This is my contribution to this year's White Elephant Blogathon.
One of the most interesting developments in the film industry during the drive-in era was the proliferation of regional independent and exploitation filmmakers. The most famous of these is George A. Romero - the spiffy new Monroeville Mall in Dawn of the Dead and the decaying neighborhoods in Martin are a large part of what makes them memorable. Among the most successful of the regional filmmakers was Charles B. Pierce, the head of a Texarkana ad agency who made his directorial debut with The Legend of Boggy Creek, a mockumentary about a sasquatch-like beast who prowls the Arkansas wilderness. Boggy Creek grossed over $20 million in the early 1970s, and the directors of The Blair Witch Project cited it as an influence. Both Boggy Creek and Pierce's third film, The Town That Dreaded Sundown, have very effective fright scenes, with Pierce's lack of experience in Hollywood working for the films - they're homemade movies that don't play according our expectations, and without the security of formula, we dread what could happen next. In both films, the payoff isn't as effective as that early sense of foreboding; the pacing and tone are uneven, and the awkward attempts at comic relief are often wince-inducing. The Evictors, Pierce's third and final horror movie, has a much more assured tone; in its own unassuming way, it's very effective.
The film opens with a sepia-toned prologue showing a bloody raid on an isolated farmhouse whose owners have killed several people. Cut ahead to 1942, when a young couple (Jessica Harper and Michael Parks) move into the house. What follows is a straightforward southern Gothic, as locals try to warn the couple of the house's violent history - subsequent owners have all died under mysterious circumstances, naturally - and Harper is soon tormented by a mysterious stalker. It's a simple story, but Pierce does a great job of staging the bloody flashbacks and present-day scenes of peripheral characters dispatched by the unseen villain in a tense, effectively suggestive way. As my friend Greg pointed out in his Letterboxd review, Pierce knew how to get as much atmosphere as possible out of the use of locations and natural light - Greg compares the cinematography to the films of Terrence Malick, and after revisiting Badlands the other night, I can see the resemblance. The Evictors also benefits from the presence of Harper, who doesn't have a lot to do for much of the film but, when it's time for her character to be terrorized, has the same vulnerable, almost porcelain quality that made her performance in Suspiria so effective. And while Michael Parks is absent for much of the film, it's a hoot to see him as a young man, and I appreciated that Pierce skipped the obligatory scene where the husband tells the frightened wife that she's just imagining things.
Once the plot reveals what's really going on, The Evictors does deflate a bit. The film has the suggestion of a supernatural menace that made me hope for a Deadly Blessing-like "wtf?" ending, but the payoff is easily guessed from the outset and not very interesting. The film does end with one final twist that makes absolutely no sense, but I must admit that I did get a kick out of its almost defiant incomprehensibility. Though the ending of The Evictors is a bit of a letdown, it's a pleasure getting there; unavailable on DVD for many years (it's on Netflix Instant and getting a release as an extra on Scream Factory's upcoming The Town That Dreaded Sundown disc), it's a mostly forgotten but likeable little sleeper that is also a welcome reminder of the idiosyncratic gems that served as the B-features on many a drive-in double bill. I've been lucky in the White Elephant Blog-a-Thons these past few years, in that I keep getting genuinely good movies that are new to me; Paul, I know these things are chosen at random, but I'm probably due for a stinker.