Horror list focused on rural/urban conflict that includes historical and recent films.

Deliverance (1972) Dir. John Boorman

There’s very little to say about Deliverance that hasn’t already been said in Carol Clover’s Men, Women, and Chain Saws or Drew Casper’s Hollywood Film: 1963-1976. To briefly summarize, Deliverance is the prototypical backwoods horror film, establishing the formula for films to come with all of its incumbent themes and anxieties. The most prevalent of these has to do with the conflict between urban and rural communities, specifically in terms of natural resource management and labor value. The former has to do with urban communities’ complicity in destroying the natural resources upon which rural communities depend (thus disenfranchising those communities). The latter has to do with the difference in types of labor. Rural, working-class communities are slotted into manual labor (farming, factory work) whereas middle- and upper-middle-class communities perform “soft” labor (artistic work, service positions, administrative jobs). Clover’s assessment of Deliverance in connection with other films in the sub-genre (which she combines with rape-revenge films) includes a critique of the urban/rural conflict in connection with race/indigeneity conflicts and gender conflicts. According to Casper’s reading specifically of Deliverance, the film also highlights anxieties in the early 1970s regarding masculinity and changing gender roles, and homoeroticism as a function of upper-class hypermasculinity.

The Hills Have Eyes (1977) Dir. Wes Craven

Like so many horror films, The Hills Have Eyes centers terror and aggression squarely on the shoulders of disabled and mentally ill communities, in this case characterized as being predisposed to savagery, violence, and cannibalism. While the film does provide some sense of a recent change that has pushed the “the pack”[1] to be more aggressive, there’s still an implication that they’ve always been cannibals. Fred’s (John Steadman) story about how Papa Jupiter (James Whitworth) came to live in the desert and have a family there certainly breaks with the tradition in the sub-genre where the attackers used to be normal folks but have been pushed to violence by dire circumstances. The Hills Have Eyes additionally complicates the backwoods horror formula (rural vs. urban) with the addition of urban vs. suburban conflict within the Carter family. This conflict is closely tied to generational conflict, however, which is familiar across horror in general and certainly isn’t unheard of in the backwoods subgenre. Finally, this film specifically links cannibalism and infanticide in a way that is a bit uncommon, especially for films in the 1970s. It does, however, lay some groundwork for much more explicit work in recent years that foregrounds the politics and history of cannibalism and infanticide, like Bing Bailey’s Portrait of a Zombie.

Staunton Hill (2009) Dir. George Cameron Romero

A lot of backwoods horror is what used to be (and maybe still is) called B-horror: low production quality, hysterically bad acting, and a paper-thin narrative linking gratuitous violence. While the other films on this list belong to either the canon (Deliverance and The Hills Have Eyes) or to up-and-coming indie art horror (Jug Face and Cub), Staunton Hill is thoroughly representative of the segment of the sub-genre that is seldom written about. B-horror generally isn’t considered “important” or “innovative,” but it nonetheless upholds and solidifies genre and sub-genre formulas. In this way, Staunton Hill solidly adheres to a few thematic trends that are absent from previously mentioned films: first, egregious social ills (racism, blatant sexism) are attributed to the working class, whereas more “acceptable” problems (ableism, classism, elitism) are attributed to the middle class. Additionally, following in the tradition of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Staunton Hill draws clear parallels between violence/sex and women/animals. This is especially prevalent in backwoods films that include animal husbandry and/or slaughterhouses as part of their context.

Cub (2014) Dir. Jonas Govaerts

As mentioned above, Cub belongs to a new category of indie horror and is accordingly suitably attractive compared to a lot of the rest of the genre. This Belgian sleeper hit also engages with political concerns beyond abstract considerations of class and gender. Near the beginning, the film includes an offhand hint at the Belgian regional conflict between Flemish and Walloon communities. (If you’re interested in understanding the international history that’s lead to recent isolationist movements, the 2007-2011 Belgian political crisis is a good place to start.) Cub puts an emphasis on the reason for the local community’s disenfranchisement (a bus factory that used to employ most of the local men went bankrupt). The methods of killing and disposing of bodies are specifically mechanized. Each person who dies (with the exception of the tent full of Cub Scouts that are driven over) is either immobilized or outright killed by an elaborate mechanical trap, and their bodies are dragged back to a disposal pit in the factory. Cub is additionally notable for how it characterizes and uses children. This film deviates significantly from older horror tropes, but is very similar to more recent films coming out of Europe, especially Rare Exports and Goodnight Mommy. Ultimately, for as much as the film does right, for all of the ways in which it innovates the genre, its biggest detractor is its tired reliance on drawing a direct line from childhood trauma to mental illness to violence.

Jug Face (2013) Dir. Chad Crawford Kinkle

Jug Face, like Cub, represents a new generation of independent backwoods horror that attempts to update the genre. Jug Face’s contribution has a lot to do with the conclusions that it draws. Unlike Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Deliverance, The Hills Have Eyes, and others in this genre, there is no hope whatsoever at the end of the film. Ada (Lauren Ashley Carter) is beaten, has a miscarriage, and is eventually killed by her own community, her own parents. While it’s true that the rest of the community survives, the question remains of whether this is a good thing or not. Jug Face also updates the urban/rural conflict in that, rather than interfering in rural affairs, the outside world, as represented by the store owner (Chip Ramsey), has decided to stay well away from the rural community. His daughter, Christie (Kaitlin Cullum), wants to intervene, to help Ada, but he tells her in no uncertain terms that there are weird things happening in the woods, and that his family will not become involved.

[1] The family has no surname, but are referred to, very briefly at the beginning of the film, as the pack.


Image credit: Kinology © 2014


Author: Geneveive Newman