40 years later 'Deliverance' still casts a long shadow
This week marks the arrival of a 40th anniversary Blu-ray edition of John
Boorman's classic 1972 thriller "Deliverance," a film that has lost none of its power
to disturb after four decades and countless numbers of far more gruesome films
influenced by it. Based on a novel by James Dickey, the film follows four
Atlanta businessmen (Burt Reynolds, Jon Voight, Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox) as they canoe down the
fictitious Cahulawassee River in a remote northern region of Georgia. The four
city dwellers' attempt to reconnect with nature, however, goes horribly wrong as
they battle both the elements and the local hillbilly population for their very
On its surface, "Deliverance" is a tense adventure/suspense drama, propelled
by Boorman's taut direction and its gripping survivalist story line. But the
film's deeper elements make it one of the most unsettling films of its era, if
not the last 50 years. As the film opens, the Cahulawassee River valley is being
prepped for flooding so that a new dam can go up; towns and homes are being
relocated and the ancient river will cease to exist in its present form. Our
four protagonists, although decent men, are symbolic of civilized society's
flippant attitude toward nature itself.
While Lewis (Reynolds), the alpha male and most experienced outdoorsman of
the group, talks about respecting nature, he's still cocky in his approach to
it. Bobby (Beatty), meanwhile, doesn't quite realize that he's insulted some of
the locals with his offhand comments about their genetic pool. The uneasy
"Dueling Banjos" scene, where Drew (Cox) plays a song with a local youth (Billy
Redden) who is clearly the product of inbreeding, represents the closest the two
worlds come to a connection -- but it is only a fleeting one.
Once on the river, the foursome is put to the test as the waters and the
locals conspire to turn their journey into a nightmare. By the time they reach
their destination, one is dead, one is near death and one has been sodomized by
a local man in a scene that's almost unbearable to watch. The rape victim,
Bobby, is humiliated, although he later finds inner reserves of strength, while
the presumed hero, Lewis, is incapacitated by a broken leg. It's left to the
soft-spoken, reserved Ed (Voight) to assume the role of hero and find his own
inner strength to get his friends to safety.
The theme of man vs. nature as well as the clash of two opposite ends of
American civilization are the two most powerful takeaways from "Deliverance,"
and both have found their way into dozens of films of survivalist and backwoods
horror since. Very few of these films, of course, have delivered (pardon the
pun) in the same way that Boorman's film does. The vast majority of them focus
on easy shocks and shameless exploitation. And yet there is something about the
best of them that still rattles audiences today. Perhaps it is seeing the
distorted opposite of our supposedly advanced society in people that are
ostensibly our fellow Americans, or it might just be the terror of the unknown
that is part of the unimaginable mystery of nature.
Films influenced by "Deliverance" include:
"The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" (1973): Following hard
on the heels of "Deliverance," Tobe Hooper's horror classic changed the setting
from the Georgia wilderness to rural Texas, where the locals are slaughterhouse
workers who take their job home with them. The unfortunate group of friends who
stumble into their lair are liberal '70s youths who are not welcome in the Deep
South, and their head-on collision turns truly nightmarish and surreal. The 2003
remake jettisons most of the subtext for amped-up gore, although it's still
"The Hills Have Eyes" (1977): Director Wes Craven
transplanted the civilization-vs.-savagery conflict to the Arizona desert, where
a family of cannibals terrorizes a suburban family who must descend to their
level of brutality to survive. The 2006 remake hinted explicitly that the
cannibal clan are the mutated result of nuclear testing -- a further insult to
nature by our supposedly advanced society.
"Wolf Creek" (2005): Three tourists driving through
the Australian Outback are lured to a grim fate by a psychopathic rural dweller
who seemingly tortures and kills every traveler he comes across. John Jarrett is
powerful as the initially affable and then frighteningly intense killer, while
director Greg McLean creates an oppressive and, ironically, confining feeling of
dread within the wide vistas of the Outback.
"Wrong Turn" (2003): Derided by some as sheer
exploitation, this Rob Schmidt film took time to establish its family of victims
and empathize with them before turning the awful inhabitants of the West
Virginia backwoods on them. Along with the "Texas Chain Saw" remake, "Wrong
Turn" revived the backwoods horror genre, bringing it to a whole new generation
"Just Before Dawn" (1981): Rural Oregon is the setting
for director Jeff Lieberman's foray into backwoods terror, and he takes the
concept of man's encroachment upon nature -- seen in the destruction of the
river in "Deliverance" -- even further. The campers who "invade" the forest and
are hunted down by its barely human residents are directly intruding on the land
and its complex ecological balance. The real horror is that it's still happening
-- and we don't know who or what we'll uncover and draw out next.
Geeking Out On...J.J. Abrams Directing 'Star Trek' and 'Star Wars'
J.J. Abrams' 'Star Trek Into Darkness' is set to open this week, then begins the task of directing a new 'Star Wars' film for 2015. Check out this episode where Kurt argues why he's the man for the job and how it's enough already about the lens flares. Also, a few other "double dippers" in the dueling franchises as well as a few others.