Deliverance isn’t a horror movie.
Deliverance is a Serious Film, based on a bestselling work of literary fiction; and in 1972, horror was not a genre critics took seriously. The first massive mainstream critical and commercial success for an honest-to-God, absolutely-for-sure horror movie — the kind of success that results in a Best Picture nomination — was still a year away. It’s unlikely anyone involved in the production of Deliverance ever considered the possibility that they could be making a horror movie.
And yet? Here we are.
If it’s hard to draw a line from Count Yorga, Vampire to Deliverance, there’s a reason — two, in fact. The first is snobbery. If horror movies are trash, a good movie can’t be horror, right? Fair enough. The second reason is that, like any genre, horror has its familiar tropes and trappings…and these are largely absent from Deliverance. There’s no ominous score, no jumpscares, and most of the film is shot in daylight (including its most infamous scene). Its story of ordinary men experiencing the epic (what Burt Reynolds’ Lewis calls “the game”), the larger-than-life terror of an adventure that turns out to be more than they bargained for, would lose its resonance if it fell back on cliché. To work, the film must be utterly convincing. If Deliverance horrifies, that’s in no small part because it doesn’t feel like horror as we know it.
It feels true.
Horror in 1972
That sense of authenticity was widely sought by cinema in the 1970s. For the most part, though, this trend toward grit and realism missed horror. At first.
By 1972, something changed. The metaphor of the monster was losing ground to the frank depiction of crude, ugly, all-too-human threats. Old-fashioned ghosts and ghouls had always served as stand-ins for real-life fears, masks that made it easier for filmmakers to transform anxieties into entertainment. In this era, however, otherworldly elements seemed to dilute horror’s effects. Fans were looking for stronger stuff — unflinching films that hit them where they lived.
If anyone was an establishment figure in movies, it was Alfred Hitchcock. Yet his Frenzy is, in keeping with the times, a deeply cynical film, the bleak story of an alcoholic ne’er-do-well whose unlikeability makes him the ideal mark for a charming serial killer looking to frame another man for his own crimes. The premise is classic Hitchcock, but the execution is something else.
Frenzy doesn’t shy away from showing us the killer at work. Hitchcock devotees must have been shocked at the rape/murder scene that ends the first act — a scene far more graphic than anything the director had staged before. One expects the camera to avert its gaze. Eventually, one pleads for the camera to avert its gaze.
Depending on one’s point of view, Frenzy’s violence either elevates it to the upper tier of Hitchcock’s filmography, or disqualifies it from consideration. Which is to say, either the rape/murder scene necessarily raises the narrative stakes, or it’s Hitchcock indulging a misogynist streak. In any case, its power is a testament to Hitchcock’s undiminished talents. In inept hands, even the most upsetting subject matter won’t scare.
Witness: Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left. It’s often claimed that Last House is based on Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960), which…I mean…sure. Anyway, Last House takes a solid exploitation story — a group of psychopaths murders a girl and her friend, then ends up at the home of the girl’s parents, who discover the crime and get revenge — and delivers a trainwreck. According to a 2003 DVD release, Last House was originally envisioned as a “hardcore” film, to include much more explicit sex than appeared in the final product (since most of the sex in Last House is portrayed as not consensual at all, one hopes the initial script was quite different). Even the “mainstream” version was nibbled at by censors, and refused a release in the UK. A hot mess of a film, utterly tasteless, it earned a fortune.
Last House is not a good movie. But its appeal is obvious. A barrage of cruelty, nudity, violence and profanity, it must have seemed perversely like a breath of fresh air to an audience seeking a nastier thrill than anything AIP or Hammer had to offer.
Meanwhile, traditional horror found a new home in television. Despite the content restrictions of the medium, the made-for-TV horror movie thrived. Most of these productions are forgotten today, but there were enough to fill a book (David Deal’s 2007 book, Television Fright Films of the 1970s, highly recommended).
TV movies might graduate to bigger things. Steven Spielberg’s Duel began life as a TV movie in 1971, but its popularity prompted the release of an extended theatrical version in 1972. Then there was The Night Stalker, a high-rated film about a low-rent investigative reporter named Carl Kolchak on the trail of a vampire in Vegas.
The story was nothing special, but Kolchak was. Darren McGavin (best known as Ralphie’s father in 1983’s A Christmas Story) brought an acerbic warmth to the role that made viewers want him back. Kolchak would return in a 1973 sequel (The Night Strangler) and a short-lived series (“Kolchak: The Night Stalker,” 1974-75), then disappear. But the idea of a supernatural detective show stuck around. It paid off decades later, with “The X-Files” (1993-2002, 2016) and that program’s many descendants.
Of course, the monsters hadn’t left movie screens altogether. From the title, one might guess Blacula is a parody; it isn’t. It begins in 1780 with Mamuwalde (William Marshall), an African prince, meeting Count Dracula. Dracula — pretty much just to be a jerk — turns the prince into a vampire and locks him in a coffin. When Mamuwalde is inadvertently released into modern LA, he meets a woman who could be his late wife’s twin (Vonetta McGee) and proceeds to woo her, keeping his inhuman nature a secret. Unfortunately, that nature drives him to kill several people a night. Soon the police are on the hunt.
Marshall has the gravitas of Vincent Price or Christopher Lee, and brings to Mamuwalde the grace of a tragic hero. The Sad Vampire is usually an unconvincing device — what’s so bad about immortality? — but Mamuwalde has lost his whole world. More, one senses that Mamuwalde hides his curse from his intended not because it would alarm her, but because he’s ashamed. He’s a good man who has, through no fault of his own, fallen irrecoverably far. His efforts to rebuild a life may be doomed, but he makes them anyhow, without complaint or self-pity (and how many vampires can you say that about?).
The Legend of Boggy Creek is a docudrama that explores purported sightings of the “Fouke Monster,” a kind of Sasquatch said to live on the outskirts of rural Fouke, Arkansas. Although no one is killed by the Monster — a kitten is scared to death (!) — there is something unsettling about the dramatizations of it terrorizing townsfolk. Indeed, even shots of a sunset glimpsed through the trees (as an eerie animal cry is heard) are creepy.
As fiction, the story of the Fouke Monster would seem insubstantial. But as (supposed) fact? We know that weird things just happen in real life; ironically, we set the logic bar lower for true stories than for stuff that’s made up. Missing details register not as plot holes, but as mysteries. Our imaginations bridge the gaps. The results can be more frightening than anything a filmmaker could show.
Films like Boggy Creek and Chariots of the Gods? (1970), a documentary that suggests aliens created life on Earth, initiated an approach to occult subjects that peaked with the Leonard Nimoy-hosted TV series “In Search of…” (1977-82). But those productions would have a longer legacy than anyone could guess.
Boggy Creek is a clear inspiration for faux-documentary The Blair Witch Project (1999). The incredible success of that film yielded few immediate lessons (it was followed by a traditional-narrative sequel that bombed), but later filmmakers realized what its creators didn’t: it was the style, not the story, that pulled the audience in. Films like Paranormal Activity and REC (both 2007) — plus their legions of sequels and imitators — would probably not exist without The Blair Witch Project. Meaning that, for better or worse, The Legend of Boggy Creek is the granddaddy of the found footage film.
Our Feature Presentation
And if Deliverance were made today, a found footage film is likely what it would be: some pseudo-travelogue stitched together from artfully-staged, fake surveillance tapes and iPhone videos, each scene a multi-million-dollar mini-movie that a pro cinematographer labored to make look as bad as possible — you know the drill. The found footage aesthetic has become our cinematic shorthand for reality. Every choreographed image jostle, every sickening pan and vertiginous zoom, is intended to give the audience the sense that something is really happening and You Are There.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Our electronic screens mediate experience, place limits and filters on our perceptions. Even the clearest window would still put us behind glass. Reality can be appreciated from a distance, even engaged with, but it cannot be known. It can move us, it can break our hearts, but it cannot lay hands on us. We can tell ourselves that’s trivial; we know better. A purely intellectual understanding of a thing is no understanding at all. We must encounter it in the flesh.
The protagonists of Deliverance are a quartet of Atlanta businessmen on a weekend wilderness camping and canoe trip. Lewis (Burt Reynolds), their ringleader, is a hairy-chested alpha-male who spouts Tyler Durden-ish rhetoric about the impending downfall of society, the inevitability of which he considers a net positive. But society has been good to Lewis and company. Their clothes and cars and outdoor gear are nice and new. Less fortunate are the Georgia countryside locals, for whom evidently the Great Depression never ended. Untold years of poverty and inbreeding have washed over the people of these woods like a slow-motion apocalypse.
When the vacationers stop at a garage along the way to their destination, something remarkable happens. At first, there is hostility and condescension between the city and country people. Then Drew (Ronny Cox), one of the visitors, sees a sullen teenaged boy (Billy Redden) sitting on a rocker with a banjo. Drew has a guitar of his own. Tentative, he plays a few notes by way of invitation. The boy plays a little in reply. This back and forth continues, the musicians warming up to the tune and each other, until everyone else stops what they’re doing and is drawn in, smiling, one old man dancing, the players in concert, the sound joyous, the strumming faster and faster — and then Drew loses the beat.
The song ends. The connection is severed. Drew tries to shake the boy’s hand, and is refused; he offers the boy money for his music, and the wrongness of that is shattering. It all feels like some terrible omen. It is.
The men reach the river they’d set out for and begin to canoe it. The entire valley, they know, will soon be permanently flooded by construction; this is their last chance to be here before it’s all sacrificed to urbanization. Lewis estimates they can reach the town of Aintry (where their cars are waiting for them) by noon Sunday, two days hence, and be home in time to watch football. Things do not go according to plan.
Two of the party — Ed (Jon Voight) and Bobby (Ned Beatty) — are briefly separated from the others, and land their canoe on the riverbank. Ed is difficult to read, a quiet sort who defers to Lewis. But we understand Bobby. An out-of-shape insurance salesman who talks too much and tries too hard, Bobby is a creature of the civilized world Lewis hates, and ill-suited to this one. The tools he uses to get through life are those we call “soft skills”: charm, diplomacy, bargaining. Handy in Atlanta, but you can’t strike a deal with a river. Nor with those who call it home.
Ed and Bobby are approached by a pair of locals. Have they been following the cityfolk? Or did both parties simply happen to be here at the same time, each enjoying these last days of the valley in their own way? We’ll never know. In one of the most savage, notorious sequences in film history, the locals humiliate and rape Bobby at gunpoint, then set upon Ed. Lewis sneaks onto the scene and kills one with a bow and arrow. The other escapes.
All of this seems so primordial that it’s easy to forget we’re still in a land of law — that the wild is not another country. Lewis is a murderer. Drew insists they contact the authorities. Lewis, for obvious reasons, is less eager. And why should they call the cops, when a body buried here…well…
“Do you know what’s gonna be here? Right here? A lake. As far as the eyes can see. Hundreds of feet deep. Hundreds of feet deep. Did you ever look out over a lake and think of something buried underneath it? Buried underneath it. Well, man, that’s just about as buried as you can get.”
In the black of night, the men claw a grave into the earth with their bare hands. If Deliverance hasn’t been a horror film to this point — and I would argue it has, but I’m saying, if — it becomes one now. The scene might be from a southern gothic. Yet it is of a piece with what has gone before; these are still the everyday people we first met. This is important. To stay on its rails, Deliverance cannot suddenly become any comfortingly familiar type of film — cannot become any type of film we know. The predictable rhythm of formula genre fiction is not the rhythm of life. If the film adopts that rhythm, it loses us. To hold us in its spell, Deliverance has to keep us believing that what we’re seeing could happen. In essence, it’s a better horror movie for not acting like a horror movie.
When violence takes place, it is abrupt, unheralded, and as confusing as it is terrible. The men continue down the river at daybreak. Drew jolts without warning and stops rowing. In the chaos, the canoes capsize and the men are carried over a waterfall. Lewis’ leg is broken; Drew is dead. Lewis is sure he heard a gunshot — the other attacker must still be pursuing them, trying to pick them off from the cliffs overhead. But there’s no sign of a bullet wound on Drew’s body. Could he have had a heart attack while rowing? Been killed in the accident? Ed realizes they can’t risk any such assumption. Lewis is too severely injured and Bobby lacks Ed’s experience as an outdoorsman, so Ed will have to wait till dark and climb those cliffs in search of a sniper. Alone.
Deliverance must have been informed by news accounts coming out of Vietnam, and the film can be interpreted as a parable for the conflict there — perhaps too blithely. Its story of naïve weekend warriors who barge into a strange place and act like they own it, only to be outfoxed by crafty natives who know the territory, could be taken as a commentary on America’s involvement in the war. Such a reading may be valid, but it seems superficial, and too small. The film is reaching for something grander.
Deliverance is about what we’ve built to keep us safe, and how those structures — both physical and philosophical — can come to feel like prisons. How one should feel about them is left to the audience’s judgment. Drew and Lewis represent a clash of viewpoints, neither of which is fully endorsed. Drew’s passionate belief in order becomes his moral undoing when Lewis proposes a vote on whether to report the murder. Drew cannot betray the will of the majority — it would be against the democratic principle — but bowing to it compromises him as a person. When he dies almost immediately afterward, it’s as if the weight of his guilt has destroyed him. As for Lewis, his rejection of society is only even possible when things are going well. Once he all but tears his leg off, getting to the nearest hospital becomes his paramount priority.
The one certain thing is the beauty of the land. It’s rare for a film so dark at its core to be so radiant with natural wonder. But this wonder is dangerous. It’s a vast and untamed unknown, and anything could be waiting there. It’s our world, but at the same time, it’s an alien Earth. It threatens us; it tempts us, and the temptation is itself a threat. So we’re about to drown the place — bury it under water. Just about as buried as you can get.
But buried isn’t dead. Buried isn’t even gone.
This took way longer than I expected. I’ve moved in the last month, which accounts for a lot of the delay in getting this written. Tom, Shannon and Suz were the canoe-mates who rowed my (figuratively) broken-legged ass to shore throughout this arduous process, and I appreciate it more than they know, probably. Thank you.
There’s also my commitment to watching a boatload of appropriate-year movies for this feature; I knew Deliverance would be the movie, but I still felt (and feel) like I need to background myself kinda deeply in a year to write about it properly. Last time, I ended up writing a little about a whole bunch of movies, because (a) I watched them, dammit, and (b) 1971 had a ton of movies in it that were worth acknowledging. This time, I felt like depth was better than breadth, most likely. That meant not talking about stuff like groovy Edwige Fenech giallo All the Colors of the Dark, or Orson Welles in the weirdly awful Necromancy (weird because…why was Orson Welles in this?), or an impossibly young Sam Elliott (he was essentially Matthew McConaughey) in the inexplicable Frogs, but again: I watched ‘em, dammit. So that took a while. Anyway! Thanks for sticking around.
Next Time: The Exorcist.