After seeing many of the negative reviews of Herschell Gordon Lewis’ 1964 gore flick Two Thousand Maniacs!, I was pleasantly surprised to find a film that was much better and much smarter than it should have been. For those who are unfamiliar with Lewis, he is the man that created the splatter film subgenre of horror, cranking out ultra-violent films starting in 1963 with Blood Feast, which is considered to be the first gore film by many critics and film historians. Two Thousand Maniacs! is the film that followed Blood Feast and there is plenty of hacked off limbs to go around in this southern fried nightmare. On the surface, Two Thousand Maniacs! has a fairly easy set up and basically just moves around from one elaborate torture device to the next, but just when you have waved the film off as simply a gratuitous exploitation film, the film pulls an intriguing and thought provoking last act twist that I have to admit I never saw coming and I absolutely loved. Two Thousand Maniacs! is the first of the southern horror films, ones that played upon the idea of a bunch of northern strangers getting lost in the south and then finding themselves preyed upon by savage backwoods dwellers, a subgenre that would become increasingly popular as years passed. Surprisingly, Two Thousand Maniacs! has a handful of tense sequences, a shocker because I figured the film would be a cheaply made torture film that only existed to show us lots of the red stuff.
Two Thousand Maniacs! follows three Yankee couples who are lured into the small southern town of Pleasant Valley, where they are told that they are the guests of honor for an unspecified centennial celebration. Soon, the couples find themselves trapped in ghastly carnival-esque devices that brutally maim and kill them, all as the two thousand deranged citizens of Pleasant Valley happily cheer along. One couple, Terry (Played by Connie Mason) and Tom (Played by William Kerwin), discover the disturbing secret that the town is concealing and they decide they are going to attempt flee and get help. Mayor Buckman (Played by Jeffrey Allen) becomes aware that Tom and Terry are missing and he ends up rallying the citizens to launch a manhunt to bring the couple back before their secret is revealed to the local authorities.
Lewis certainly does not portray the south in the most flattering light, portraying the Pleasant Valley residents as sweet-as-sugar on the outside but hellish on the inside, every man, woman, and child howling along as the Yankee tourists meet horrific ends. The vilest is Mayor Bruckman and his henchmen, who in one scene gleefully hack off a woman’s arm for their upcoming barbecue, making vague hints at cannibalism. In another scene, a man is pulled apart by horses. Lewis allows his camera to creep in for a close-up of the man’s entrails and mutilated body, making sure we get a good look at the carnage before he cuts away. These sequences boast masterful make-up and visual effects photographed in color, hauntingly real especially for the time in which it was made. I’d heard that the gore effects had become dated but from what I saw, I can confidently say that I believe that they have held up just fine. For as impressive as this all looks, the repetitive flit from gruesome event to gruesome event became a bit wearisome. It is all broken by the gripping extended chase sequence, a scene in which Lewis establishes himself as someone who could make something far more riveting if he desired.
Much of the acting throughout Two Thousand Maniacs! is adequate, especially for this sort of B-movie drive-in entertainment. At times, I found the sound work to be abhorrent, the dialogue running together and indecipherable. I’m sure the neighbors were thrilled with me while I watched this. Jeffrey Allen has a hearty ball hamming it up as the boisterous Mayor Bruckman. He howls with delight as he hacks off the young woman’s arm, his glee all the more disturbing as his bulging eyes that light up at the sight of the butchery compliment his delight. Allen ends up being the standout in Two Thousand Maniacs! Slightly behind Allen are Mason as Terry and Kerwin as Tom. Kerwin embraces the typical macho role as the guy who has to protect the pretty damsel in distress, which is played by Mason. Everyone else ends up being largely forgettable, either becoming elaborate cartoons of southern stereotypes or in front of the camera because they look pretty.
In addition to the impressive gore that Two Thousand Maniacs! boasts, I was also intrigued by the exploration of the southern animosity for the north. Released in 1964, right smack dab in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement, the film doesn’t overtly tackle the racial tensions at the time, but the film suspiciously bases its twist around the Civil War and the bitterness in its wake. The soundtrack declares that, “the south will rise again!” sounding more and more like a threat every time it is belted out. Lewis also has his camera focus in on the frantically waving Confederate flags in the hands of the wild eyed southern tormentors and a lynching rope that is carried around by a young boy that he uses to hang a cat, images that are evocative of horrifying images that surfaced from the south during this time. A hazy snapshot of the violent political climate at the time, Two Thousand Maniacs! isn’t as empty headed as many would be quick to deem it. In the end, the film is worth your time for its attempt at an intellectual statement, as I’m sure that many casual viewers would assume that sleaze cinema of this kind would never even make the attempt. Lewis certainly does and it actually pays off.
Two Thousand Maniacs! is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.