“Regional ‘Othering’ in Hershell Lewis’ Two Thousand Maniacs!” by William Matthew McCarter

Drive in movie king, Hershell Gordon Lewis, known by B movie enthusiasts as the “Godfather of Gore,” released the horror film Two Thousand Maniacs! to drive-in theater audiences in 1964. This was the second of Lewis’ “Blood Trilogy,” following Blood Feast (released in 1963) and followed by Color Me Blood Red (released in 1965). Lewis not only delivered his trademark blood and gore but also successfully created a creepy atmosphere in the film, proving that he is capable of doing more than just the blood and gore that one would expect from a B movie. Those who have seen his other films might argue that Lewis reached a real creative peak with Two Thousand Maniacs![1]

One reason why this film might be considered superior to Lewis’ other offerings is that the concept for this film was inspired by the Broadway musical Brigadoon which Lewis’ partner, Dave Friedman had previously seen in New York. Dave Friedman was a Southerner from Alabama and while Lewis was born in Pittsburg, he was a Professor of Literature at Mississippi State University prior to his filmmaking career. It is no doubt their exposure to the South and the “Southern Gothic” tradition that led them to turn Brigadoon into a slasher film set in the Deep South. However, by changing the setting of the story from the Scottish Highlands to the Deep South, Lewis and Friedman only added to the litany of insults contained in stories about the Deep South. Essentially, what might have been an interesting twist on a popular musical turned into a formulaic plot of Southern gore films: Yankees get stranded in the rural South and are horrifically murdered by backwoods Southern rednecks.[2]

Two Thousand Maniacs! begins with a bluegrass band playing a song titled “The South Will Rise Again.” For modern audiences, the mere presence of “banjo music” is a clue as to what will likely happen next, but audiences in 1965 hadn’t had the pleasure of having James Dickey’s Deliverance as a cultural commonplace. Because banjo music apparently wasn’t quite enough to foreshadow the coming events in the film, Lewis incorporated a scene with a group of children lynching a cat to accompany the banjo music. The cat had a sign that read “Damn Yankees” tied to its tail, and this set the tone for the opening scenes that followed.

Traveling through South Florida, heading for Atlanta, three couples: Tom White (William Kerwin) and Terry Adams (Connie Mason); John (Jerome Eden) and Bea Miller (Shelby Livingston); and David (Michael Korb) and Betty Wells (Yvonne Gilbert) take a detour off of the highway and wind up about a hundred miles from Georgia in a sleepy little town called Pleasant Valley that resembles Mayberry from The Andy Griffith Show. Upon entering the town, the travelers meet a very cheerful Mayor Buckman (Jeffrey Allen) who wants them to be the guests of honor at the town’s Centennial celebration. The townspeople set the travelers up in hotel rooms and offer to provide them with free meals. Thinking that it would be fun to participate in the festivities and admiring the Southern charm of the mayor and the Confederate flag waving locals, the “Yankees” decide that they will stay for the celebration. [3]

The “special guests” of this centennial celebration soon find out that Pleasantville isn’t just a quaint Southern town—it is a quaint Southern town with a secret. Pleasantville’s story is quite remarkable in that the town was wiped out by Union forces (a mere six Yankee soldiers) during the Civil War. In order to avenge this atrocity, the Southern ghost town comes alive every hundred years—on the anniversary of the town’s massacre by six Yankee soldiers—to exact its Southern revenge on unsuspecting “Yankees” (made up of the six people with northern license plates who followed the detour sign). The audience knows that stopping in the town was a bad idea to being with (after all they heard banjo music), but the six guests in the hotel don’t yet suspect that the townspeople plan on brutally murdering them as retribution for a Civil War massacre by Union troops in a war that the South lost a hundred years before.

Lewis uses the first few minutes of the film to set up the plot, and it takes some time before blood gets spilled, but in due time, the six strangers soon discover that the townspeople will be taking bloody revenge on them for the past atrocities committed by Yankees from up north. Once the guests are settled into their hotel rooms, each of them are lured away to take part in an event that will lead to their untimely demise. The violence in the movie begins with a charming but aging Southern lothario who lures Bea Miller (Shelby Livingston) away from her husband, John. After a casual make out session, he invites her to “touch his blade” and cuts her thumb off with a paring knife. In the next scene, in the mayor’s office, (with a Confederate flag in the background) she is surrounded by a group of townspeople who hold her down and chop off her arm with an axe. Later on that night, some of the townspeople are sitting around a campfire, roasting her severed arm over the fire, while “The Pleasant Valley Boys,” a bluegrass trio complete with a banjo player, sing “Rollin’ In My Sweet Baby’s Arms.” At the same campfire, John Miller (Jerome Eden) has his limbs tied up to four horses and is “quartered.”[4]

The next couple, David and Betty Wells (Michael Korb and Yvonne Gilbert), meet an equally gruesome end. The townspeople lure Betty Wells to a platform beneath a large boulder where she is tied down kicking and screaming. In a twisted rendition of the “dunking booth,” a lever releases the boulder and she is crushed to death. Later, Betty’s husband, David is stuck in a barrel that has nails driven inside of it and, with a Confederate flag in the background, is rolled down the hill. By the time he reaches the bottom, he, too, is dead. Two out of the six “guests,” Tom White and Terry Adams (William Kerwin and Connie Mason) guess what is in store for them and make their escape in a red convertible while being chased by the townspeople of Pleasantville. When they make it to the main road, the townspeople fade into the background. After making it to the nearest town, the local sheriff there doesn’t believe their story and one can tell, by the way that they are sitting in the car, reflecting on what had just happened, that they can hardly believe it themselves.

While, on the surface, Two Thousand Maniacs! appears to be just another slasher movie from America’s drive-in days, there is a larger issue that lurks just beneath the surface: Two Thousand Maniacs is just one of many media representations designed to “other” rednecks and white trash from the American South. One must admit that the characterizations of the Southerners in Two Thousand Maniacs! are over the top stereotypes, and it’s easy to imagine that these stereotypes are difficult to bear even for the most biased Yankees. Indeed, when the film was first released, many Southerners were offended by it.

The truth is the Deep South is a popular setting for films like this. In fact, Lewis makes sure that the audience knows that the action takes place in the South. Confederate flags dot the landscape, hillbilly banjo music plays on the soundtrack, and crazy morons without standard English and with Southern accents have missing teeth, wear overalls, and look as if they have been covered in dirt reinforce that the story takes place in the rural South. While the cinematography contributes to the blood and gore of the horror aspect of the film, the hayseed rednecks in the film are there simply for comic relief. What is interesting about the film is that the victims are everyday people. In fact, the film likely works because it is easy to exploit the audience’s fear of being in the victim’s position.

The music from Two Thousand Maniacs! was a really pleasant surprise, and the renditions of “Dixie” and “Joe Clark” were spot on. It seems that while Lewis was working so hard to produce stereotypical representations of rednecks from the South, he actually got some authentic bluegrass music into the soundtrack. The Pleasant Valley Boys music was the highlight of the film. Lewis went out of his way to create the image of a twisted, sadistic banjo pickin’ episode of “Hee Haw” by having the band perform their songs during the murders and the music contributes to the overall feeling of the film in that it gives the film a strange feel—viewers don’t know whether they are watching “The Beverly Hillbillies” or “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”

It is important to note that the film, Two Thousand Maniacs, was produced in 1964 during America’s battles for Civil Rights. In Framing the South: Hollywood, Television, and Race during the Civil Rights Struggle, Allison Graham argues that during the Civil Rights Movement, American television opted for a less than realistic depiction of white Southerners than the television news programs of the day. In fact, according to Graham, American films that tried to discuss race relations were commercial failures.[5] Lewis’ plotline in Two Thousand Maniacs does what more traditional media could not do—creates monsters out of those who live in the South. By focusing on the literal ghosts of a violent and vengeful Confederacy, Lewis is able to make implicit claims about the “ghosts of the Confederacy” that still haunted the South a hundred years after the Civil War and played on the anxieties of the people in the rest of the United States.

What is interesting about Lewis’ film is not what is there, but what is missing. Although the film was released in the midst of America’s Civil Rights movement, there is no mention of race relations in the South or of the segregated South. In addition, there are no African American characters in the film at all. By focusing on the “centennial celebration” of Pleasant Valley and the destruction by Union troops, Lewis is able to make implicit claims about the South in Two Thousand Maniacs! The redneck ghosts of the Confederacy’s ritualistic acts of revenge represent the South’s obstinate refusal to desegregate the South during the Civil Rights movement. It is through the blood and gore of the film that Lewis illustrates the anxieties that the rest of the nation had in terms of their relationship with the South. Lewis plays on the South’s history of lynching people and other violence not sanctioned by the state, the South’s xenophobia and primitivism, and the South’s apparently unresolved regional conflicts with their northern neighbors. Two Thousand Maniacs! plays on the Northerner urbanites primal fear of being trapped in a town full of murderous rednecks.

In addition, Lewis uses Civil War vengeance as a cleverly disguised ironic commentary on Southern hospitality. In “Remapping Southern Hospitality,” Anthony Szczesiul comments on the film’s use of Southern hospitality and Southern stereotypes:

The film’s ironic parody of southern hospitality highlights the performative nature of the discourse. When Mayor Buckman delivers his promise of southern hospitality in his thick, cartoonish accent, the reference is immediately recognizable to all—the characters in the film, its actors and director, its original audience, and by us today—but here the possibility of southern hospitality is transformed into a cruel joke: the visitor becomes victim.[6]

While moviegoers might see the film as being a slasher film and that discussing the “othering” of Southerners in the film is simply reading too much into the film, this film is a part of a larger discourse about Southerners in American popular culture. The Southern accents of the characters in the film, their dress, their lack of dental work, the theme song “The South’s Gonna Rise Again,” and all of the other stereotypical representations and twists on Southern tropes allude to the fact that the South’s historical conflict with the rest of America had yet to be resolved. In addition, more contemporary representations of rural Americans (rednecks and white trash) illustrate that there are still unresolved conflicts between North and South and urban and rural. While these conflicts may exist, the representations of those who do not fit neatly within the American middle class hegemony need not be represented as less than human. When they are, this suggests that those within the American middle class hegemony don’t really want to have a meaningful conversation about the issues that divide us, they only want to “poison the well” by making “the other” something less than human.

Bibliography

Curry, Christopher. A Taste of Blood: the Films of Herschell Gordon Lewis. London: Creation, 1998. p. 67.

Graham, Allison. Framing the South: Hollywood, Television, and Race during the Civil Rights Struggle.     Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2001. p. 168-169.

Szczesiul, Anthony. “Re-mapping Southern Hospitality: Discourse, Ethics, Politics.” European Journal of American Culture 26.2 (2007). pg.132.

Unknown. Internet Movie Database. www.imdb.com


[1] See Internet Movie Database www.imdb.com

[2] Curry, Christopher. A Taste of Blood: the Films of Herschell Gordon Lewis. (London. Creation, 1998). p.67

[3] For a summary of the movie, see imdb.com

[4] Ibid

[5] Graham, Allison. Framing the South: Hollywood, Television, and Race during the Civil Rights Struggle. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2001. P. 168-169.

[6] Szczesiul, Anthony. “Re-mapping Southern Hospitality: Discourse, Ethics, Politics.” European Journal of American Culture 26.2 (2007). pg.132.


William Matthew McCarter is a writer and a college professor from Southeast Missouri. Since completing his PhD at The University of Texas-Arlington, he has concentrated on publishing work that brings attention to his native rural America. His work has been published or is forthcoming in The Sociological Imagination, Fastcapitalism, A Few Good Lines, Kritya, The Taj Mahal Review, and New South. In addition, his first academic book, Homo Redneckus: On Being Not Qwhite in America will be published in 2012.

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