Don’t Go In the Backwoods: Rural Rampages & the Horror Film

The Hills Have Eyes (2006)
Dir. Calum Waddell

Backwoods: pl.n. (used with a sing. or pl. verb)
1. Heavily wooded, uncultivated, thinly settled areas.
2. An area that is far from population centres or that is held to be culturally backward.

West of Arkham the hills rise wild, and there are valleys with deep woods that no axe has ever cut. There are dark narrow glens where the trees slope fantastically, and where thin brooklets trickle without ever having caught the glint of sunlight. On the slopes there are farms, ancient and rocky, with squat, moss-coated cottages brooding eternally over old New England; but these are all vacant now, the wide chimneys crumbling and the shingled sides bulging perilously beneath low gambrel roofs.” HP Lovecraft

The backwoods has long held a strange place of morbid fascination in the collective mind of American city dwellers. It represents escapism – somewhere to go to negate the hustle and bustle of the concrete jungle; a place which grants mind-clearing solitude, fresh air and peace and quiet. It represents everything civilisation does not. There is no place for technology in the backwoods; there are no phone signals so you won’t have people pestering you. Or a way to call for help, if you need it. It is also a threatening place, home to wild animals and strange plants that can harm you; dense and disorientating forests in which to lose your way; long stretches of desolate highway along which there is no shelter, or a place to hide, should you need it; hills and craggy rockscapes from which prying, plotting eyes can peer at you; rustic, decrepit shacks in which banjo-playing, inbred rednecks skulk, their heads filled with all manner of perverse, irrational and horrifying thoughts. In other words, the perfect setting for a horror film, and the subject of Don’t Go in the Backwoods: Rural Rampages & the Horror Film. This new documentary – a bonus feature on Slice and Dice: The Slasher Film Forever - looks at horror titles featuring city folk who leave civilisation well and truly behind in the hope of getting back to basics and seeking out pastures greener. Of course, these being horror titles, said city folk usually take a wrong turn somewhere along the way, or stray off the wooded path where they’re camping, and wind up at the wrong end of a machete, wielded by some salivating, deformed hillbilly who shares a bed with his sister.

The Burning (1981)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Titles such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, Motel Hell, 2000 Maniacs, Mountaintop Motel Massacre, Madman, Friday the 13th, Just Before Dawn, Wrong Turn, The Burning and countless others feature such plots which portray the ineptitude of city dwellers and demonisation of rural-dwelling folk. Amongst the filmmakers discussing these titles, and the enduring allure of their plots, are Tobe Hooper, Adam Green, Dave Parker and Fred Olen Ray. All on fine form as usual. While they certainly provide plenty of examples, sadly they never really attempt to provide a clear definition of what constitutes backwoods horror, or an in-depth exploration of the variations of this sub-set of horror cinema. Everything is lumped together, but as with Slice and Dice: The Slasher Film Forever, it forms an enjoyable introduction for those not so familiar with the subject matter. The focus is mainly on slasher movies, but a few titles they discuss fall into the man vs. nature subgenre, which, if you’ll allow me to get geeky for a moment, is rather different. Backwoods horror generally features subtext pertaining to class difference and socio-political snobbery – the villains are human but deemed to be ‘different’ because of where they live. They form a sub-culture which strikes fear into the heart of those who have left civilisation and encroached upon the uncontrollable wildness of the rural backdrop; they fear the place as much as those who live in it. It is the location of these titles which sets them apart, and it often plays as important a part as the killer.

Just Before Dawn (1981)
Madman (1982)
The work of HP Lovecraft is cited as a forerunner to backwoods horror – Lovecraft’s work is generally misanthropic, but he reserves a particular disdain for the rural-dwelling proletariat. Tales such as The Dunwich Horror, The Colour Out of Space and The Shadow Over Innsmouth are set in isolated places far from civilisation where the inhabitants have been left to fester and meddle in strange occultist ways. Non-US titles are also briefly explored, such as The Descent, Frontiers and Wolf Creek; there are also a number of interesting, offbeat examples cited as forerunners to what is now regarded as backwoods horror – Spider Baby (which is dissected as an 'Old Dark House' movie with elements of backwoods horror) and Night of the Hunter being two. Writer/editor Matt McAllister makes some fascinating points about how these films can be seen as growing as much out of the Western – with all its common traits of civilisation vs. the wilderness – as they do from horror. Deliverance is even discussed as a film that made backwoods horror respectable – much in the same way that Fatal Attraction and Silence of the Lambs unfurled as respectable slasher flicks. It would have been interesting to look at variations in more depth – The Blair Witch Project for example, or titles that lean more to the man vs. nature sub-genre such as Squirm and Razorback, clips of which are shown but again, these fall into the sub-genre of man vs. nature. There is even a moment when it seems they might dip into 'folk horror' (titles such as The Wicker Man), but the strand is left unexplored. These are minor grievances though; it's just great to see an entertaining documentary throwing the spotlight on this sub-genre of sub-genres with passion and enthusiasm.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981)
For what is essentially a (very!) generous bonus feature, this is an absorbing documentary which will reinvigorate the viewer’s love of backwoods horror tales. It’s certainly provided a few titles for this writer to keep an eye out for. As with all Rising Productions titles, it has beautifully animated sequences and titles throughout, and has just an irreverent a tone as Slice and Dice: The Slasher Film Forever.


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Anonymous said…
I quite enjoyed the doc too, but found it interesting how the "city folk" filmmakers think having your car break down in the backwoods is worse than in the city where your more likely to be ropped, raped and killed.

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