Genre classics and cult hits — all shot before 1985 — depict a South filled with one-lane roads that are just a wrong turn away from certain doom.
A carful of teenagers from out of town find themselves stranded in a rural town somewhere south of Dixie just before nightfall. The townspeople welcome them, eager to share their native traditions and rituals, complete with Confederate flags and “yeehaws.” When the teens feel uneasy and try to leave, the town becomes a veritable nightmare.
This familiar plot has been recycled time and again. But 50 years ago, when drive-in fright flicks were at their peak, no shortage of “wrong turn” movies were enough to slake the hunger of Western youth for bloodshed. It comes as no surprise that many of these movies were based, shot in or inspired by the American South. A land of lost history and geographic remoteness, back then places like Texas, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana evoked a wild and unpredictable country perfectly ripe to stage anything from a satanic ritual to backwoods sexual assault and cannibalism.
Typically, these films are gross misunderstandings at best and stereotype-perpetuating exploitations of Southern people and culture at its very worst. However, as a piece of cinematic history, they encapsulate a place and time where tall tales, folklore and wilderness came together to give us a type of horror movie that’s become a genre classic.
One of William Shatner’s most chilling roles, Adam Cramer arrives in small-town Missouri hellbent on inciting the town’s white citizens to riot against its black ones in opposition to integration with an unsettling ease and conscience. While not in the traditional vein of other horror movies, nor a traditional “monster” either, the quickness with which Cramer is able to achieve his goals and his manipulation of its townspeople renders “The Intruder” one of the more believable real-world nightmares. Based on the 1959 Charles Beaumont novel of the same name, “The Intruder” came at a time when racial sensitivity in the nation was reaching its apex. Known for his episodes of “The Twilight Zone,” Beaumont’s Cramer is the perfect combination of clear-minded persuasion and disturbed, intolerant bigotry run amok in modern society.
“We gonna show y’all some real Southern hospitality,” the mayor of Pleasant Valley drawls to his newly arrived “guests of honor” shortly before ordering the town to kill them. One of the first “grindhouse” movies of its kind, Herschell Gordon Lewis’s followup to 1962’s “Blood Feast” is credited both with pioneering on-screen gore and providing scared Northerners with exaggerated fears of Southerners as mentally deranged psychopaths who adhere to the unusual traditions of sacrificing humans to the ghosts of the Confederacy.
Starring 1963 Playboy Playmate Connie Mason, in this flick a group of teens from up North become lost on a country back road and are directed to “Pleasant Valley” by some friendly town folk, led by the sparkling veneer of Mayor Buckman (Taalkeus Blank). The guests begin to enjoy the Confederate Flag-adorned festival and opt to stay the night, only to discover they’re caught in the middle of a “blood centennial” commemorating the day Union forces destroyed the small town.
What ensues is a gruesome but imaginative series of torture scenes in which the surprisingly creative townspeople find ways to dismember the teens. Shot in St. Cloud, Florida, the entire town supposedly participated in the 15-day production, adding layers of authenticity and creepiness to the film.
A classic of the Southern horror genre, few scenes in movie history have left as big impression as the infamous “squeal like a pig,” which occurs less than halfway into this canoe trip from hell. A couple of city-slickers from Atlanta, Burt Reynolds, Jon Voigt, Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox, decide to paddle through a North Georgia river valley soon to be flooded by a dam being built in Tennessee. The four men arrive deep in Appalachia looking for some locals to drive their cars downriver. Instead, violent hillbillies who render unspeakable acts along their journey stalk them through the wilderness.
Known as much for its images of inbre” rednecks as for the resurgence of the folksong “Dueling Banjos,” what truly frightened people at the time was the possibility that these were real people living not far from them. No black magic, demons or even Satan, just ordinary humans. Today, people still refer to unsavory parts of the country as “where they shot ‘Deliverance.’”
“Frogs attacking windows … snakes on chandeliers … those aren’t exactly normal things, Mr. Crockett.” Sam Elliot (sans moustache) finds himself an uninvited guest at a remote plantation house populated by swanking loafers whose only complaints in life are pollution control fines and the massive frogs that creep their way inside. In one of the stranger and more inventive fright films of the drive-in era, George McCowan’s “eco-horror” debut pits a wanderlost nature photographer (Elliot) against an army of swamp reptiles genetically mutated by sewage runoff.
Shot on location in at the Wesley House in Eden Gardens State Park, Florida, “Frogs” turns a fear of reptiles into a full-fledged nightmare. Interestingly, most of the “frogs” are actually toads, while snakes — rattlers, indigos, corns and more —are the real killers.
This cornerstone of Southern horror was banned in several countries and dropped by theaters around the nation on its way to making $30 million in 1974. Despite a minimal budget, unknown cast and rookie director, the self-billed “true story” is the gold standard for the genre.
University of Texas grad Tobe Hooper mixed 1950s crime reports of Ed Gein with cannibalism and power tools for his debut about a group of teens road tripping around the middle of nowhere (Round Rock, Texas) on the way to an old family home where they are murdered and dismembered by maniacs. Beyond sheer entertainment, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” established itself and its most infamous character — “Leatherface” — as a franchise extending sequels, remakes and more. An icon of popular culture and independent filmmaking, it still shocks audiences worldwide.
Perhaps it has to do with Southern gentility and an idyllic, “perfect small town” way of life, but rape has always served as an apotheosis of evil, the epitome of the horror that lurks just around the corner. Regardless of gender, it incites shivers in people the way few other things can (see “Deliverance”).
“Satan’s Children,” a low-budget independent release by University of South Florida film students and local TV cameramen, embraces this concept wholeheartedly. Though Bobby, the suburban protagonist, is discovered by a Satanic cult on the side of the road, eventually becoming an unfortunate initiate in their rituals, his experiences leading up to it are no less frightening. A dark sexual tension pervades the movie aided by homophobic paranoia on behalf of Satan. Uncomfortable sexual perversions aside, the film has plenty of unexpectedly funny moments and has become a cult favorite in Tampa, Florida, with festival showings often accompanied by reunions of the original cast.
While “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” is a fictitious film, it was based on the Texarkana Moonlight Murders, a series of very real and still unsolved murders that took place in and around Texarkana in 1946. Attacking eight people and murdering five, the real-life “Phantom Killer” terrified the city and surrounding area to the point where its citizens remained behind locked doors with guns loaded as dusk turned to nightfall.
A widely reported event at the time, much of the story had faded to folklore and bad memories when Charles B. Pierce’s film debuted with the tagline: “In 1946 this man killed five people … today he still lurks the streets of Texarkana.” Much of the mythology currently surrounding the murders came as a result of the film, but Pierce stays mostly true to the original events.
Tobe Hooper’s second cinematic take on his native Texas is not as well known as his first, but it’s no less gruesome. Based on the unbelievably true story of Joe Ball — a World War II veteran, bootlegger and serial killer who reportedly fed his female victims to alligators in a pit built into his Texas bar before committing suicide to avoid capture in 1938 — the film was shot on a soundstage recreated to look like a derelict hotel in east Texas.
Though it was never proven (or unproven) that human flesh was directly fed to the gators during bar hours, puppies and kittens were often served into the pit as entertainment. Ball was posthumously charged with murdering somewhere between five and 25 people before his death. While Hooper employs similar tropes as in “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” such as “the creepy old caretaker” and “the naïve traveling family,” the pet crocodiles are the real scares here.
Southern horror, Italian style. The only international film to make this list, Lucio Fulci’s second film in the unofficial “Gates of Hell” trilogy was shot partly in Rome but mostly in New Orleans. Heavily censored upon its initial release for extreme gore and violence emanating from the underworld, “The Beyond” is similar to other Italian “Zombi” films with highly stylized gore.
Liza (Catriona Macall) inherits a historic but rundown hotel (the real-life Otis House in Fairview-Riverside State Park) and unwittingly opens a gate to hell via a copy of the Book of Eibon in a room she is forbidden to enter. An impressive amount of gore featuring every innovation conceivable to gouge, melt, shred or disfigure a human body follows. Credit the special effects wizardry of Carlo Rambaldi (“Alien,” “E.T.”) who created such realistic animatronics that he had to testify in court that it wasn’t real. And with an outsider’s take on New Orleans, Fulci is able to find eerie scenery in the most ordinary of places.