Written by: Charles B. Pierce, Garry Rusoff, and Paul Fisk
Directed by: Charles B. Pierce
Starring: Jessica Harper, Michael Parks, and Vic Morrow
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
It was a small Louisiana town where people live and love and die and no one ever thought of locking their doors--except in the Monroe house.
Many regional directors toured the drive-in circuit with their homespun horrors during the 70s, and Charles B. Pierce left behind one of the more compelling legacies from this era. In a landscape dominated by half-hearted rip-offs and retreads of popular material, the Louisiana B-movie merchant was oddly at the forefront of innovation. Despite churning out a trio of films that sound completely derivative, Pierce delivered each with a distinctive southern-fried blend of faux-verite and low-budget filmmaking that resulted in some of the decadeís most curious offerings.
The Evictors, Pierceís final 70s effort in the genre (before returning for 1985ís Boggy Creek II, which is an entirely different sort of horror), has since found itself in the long shadows of Pierceís jaunts to Fouke and Texarkana, and perhaps with good reason. Easily the least of this trio, The Evictors lolls its way through familiar territory, and, while Pierceís signature style again shines through, this one is a little too sleepy-eyed and ridiculous all at once.
Consider the opening title card, which simultaneously insists that this is based on yet another true story but that any similarity to any actual events is merely coincidental. I imagine it to be based off of some local legend; after all, the Deep South is full of old haunts in sleepy old towns, and The Evictors introduces us to an old home in a Louisiana hole-in-the-wall. Its sordid history dates back to at least the 1920s, when its inhabitants were gunned down in the most violent eviction imaginable. The significance of this sepia-toned flashback mysteriously overhangs the proceedings two decades later, as Ben and Ruth Watkins (Michael Parks and Jessica Harper) move into the now abandoned home. As it turns out, the house hasnít been empty all those years; instead, various tenants have met bizarre and grisly ends, much to Ruthís dismay.
Like Pierceís previous efforts, The Evictors obviously features a familiar setup, and he even abandons the pseudo-documentary approach that separated those films. Such a combination should logically result in a more derivative final product, but thereís still something odd skirting around the edges of The Evictors. Itís neither a traditional haunted house movie nor a slasher, despite featuring the ominous overtures of the former and the ludicrously plotted stalk-and-slash routine of the latter. Instead, itís something of an Old Dark House film transported under the Spanish Moss canopy of the southern Gothic. Eventually, many of the elements of that long forgotten genre fall into place: mysterious murders, familial strife, and even a convoluted, byzantine motivation that unfolds over the course of a couple of twists. Itís one of those whodunits that doesnít immediately feel like a whodunit because the filmís slow build leaves open the door for several possibilities.
Nearly the first hour of the film unfurls like a lazy Sunday afternoon: the Watkins move in, and Ruth especially feels the town out. She meets plenty of pleasant folk, including a sweet wheelchair bound neighbor. She and Ben attend church and have picnics. All is well until the mailbox produces an anonymous letter informing Ruth that its writer wants her to move out of her house. Before long, everyone has a disturbing story for Ruth detailing the various tragic events involving her predecessors. Without his typical dramatized reenactments at his disposal, Pierce instead opts for more sepia-soaked flashbacks to reveal these scenes and retains the episodic nature of his previous work. In The Evictors, these episodes serve to perk up the drowsy proceedings by giving the impression that something may eventually happen; for a while, Ruthís ominous letter provides the only real development otherwiseówell, unless you count the creepy overtures of her realtor (a criminally underused Vic Morrow).
When business picks up, itís compelling enough. Thereís a slick POV murder scene that finally indicates that youíre in slasher territory, and the plot swiftly comes into focus from that point. Pierce canít avoid a certain level of hokiness once the twists start piling up; for such an initially lethargic film, it sure becomes convoluted in a hurry, especially with the arrival of an additional, tacked on revelation just before the credits roll. Ultimately, this is really, really silly stuff, but itís played rather straight by Pierce, who gathered one of his more impressive casts here. The absence of amateur acting (which was really prevalent in The Legend of Boggy Creek) precludes any unintentional guffaws, and Pierce doesnít toss in a lot of tone-deaf comic relief (a la Town that Dreaded Sundown). At the center of this slow-burn is Harper, who is no stranger to wandering around aimless, mysterious narratives; sheís actually more effective here than she is in Suspiria, if only because the aesthetics donít completely overpower her. Her role as impromptu investigator is similar, but her performance seems a bit more grounded into something relatable.
Iíd like to say that this was Pierceís Suspiriaóa total mood piece whose atmosphere compensates for its threadbare plotóbut itís not nearly that impressive. Instead, the film it most reminds me of is Burnt Offerings. Thankfully, itís not nearly as bloated as that movie; it does, however, feature the same slow burn, pseudo-haunted house approach and douses it in Pierceís particularly rustic vibe. One of the twists even takes the film to similar territory, as itís possible to assume that the house itself is somehow one of the titular evictors. Despite cobbling together so many familiar elements, The Evictors still manages to feel like an oddball when plucked from the 70s haunted house barrel. Like Pierceís previous films, itís comprised of a fair amount of filler and some great, evocative scenes; it just so happens that this one contains fewer of the latter (a sequence that features a girl being stalked by a mysterious intruder is a highlight in the Pierce canon, though).
Considering that those stronger efforts havenít had a stellar track record on home video (Legend of Boggy Creek still needs a definitive release and The Town that Dreaded Sundown has been a long time coming), itís no surprise that The Evictors has shared a similarly obscure fate. Scream Factory has rescued it from the depths, though, and has included it as an extra feature on their release for Town. The film is confined to the DVD copy only, so itís relegated to standard definition; still, the film has obviously been restored with a fine, anamorphic transfer that brings out the filmís earthy, bucolic hues well. Make no mistake: The Town that Dreaded Sundown is the main event on this release, but The Evictors makes for a decent and sometimes bizarre undercard. Both combine for an intriguing double feature that depicts one of Pierce's most notable preoccupations: quaint, Golden Age Americana under siege, a notion that would have held little comfort during the tumultuous 70s. Rent it!
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