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Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964)

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.

Grade: B-

Two Thousand Maniacs! is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

The Help (2011)

by Steve Habrat

For all the films that have acted like rollercoaster rides this summer, none have been more of an emotional ride than The Help. Do I dare say, this early on in the year, that Tate Taylor’s sassy comedy/drama set at the height of the Civil Rights Movement is one of the best films of the year? I think I can. But while some films find their way to the top of that list by how pertinent they are to the current epoch (see The Hurt Locker, The Social Network, The King’s Speech, etc.), The Help doesn’t send a particularly current message. Sure, it’s can’t-we-all-just-look-past-our-differences-and-just-get-along can work in every climate and it is basically a rallying cry for outsiders (of any color, might I add) to find their voice and stick up for themselves. No, a film can find it’s way to the top of that list on the performances that make up the said film. The Help thrives on this idea. Yet the film strings along scene after scene that in one second will have you chuckling (“I NEVER burn chicken!”) and the next will have you scrambling to pick up the pieces of your shattered heart. It’s quite the bipolar film.

When I say this is a film for outsiders, we must take into consideration the era that this film takes place in. Set in the 1960’s, Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Played by the inescapable starlet Emma Stone) is a recent college grad that is also an aspiring writer. She is a confident, self-assured, and snappy woman who is determined to make a career for herself and avoid becoming a phony trophy/stay-at-home wife like the ones she mingles with on a daily basis. Upon returning, she ignites an old friendship with Hilly Holbrook (Played by the jaw-dropping beaut Bryce Dallas Howard), a stay-at-home wife with a racist streak and a political agenda of her own. She is making a push to segregate bathrooms in the household between colored help and the white inhabitants. One day during a violent storm, Minny Jackson (Played by Octavia Spencer), the colored housekeeper of Hilly, has to use the restroom and she doesn’t want to brave the vicious storm to do it. Defying the frigid Hilly, she uses the white facilities and gets herself fired. Simultaneously, Skeeter has started working on a book with the reluctant and reserved Aibileen Clark (Played by the Oscar-worthy Viola Davis) on what it’s like to be colored help in the south. Aibileen convinces Minny to contribute to the book, sharing a story of revenge that threatens to tear apart Skeeter’s friendships with old friends and family.

The Help narrowly avoids being the mandatory mother/daughter bonding film of the summer. Upon an initial first glance, it appears to be the option for the ladies who don’t want to accompany their chest-thumping husbands and boyfriends to the latest Fast and Furious movie. The film does act as a celebration for the liberated, empowered female, but also a film that gives an individual who sees themselves as looked over and brushed to the side courage to find their voice. It’s universal, yes, but outrageously accessible. This is what troubles The Help. It’s so concerned about being unanimous and trying to appeal to everyone. That’s why the ending of the film is such a wallop. It seems like this sequence should serve as a bridge from one conflict to another in a film like this, but it leaves the audience filling in what happens next. I applaud the film for taking this route. It lacks the Hallmark ending that would usually make a sappy film like this diabetically sweet.

Despite its blatant comradery, the film is carried on the backs op Davis, Spencer, Howard, and Stone, who act as the heavy lifters in this picture. Davis plays Aibileen with haunted eyes and a cracked soul. She pulls genuine condolences for her character when we learn about her distraught back-story. Spencer is feisty and adds the spunk a film like this needs. She delivers the best lines of the film and she sometimes seems relegated to jester to the seriousness at hand. Near the end, get ready for a serious shocker from her character that will leave you clutching your gut in laughter. Stone is her usually sweet self as the ambitious Skeeter. She represents what was ultimately rejected during this era—the career driven woman. Her cancer stricken mother who pleads with her to find a man and get married hounds her every step of the way and this further solidifies her outsider persona. She absolutely refuses to give a man an inch. In one flashback sequence, she sulks to her sweet and elderly housekeeper Constantie (I could have watched a whole film about Skeeter’s relationship with Constantine!) about not getting asked to the school dance by a boy. It’s a minor sequence that hints at the confidence seeds planted within her. And we can’t forget Howard, who clocks in a vile performance as Hilly, a despicable human being with no compassion. She gets what’s coming to her and I won’t reveal what that is, but I will say that the revenge here is certainly sweet.

Despite it’s clichés, The Help is a remarkably enjoyable and ultimately a feel good film. It doesn’t pretend to be anything else but what it is. It acts as a voyeuristic look back in time as well as encouraging empowerment and liberation for present times. These messages are elementary at best here, but I had such a great time watching these women that I am willing to forgive this one flaw. There were scenes that ate at me and there are some tearful moments. It’s a performance film that tells a stimulating story with impeccable ease. Since seeing it and thinking about it, the film has a strange pull on the viewer. It’s delectably entertaining. You want to go back and listen to these characters again. The film ends with a monologue from Aibileen saying that no one has ever asked her how she is doing. Well Aibileen, you certainly have my undivided attention. Grade: A