who showed up to Wallace rallies brandishing "Freak Out With George" signs or the leftie Ramparts magazine declaring, "In this year’s election, the only one of the three major candidates who is a true radical is Wallace."
In his excellently researched book, Where Did the Party Go?, Jeff Taylor hypothesizes it was the Democratic Party that had changed politically rather than the working class. The Democratic Party, once the party of Jeffersonian ideals (populist, opposed to interventionist wars and a large, intrusive government, equal opportunities for all and special privileges for none) in the 20th century transformed into a party of globalist, pro-war, pro-Wall Street elitists.




Wallace's insistence that his opposition to civil rights was not due to racism but to opposition to federal intrusion on states rights is shaky. He never proposed alternatives that could be employed on a state level or (at least at this point in his political career) tried to unite blacks and working class whites against the elite establishment that marginalizes them both.
However, Wallace's appeal was not solely to racists. Unlike the major party candidates, Wallace championed the working class: "your steel workers, your oil workers, building trades workers, beauticians, little businessmen, and farmers, and your policemen and firemen. Those are my kind of people," Wallace proclaimed.
Reporter James Dickinson observed, "Wallace's identification with the 'common man' is so complete, that it often seems that he believes that he embodies the very will and being of the common man. Wallace is the Cicero of the cab driver" (Lesher, 395).
He called for expansion of Social Security and Medicare, advocated reform of a tax system that over-burdened working people in favor of the wealthy and savaged limousine liberal hypocrites. He pledged withdrawal of troops from the Vietnam War if the war "was not winnable within 90 days" and denounced American intervention in the affairs foreign countries. Investigative journalist Jack Newfield, a populist Democrat who became a critic of the modern Democratic Party observed:

"I cannot recall either Johnson in 1964 or Humphrey in 1968 campaigning on any positive or exciting ideas that might excite the almost-poor workers, whose votes they took for granted ... In contrast, George Wallace has been sounding like William Jennings Bryan as he attacked concentrated wealth in his speeches ...From 1960 to 1968 liberal Democrats governed the country. But nothing basic got done to make life decisively better for the white workingman. When he bitched about street crime, he was called a Goldwaterite by liberals who felt secure in the suburbs behind high fences and expensive locks. When he complained about his daughter being bused, he was called a racist by liberals who could afford to send their own children to private schools...Liberal hypocrisy created a lot of Wallace votes in 1968" (Newfield, 39-46).

Taylor concurs:

"Many conservatives supported the presidential campaigns of Governor George Wallace in the 1960s and 1970s not because they were racists, but because they were populists. Wallace took on the Establishment. He favored states' rights, criticized the nation's unfair tax structure, condemned assistance to communist dictators, ridiculed the haughty intelligentsia, advocated traditional moral values, was a representative of the working class, and pointed out that there was not a dime's worth of difference between the two major parties" (Taylor, 233-234).



Cornelia Wallace, George Wallace's second wife: sassy, salty and ever-stylin',
Cornelia was dubbed  "The Jackie Kennedy of the Rednecks."
I totally want her and her drunk, trash-talkin' mama to adopt me.


As the nation entered the 1970s, Wallace softened his racial views.  Despite resorting to an ugly, race-baiting campaign to defeat his popular opponent, Albert Brewer, in the 1971 governor's race, Wallace appointed several blacks to state positions. He proclaimed that he no longer supported segregation, that he was a moderate on racial issues and always had been and "Alabama belongs to us all - black and white, you and old, rich and poor alike" (Lesher, 457) In 1971, black Alabamians marched in the inaugural parade for the first time.
In 1972, Wallace embarked on another campaign for the presidency, this time as a candidate in the Democratic primary. He continued vocal opposition to busing, but his campaign emphasized tax reform as the predominant issue. Insisting the wealthy, corporate foundations and mega-churches were not paying their fair share of taxes while the burden was falling upon working people, Wallace proposed closing tax loopholes and implementing taxes on foundations and church-owned property, allowing for tax relief on the middle class. He also proposed federal judges be democratically elected rather than appointed and for supreme court judges to be re-confirmed by a senate vote every six years (Lesher, 474).

Wallace carried every county in Florida, but fate (or mayhaps the deep state) would deny him the presidency. His campaign screeched to an abrupt halt when a crazed Arthur Bremer fired five shots into Wallace as he shook hands with the crowd at a campaign stop in Laurel, Maryland. Wallace survived, but the attack left him paralyzed (and in constant, grinding pain) for the remainder of his life.
George Wallace would campaign again for the Democratic primary in 1976, but his career as a national politician was finished.

Alabama, however, was a different story. Now allowed to succeed himself by amendment to the state constitution, Wallace ran as an incumbent for governor in 1974. He picked up support from black voters for the first time, including endorsements from Tuskegee mayor, Johnny Ford and the Ozark Voters League (Palmer, 257) and won the seat.
With his health deteriorating, Wallace would not seek re-election in 1979. With a broken body, and a personal life in shambles (second wife Cornelia filed for a scandal-ridden divorce in 1978), he would spend most of his time brooding and alone.
But 1978 also brought another transformation.
Shortly before he left office of what he thought would be his last term, Wallace appeared unannounced at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, the church where Martin Luther King Jr. once occupied the pulpit. Before a gathering of three hundred black ministers and lay leaders of Alabama churches, Wallace apologized for his past support of segregation, adding, "I've learned what pain is and I'm sorry if I've caused anybody else pain" (Lesher, 502).
In 1982, he again made a public apology before the Southern Christian Leadership Conference for his past behavior towards the black community.


Wallace laughin' it up with Jesse Jackson


Some believe Wallace's recantation of his racist past was due purely to ambition: he needed the black vote to maintain political power in Alabama. Those that knew him believe his apology was sincere, a return to the original progressive instincts he had compromised: "That was the real George Wallace," his law school classmate and Attorney General (as well as opponent for the 1966 governorship) Richmond Flowers said (McCabe & Stekler).
Wallace biographer Stephan Lesher agrees that Wallace did have some self-serving reasons for his change of heart, "But his third reason revealed a humanity so often lacking in his actions: alone and crippled, forced to introspection for the first time in his life, he realized that though he had purported to be the champion of the poor and helpless, he had trampled on the poorest and most helpless of all his constituents - the blacks" (Lesher, 501).
Wallace sought an unprecedented fourth term for the governorship in 1982, winning the seat with a coalition of white and black supporters.

Populist champion of the working class or self-interested racist demagogue, Wallace's appeal in Alabama and nationwide extended beyond opposition to civil rights. "Wallace tapped into deep pools of public distrust of growing federal intrusion into what many considered local or private matters and he had given voice to widespread uneasiness about increasing crime and civil disorder...Too, he had strengthened the sense of self-worth among owners of small businesses, shopkeepers, blue-collar workers, clerks, secretaries, police officers, fire-fighters, taxi drivers, beauticians, and all those who felt oppressed or ignored by the powerful institutions such as big government and the national media. At the same time, he had articulated the prevalent alarm over the concentration of too much wealth in too few hands, too much dependence on foreign capital and foreign sources of energy, too many 'giveaways' to foreign governments while too many Americans 'live under bridges (or) lie on grates in the winter to keep warm' " (Lesher, 503).


Wallace campaigning for the Alabama governor's race in 1962


You won't hear that out of those pointy-headed prep school plutocrats on MSNBC. Well folks, history class is dismissed. But if you've got a carnivorous appetite for American history like I do and three hours of sittin' around time, I recommend the American Experience documentary George Wallace: Settin' the Woods On Fire. It's worth it for the awesome music alone. And do you know what it has in common with THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE? They both feature the sonic craftsmanship of sound designer WAYNE BELL!
And you can totally watch it for free, thanks to that treasure trove of both the arcane and idiotic, YouTube!




And speaking of Southern populists with a dark side, today I'm talkin' about the fourth movie in my Regional Horror-Thon, a flick near and dear to my tortured, twisted heart straight from a state near and dear to my tortured, twisted heart, BLOOD SALVAGE (1990) directed by TUCKER JOHNSTON with a screenplay co-written by him and KEN SANDERS. Words aren't adequate to describe how much I love this movie. My eyes are turning into giant hearts even as I'm typing this blog entry. Yes my darlings, words can't adequately describe, but I'm gonna give it a go.  Hard-working Georgia thespian and Cates Pickle spokesman DANNY NELSON stars as amiable Jake Pruitt, a God-fearing working class widower scraping out a living for himself and his two boys as a mechanic in backwoods Stonewall County, Georgia. Having endured a life of struggle as well as losing his beloved wife to a bad heart, Jake muses on the inequality of the world in an opening voiceover:

"When Jesus  died to save our souls, to redeem the whole human race it took him one afternoon. Just a few short hours. I've seen innocent little children who've suffered more than that. Lingering for weeks, months, their bodies eat up with cancer, their hearts shriveled into something half dead. And none of 'em ever deserved it. And I've seen other folks out living the high life, walkin' hand-in-hand with the devil. And they've got good health. And when they die, they die quick. Lord knows none of them ever deserved that. The Bible says we was all born into a state of sin. We've all gotta suffer for it. But sometimes decent folks seem to suffer more than their fair share.
It just...ain't...right."

After all, Jake lost his wife after she was unable to receive the heart transplant that would have saved her life.  "Doctor said she needed a new heart, but they couldn't seem to find her one," Jake says, and for the first time his congenial, smiling demeanor slips, revealing the deep reservoir of rage underneath: "There was plenty of hearts to go around, mind you. Just had to know the right people. I guess I didn't," he seethes. "Wasn't fair...wasn't fair at all."


Danny Nelson as Jake Pruitt in BLOOD SALVAGE (1989).


Jake is a populist at heart. "I believe those who have more, ought to give to those who have less," he says and decides to do something about the disparity between those "folks out living the high life" and the "decent folks" who suffer more than their share.
With the help of his boys, slow-witted man-child Roy (RALPH PRUITT VAUGHN) and weasely, hot-tempered Hiram (the hilarious CHRISTIAN HESLER), he kidnaps privileged travelers after ramming their cars off the road, then sells their organs on the black market (through the squeamish Mr. Stone, played by none other than RAY WALSTON) to the "decent folks" in need who don't have the influence required to get them.
It's a homicidal version of Huey Long's Share the Wealth Program!


Huey Long speaks about income inequality and his Share the Wealth program in 1934


In a subversive wrinkle, the film even implies that Jake's wrongdoing has done a lot of good for people. Mr. Stone speaks of a kind, elderly woman in Memphis who is now recovering thanks to one of Jake's transplants. While she's recuperating in the hospital, she even goes down to the children's wing and reads them stories! "A good woman," Mr. Stone states.

Things get complicated when Jake develops an obsession with newly crippled teenage beauty pageant queen, April Evans (LORI BIRDSONG) despite the fact that she might be the most obnoxious wheelchair-bound character ever. Tampering with her family's RV so they'll conveniently break down on their drive back to Atlanta, Jake plans to cure April with spinal injections so that she may walk again, then take her for his new wife. Her family however (including horror regular JOHN SAXON as her dad) will just be spare parts.


BLOOD SALVAGE (1989)
Check out that product placement



As you most likely have already noticed, BLOOD SALVAGE explores similar themes to THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, such as the country's revenge on the city and the working class's revenge on the privileged.  And while the Evans family regards Jake and his boys with barely concealed condescension, in their affluence they have become dependent on the labor of others. That dependence also leaves them at the mercy of those that they have used and scorned. The working class, however, are resourceful and self-sufficient. Jake and his sons use the skills of their trade to disable the cars (symbols of status) of those more privileged than them. City dwellers like the Evans family sneer at the rural Pruitts (or as April refers to them " those stupid hicks"), but as William Jennings Bryan said in his "Cross of Gold" speech: "I tell you that the great cities rest upon these broad and fertile prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic. But destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country."

And thanks to the ever-expanding netherworld of YouTube, you can listen to that full speech here!



And that's the big thing I don't understand about this sneering contempt towards the working class by the professional class. After all, those are the people they depend on to fix their cars, grow their food, build their houses and unclog their toilets. I don't really care what any college professors, C.E.O.s, investment bankers or surgeons think of me, but I do go out of my way to make sure rednecks are my friends. After all, they're good in a crisis and if there's ever an apocalypse, they'll be the ones who survive. They've been preparing for it their whole lives.

Generally, in horror films, the country takes revenge upon the city, but balance is restored in the end. The lower class folks' challenge to the dominating class is punished by death and balance is restored. And while genre films imply that the rage of the rural, lower class against the urban upper middle class is justified, they also imply that they are deserving of their marginalization due to the fact that they're a bunch of primitive, subhuman peckerwood wackos who like to make lampshades out of people's faces. However, backwoods horror films produced outside the Hollywood system have a different take on things. In THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, the family remains at large at the end of the film and balance is never restored. Sally may have escaped, but the final image of the film is Leatherface, swinging his chainsaw and twirling in an insane dance: the lower class rages on. In THE HILLS HAVE EYES, the primitive family may have been defeated by the middle class Carter family, but the Carters have proven themselves to be just as savage in doing so. The primitive family and the urban, middle class family are really just two sides of the same coin. In BLOOD SALVAGE, April (perhaps due to living with a handicap) proves to be more resourceful than expected. The Pruitt family is punished for their transgressions while April drives off back to the city in her family's RV. However, the ending implies that while the rural, lower class family may have lost this round, they won't be defeated so easily.


Jake (Danny Nelson) preaches and performs experimental surgery in BLOOD SALVAGE (1989).


As with THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE and THE HILLS HAVE EYES, BLOOD SALVAGE also incorporates themes about the American family, although not as prominently as the previous two films. Much like the family in THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, the Pruitt family is a family without women. While the absence of women in the family in THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE is never explained, in BLOOD SALVAGE, it's the loss of the family's matriarch that spirals the family into ruin. While the rest of the home has fallen into ruin, her room is left preserved, a shrine to her memory. Horror films are often accused of being misogynistic, but in horror films, women are portrayed as a civilizing influence. Men may control the professional sphere, but women rule the social and sexual sphere. Without them to manage, everything crumbles. In horror films, a family without a wife and mother is a depraved thing indeed.


Photo of Helen, the deceased wife and mother in BLOOD SALVAGE (1989).


While it successfully combines backwoods horror, warped humor and subversive subtext (and does so better than the more famous MOTEL HELL, in my opinion), BLOOD SALVAGE remains relegated mostly to obscurity.  It suffers from the never-released-on-DVD curse, but has still acquired a small cult following so maybe a resurrection is possible. The film is skillfully shot and I would love to see the production design in Jake's workshop in more detail. The script is smarter than most like to give it credit for, presenting familiar tropes with a wry sense of humor and plenty of dialogue that would do FLANNERY O' CONNOR proud. But I think a lot of the film's success is owed to DANNY NELSON's performance as Jake. NELSON's one of those familiar faces you've seen in hundreds of movies (including FRIED GREEN TOMATOES, A TIME TO KILL, THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE and one of my favorites, MURDER IN COWETA COUNTY) but whose name you can never quite recall. If it was filmed in Georgia, you can bet DANNY NELSON is probably in it. In BLOOD SALVAGE, he delivers a layered performance, deftly underplaying some of the hammier moments and skillfully portraying the rage and madness lurking underneath the jovial exterior.
And there's something about him that's just so damn huggable.
CHRISTIAN HESLER, who died of a heroin overdose before the film's release, is hilarious as the cantankerous Hiram. Saying he reminds me of a young, but more feral BRAD DOURIF is the highest compliment I can think of.
Yes, my darlings, you can tell that my heart overfloweth with love for BLOOD SALVAGE. And thanks to this movie, we now know what really happened to Elvis!


Elvis is one of Jake's "patients" in BLOOD SALVAGE (1989).

SOURCES


Lesher, Stephan. George Wallace: American Populist. Cambridge: Perseus Publishing, 1994.

George Wallace: Settin' the Woods On Fire. Dir: Daniel McCabe & Paul Stekler. WGBH Educational Foundation, Midnight Films, Inc. & Big House Films, 2000. Film.

Palmer, Mary S. George Wallace: An Enigma. Point Clear, AL: Intellect Publishing, 2016.

Taylor, Jeff. Where Did the Party Go? Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2006.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Deep in the Heart of Dixie



Vincent Price as Julian White in FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM (1987).


Despite their professed tolerance, their sanctimonious denouncement of any bigotry, there's no group that Let-'em-Eat-Cake Limousine Liberals love to hate quite like white Southerners. They think this country should be run by software entrepreneurs and trust-fund artists without any interference from auto plant workers in Louisville or dock workers in Mobile or mechanics in Savannah. I mean, it's not like they went to the right schools.
The image of a Southerner, one that's reinforced by the Power-Elite beholden media and academia by the kind of people who quote H.L. Mencken and touch themselves, is of some sweaty gun totin' moonshine-swiggin' rebel-flag-wavin' peckerwood named Jimbo, sitting on his morbidly obese behind in a rusty trailer in a crusty "Don't Blame Me, I Voted For Jeff Davis" T-shirt (his "Pull My Finger" shirt got eaten by a possum) watching Jerry Springer re-runs, shooting rats, entering spitting contests and looking for Klan rallies to attend and relatives to date.
And I recently came across this comment from an alleged liberal on Salon.com article:

"My conclusion is that the only way to deal with the 'southern man' is to defeat him, over and over, until he is as marginalized, politically and culturally, as he so deserves to be."

Yikes and gadzooks, this breed of fighting pseudo-liberal has less in common with Thomas Jefferson and more in common with David Duke! Hell, even most of the anti-Southern jokes are just old ethnic jokes with a new accent. There's an irony in there somewhere but I'm not drunk enough to find it.
Maybe it's just easier to target a faceless group of people in another area of the country than to take a long, hard look at the bigotry, ignorance and corruption in your own backyard.
Segregation was de jure in the South, but it was de facto in the North. And while there were riots in Little Rock and Birmingham, the Fighting Pseudo-Liberals conveniently forget the race riots in Philadelphia and New York City in 1964 as well as the violent protests and riots over busing in South Boston that occurred in the 1970s. Birmingham may have had Bull Connor, but Philadelphia had Frank Rizzo. The city MLK cited as being the most segregated wasn't even below the Mason-Dixon line -- it was Chicago.

Maybe it all comes down to the social class. After all, the South is still coping with inherited poverty and all the problems that come with that. When people sneer that they "thankfully live in a more enlightened part of the country" they really mean it's the kind of place where members of the professional class drink frothy lattés in acceptably bohemian coffee houses, crying crocodile tears for the plight of the starving children in Nigeria without worry of having to mix with any of those unpleasant blue collar types because they can't afford the $2,500 a month it takes to rent an apartment in the city limits.

Upon being called "poor white trash," should working class Southerners start telling these jerks to check their class privilege? Upon being jeered at as "rednecks," should we start responding, "Hey, that's pigmentally-challenged regional American to you, sissy britches!"
Then again, I don't know if the descendants of people who followed hellraising John Knox to Ulster and tried to blow off the heads of any government agents who wanted to tax their whiskey really give a damn what the elites think of them.
I don't need no safe space, I'm damn proud to be a redneck. And I'm damn proud that I beat Jimbo in that spitting contest.

And while I'm at it, let's take a romp through the id of the American South with the third movie in my regional horror movie bonanza, shot and produced in Dalton, Georgia and set in Tennessee, FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM (1987) also known as THE OFFSPRING directed by JEFF BURR and co-written by him, C. COURTNEY JOYNER, producer DARIN SCOTT and MIKE MALONE.

After the execution of notorious serial killer Katherine White (Hammer beauty MARTINE BESWICK), reporter Beth Chandler (my beloved SUSAN TYRRELL) travels to Katherine's hometown of Oldfield, Tennessee to speak with her uncle, Julian, who has the doubly good fortune to be played by the legendary VINCENT PRICE and to be the town librarian. She wants to find out what caused Katherine to embark on a vicious murder spree. He insists that there is no psychological explanation, but something dark and rotten in the heart of Oldfield itself that turns its residents into human monsters. Julian knows where all the bodies are buried -- literally -- and with a deliciously ham-flavored Southern accent, begins to tell Beth about Oldfield's history of violence and depravity. It's like if WILLIAM FAULKNER wrote TALES FROM THE CRYPT.

FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM follows the tradition of Southern writers like FAULKNER, FLANNERY O' CONNOR and TENNESEE WILLIAMS. Contrasting Southern gentility with grotesque characters, warped humor and shocking violence, they depicted a South struggling with its identity in the modern age: still haunted from a lost war that wiped out an entire generation of young men, a decaying aristocracy and struggling to come to grips with the decline of an agrarian society being replaced by an industrialized one.


Stanley Burnside (CLU GULAGER) visits the object of his obsession in FROM A WHISPER TO SCREAM (1987).


The first story stars dedicated character actor CLU GULAGER as Stanley Burnside, a nebbishy weirdo who develops a crush of Hinckley proportions on the leggy, aloof Grace, his co-worker at the packing plant. Unfortunately, Stanley has few social skills and his overly-enmeshed relationship with his sickly sister, Eileen, has turned him into a bundle of seething resentment. Despite this, Stanley is able to convince Grace to accept a date with him. Unfortunately, he can't reign in the creepiness and spends the evening talking about how their date made his sister jealous, that his mama used to love yams and then makes everything worse by trying to sing a song he wrote about her and forcing her to kiss him while sobbing hysterically. Grace handles this like any wise woman would and attempts to jump out of the car. Unfortunately, determined not to lose the object of his affection, Stanley strangles her to death and dumps her body by the roadside. Though Grace is dead and gone, Stanley's obsession is not, and he breaks into the church where her casket lies...
Yes, my darlings, it all leads to necrophilia, murder and vengeance beyond the grave.
This is one of the stronger segments in the film and probably best remembered because of its sensual fever of perversity as well as a terrific -- and very funny -- performance by CLU GULAGER.
Necrophilia was a favorite trope among Southern Gothic writers. Maybe it's symbolic of the decay and decline of the Old South.  Maybe it's due to the tendency of Southerners to romanticize death. Maybe those writers just read "Annabel Lee" too many times.
Eileen Burnside, like many Southern Gothic characters, remains insular and focused on the past. She remains in the house away from other people, feigning persistent fevers so that her brother will bathe her in ice water. It doesn't take a PhD in Literature to know what her "fevers" are symbolic of. She obsesses over the memory of their dead father, even suggesting they celebrate his memory at Christmas by getting a Christmas tree draped in black.
Stanley, too, leads a trapped existence to the point where when he is denied what he wants the most, he decides to just take it -- in the most perverse way possible.


Harry Caesar as Felder Evans in FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM (1987).


In the second story, Jesse Hardwicke (TERRY KISER, the psychiatrist everyone loved to hate in FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VII) is an outlaw on the run (a favorite Southern Gothic character type). Wounded by gunshot, he stumbles into the swamps to be rescued by a mysterious conjureman named Felder Evans. From a revealing scrapbook Felder has conveniently left lying around, Jesse discovers the man is actually over a century old. Ya see, Felder has a potion that grants eternal life. Though he's more than happy to share with his new frenemy, Jesse would rather have all of it for himself.
I've never understood why in movies people are always clamoring for eternal life. Isn't life already long enough?
Underneath the supernatural shenangians there lies a commentary about race and class. The outlaw and the outsider should be allies. In fact, Felder even tells Jesse that he's grateful for his company after being alone for so long. Instead, one tries to use and discard the other for his own gain. Unfortunately for Jesse, karma is a real bitch with rabies.


The traveling circus in FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM (1987).


The third story treks over similar grounds with race, class and witchcraft. Set during the Depression, ingénue Amaryllis falls in love with Steven, the glass-eater in a travelling sideshow. Unfortunately, the owner of the sideshow is a possessive witch (ROSALIND CASH) and the carnies are all outlaws on the run who bargained to become performers in exchange for her protection. It's far from a mutually beneficial arrangement, however, as Steven remarks, "You take more than you give."
Naturally, it does not end well for the star-crossed lovers. It's a pretty grim vision of class mobility: the marginalized are doomed to stay trapped. As Steven tells Amaryllis, "I'm a freak...the carnival is where I belong."
With a backdrop that recalls TOD BROWNING's FREAKS, this segment has the potential to be the most interesting in the anthology but unfortunately it's over as soon as it starts.

The finale takes us back to, of course, the end of the Civil War. A gang of Union soldiers lead by CAMERON (THE TOOLBOX MURDERS) MITCHELL don't want the South's surrender to put an end to their a-rapin' and a-plunderin' so they venture on to Oldfield. They discover, however, that the war has wiped out the entire adult population, leaving the remaining homicidal and disfigured children to run the town. This tale explores similar territory to CHILDREN OF THE CORN as well as one of my favorite movies, THE BEGUILED; it resembles the latter both in its Civil War South setting and in its anti-war sentiment. While it's the powerful that initiate war, it's the defenseless - the children - who pay the price.
When MITCHELL's character protests that the war is over, the leader of the children remarks: "The killing continues...as long as there are big people, there's always a need (for war)."


Oldfield, Tennessee's history of violence stems from the Civil War in FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM (1987).


It's not a surprise that Oldfield's legacy of violence stems from the Civil War. After all, it left deep scars on the American South that are still visible today. When people from other parts of the United States remark (usually condescendingly) about why Southerners can't get over the fact that they lost the war, they forget that the South has still not recovered from repercussions, mainly inherited poverty (which ripples into the educational system, medical care, wages and - well, pretty much every facet of life). Much of the hostility stems from Reconstruction which, instead of being a genuine rebuilding, was a military occupation and austerity program.

There is another point raised in the wraparound segment at the very end of the film. While Julian insists something is rotten in the core of Oldfield itself that turns its residents into human monsters, Beth has another theory: she insists his obsession with Oldfield's depraved history poisoned the mind of his otherwise sensitive niece. Perhaps continuing to wallow in the past is preventing the South from looking for any solutions that would make it a better place to live.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

This Ain't My Party


Spending a weekend in a cabin in the woods, a group of college kids tell scary stories in SCREAMS OF A WINTER'S NIGHT (1979)


Political pundits are chewing their manicures off trying to figure out how the Democratic Party became the biggest loser in this year's election. What's going on out there in flyover country that resulted in epic losses for the Democrats on both a state and federal level?  They could, of course, travel about the country and talk to a sample of working and middle class people, but that would just be silly. Instead they've taken to the airwaves and interweb with a whole bunch of theories.

The most popular is the angry white man theory. Yep, it's all Travis Bickle's fault. He's got a chip on his shoulder because technology, globalization and the gig-centric Uber economy have denied him the comfortable, middle-class life his parents had. But hey, he needs to get real and realize it's his own fault and he should've taken out $50k in loans for college and then he wouldn't be so ignorant as to vote Republican.
Then there's the related "white-lash" theory: the white working class lashed back against a changing country. They're threatened by the "browning" of America and the fact that we had a black president (who was half white, but whatever). They reject political correctness not out of concern for their civil liberties, but because they want to go around hollering racial slurs. And those blue collar slobs should've been grateful that thanks to Obama they have affordable healthcare except it's not really affordable. Oh well, if they're complaining about paying twice as much out-of-pocket or sky-high deductibles or the fact that their doctors no longer accept their insurance it's probably just because they're a bunch of racists.
But what about all those people waving "Blacks for Trump" and "Latinos for Trump" signs? Oh, they were probably confused so who cares about those folks anyway. And what about people like Dr. Cornel West and Tavis Smiley who were anti-Trump but also vocally critical of Obama and opposed Hillary Clinton? Ignore them, they just don't understand.
There's the Weimar theory: that those ignorant rubes just can't figure anything out so they're looking for a strong-man authoritarian to solve all of their problems. Never mind that a lot of those folks have strong objections to limitations of their civil liberties and opposed Obama's autocratic methods, all they want is a dictator.
The pundits can't seem to figure out what's going on in the Rust Belt. They don't understand those incorrigible Southerners at all, but they're just a bunch of Bible-beatin' rednecks who're looking for people to lynch anyway. And they completely forgot the Southwest was even there until BREAKING BAD came on.
Now, I don't have the benefit of an Ivy League education like those other jokers - I went to art school and then I got my paralegal certificate from Earl K. Long College (go fighting crawdads!) - but I think I have a theory of my own.
I grew up in Red State-land and I've been a loud-mouthed power-to-the-little-guy banker-punching populist Democrat my whole life. My parents were both proud Democrats - after all, the Democratic Party was the party of the working man.
Unfortunately, that's no longer true.
What was once the party of the factory workers, the farmers, skilled tradesmen and small businessmen is now the party of Wall Street bankers, Silicon Valley billionaires and the Hollywood elite.
The party once epitomized the values of Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and William Jennings Bryan - more direct democracy, a government by the people, pro-worker, anti-globalist, anti-war, equal opportunities for all and special privileges for none. However, now it espouses the ideals of Hamilton: authoritarian government, imperialist wars and the rule of an elite. They'd like to exile all those unpleasant working class people to Siberia and create a beautiful America where a bunch of hedge-fund managers and illegal aliens all get naked together and sing "This Land Is Your Land."
Looking at today's Democratic Party,  I haven't seen a group this despicable since Marie Janisse's ex-boyfriends got together to form that Los Lobos tribute band.
And as much as what was said about the Deplorables, I found the Obama/Clinton devotees a lot more frightening; those folks have a bloodthirsty fervor that rivals the Manson Family.
I've got a gaggle of Obamatons at my office and normally I keep my mouth shut around them because I've been tarred and feathered before and it wasn't fun. But after listening to a string of sneering epithets about "those ignorant people" (it was either the people who voted for Trump or the Bernie Sanders supporters who refused to vote for Hillary, I couldn't really tell) followed by gushing accolades about President Obama being the best president in the history of the United States, I couldn't stands no more.
"Only if you think appointing a cabinet full of Citibank and Goldman Sachs executives, signing a taxpayer funded bailout for the architects of The Great Recession, a healthcare bill that's a giveaway to the insurance companies, bringing down the hammer on whistle-blowers and trying to ramrod a super-secretive global-corporatist anti-democratic trade bill through Congress is a legacy to be proud of," I said.
And then as a smell of ozone crept into the air, a low growl emerged from their collective throats as their lips curled back to reveal their fangs. Their hands curled into talons and their eyes began to flicker and roll like a lizard's.
"You must be some crazy redneck racist!" they screeched. "You just don't understand!"
Yeah, I think I do.
And that's the other thing -- this foul new breed has two defenses when confronted with a dissenting opinion, either:
1) Accuse the dissenter of being a racist to shut them up. I find this abhorrent for so many reasons. Racism is a serious problem, not some flippant label to be tossed around like a volleyball.
2) You don't understand. See what that condescending little phrase does? The only reason you dare disagree is because you're ignorant.
Rather than championing the working class, today's Democratic Party despises them.
One of the Office Obamatons even said she opposed raising wages because then the price of goods would go up and we'd have rampant inflation.
"The price of goods is going up and we have rampant inflation anyway," I said. "When only a few corporations have ownership of everything prices go up because there's no competition."
"You just don't understand," she said.
The reason people in middle America have abandoned the Democratic Party is that the party turned its back on them decades ago. With its economic elitism, imperialist warmongering and shrieking self-righteousness on social issues, it's no longer a good fit for them. Once the party of the common man, it's now a party for the kind of people who watch a Marx Brothers movie and say, "I really like MARGARET DUMONT -- but I find those little weird guys highly offensive."
The Democratic Party isn't the party of the people anymore. And it really needs to check its class privilege.

And speaking of uncomfortable parties, the second film in this regional horror film bonanza is SCREAMS OF A WINTER'S NIGHT (1979) made in Natchitoches, Louisiana. You used to be able to get some good meat pies there. Ten college kids head out in a van for a weekend at a cabin in the woods near the allegedly haunted Lake Durand. For some reason surprised that spending the weekend in the woods means they'll be out in the middle of the woods (jeeze, people, what did you think was going to happen?), they decide to spend the evening telling scary stories.
The first is the weakest of the bunch, a re-telling of "The Hook" urban legend with a bigfoot monster added to the mix. The second tale is my favorite of the bunch in which three boys pledging a fraternity must spend the night in an old abandoned hotel that's reputed to be haunted. Sure, it's nothing new, but it's got great atmosphere: it's all dread, creaking stairs and long hallways with looming shadows. And I can't put my finger on why, but there's something about the ending that gives me a serious case of the creeps.


The green light in SCREAMS OF A WINTER'S NIGHT.


The last story is the tale of a shy young woman who snaps and kills her date after he attempts to rape her. The incident leaves a mark on her fragile psyche and years later, she's driven to kill again. The story has no dramatic arc and the ending is completely abrupt, but I think that's the point.

It's not a perfect movie by any means, but what it lacks in the script department, SCREAMS OF A WINTER'S NIGHT makes up for in dread-filled atmosphere. It evokes the feeling of being at a party where the conversation is riddled with frosty silences and insidious little jabs, the hosts insist on serving a vegan menu and you can't leave and go home because the person who drove you there already passed out drunk in the bathtub. In a neat twist, the characters in the vignettes are all played by the same actors who play the kids in the wraparound stories. There's something twisted about the kids making up ways for their friends to die.

With echoes of THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE and elements that predate THE EVIL DEAD, one of the things that makes SCREAMS OF A WINTER'S NIGHT so unsettling is its apocalyptic view of the universe. In many anthology horror films, the misdeeds of the characters are punished with an Old Testament-style justice. However, in SCREAMS OF A WINTER'S NIGHT, bad things happen completely at random and without much reason and explanation. The universe isn't a nice place; it doesn't give a damn about you. In fact, it's all too willing to smack you down just to prove it can. The film opens with credits over a black screen accompanied by a cataclysmic barrage of voices, howls, wind, animal cries, screams, gunshots and weeping children. It immediately catches the viewer off-balance as we're instinctively alerted to danger by the sounds but have no sense of where we are or the source of danger. It reminds me of the opening of THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, which used a barrage of radio news broadcasts detailing random acts of violence and industrial accidents to depict a world defined by chaos. However, in CHAIN SAW, human beings were the cause of all of the mayhem, while in SCREAMS, there are supernatural forces at work. The supernatural happenings at Lake Durand supposedly date back to the time when Native Americans still occupied the land.
The land may have been colonized - but natural forces will not be tamed. It makes sense this film would come out of Louisiana where you're completely at the mercy of the elements: floods, humidity of epic proportions, mosquitos, kamikaze flying roaches and the lingering fear that the state could be wiped off the map next hurricane season. Some people wonder why anyone would want to live in such conditions. Why don't those yahoos just move somewhere sensible like Connecticut? And to those jerks I would respond a powerful sense of history and pride in unique culture and tradition has a strong hold. Louisiana is the kind of place that gets in your blood. Hell, I'd move back there in a shot if I weren't dodging that outstanding warrant.


SCREAMS OF A WINTER'S NIGHT


Though the tales at its center may be a little weak, the all-hell-breaks loose finale totally makes up for it.  Despite its clunkiness, I really enjoyed SCREAMS OF A WINTER'S NIGHT. It has never been released on DVD, but I think that worn-out VHS-filtered-through-YouTube picture that has the same color palette as a healing bruise just enhances its uneasy charm.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Don't Go Home Again

Susan Bracken as Amanda Post in DON'T OPEN THE DOOR (1974).


Many an emotional support dog has been cuddled to death and there's inflation in the Play-Doh industry now that The Donald will take office as the 45th President of the United States. But rather than engaging in this display of full-on wussiness or mindless twitter tantrums, let's take the time to reflect upon the many lessons we have learned from the 2016 election.

1) Everyone keeps using the word "Fascist" but nobody knows what it means.

2) Everyone keeps using the word "Socialist" but nobody knows what it means.

3) It doesn't matter whether you're a Republican or Democrat, neither party has a sense of humor.

4) We have forgotten all of the important lessons about freedom of speech that THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT taught us.

5) Facts have no place in the mainstream media.

6) Next go round, the presidential debates should be moderated by STEVE WILKOS and RUDE JUDE. Or at least have an all-star panel hit a giant gong whenever a candidate starts to go off topic or says something stupid.

7) Celebrities are too busy riding around in limousines and getting their assholes bleached so their political opinions don't mean much to working folks.

8) We live in a democracy where everyone's vote should count. Unless you voice support of a third-party candidate, then you'll be promptly drawn and quartered.

9) Prejudice and bigotry will absolutely not be tolerated unless it's directed at the white working class, Southerners, Christians or anyone who doesn't subscribe to the standards of Berkeley.

10) The election results are all Boris and Natasha's fault.

11) America's rallying cry of "Give me liberty or give me death!" has been replaced with "WAAH! I'm offended!"

12) I could totally take RACHEL MADDOW in a bar fight.

And speaking of lessons, the heroine of today's movie learns the important lesson THOMAS WOLFE taught us, that you can't escape your demons by leaving home and you can never go home again. Today, we're starting off this Regional Horror Movie Bonanza in my native state of Texas with DON'T OPEN THE DOOR directed by low-budget auteur S.F. BROWNRIGG.
I could find very little biographical information about Mr. BROWNRIGG other than he cut his teeth on military training films before striking out on his own with distinctive drive-in classics such as DON'T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT, KEEP MY GRAVE OPEN and SCUM OF THE EARTH (aka POOR WHITE TRASH 2). At one point he wanted to make a sequel to TODD BROWNING's FREAKS but, alas, this project never came to be. BROWNRIGG's films may have been made on a shoestring budget, but they have a distinctive style, sleazy atmosphere and dedicated performances.

Feisty Amanda Post (played by SUSAN BRACKEN, daughter of comedian and frequent PRESTON STURGES leading man, EDDIE BRACKEN) departs Dallas to return to the small town of Allerton after receiving an anonymous phone call that her grandmother is ill and dying. Upon her return, Amanda discovers her grandmother drugged into a comatose state and a conspiracy by local doctor, Dr. Crawther (JIM HARRELL), sinisterly congenial Judge Semple (BROWNRIGG regular GENE ROSS in a deftly understated performance) and museum director Claude Kerns (LARRY O' DWYER) to acquire the house for themselves.
But the sketchy good ol' boy gang is no match for a strong-willed Texas gal and Amanda's more than ready to open up a good ol' fashioned can of whoop-ass.
Returning home re-opens some old wounds for Amanda as well. Seems thirteen years ago, she witnessed her mother being murdered by an unseen assailant.
And the killer was never caught.
She enlists the aid of her (sometimes) boyfriend Nick (HUGH FEAGIN) who fortunately happens to be a doctor, but before she can get to the bottom of any nefarious schemes, she begins receiving a series of increasingly threatening obscene phone calls.
The journey home to face her childhood demons leads to a new series of unsolved murders, forced phone sex and a descent into madness for our heroine.


Amanda Post (Susan Bracken) in DON'T OPEN THE DOOR.


DON'T OPEN THE DOOR is my personal favorite of BROWNRIGG's grassroots oeuvre and his most stylish. With its canted angles, expressionistic shadows and saturated colors its a marriage between European arthouse and drive-in grindhouse. If MARIO BAVA and TOBE HOOPER got drunk and had a baby and it would look like DON'T OPEN THE DOOR.
Maybe I'm just a sucker for the winning combination of '70s film stock and creepy harpsichord music, but DON'T OPEN THE DOOR is a favorite of mine, combining elements of proto-slashers like BLOOD AND LACE (1971) and BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974) with elements of Southern Gothic (the return home to face past trauma, the battle over a coveted estate, the corrupt courthouse gang, desire contorted into sexual deviance). Not to mention there's a feminist subtext!

The male characters in the film all try to manipulate or browbeat Amanda into submission. Claude and Judge Semple even present a sexual threat. Ironically, it's seemingly meek Claude that is the more overt danger as the film quickly reveals that he's the perpetrator of all the mayhem in the film, having been perversely obsessed with Amanda's mother and now transfers his obsession to Amanda. Judge Semple openly leers at Amanda upon first meeting her and alternates chauvinistic bullying with come-ons.  Nick is more of a well-meaning knucklehead, but even he is dismissive of Amanda's hysteria rather than listening. And it never goes well for the Doofus Boyfriend Who Never Listens in a horror movie. Amanda is far from a whimpering victim, however, and any attempt to bully or control her is met with a razor-edged tongue-lashing.


Amanda Post (Susan Bracken) faces off against Judge (Gene Ross), Dr. Crawther (Jim Harrell) and Claude (Larry O'Dwyer) in DON'T OPEN THE DOOR.


CARL JUNG thought that the home in dreams symbolized the self, our individual personality. The battle between Amanda and the male characters for her childhood home could be interpreted as her fight to remain true to herself against domineering men who want to coerce her into becoming a more submissive, traditional woman.
Judge patronizingly remarks, "Pretty little thing like you all alone in this rambling old house...but you're a big girl now..."
Like Scout in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, Amanda is not interested in being a "lady."
The childhood home takes on extra symbolic significance for Southerners as we tend to place a lot more value on home and familial history than folks in other parts in the country. Your history -- and your family's history -- is a big part of who you are. After all, as WILLIAM FAULKNER once wrote, "the past is never really dead."

JUNG also thought that the childhood home in particular symbolized the maternal womb. Judge Semple attempts to control Amanda both by threat and by sexual come-ons. Claude harbors an obsessive sexual desire for Amanda, not as a romantic partner but as an object that he can possess. Male exertion of control over the female body was (and still is) a hot-button issue at the time and the Roe v. Wade decision was handed down the year before the film's production.
Dolls are also a dominant symbol in the film, often juxtaposed with Amanda. JUNG thought if a person dreamed of playing with dolls, they were trying to come to terms with something from their childhood or an infantile aspect of themselves. Naturally, Amanda's journey home requires her to confront childhood trauma that she has tried to run away from. JUNG also believed dolls could be interpreted to mean an immature attitude towards the opposite sex. This hits the nail on the head with Claude. He has never learned to relate to women in a mature way and regards them like the dolls and mannequins he surrounds himself with: things that he can dress up and pose any way he waits, but have no will of their own.
"Go on back to the museum and play with your mannequins, Claude," Judge sneers. "I don't have time for your nonsense right now."


Amanda Post (Susan Bracken) in DON'T OPEN THE DOOR.


So is this the tragic story of an outspoken, headstrong woman driven to madness THE YELLOW WALLPAPER style by The Patriarchy?
Not entirely.
The first time I watched DON'T OPEN THE DOOR, I thought Amanda was too tough a cookie to crumble so easily. But Amanda's inner demons (that thing you can't escape by running away from home) are responsible for her fate as well.
We never learn many details about Amanda, except that she's an amateur photographer. But it's implied that she's still deeply wounded by the loss of her mother.
Amanda keeps everyone at arms length and doesn't trust anyone. And hey, I can relate. I consider myself a pretty good judge of people which is why I don't like any of them. But no one is an island - we all need to have someone that we trust and can rely on.
She even perceives Annie (DON'T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT's ANNABELLE WEENICK), Judge Semple's former paramour who places the anonymous phone call to Amanda alerting her about her grandmother, as a potential enemy rather than an ally.
In fact, Amanda's paranoia causes her to suspect everyone EXCEPT the actual culprit. I always thought it was strange that she didn't suspect Claude. You would think that mannequin he dressed up to look like her murdered mother would be a pretty big red flag, but maybe she dismissed him as a suspect since he's an emasculated weirdo type.
But hey, everyone knows wimps are the most dangerous, hostile people of all!


Claude (Larry O'Dwyer) shows Amanda (Susan Bracken) the mannequin he has dressed to look like her murdered mother in DON'T OPEN THE DOOR.


That brings me to another theme in the film, perception versus reality. In the opening scene, Annie walks down a long, narrow corridor and into what appears to be a train car where the Judge sits reading a newspaper. We hear the sounds of a moving train on the soundtrack. After a fight, Annie runs and exits. Brownrigg cuts to an exterior shot revealing that the characters were actually not in a moving train car, but in a train car converted into a house. So what gives with the train sounds? BROWNRIGG cuts back to the Judge inside. He walks over to a cabinet and reveals a recorder playing a tape of train sound effects.
"All aboard," he smirks, as the plot of the film kicks off.
It's pure BERTOLT BRECHT. It not only draws attention to the conventions of the medium, but calls to challenge the perceptions of the audience.
Perception versus reality pops up throughout the film. Dr. Crawther, wandering through the museum late at night, believes he is passing a mannequin dressed as Amanda's mother. The figure begins to move revealing itself to be Claude dressed as Amanda's mother!
Later, Amanda believes a sleeping figure in a bed to be Nick, but it is actually a mannequin.
The Judge even quotes LEWIS CARROLL to Amanda, foreshadowing her fall down the rabbit hole.

BROWNRIGG's work, much like the work of many Southern storytellers, is infused with a downbeat fatalism. In DON'T OPEN THE DOOR, Amanda, like many a Southern Gothic heroine before her, is finally overcome by her tragic history and loses her mind. That may be the most frightening thing of all in the film: death is bad enough, but being robbed of your sanity is much, more worse. And the fact that you were doomed from the beginning is worst of all.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Get Ready to Bleed Red, White and Blue

Well, folks, 2016 was a helluva roller coaster ride. Sluggish economic recovery. Sky-rocketing healthcare premiums. A mind-blowing federal deficit. Race riots and police shootings. Mall fights. Hate crime hoaxes. Business-killing bathroom bills. 

And not to mention we had to endure the death of Prince of Gore H.G. LEWIS, the double whammy loss of CARRIE FISHER and DEBBIE REYNOLDS and that CLINT EASTWOOD death hoax.

Then there was that never-ending presidential election that played out like an apocalyptic episode of THE JERRY SPRINGER SHOW starring two Bond movie villains accompanied by a chorus of non-stop screeching hysteria and feigned outrage.

A lady I work with insisted that Donald Trump grabbing America by the pussy was the first sign of Armageddon.
She wasn't joking.
I just told her nobody with a good car needed to be justified.

I don't know about you, but I need to sit down with a nice cup of chamomile tea and watch something redemptive like DOOR TO DOOR MANIAC.

But hey, it's a whole new year. Still, we're starting off 2017 as a bitterly divided nation - economically, politically, regionally, racially - so some serious healing needs to be done. Are Americans, as HUNTER S. THOMPSON once wrote " a nation of two-hundred million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns and no qualms about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable"?
At this point, America seems more like the family in THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE - automated (and outsourced) out of business, barely surviving in squalor and lashing back in vain at the people who got fat off their labor and then tossed them aside.

But I'm cautiously optimistic. For all of our flaws, Americans are a pretty resilient bunch.

In the terrific book REGIONAL HORROR MOVIES, BRIAN ALBRIGHT highlights a particular kind of low-budget horror movie, all written, financed and produced by enterprising regional filmmakers far from the slimy tentacles of the studio system. They were (and are) an alternative to mainstream Hollywood with their own visions of America and their own system of distribution.
The studios may have had more money, but it was movies like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER that took no prisoners and sympathized with the plight of the working folks that Hollywood wants to forget.
And if taking the power of filmmaking medium out of the hands of the elite and giving it back to the people isn't populism in its best form, then I don't know what is.

So, folks, let's celebrate all things Made in America with two whole weeks of regional horror movies. I tell ya, this is gonna be the best thing that happened since we stole this country from the Indians.

Here's the line-up:

DON'T OPEN THE DOOR (1974)  Texas
SCREAMS OF A WINTER NIGHT (1979) Louisiana
BLOOD SALVAGE (1990) Georgia
FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM (1987) Georgia
SOMETIMES AUNT MARTHA DOES DREADFUL THINGS (1971) Florida
ABBY (1974) Kentucky
BLOODLETTING (1997)  Ohio
HOMEBODIES (1974) Ohio
BLOOD HARVEST (1987) Wisconsin
BLOOD MASSACRE (1991)  Maryland
MALATESTA'S CARNIVAL OF BLOOD (1973)  Pennsylvania
I DRINK YOUR BLOOD (1970)  New York
FIGHT FOR YOUR LIFE (1974)  New York
THE BOOGENS (1981)  Utah

and a lagniappe for your trouble: MAFIA MASSACRE (1974)  California

And blog along if you like. I don't know about you, but just reading those titles just makes me want to sing the national anthem.