One of the many deep corners of cinema that I have wandered into in the past few months has been the filmography of one Herschell Gordon Lewis. A patriarch of the video nasty era, Lewis often shares the title of “Godfather of Gore” with giallo maestro Lucio Fulci. Inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, a film he saw as cheating its way into mass appeal by keeping the killing cheekily hidden away, Lewis took a new direction and made Blood Feast, now considered the first splatter film. It is a cheap endeavor, filled with hammy acting and narrow production values when there is no blood in need of spilling. But what any of Lewis’s films lack in budget, they make up for in sheer personality. There is an energy and atmosphere to his work unlike any of the era, existing in a sickly parallel world where sadistic killers lurk in every innocent neighborhood, masking themselves in any gimmicky profession imaginable. With such figureheads of fear as an archaeologist who worships an ancient Egyptian deity, a mother and son who steal women’s scalps for wigs, and a magician whose illusory mutilations disappear at the end of a performance only to occur in real life hours later, Lewis has created an arsenal of killers that terrorize the innocent with unprecedented prowess.
There is one exception in his catalogue of invasive menaces. His second splatter film, Two Thousand Maniacs, is one that left me inexplicably shaken and spellbound. This grindhouse gore-fest follows a group of strangers led into the southern town of Pleasant Valley, just in time for its centennial celebration. As the six come to learn, Pleasant Valley was destroyed by Union soldiers during the Civil War two hundred years prior. As it becomes clear that they are meant to be sacrificed as a gesture of revenge, the ones that are left attempt to escape as their newfound friends are quickly picked off. Before we get to any of that, the opening montage quickly sets the tone. We see our travelers being misled by the rednecks rearranging road signs, set to a spoken-word bluegrass ballad written and performed by Lewis himself. The chorus is a powerful holler followed by a harmonic and haunting declaration: “Oh, the South will rise again.”
If you haven’t already put two and two together, Two Thousand Maniacs is an example of hicksploitation, typically an offshoot of grindhouse cinema chronicling the adventures of hillbillies and moonshiners. Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is the easiest example, but even prestige dramas, like In the Heat of the Night, fall under the label. Thanks to the cast of Yankee outsiders, Lewis’s film gains an edge in regards to the extreme portrayal of the divide between the north and south. There is always more than one Confederate flag flying in any vicinity, and the Southern accents and mannerisms are exaggerated so thoroughly that Pleasant Valley feels like a place out of time and space. The typical Southern hospitality, channeled through the gusto of Mayor Buckman, is a dangerous masquerade for the town’s true intentions.
What makes Two Thousand Maniacs particularly striking for me is how much it presents this divide. You couldn’t get away with something like this today without millions of ironic tweets about how silly it was to play something like this with such a straight face, but the boldness of the film is what makes it so thrilling to watch. From the get-go, the characters are out of their depth, surrounded by the townsfolk urging them to stay and partake in the festivities. We get several scenes where we see the mayor planning out the deadly games, and see them act as a unit several times. After one killing, a melancholic stillness is finally ceased by a chorus of “Dixie” as the townsfolk return to their beds for the next day of ritualistic murder.Perhaps what confounds me most about Two Thousand Maniacs is its ghostly ending. After two of our Yankees escape, they go to the police. The trio return to Pleasant Valley, only to find that the entire town has disappeared. It is revealed that the whole town was populated by the vengeful spirits of those killed during the Civil War a century prior, rising from the grave to take their revenge. As the two survivors depart for the final time, a few remaining spirits watch them go by. They speak of the centennial to come, and what technology may be around in 2065. This is where the thesis of the film truly comes around. Pleasant Valley is a product of hatred, of the divide between the Union and Confederacy that has ripple effects a century and a half later. The town itself is just as hateful as the forces that destroyed it, seeking pathetic and anticlimactic revenge against those not responsible. There is little mention of slavery in this film, something I’m sure Lewis just didn’t want to address, but that legacy is nevertheless felt. The hatred that brought the country to war is foolish. Racism and prejudice are fool’s errands, but they are powerful when concentrated. One maniac, as seen in many of Lewis’s films, can terrorize a town for a day. Two thousand, and any more than that, can cause centuries of irreparable damage. That is the true horror of this film.