I have been thinking a lot about the south lately and my strange place in it. I voluntarily transplanted myself in the heart of Americana three years ago. True, I was previously stationed in the midwest United States, which at times plays like the south with lousy weather, so the change wasn't huge. Friends of mine, most of whom have lived in the southern U.S. most of their lives, insist that Florida isn't really the south. I beg to differ. You can't get much further south in this country. Also, we have a Bush in the governor's seat, presidential elections that make the Brinks Heist look like a stickup at a 7-11, serious talk about legislating moral barriers on marriage and the embarrassing Terri Schiavo face-off. Trust me, if we weren't the south before, we sure as hell are now.
I am an unrepentant liberal, always have been. Not to sound smug, but I would say the recent history of my country makes this seem like a rather sane choice, wouldn't you? I've also always infused much of my beliefs in my artistic endeavors. This includes past local television work, a teensy bit of filmmaking and of course, these little confessionals that masquerade as film reviews. A long time ago, I escaped my small town in Minnesota by the skin of my teeth. That is not much of an exaggeration. I really did have tons of hatred and intolerance directed at one of my more public endeavors. I really did receive death threats and I was called things that I had hoped my fellow townspeople were above. Alas, they weren't. After completing the run on the television show that got them so irked (I wasn't about to pull the plug a second earlier and justify their actions), I gave my hometown a one-fingered salute and relocated to the city, which was more tolerant, if not as much as I would have liked.
Now, I'm in the eye of the storm, Bush Country even. This puts me in a somewhat odd place, especially since I find myself being oddly endeared to the much of the southern culture. I've found myself getting lost in conversations and occasionally noticing a slight twang in my voice. I have noticed a certain amount of southern hospitality and friendliness. When I do not meet approval, I have reconnected with a refreshing honesty I had not seen since moving away from New Jersey when I was scarcely a teenager. I have grown to thoroughly enjoy the blues and even - gasp! - some country music (It's easier to make piece with the music, when you realize it isn't coming out of a pickup truck trying to run you over).
But how can this be? Just the mention of the south in the United States conjures all sorts of images. Isn't the south the home of the Ku Klux Klan, segregation, fundamentalist right wing mouth-breathers, "Kill a Queer for Christ" bumper stickers and God forbid, Larry the Cable Guy? How could someone with such a background as mine be anything but amused at best and horrified at worst with the south? Well, obvious reasons. If the above statements seemed sweeping and prejudicial, they were supposed to. Accusing the south of being nothing but the bastion of backwards thinking is akin to the same bigoted rationale that would paradoxically cause such a reaction in the first place. So, I sit here listening not coincidentally to the Drive By Trucker's fascinating SOUTHERN ROCK OPERA and contemplating just what is meant by "the duality of the Southern Thing. (or 'thang,' if you prefer the vernacular)." I realize none of us should be patting ourselves on the back for being complete forward thinkers. We all have preconceived notions about a world we've never investigated and we all share similar prejudices. We just choose to wear them in a different way. Just as not every Muslim is a terrorist, not every minority is a violent criminal, not every priest is a pedophile, so too it would be equally pig-headed to suggest that the south represents all that is rotten in my country and none of what's good. Or vice versa.
Which finally leads us to Tim Sullivan's much-anticipated (because Fangoria said so!) 2001 MANIACS, a film that is nowhere near as philosophical as my preface. This is the remake of TWO-THOUSAND MANIACS, Herschel Gordon Lewis' follow-up to the first real gore film, BLOOD FEAST and what many believe is the best film in Lewis' filmography. The original was indeed a better film than BLOOD FEAST in that it had at least a halfway plausible horror storyline, one that was downright spooky in fact. Lifting its basic idea from the Broadway musical BRIGADOON, it dealt with some people who are intentionally detoured into the sleepy southern town of Pleasant Valley. There, the yankees are told that they are the guests of honor at a centennial celebration which will culminate in a barbeque. Lulled into a false sense of security by their southern hospitality, the northerners are dispatched in gory ways, one by one only to be served up as the main course at the big feast.
Anyone who has spent some time with the work of Herschel Gordon Lewis would probably suspect there was not a lot of intentional subtext to his work. But unintentionally, TWO-THOUSAND MANIACS marks a shocking allegory to what was going on in the country, circa 1965. Kennedy's corpse was barely cold after being killed - in Dallas - in an event whose circumstances are still hotly debated in some circles. The fight for civil rights was in full swing, and southern icons like George Wallace and Bull Connor became a symbol for just how far some folks would go to keep minorities down. The murders of Emmett Louis Till, four little girls in a Birmingham church and the three civil rights workers in Mississippi made the cruelty of racism too horrid to ignore any longer. This was in actuality the time when the south earned much of its rotten reputation, one it finds difficult to shed to this day.
And yet, the increasingly disgraced south always wore a smile on its face. So when the yanks are welcomed with open arms and then hacked up and devoured when their guard is down, parallels could be drawn. When the motivation is revealed, being vengeance for the atrocities committed during the Civil War, it seemed to echo the unspoken mantra, "The south will never forget."
2001 MANIACS opens with a cameo by character actor Peter Stormare (love your new "V Dub" commercials, Pete) as a college professor trying to describe to his demoralized and disinterested class just how horrible the Civil War was. He singles a few bad eggs out as students who have no respect for history. This part of the film, while setting up the basic idea, is basically forgotten as the horny bunch gets in their convertible on their way to Daytona for Spring Break. If the first film was an unintentional lampoon of blood feuds and southern duplicity, then the remake is just as much about those who forget the past being doomed to repeat it (a quote that is actually spoken at one point in the film).
The replacement of average joes with hot and horny twentysomethings is the biggest departure from TWO-THOUSAND MANIACS and say, haven't we seen these kids before? Yes, before we go any further, we should note that 2001 MANIACS is a Raw Nerve production - the horror house that rates among their producers Boaz Yakin and Eli Roth. The group we meet in the beginning of this film, and the group of equally horny hotties they meet up with could be thrust into the frameworks of Roth's CABIN FEVER or HOSTEL undetected. If this group is going to become so prevalent, I think it's time we christen them - I dub thee Rotholytes.
The Rotholytes worked perfectly in HOSTEL, each scene lulling us into a laid back coming of age comedy before whacking us over the head with the torture and perversion to follow. With 2001 MANIACS however, these antics are more of a detriment to the proceedings than anything else. We see their reaction to their hosts with amusement, and watch them go off on several doomed adventures to lay every available person in town. Don't get me wrong, it's all in good fun as is the rest of the film for that matter. It just gets really old. This remake is about as long as the original, but seems much longer because so much of the film plays like a teen sex comedy. Not that I am holding it against 2001 MANIACS that the film takes this approach. But one must also look on how the townsfolk have been recast as being equally quirky. We have man-children, belligerent bluegrass minstrels, milkmaids, bi-curious farm boys, sheep fuckers, and a gal named Peaches whose very presence, quite frankly makes no sense at all. So we have the horny clashing with the ornery and it's all too much. Were the film about fifteen minutes shorter, we would have all saved ourselves from a quirky overdose. Everyone is so equally odd that whoever lives or dies in this film becomes irrelevant.
2001 MANIACS is a fun film that sports some moments worth mentioning. Giuseppe Andrews (CABIN FEVER) is a stand-out as a quietly psychotic hometown boy. Likewise, I'm sure the kissin' cousins will earn a fond place in some fans hearts, or at least somewhere else on their person. Longtime fans of Robert Englund will be amused by the actor's turn as Mayor Buckman, a proud sort who rules over the festivities and is understandably irked when things don't go as planned.
Sullivan, who also scripted the film with Chris Kobin, makes a few great choices with the characters, choices so natural it seems amazing that Lewis didn't think to do it himself. One is to make the main college brat a southerner named Anderson Lee (Jay Gillespie) is a southerner who went up north to college. This serves the production in that we don't know where his allegiances lie, with his friends or with the townsfolk of Pleasant Valley. As such, while his friends scoff as southern traditions, Anderson Lee serves as a go-between, remembering his manners and easing tensions between his friends and the locals, or so he thinks. It's a good conceit in the story and helps gray the lines a bit. Gillespie's assured performance keeps things up in the air, a major service in a film that could easily become thoroughly predictable.
Another winning stroke is to cast an African American and an Asian woman as two unexpected guests of the townspeople. The face on Mayor Buckman's face when he sees them says it all and its amusing to see the two cultures clash. It's even more refreshing that they didn't go over the top and turn the African American into a stereotype. Wayans Brothers, are you listening? But don't get too excited, as I did roll my eyes about the umpteenth time the people of Pleasant Valley referred to the Asian gal as "China doll."
The south will probably never regain its reputation the world over. In truth, I saw much less multiculturalism and much more intolerance when I lived in the Midwest. Alas, the blood of slavery is nigh impossible to wash off and some horrible events have tainted the southern image no matter how hard they try. The region would have to live virtually sin free for a couple decades to earn the world's forgiveness. And of course, that's not going to happen, especially with jackasses like Pat Robertson and Rev. Jim Phelps roaming about. In the end, we all live as our own individuals and we must all set the example to make the world better for everyone. Me, getting over my regional snobbery and others getting over their own demons.
Likewise, 2001 MANIACS is a strange animal with a number of demons worth exorcising itself. It has three elements that it addresses in earnest in varying dosages, and yet none of them mix very well. At times it's a gooey gorefest (a good amount), teen sex comedy (too much) and social commentary (not enough).
This was a hard review to write, in part because I had to admit to some shameful prejudices of my own and my constant struggle to overcome them. It's also hard because 2001 MANIACS is a frustrating film in its own right. I have no idea whether to recommend this film or not. 2001 MANIACS is the type of film that will play great on latenight cable. And maybe that's the best place to view it. I really can't in good faith urge you to plunk down your hard-earned cash for this one. But if you should come across it, there's just enough southern charm to make the whole trip worthwhile.
- Scott W. Davis