Jun 102011

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7. The Legend of Hillbilly John

Year: 1974
Director: John Newland
Writer: Melvin Levy
Cast: Hedges Caper, Severn Darden, Sharon Henesy, Denver Pyle
Country: USA
Genre: Horror, Fantasy

Spoilers ahead.

Adapted from the Silver John stories of Manly Wade Wellman, the film actually feels more like an anthology than a straight narrative. It’s so episodic in feel that you almost wish they’d thrown in a wrap-around. We already have a narrator introduce the character and the film’s theme. Marduke (Severn Darden) a mysterious dowser tells us that the Devil is real and living in the Appalachians, going under many names.

We then meet our hero, John (Hedges Caper). John spends the night with his girlfriend, Lily (Sharon Henesy) and returns home to find his grandfather (Denver Pyle) has decided to sing the defy, an act that will pit him against The Devil. Grandpappy John has had an idea to beat the Devil, he’s melted down silver dollars and used them to make strings for his guitar. There’s an old folk story that The Devil is scared of pure silver and the silver will protect those who use it to fight evil. Grandpappy dies, because, of course, silver dollars aren’t silver anymore. Apparently because the government is hand in hoof with the Devil. After burying his grandpappy, John seeks Marduke’s help. Marduke dowses for real silver and uses it to string John’s guitar. John takes his grandfather’s dog and heads out to the road, travelling where he’s needed and fighting evil with the use of his silver-stringed guitar.

In the film’s second story, John arrives at a small town that feels plagued by Zebulon Yandro (Harris Yulin) Zeb’ is an undertaker and the town feel he makes money off misery. John knows of Yandro because he cropped up in an old folk song. According to the song, Zeb’s grandfather made a deal with a local witch. She agreed to give him gold from her hill if he’d lie in her arms for a year. As soon a he got the gold, he ran. But the witch made more gold in the hope of drawing him back and the gold still lies in the mountain. Zeb convinces John to take him to the hill, believing the gold really belongs to him. They find the gold, but they also find the witch still waiting. When Yandro sees how beautiful she is, he agrees to stay and fulfil his grandfather’s deal. But of course, things are never as simple as they seem.

John next finds the trail to Hark Mountain, the location of O.J. Onselm (Alfred Ryder) and his attack… um, bird, The Ugly Bird. This is when we find out silver can also melt evil as well as defeat it. Following a rather short confrontation, John wins the day, prompting the return of both Marduke and Lily. Lily tries to convince John to settle down in a small house in the country, but John soon feels the call again and the two are on the road. This time they end up at a cotton plantation run by an evil Voodoo chief. John tries to save the day, but is being throttled to death when the only outspoken slave picks up the guitar and deals with the evil. The sight of the white saviour John being carried off on the shoulders of grateful black slaves is a bit unsettling, especially as he did bugger all in this story. Our final shot of John is him walking towards a place of true evil in America. Three guesses where. Ok, so it’s hippy idealism at its most blatant and naive, but I like it.

Calling this a classic may be over-stating the case to many. I fully admit that a lot of viewers would be underwhelmed by Hillbilly John. It’s the kind of film that often gets underrated because of its budget. Or its lack of a budget. But what it lacks in sheen, it makes up in heart and ideas. It’s not the great film that Wellman deserves, that much is true, but it is a good film if you can get past the need for the big bucks to appear on screen. I feel the same way about much of Larry Cohen’s work, it gets overlooked because it doesn’t look good. It could also use a little work when it comes to strengthening the narrative, the stories get shorter as they go on, when the climactic story should really have been the most powerful. The music is varied, superb at times, a little drippy at others. The acting is also weak in some places, with Hedges Caper (amazing name) being a little bit too heart-on-sleeve at times. But even with those flaws considered, it’s still a damn good film, the use of Appalachian folk-lore adds great depth to the film and it remains one of the most intriguing horror films of the 70s.

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