Certain movies become hardwired into the American consciousness, and Deliverance is certainly one of them. It is virtually impossible to penetrate the rural wilds of Georgia and much of the Southeast without some joker offering up the opening bars to "Dueling Banjos" as the vegetation thickens and the signs of "civilization" retreat in the rear view. In my brother's and my own streak of bad-taste humor, speculation was offered about who in our group would be most likely to play the Ned Beatty role should disaster ensue on our first rafting trip down the Nantahala River.
Back before the Italian mob and torture-crazed Slovakians were scaring the pants off of American movie-goers, the Southern hillbilly was where sensation-minded directors turned for ghouls.
Even 35 years later, Deliverance remains the gold standard in the Scary South genre, a skin-crawling tale of four Atlanta businessmen – Ed Gentry (Jon Voight), Lewis Medlock (Burt Reynolds), Bobby Trippe (Ned Beatty) and Drew Ballinger (Ronny Cox) – who take a weekend trip down the still-wild Cahulawassee River and run smack into a city boy's worst nightmare.
Warner Home Video's Deluxe DVD celebrates the 35th anniversary of this consummate Southern scare movie, which, since 1972, has been encouraging Dixie travelers to stick to the road with the image of Bobby Trippe on all fours squealing like a pig ping-ponging around their consciousness. Supplementary documentaries feature interviews with director John Boorman, Deliverance author James Dickey's son Christopher, "squeal like a pig" mountain man/actor Bill McKinney and the four leads who attest to Dickey's drunken antics on the set. Favorite anecdotes include Dickey's spooky repeated refrain to anyone who would listen, "it really happened."
In horror it is basements and attics you want to avoid, but when it comes to region, the cinema is clear: Don't. Go. Below. The. Mason-Dixon Line.
Even before the Hillbilly Horror gold standard of Deliverance, movies about the South helped fuel the national stereotype of the region as a den of swampy sexuality and backslapping, good ol' boy corruption. In the pre-Civil Rights era, the prose of William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams and Erskine Caldwell affirmed the South's status as a strange, clannish place where the rules didn't apply, in the courtroom or the bedroom. Films such as Elia Kazan's adaptation of Williams' play Baby Doll (1956) and John Ford's adaptation of Caldwell's Tobacco Road (1941) have tended to transpose the South's scariness onto the scary spectacle of illiterate, no'count hillbillies and fire-crotch female promiscuity. It's a stereotype director Craig Brewer repackaged and ran with in his neo-exploitation film Blacksnake Moan.
With the Civil Rights era suddenly casting the region as a universal villain, the South in movies transformed from comic sport into a genuine nightmare Inspired By Real Events. Though it was black folk who suffered murder and mayhem in the boogeyland down under, in the movies the hillbillies were equal-opportunity killers.
Beginning with the The Phenix City Story in 1955 but experiencing its ultimate expression in the 1970s' Walking Tall gritsploitation series, small Southern towns are presented as devouring, cutoff fiefdoms of crooked sheriffs and cancerous moral decay. A whole cycle of drive-in cinema with titles like Herschell Gordon Lewis' Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964) exploited that association of the South with homicide in its story of a Dixie ghost town where hapless Yankees are lured in for execution. The clannishness of the South continues as a popular theme of pick-'em-off thrillers such as Martin Scorsese's Cape Fear remake, where even a wily redneck (Robert De Niro) is able to exploit loopholes in the legal system, and in Southern Comfort (1981), about a group of National Guardsmen dispatched by swamp-dwelling Cajuns. That film's tagline could have just as easily applied to any of these films about the South as Other.
"It's the land of hospitality ... unless you don't belong."
Deliverance. Warner Home Video. $19.97.