A measure of how drastically the movie industry would change in a relatively short period is the distance between two well-remembered films of the 1970s. A half-century ago last weekend saw the release of Deliverance, which wound up being the fourth-highest-grossing feature of 1972 (behind just The Godfather, The Poseidon Adventure, and What’s Up, Doc?), despite its R rating and some pretty rough content. Three years later another “summer vacation from hell” thriller, Jaws, would prove an even bigger hit—so much so that it began wreaking fundamental changes on the business, shifting the focus towards “event” genre movies whose PG excitements were safely marketable to every demographic.
Both these films have aged very well. Both were also sleepers with somewhat troubled productions, overseen by directors as yet considered “unproven” by the studios, with stars regarded as less than first-rank. Both were based on novels—though Jaws greatly improved on (and considerably altered) Peter Benchley’s beach-read potboiler. Whereas Deliverance is a classic film that nonetheless isn’t in the same league as poet James Dickey’s first (and only great) full-length fiction, a work as perfect in its way as, say, The Great Gatsby.
Though that latter author had wanted Sam Peckinpah, hiring the idiosyncratic Brit director John Boorman lent the film a certain distinctive lyricism as well as the requisite muscular action. Indeed, Deliverance would remain his most clear-cut, accessible film at least until Hope and Glory 15 years later, sandwiched between such much-more-baroque exercises (many wonderful in their way) as Point Blank, Zardoz, Exorcist II: The Heretic, Excalibur, Leo the Last, and The Emerald Forest.
At core your basic man vs. nature conflict (the “city folk” vs. “malevolent rednecks” dynamic just extending that idea), Deliverance is remembered as a simple narrative with some startlingly violent, and violating, incidents. Seen again, or for the first time, it may surprise you how much more nuanced and expansive that narrative really is. Still, the bare bones are what stick in memory: Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty, and Ronny Cox play middle-class Atlanta professionals who go on a camping and canoeing trip down a soon-to-be-dammed Georgia river. But these suburban weekend warriors soon find they’re in way over their heads, fighting for survival on an increasingly lethal expedition.
It’s a sort of backwoods horror movie—one much imitated later on, far more crassly—leavened by scenic beauties and banjo pickin’, albeit not enough to balm one of cinema’s most excruciatingly prolonged sexual assaults. (In contrast, Jaws excised every trace of the pulpy source novel’s extramarital affair and graphic sex scene.) A passel of bigger marquee names had been sought, and expectations were low enough that the actors cast had to do their own stunts, resulting in several serious injuries. (To further save costs, the production wasn’t insured, incredibly.)
But they all greatly benefitted from the film’s success, particularly Reynolds, who’d been kicking around on TV and in B movies for over a decade, a perpetual almost-star. After Deliverance, he was the movie star of the 1970s, even if very few of his films were a whit as good. And if most of his subsequent hits (as well as misses) now hold up best as Me Decade time capsules, this one still feels fresh. It’s available from Warner Home Video on most major streaming platforms, and other home formats.
Speaking of home formats and summer thrills, let’s take a quick spin through a few new releases, ranging from the 9000th Jaws knockoff to the terrors of rideshares, Norwegian bachelorette parties, and anything Texan.
Eat Or Be Eaten: Death By Fish, Friends, Uber, Ghost, Demon
A quartet of new low-budget suspense flicks provides varying degrees of disposable-entertainment value for your idle summer nights.
While we’re on the topic of Jaws, surely the season would be incomplete without at least one shark thriller. Andrew Traucki’s The Reef: Stalked is a sequel to a 2010 Australian movie from a filmmaker who’s staked his career on watery peril (he’s also done two Black Water films, which are Jaws with crocodiles). This time the prospective victims are four sporty women undertaking an ocean kayaking trip in honor of a recently deceased fifth. Needless to say, they soon get unwanted attention from an uninvited hanger-on with a fin. A bit better acted than most such exercises, Reef 2 lands somewhere between the tense and the boring, as there are only so many times protagonists can point and squeal “OMG! It’s coming!” to any real effect. It’s currently playing limited theaters and streaming on genre platform Shudder.
Likewise nearly all-female in character rollcall is Geir Greni’s All Must Die. Oslo resident Gina (Viktoria Winge, who suffered the first/most memorable death in minor-classic 2006 Norwegian slasher Cold Prey) is getting married soon, so her best mates “kidnap” her for a weekend in the country. Their destination being a cabin in the woods, naturally somebody with an axe shows up—although they didn’t have to take 45 minutes doing so, for god’s sake. Nicely shot but hapless in the realm of credibility, atmosphere, or thrills, this ends up a pretty silly film, undone by a “big twist” we just can’t swallow. It launches on US Digital and On Demand platforms this Tue/2.
The same exact problem eventually afflicts Drew Walkup’s Endangered, one of those movies about a Ride Share Lift From Hell. Floridan Alison (Lizzie Zerebko) is an aspiring architect reduced to driving strangers around to make ends meet after a murky career setback. She picks up a guy who may or may not be called Neil (Michael Olavson)—he looks nothing like his ID picture—in a sketchy neighborhood, and things just get sketchier from there. This is a “one wild night” narrative that doesn’t get quite wild enough, despite at least one dead body and one large indoor reptile. The real misstep, however, comes with drastic reversal of expectations that neither script or designated performer are able to pull off. Endangered is now available via On Demand platforms.
We’re back in Blair Witch/Paranormal Activity-type “found footage” territory with Robert Livings and Randy Nundlall Jr.’s Infrared, in which a small crew, a pushy vlogger (Jesse Janzen), and his psychic sister (Leah Finity) poke around the shuttered Sacramento school where a tragedy occurred. They hope to capture something scary enough for the pilot of a “paranormal investigation” series. Instead, of course, they find something scary enough that they’ll never live to tell the tale. Again, the acting here is above average for a routine concept, though the participation of Greg Sestero (who gave the only competent performance in cult favorite The Room, and wrote its terrific making-of book The Disaster Artist) ultimately drags these modestly creepy doings towards a dead end of comingled campy knowingness and rote “Boo!” notes.
Finally, while the world braces itself for the imminent arrival of Rob Zombie’s feature The Munsters reboot, his little brother Spider One (also a musician, of long-running act Powerman 5000) is dabbling in the occult via compilation feature Allegoria. At least partly composed of preexisting shorts lent some binding conceptual glue, its brief segments focus on various ill-fated LA artists in different media, from wannabe actors to a painter, scenarist, sculptor, and band frontwoman. Each of these miniatures creep toward an “Ohmygawd the monster is REAL!” moment, then simply stop. It’s not bad by the standards of the horror-omnibus subgenre (which are very low), yet even its slim 70 minutes seem too long for the few ideas contained.
Texas: The Loon Star State
No part of the increasingly dis-United S. of A. has clamored longer or louder about exiting than Texas. Many blue-state types are inclined to agree that their vanishing hindquarters would be a welcome sight—though in all fairness, shouldn’t they be given back to Mexico? It certainly would constitute poetic justice. In any case, two very different new movies capitalize on longhorn country’s reputation for all-Amurrican extremist wackjobbery.
Vincent Grashaw’s What Josiah Saw, which begins streaming on genre platform Shudder this Thurs/4, is billed as “Southern Gothic horror,” living up to that designation with style and grotesque psychodrama to spare. It’s divided into three separate sections, each introducing a sibling: Seeming simpleton Tommy (Scott Haze), in-hock ne’er-do-well Eli (Nick Stahl) and very tightly wound Mary (Kelli Garner) haven’t seen each other for years, since their mother committed suicide. As well she should, being stuck in an isolated farmhouse married to Josiah (Robert Patrick), who’s the worst imaginable combination of “violent drunk” and “religious nut.” But oil interests want to purchase the “cursed” family land, forcing a reunion so necessary documents can be signed. Needless to say, skeletons in the closet will come dancing out, and there will be no happy ending.
Written by Robert Alan Dilts, this tricky Texas-set (though Oklahoma-shot) narrative has sin begetting sin until all becomes a snake eating its own tail. The blood-and-thunder atmospherics arestrikingly potent, in both visual and sonic design terms, and the performances strong. My only quibble was that after a full two hours, the somewhat overloaded agenda of equally sinister human factors and possibly-supernatural ones doesn’t quite pay off in firepower sufficient to slake that long buildup’s thirst. Still, What Josiah Saw is definitely worth attention for those not faint of heart.
I ultimately felt even more mixed about the equally accomplished Vengeance, a first feature as writer-director for actor B.J. Novak of The Office. He plays Ben Manalowitz, a stereotypical media-savvy/engulfed Manhattan know-it-all writer hoping to score a podcast story assignment from an NPR-type outlet (his producer contact there played by Issa Rae). He seizes on a classic blue-state-guy-in-red-state pitch when he’s urgently told of a young woman’s death in West Texas, with the expectation that he’ll attend her funeral. In reality, he barely knew her (they’d hooked up a couple times), but for whatever reason, she apparently told her family he was “the one,” they were practically married, etc.
Upon arrival, he’s swept into the ample bosom of the Shaw clan, in which even the youngest child known as El Stupido (Eli Bickel) has his own gun, because Texas. Eldest son Ty (Boyd Holbrook) surprises Ben by opining his sister couldn’t have died of an overdose, but must’ve been murdered. So he’s immediately involved in private sleuthing with the intent of wreaking eye-for-an-eye “vengeance”—all while podcasting, of course. His dig into the local culture encompasses such colorful personalities as charismatic Stetson’d entrepreneur Quentin Sellers (Ashton Kutcher).
Like What Josiah Saw, this is a movie about Texas that was actually shot elsewhere (New Mexico), and that’s just one of many tricks up its sleeve. A la Diablo Cody or Alan Ball, Novak is the kind of writer so clever he’s basically talking to himself, his characters transparent mouthpieces when they’re not amusing caricatures—though sometimes they’re both. That can result in sharp satire. But it’s more problematic when the film decides it wants to have “heart,” too, i.e. make us earnestly care about the same folk it’s hitherto eked condescending yoks from.
The point is muddled further by two things: In the kind of folksy-flamboyant role Matthew McConaughey or Woody Harrelson might’ve made a meal of, Kutcher offers more of a side salad; and a film that gets so much (justified) mileage out of “gun nuts” is on pretty shaky ground when it lets our hero “redeem” himself by… well, you can guess. A lot of Vengeance is bright and funny enough to be persuasive, but I draw the line at a film that starts out snarking like Swingers meets Raising Arizona, only to end up as humorlessly justice-dealing as High Noon. That’s when clever turns to glib, playing both ideological ends towards an easy sentimental middle. Vengeance is currently playing theaters nationwide.