By Jeremy Carr.
As noted by no less an authority than Mr. MonsterVision himself, Joe Bob Briggs, to distinguish a good Herschell Gordon Lewis film from one that is of lesser quality is something of a futile effort. It’s hard to really say one title is better than another, just as it’s hard to declare one necessarily worse. A pioneer of the self-styled “splatter” film (to say nothing of his run in the “nudie cutie” genre), Lewis was, like many cult filmmakers, a genre unto himself, and good or bad and above all else, a Herschell Gordon Lewis film is a Herschell Gordon Lewis film. That said, however, Two Thousand Maniacs!, Lewis’ 1964 follow-up to his groundbreaking doozy Blood Feast (1963), is, all things considered, better than most.
Of his own work, Lewis deemed Two Thousand Maniacs! his personal favorite, and as he tells it in one of several supplements on the newly released Arrow Film Blu-ray of the film, if Blood Feast was almost “accidental” in its production and certainly its popularity, Two Thousand Maniacs! was comparatively “deliberate.” According to the self-deprecating Lewis, he simply asked his partner at the time, David F. Friedman, “What if we made a good one?” What if they made a film with more time (still only 15 days), better effects, a defined beginning, middle, and end, and even – this one is pushing it – a sociopolitical commentary? While they filmed in St. Cloud, Florida, those questions were answered in the form of this raucous tale of vengeful confederate holdovers who enact bitter retribution on northern passersby.
Coinciding with the centennial celebration of a backwoods town known as Pleasant Valley, where the local yokels harbor a Civil War grudge and are just itching to get even, a two-man cadre detours Yankee outsiders traveling through the region. Those rounded up become unwitting “guests of honor” and fall victim to the brutal festivities. Six are effectively hijacked: bickering couple John and Bea Miller (Jerome Eden and Shelby Livingston), the more affable David and Beverly Wells (Michael Korb and Yvonne Gilbert), and the operative heroes of the picture, Terry Adams (Connie Mason) and her hitcher, Tom White (William Kerwin). In this secluded town, a scenic antique with a peculiar historical incongruity, the wary newcomers at first play along. Though they are slow to act on their suspicions, Tom and Terry are particularly skeptical, while others, like Beverly, see the strangeness but remain, crucial for the plot, cautiously optimistic: “Such a strange little affair,” she says. “It’s almost like Halloween.” One by one, the ill-fated lodgers are dispatched (when Bea is invited to a barbeque, the suggestion is instantly ominous to anyone who has seen Blood Feast), until Terry and Tom make a valiant, if belated, attempt to flee.
Filming a few months after Blood Feast, the gore-fest that put Lewis on the jubilantly notorious map, and with three times the budget, Two Thousand Maniacs! had a lot to live up to. In terms of requisite bloodshed, it isn’t nearly as indulgent as its gruesome predecessor, nor is it as shameless as some of what Lewis later had to offer (there is also a significant deficiency in sexual enticement, not exactly a bad thing given how Lewis tended to handle such material). Nevertheless, although Two Thousand Maniacs! lacked what Lewis said was the “raw brutality” of Blood Feast, there is an ample allotment for such visceral exploits as the lobbing off of a thumb via pocket knife, scenes of dismemberment and torture, and an inventive series of deaths by way of being drawn and quartered or plunged down a hill in a barrel punctured by protruding nails. There isn’t wall-to-wall bloodletting for its own sake, but the volume of goopy, vibrantly red discharge should be enough to satisfy most gore hounds.
With Lewis acting as his own cinematographer, which he usually did, Two Thousand Maniacs! became the second entry in what was eventually dubbed the “Blood Trilogy,” starting with Blood Feast and concluding with 1965’s Color Me Blood Red. Like those other features, this film flinches with erratic camera work, obviously poor but not wholly ineffective. And while the Arrow Films transfer is sharp in spots, the quality of the high definition picture, as well as the restored audio, proves correspondingly inconsistent. Still, this is likely as good as it’s going to get, and truth be told, to make a film like this look or sound too pristine would go against its schlocky nature to begin with. In fact, the shoddy quality contributes to the film’s potent, nightmarish otherness, its lurid colors, its tonal disquiet, and its tangible sense of being just spontaneous enough to be disconcerting but just contrived enough to be entertaining. This is something that can’t be said for every Herschell Gordon Lewis movie.
With a few notable exceptions, the performances in Two Thousand Maniacs! are more or less as one would expect – a lot of overreacting and underacting, or the other way around. Looking past the atrocious dialogue and the inept delivery of their lines, one has to admire the sincerity of Jeffrey Allen as Mayor Joseph Buckman and Gary Bakeman and Ben Moore as his eager gofers Rufus and Lester. Allen, who would appear in subsequent Lewis films including Something Weird (1967) and This Stuff’ll Kill Ya! (1971), and whose real name was Taalkeus Blank (nickname: “Talky”), performs his stately role with unabashed enthusiasm. Like Bakeman and Moore, he isn’t a good actor, but he gives it his all and is fully committed to his absurdly exagerated character. The other concession is Connie Mason. Though she also starred in Blood Feast, Lewis wasn’t a fan of Manson’s vacant acting style and he ended up cutting many of her lines just to keep the shoot moving along. Yet this 1963 Playboy Playmate has potential, at least as far as she makes a memorable impression. There isn’t a whole lot of talent there, but she has a striking screen presence, and in a movie like Two Thousand Maniacs!, that alone can go a long way.
Among the supplements on the Arrow Films Blu-ray is a bonus film entitled Moonshine Mountain, a 1964 Lewis feature that, if one were to delineate a good Herschell Gordon Lewis movie from a bad one, would categorically fall toward the negative end of that spectrum. The distributor apparently wanted an updated Thunder Road (1958); what they got was a hackneyed ode to whisky and hillbilly music, and a pretty awful film in most every regard (its abysmal print condition only makes matters worse). The disc also includes introductions by Lewis and a commentary track with Mike Vraney from Something Weird Video, Jimmy Maslow from Shock Films, and Lewis and Friedman. More than anything, what comes across in this conversation is the sheer enjoyment had while making a film like Two Thousand Maniacs!, with no pretense, a cooperative town in which to shoot, and unbridled formal and substantive latitude. There is also a short documentary about Friedman called The Gentlemen’s Smut Peddler, where this so-called “carnival barker” of a producer is given his due credit in the annals of early exploitation; there is Herschell’s Art of Advertising, where the director-turned-marketing guru discusses how people get interested in a product, cinematic or otherwise; and there are outtakes, trailers, and filmmaker Tim Sullivan’s take on Two Thousand Maniacs! Sullivan, who directed a 2005 remake of the film, 2001 Maniacs, starring Freddy Krueger icon Robert Englund as Mayor Buckman, gives a loving appreciation of this Lewis landmark, rightly reflecting that unlike other horror films that appear obviously “made by people” – and this goes back to the aforementioned uneasiness when watching the picture – Two Thousand Maniacs! feels unnervingly “observed.” He also notes the film’s relation to the 1947 Lerner and Loewe musical Brigadoon, what with its mystical, supernatural conclusion, and he does a fine job placing the picture in its proper historical/genre context.
Generally, context is key when it comes to Two Thousand Maniacs!, especially if one is to enjoy it and especially if one is to enjoy it in 2018. Whatever its reception in 1964 (itself a time teeming with racial unrest), to see the film today, one is most likely aghast by the proliferation of confederate flags, the noose imagery, and the checklist of every southern cliché in the book. But this is in no way unique to Lewis, who has professed a deep love for the south in any case. A brief primer on the history of the region in exploitation cinema is included on the Arrow disc, detailing the chronological development of the phenomenon from the days of D.W. Griffith to Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012). To that end, Two Thousand Maniacs! explicitly parodies the conventions of southern hospitality, as good-natured cordiality descends from hick hijinks to Dixieland depravity. So, while some may cringe at the politically incorrect content of the picture, including the film’s unsavory theme song, “Rebel Yell (The South’s Gonna Rise Again)” – lyrics, music, and performed by Lewis – this isn’t a flattering portrait of the south either. It’s chock-full of embellished mannerisms and diction, twisted antagonists, and, given the film encompasses an entire community, a sizable population left awkwardly in the position of perplexed spectator (evinced in the eyes of the local extras, the women, children, and elderly who look truly mystified by the filmic goings-on). At the same time, the fertile, inimitable location is vital to Two Thousand Maniacs!, lending the entire picture the authenticity of an amateur time capsule. Besides, there was no harm intended, and the average Herschell Gordon Lewis viewer, aside from appreciating the idiosyncratic perspective of the film, isn’t likely to be the easily offended type anyway. At least they’d better not be.
Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, Cut Print Film, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine, and Fandor.