*. Director Herschell Gordon Lewis deserves some credit, and I think for the most part he got it. The self-styled Godfather of Gore (to take the title of a 2010 documentary about him) had a bright-red run as an exploitation filmmaker in the ’60s, turning out a number of flicks that went on to attract a cult following. Almost none of these, beginning with the worthless Blood Feast, were any good at all, but they made money and gave Lewis a certain notoriety.
*. Two Thousand Maniacs! is widely heralded as Lewis’s best film, and it’s the one he considered to be his favourite. I think it’s a surprisingly effective shocker and the only good movie he made. At least it’s the only one I can return to and see anything in.
*. After the huge success of Blood Feast Lewis and his partner David Friedman wanted to up their game with better production values and better acting. I guess there’s some tick upward in both regards here, but not as much as you’d expect, especially given the low baseline they had set. At least some of the cast look their parts, if nothing else. The direction is also just barely competent. That the movie works as well as it does is all down to the fascination of the story and its structure.
*. To just stick for a moment with putting the film in the context of Lewis’s career, I found an inevitable comparison with Gerard Damiano. Damiano had a similar huge success with Deep Throat, another movie that basically created its own niche. Of course there’d been porn before, Lewis himself had done “nudie cuties,” but Deep Throat marked a watershed. Deep Throat was then followed up by Devil in Miss Jones, a far more ambitious and much better movie that, naturally, didn’t enjoy the same immediate success. It’s not that either Lewis or Damiano were going art house, but they did try, I think successfully, to transcend the genres they did so much to launch.
*. So back to why I think this is a good movie. I mentioned the story, which I think is great on two levels. In the first place it’s an archetypal ghost story, inspired (really!) by Brigadoon. Except the ghost town here is full of the vengeful victims of a Civil War massacre.
*. A few other staple horror archetypes grow out of this. In the first place this is one of the first “wrong turn” horror movies, where the heroes by accident or contrivance find themselves in an isolated backwoods or rural enclave, which is a very dangerous place to be for modern, urban types. This was “hicksploitation” before The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Even before Deliverance. True enough, the Bates Motel in Psycho is a place bypassed by the main highway but Norman isn’t a redneck. Lewis was on to something new here.
*. Another related subgenre that we see getting going is the spinning of the town-with-a-guilty-secret idea into darker territory. Before The Wicker Man and such recent spin-offs as Midsommar the basic idea is already here, with outsiders arriving in a community that seems friendly but whose carnival is actually a stage for ritual sacrifice.
*. Finally, a third horror subgenre that may have its start in Two Thousand Maniacs! is that of the murder catalogue. What I mean are movies that don’t really have any point except to show people being killed in highly theatrical and violent ways. In the twenty-first century the Saw and Final Destination franchises have taken this about as far as it can go, presenting their elaborate murders as a series of over-the-top “gags.” As far as I know, however, this is the first such movie. The Abominable Dr. Phibes, to give another early example of this same kind of thing, came out in 1971.
*. Now I didn’t want to give Blood Feast too much credit for “inventing” gore, but it seems to me that in the ways I’ve just talked about Two Thousand Maniacs! really was ahead of its time, or at least responsible for a lot of later developments that would go on to loom large in the horror genre.
*. The other thing about the story I mentioned liking was its structure. If the centennial celebration is a carnival then the various ways invented for killing off the damn Yankees are the different rings in the circus. And because the victims are all separated first each of them gets to experience that moment of dawning awareness that things are not quite right. In fact they’re horribly wrong.
*. The most effective of these, and a scene that is truly shocking, comes when the hulking Harper cuts the thumb off the first victim. She’s not going to be raped or killed right away but instead tortured like one of the town cats that the kids are keen on chasing around. It’s a sequence that lets you know that things are going to just keep getting worse for these people.
*. Wes Craven: “The first monster that an audience has to be scared of is the filmmaker. They have to feel in the presence of someone not confined by the normal rules of propriety and decency.” The thumb-cutting scene is an example of the sort of move that I think Stephen King referred to as “training the audience.” You suddenly feel the ground disappear from under your feet.
*. Fun fact: both Lewis and Craven taught English at university before getting into movies. I can’t say what that might mean, but they do seem to have both had an understanding of archetypal narratives.
*. Perhaps the most unnerving thing about Two Thousand Maniacs! though is the presence of the townspeople. These extras were actual residents of the town Lewis was shooting in (St. Cloud, Florida) and they lend an innocence and authenticity to the gruesome proceedings. I’m not even sure to what extent they knew what was going on, which allows them to project what Lewis on the commentary track calls the difficult “combination of sweetness and evil.”
*. What they also represent is the complicity of the crowd. They don’t really do much in the way of killing the Yankees, but they go along with things. At times they may even show some signs of doubt. I love their silence after the one victim is pulled apart by the horses. Is this not quite what they expected? Or wanted? But then strike up the band and play “Dixie” and they’re back in a good mood again.
*. Two connections come to mind. First is Chesterton’s remark about how the fact that man can enjoy skinning a cat is evidence of original sin. Or hanging a cat, we might say, with the fact that this is what we hear the kids are doing further proof of that human stain. Yes these are Confederate ghosts out for revenge but presumably those aren’t Yankee cats. And I don’t think the point is that these are just evil ghosts. I think the point is that the crowd is inherently evil.
*. Second, and this may be connected in some way to the previous point, there’s the scene where the cars first roll into town and are surrounded by townsfolk waving their Confederate flags and children waving nooses. By some process of association that I don’t think is too far-fetched (though we’re going from low to high) this made me think of the kid seen from the boxcars taking Jews to Auschwitz in Schindler’s List who is making the sign of cutting his throat. It’s another sign not only of the complicity of the crowd but the cruelty of human nature.
*. This is a cheap exploitation flick, but it’s to its credit that it’s not only functional as a horror movie (by the end Lewis even achieves a modicum of suspense as we really want to see our heroes get the hell out of that town), and also raises these larger points, even if inadvertently. I don’t know if Lewis ever had much to say about the movie having such messages, but like the best of junk (or, more charitably, folk) culture I think it carries a lot of deeper meanings.