Friday, July 6, 2012

Jay's Movie of the Week #27: The Evictors

Cursed and haunted houses will always be a storytelling staple. Wanting to feel safe where you shelter is a primal instinct, so threatening that is a great way to get under the skin. This 1979 Swamp-saga is essentially part of a "Southern Gothic Documentary Trilogy" including The Legend of Boggy Creek and The Town that Dreaded Sundown by swamp-set B-movie legend Charles B. Pierce. The Evictors is also a little-seen classic that deserves attention.

Set in Northern Louisiana circa 1942, The Evictors focuses on a rural farmhouse with a tragic history. Young marrieds Ruth and Ben Watkins (Jessica Harper and Michael Parks) make an offer on it, ready to start life together in their first home. They're new to town, and the neighbors seem friendly enough, at least until Ruth finds a note in the mailbox that says "I want you to move." Soon enough, the junk man and an eccentric, wheelchair-bound neighbor (Sue Ann Langdon playing 20 years older in a bad wig) are filling her in with important plot exposition about the house's history. There are two sides to every story. On the one hand, unfortunate events happen. On the other, perhaps someone is chasing owners off in the most final way possible? In 1934, the lady of the manor was seemingly kicked in the head by a mule... or did someone make it look that way? When another couple met their fates there in 1939, was it a tragedy of bad wiring, or murder?
Ruth and Ben try and fit into the community as best they can, but find that their address works against them. Creepy isolation quickly gets to Ruth, always alone when the scares happen, and to the audience. The Evictors effectively builds a quiet anxiety with long takes in under-lit environments. Even the most logical person gets a chill and skedaddles out of a dark space, like a basement, every now and then. The big, creaking farmhouse is creepy, as is the killer whose face you can never quite make out.
Jessica Harper always makes for a smart and appealing heroine, though she seems too modern and casual for how you might imagine a 1942 housewife. It doesn't ring true when she boldly confronts her overly-friendly but information withholding real estate agent (a creepy Vic Morrow), but she has a spine of steel even when overwhelmed with fear. She and Ben, make for a believable couple with low-key performances that feel natural. For all the films getting remade today, it surprises that this hasn't yet been a candidate. The 1928 prologue alone is ripe for revisiting in these foreclosure-happy times, featuring a family shot up for refusing eviction from their home. The Evictors plays out with both tragedy and twists, making for a fine little thriller that's worth a watch.

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