Monday, March 28, 2016

The Legend of Hillbilly John

The Legend of Hillbilly John is a relatively obscure little relic from the early 1970s, based on Manly Wade Wellman's Silver John stories. I saw the movie when it came round to the Rives Theater in Martinsville, VA, most likely in 1973, when I was in junior high school. I have vague recollections of being in old Ronnie Townsend's physics class and making plans to go see the movie with a buddy of mine named Edmond. At some prior movie show, I had seen the trailer, which featured a stop-motion-animated giant bird, and this naturally set off some serious fireworks in my juvenile head. At the time, the name Manly Wade Wellman meant nary a thing to me, though I had actually read "The Desrick on Yandro" in that most wonderful horror anthology Alfred Hitchcock's Monster Museum, probably that very same year. Apparently, my youthful mind did not pick up on the association between the story and the movie, although in later years, it was actually my vivid recollections of the "Desrick on Yandro" segment from the film that prompted me to seek out more of Wellman's works. Two decades or so ago, I picked up a copy of this movie on VHS, which I still own and keep safely stored, since, as best I can tell, no official digital version exists. I recently re-read "The Desrick on Yandro" — not just one of my favorite Wellman tales but one of my favorite horror/fantasy stories — and I got the bug to up and revisit the film.

For a low-budget picture with relatively limited appeal, The Legend of Hillbilly John features the contributions of several noteworthy names, such as stars Denver Pyle (Bonnie & Clyde, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Dukes of Hazard), R. G. Armstrong (Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, My Name Is Nobody, Race With the Devil), Harris Yulin (How the West Was Won, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Law & Order), Severn Darden (Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, The Day of the Dolphin), and Susan Strasberg (The Trip, The Manitou, The Brotherhood); director John Newland of One Step Beyond fame; and country music legend Hoyt Axton, who provided the movie's main tune, "The Devil," among others. Though the plot ostensibly chronicles Hillbilly John's travels through the southland, putting down the devil wherever he may be found by way of a silver-stringed guitar (the devil, of course, cannot withstand the pure power of silver), the movie plays more like a number of cobbled-together set pieces, linked by the common characters of John (Hedges Capers); his girlfriend, Lily (Sharon Henesy); his dog, Honor-Hound; and the enigmatic Mr. Marduke (Darden). Two of the pieces are relatively faithful adaptations of Wellman's Silver John tales "The Desrick on Yandro" and "O Ugly Bird," featuring mostly convincing southern characters and authentic backwoods atmosphere (the movie was filmed in North Carolina and Arkansas). Unfortunately, the character of John himself departs rather drastically from the source material. Wellman drew the character as an educated, worldly, sometimes cynical veteran of the Korean War, whereas the John of the film is a naïve, rather effeminate flower child. While the set pieces themselves move at a fair pace and occasionally generate some tension, between them we are subjected to interminable interludes with John, Lily, and Honor Hound, usually accompanied by meandering, unmemorable ballads, some written by Capers himself.

Screenwriter Melvin Levy and director John Newland managed to conjure a few memorable moments, such as Denver Pyle performing his ill-fated "defy" on guitar (which culminates with the film appearing to actually break); Mr. Yandro's dramatic first appearance at a rather somber country church shindig; the animated Ugly Bird's attack on John; and John's confrontation with a powerful Haitian witch doctor-cum-slave driver named Captain Lajoie H. Desplaines IV (Percy Rodrigues). Our most intriguing character is actually Severn Darden's dowser/magician/narrator Marduke, who is not a Wellman creation but an apparent incarnation of the Babylonian deity Marduk, his nature and motivations unclear from start to finish. While he appears a benevolent enough character, he exudes a certain dark mystery, partly due to Severn Darden's perpetually dour countenance. He is clearly possessed of occult powers (not to mention he owns a mule named Asmodeus), but while he occasionally lends John a hand — such as replacing his guitar which was destroyed as he battled Ugly Bird — he doesn't actively participate in any conflicts with the antagonists. More than once, he goads John to question his own motivation, going so far as to tell him that, if he goes on to defy the devil, those who benefit from his victory will likely not appreciate it. Quite the contrary, as a matter of fact.

Apart from Ugly Bird, special effects work is less than sparse. I can't imagine today's audiences, accustomed to the casting of spells by way of flashy CGI laser strikes, suspending their collective disbelief by anything as simple as a few simple camera tricks, staccato music, and slightly over-the-top acting. One scene that almost impresses is near the end of the film, when John and Lily arrive at the cotton plantation run by Captain Desplaines. They approach a tall wooden gate, and upon opening, find themselves facing a landscape and sky colored a lurid orange. Only after Captain Desplaines has been vanquished by John's silver-stringed guitar does the color return to normal.

Unquestionably, The Legend of Hillbilly John has heart, and at times it has brains. Hoyt Axton's "The Devil" over the opening credits does a commendable job of setting up a dark, expectant mood. In its better moments, the movie can draw some approving nods. At no time, however, does anything in it come close to making you stand up, thump your chest, and holler, "God damn, that was good!" Quite unlike Wellman's stories, which have, for me, done this very thing. It's difficult to find this film, as I don't believe it's available either on DVD or at any digital service. My old VHS tape of it doesn't get much business, but I do like having it on hand, just for when I get in that mood. I expect I'll give it another look in some future year.

Hoyt Axton's "The Devil," as it opens the picture.

1 comment:

Jonathan Allen said...

It's finally coming out on blu-ray, in its first home video release since the days of VHS!