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Monday, October 17, 2016

HubrisWeen 4, Day 12: The Legend of Hillbilly John (1972)

HubrisWeen is a 26-day blogging marathon where a seasonally-appropriate movie gets reviewed every day from October 6 to the 31st in alphabetical order. Click on the banner above this message to go to the central site and see what Checkpoint Telstar and the other participants are covering today.

Written by Melvin Levy, based on the book Who Fears the Devil? by Manly Wade Wellman
Directed by John Newland

Hedges Capers:  John
Sharon Henesy:  Lily
Severn Darden:  Mr. Marduke
Denver Pyle:  Grandpappy John
Honor Hound:  Himself

Okay, time for another entry in the Tales of Yore, or, How I Got This Way. Like a substantial number of the people reading this blog, when I was a kid I was batshit crazy for monsters. Monster movies, monster toys, monster movies on TV and monsters in books. I entered my "dinosaur nut" phase when I checked out my first book from the Wheaton Public Library, which was called Prehistoric Monsters Did the Strangest Things. Although I went expectedly crazy for dinosaurs when I found out about them, I liked fictional, mythical, made-up monsters so much better. Therefore, some time after I'd returned that dinosaur book to the library I checked out something called Alfred Hitchcock's Monster Museum. That sounded more like it to my six-year-old brain--and I was completely right in picking that one to take home. I had no idea at the time that it was a repackaged collection of short stories that were originally published in pulp science fiction, horror and fantasy magazines. I just knew it was about monsters. "Slime", by Joseph Payne Brennan, made quite an impression on me back when I was Kid Telstar (right around the time rotary dial phones roamed the Earth). But another story from this anthology never completely escaped my mind decades after I read it breathlessly as a first-grader.

That story was "The Desrick on Yandro", by Manly Wade Wellman. I've remembered the title for almost ninety percent of my life now, but never figured out that I could have done an author search and read more from Wellman years before I actually did. I am a genius unparalleled. How long did that story stick with me? Well, around 1995 or so I was a nut for the original Civilization PC game (I preferred to play as the Aztecs because they started on the American continent and could spread out faster than the poor saps stuck in Europe with three or four other tribes trying to scrape them off of the planet). Well, the different civilizations built cities to grow larger, and the American ones were expected things like Philadelphia and Chicago but the Zulus had one called Mpondo. And every single time I saw that city name while I was trying to take over the world and rule under the Pax Technochtitlanica, the phrase "The Desrick on Mpondo" would bubble to the forefront of my mind and I'd smile quietly, remembering the story details from two decades previous.

That short story turned out to be one of several featuring the same first-person narrator as the main character, a wandering guitar-player and freelance supernatural evil destroyer who went only by the name John. Fans have called him Silver John or John the Balladeer (I prefer Silver John myself) but in all the short stories he's a man who encounters some form of supernatural danger in the Appalachian mountains in the early to mid 1950s--when the stories were written--and triumphing over them because his heart is pure, his cause is righteous, and his memory is packed to bursting with facts about the hidden world that he's learned over the course of his ramblings. Curses, witches, monsters and Things From Beyond all failed to overcome John and he protected his little postage stamp of native soil from everything that crawled in the night and took advantage of their neighbors.

I only found out about the other stories featuring Silver John when I read a review of today's movie way the hell back in 1998 (!). Dr. Freex (one of the first B movie another participant in HubrisWeen, which always makes me feel like the Golden Age Superman is teaming up with a no-mark like The Human Bomb when I see his links on the HubrisWeen site next to mine) hipped me to the existence of The Legend of Hillbilly John as well as the other short stories and novels by Manly Wade Wellman. Which meant I got to read something that there just isn't anything else like in American literature. It's fantasy, but it's an American kind of fantasy (as opposed to all the stuff taking place in Fake Medieval Europe), and it takes place with a shadowy hidden world full of wonder and menace just beyond the perceptions of the normal everyday people. It's also explicitly Christian, which usually gives me hives--when I read stories about Jesus Power overcoming the evils of this world and the next, it's gotta be really well-made to not make me want to chuck the book across the room and find something else to flip through. But the Silver John stories (and, to a lesser extent, the novels) are quiet masterworks of fantasy and horror. I'd tell you what "The Desrick on Yandro" is about, but I'd rather you read it on your own. It gets adapted, more or less, as one of the adventures John has in this movie. But the things in the literary version wouldn't be possible for this film to depict without it being cheap and laughable. More's the pity. I'd like to see the Skim, the Toller, the Flat, the Culverin, the Bammat and the Behinder wreck the shit out of Mr. Yandro in this movie, but that's just not likely to happen for the money that these filmmakers had earmarked for realizing the events in those stories.

And lastly, before I start the main section of the review, I should point out that Movie John isn't the same as Literary John. The film was made in 1971 to appeal at least a little bit to the counterculture at the time; expect hippies, is what I'm saying. The first Silver John story was written a full twenty years earlier; when John mentions fighting in "the overseas war" in the stories it's got to be World War II or the Korean police action, but in 1971 anyone fighting in the overseas was was in Vietnam. And that's a world of difference in both popular culture and in American history. But if we can have one Flash on TV, another in movies, a third in cartoons and a fourth in comics and a fifth in video games without any cognitive dissonance I think I can deal with the early Seventies model of John the Balladeer.

Special thanks to the private collector who owned this on Laserdisc who burned it to DVD-R for me; it's going to be out on blu-ray thanks to Kino Lorber soon but not soon enough for me to use it for HubrisWeen.

The credits roll over one of several versions of Hoyt Axton's "The Devil" that we're going to hear over the course of the film; at least for now, all that the viewer knows about it is that it's a diss track aimed at Lucifer. Line drawings of simple rural scenes are shown as the various actors and filmmakers' names appear on the screen. Hoyt Axton and Hedges Capers are listed as the composers for the film, which is neat on one hand (the person playing a singer / guitar player will be able to do both!), but also kind of a letdown because Manly Wade Wellman wrote songs in the stories for John to sing. Sure, we won't necessarily be getting the melody that the author envisioned, but the words would be nice to hear during the story. If you do want to hear someone singing the words from the stories set to old-timey folk and country tunes as well as some gospel and Hank Williams, get this CD from the late Joe Bethancourt. It's amazing and Bethancourt's voice is now what I imagine when I read the stories and John talks about singing and playing.

Aerial footage of thick green forests take over for the credits, and then the camera zooms in on a caftan-wearing white dude with moderately long hair and a pretty neatly trimmed beard. He tells us that in the Appalachian mountains, the Devil (who goes by many names, including "the stranger" and "the Corps of Army Engineers") is still very much alive and well. His clothes also change from hippie garb to a hillbilly suit in a dissolve as he leans against a tree; that's about the most visible magic we're going to be seeing in the film for a good long while. In the Silver John stories, people believe in magic even if they never saw someone cast a deadly spell; their world is as full of magic as it is of people. And nobody would have to believe in something if magicians cast zappy rays of colored light at each other when they wanted to throw a hex. Instead you just have one person saying they're cursing an enemy and the other one possibly having something happen to 'em and possibly not. Everyone would believe in the power of a witch or a warlock if they really could chuck Magic Missile at anyone on a whim.

The nascent environmental movement (Silent Spring was published in 1962, halfway between the first Silver John story's publication and this movie hitting drive-in screens) gets a nod as the narrator tells us that the Devil, among other things, likes to wreck up the place when there's lots of beautiful green trees and clear streams. Shots of bulldozers at work punctuate his speech, and then the man leans up against one and explains that we're about to see John before he was able to defy the Devil to Old Scratch's face. Or, in other words, we're more or less getting an anthology movie of Silver John stories. Well, heck, everyone who's been reading HubrisWeen knows I love me a good anthology movie, and I hope I've already convinced my readers that I love me some Silver John tales as well. Although Manly Wade Wellman never did explain how John first came by his sterling silver guitar strings, this movie knows that audiences don't mind an origin story when they're going to be watching a hero do heroic stuff for a while.

Which means we get a look at Hedges Casper as John the Balladeer, singing a brand new song he made up while his girlfriend Lily puts her dress back on in a forest glade. She wonders if she'll be able to tell her father that she and John will be married, especially if there turns out to be a little Balladeer on the way after their afternoon's frolic and the pair walks back to town separately (but not fooling anybody, as several of John's older gossipy neighbors point out to him on his leisurely return to town). John's working on a song about King Nebuchadnezzar, whose name I actually spelled right on the first try, as he ambles back to his grandfather's cabin in the woods. Hope you like absolutely gorgeous mountain scenery covered with lush green trees, because there's plenty of it on the way during John's song. I'm not sure where the other backing musicians are playing woodwinds along with his guitar, but I have it on good authority from another HubrisWeen participant that that kind of shit happened to Elvis all the time.

John stops off for a snort from a neighbor's not-particularly-hidden still and learns from the moonshiner that all the clucking and stern looks from everyone that's seen him that day isn't because he's been making love with Lily the night before. Instead, it's that his grandpappy (also named John) said he was going to "sing the Defy" that day; whatever the heck that means, it lights a fire under John's ass and he runs home in abject terror (even dropping his guitar to go faster). While the old man's lightening his soul before taking on the Devil with his song he obliquely confesses to be John's father, not his grandfather. Then he takes his own old guitar out and says he's got an ace up his sleeve when he sings the Defy--he's saved up enough money to get six silver half-dollars, each one with poor martyred John F. Kennedy's face on them, "shining like a noon day". Grandpappy John melted the coins down and drew them out into guitar strings, and says that silver in the hands of a righteous man is the only thing "his majesty" fears on Earth. For his sake, I hope he's right.

As the full moon shines down, the townspeople stand around with one woman telling everyone they're all doomed and everyone else just looking nervous. I got a grin out of Grandpappy John grumbling about his superstitious neighbors before he went out to sing a song to defeat Satan thanks to silver strings on his guitar. And the moonshiner buries the heart and liver of a fish he caught in the ground as a token of his esteem, asking "your majesty" not to blow up his still when he kills the elder John for singing the Defy. I'm not hip enough to tell you whether or not that was a real occult practice where the Appalachian hills rise wild, but the Wellman stories are full of folk medicine and ritual--as well as plenty of stuff that the author just made up because he needed it in a story. So, uh, maybe that was a real thing?

Nobody other than his grandson and Honor Hound, John's dog, are willing to stand by Grandpappy John when he prepares to sing the Defy until the narrator from earlier shows up. He gives his name as Mr. Marduke and his trade as dowsing. And this time he's talking to the characters in the film rather than the audience. Denver Pyle sings to the cheap seats, with the Defy basically insulting the heck out of Satan so that he'll show up to respond to the disses. Just as the full moon is at its peak, Grandpappy hits the end of the song and the film snaps in half (an amazing arthouse moment that had to have been jaw-dropping to see in an actual theater). Turns out that two things happened:  First, there wasn't any silver in those silver half-buck pieces (and Old Scratch doesn't give a tin shit about an alloy of copper and nickel being used as guitar strings). Second, Grandpappy John reached the end of his life in a budget-conscious disaster. John, Lily, Marduke and Honor Hound are the only ones to stand by the elder John's graveside, though the moonshiner stops by to declare that he hadn't trusted the federal government (who oversaw the reduction of silver in silver coins) since he started making his own whiskey. Thanks, bud. You may go now. John swears to stand against the Devil all his life as an act of vengeance for his father's death, but isn't planning to go out like a chump. The problem is, he's utterly impoverished as far as material goods are concerned so there's not much of a chance that he'll wind up with even a couple ounces of silver for guitar strings.

But as Franz Kafka's friends used to say when they wanted to irritate him, there are no problems--only opportunities. And Mr. Marduke is a dowser, after all--not just for water, but for any sort of thing that might be under the ground. He tells John he's willing to search for true silver on the land that Grandpappy's grandpappy (and all the way back through the generations) has farmed since the Revolutionary War. If Marduke finds nothing, he gets nothing, but if he locates enough silver to string a guitar he gets a dinner of salt pork and the pleasure of John's company at dinner. Since this is the first story in the anthology, Mr. Marduke does find a handful of pieces of eight about six inches underground in one spot on John's land. Regrettably, it's after some flailing about from Severn Darden as he dowses the heck out of that silver. But there's no reason for the Indians who originally found the silver or the Spaniards who stole it from them four centuries and change in the past to adulterate the metal for any reason. So turning the old coins into guitar strings should be rather easy.

Marduke tells John that there's likely to be a couple of chests' worth of silver coins on the property elsewhere and if he dedicated enough time and effort to it, he'd wind up a rich man just by digging them up. John thinks it over for a moment, but decides that he doesn't want to spend all his time just working to make himself wealthy--the coins that Mr. Marduke located are certainly enough to get his guitar strung the way he wants it and with a little left over besides. He's hospitable enough to bring his guest's salt pork dinner out so it can be consumed under the open sky (at Mr. Marduke's request), and decides to get Defying while the Defying's good.

John, however, realizes that he's got to do some level grinding before he can face down the Devil, so after upgrading his guitar he goes out to walk the earth and see what he can do for the people that are getting hassled by supernatural beings. But before he does that, Lily stops by to snuggle with her man in the rickety hayloft in Grandpappy's barn. Sadly, Sharon Henesy underplays her role here and sounds more like a sleepy woman reading dialogue than a character in the scene. She's also a bit cheesed off that rather than buy things to make the farm more livable ("this one's our store-bought bed," she says, while examining one of the coins) her guy's going to pick a fight with Satan using a repurposed peso de ocho as the D string.

I imagine John was a little irritated that he didn't immediately run across some sort of dark power that he had to thwart. Poor guy. He does get to a wedding dance where the band doesn't need a spare guitar player, and the minister tells him there's a guy around there named Zebulon Yandro who might just stand a little thwarting. Turns out the guy's an undertaker who vastly overcharges the people in the community for tombstones that are huge, ugly and necessary if he's going to perform services and let the dead sleep comfortably in the churchyard. The minister says that Zebulon only cares about money; people, to him, are just things to be shipped, buried, and charged for. Yandro, eh? I've heard that name before. Which means the movie's getting to the part where the Wellman stories are really being adapted.

John's itching to get out into the big wide world and confront some evil, and he hasn't seen this Zebulon Yandro dude at all. He's ready to go elsewhere and look for some wickedness that doesn't sit around its house all day in a bathrobe watching TV when the minister tells him the only thing Yandro likes more than counting coins is wrecking the mood at parties. A nice joyous wedding full of dancing and music? That's going to draw Zebulon out there like a particularly dickheaded moth to a flame. 

Sure enough, Zebulon walks in and the music stops. Smoking a cigar and wearing a black suit and top hat, he's the death of the party all by his lonesome. John starts singing "The Desrick on Yandro", singing a song about a lonely cabin on top of a hill where the "wild beasts can't get me". That piques the undertaker's interest and he compliments the singer, wondering who wrote it. John tells him he learned it from his father, who learned it from his (because John's an honest man, he says he's not sure about who wrote it before that--the trail of provenance runs out after a couple generations). And the song's about Yandro's grandfather, for what that's worth. And a "witch girl" named Polly Wiltse, who was abandoned by Yandro the Elder after she summoned up some gold for him. She extracted a promise from the older Yandro to "lie in her arms for a year" in exchange for all that gold, but, grandfather, like grandson. The only thing that the older Yandro wanted was the money. Even the prospect of a year in the arms of a supernaturally beautiful witch meant nothing to him, so he skipped out on his half of the bargain and kept the money.

The only word that Zebulon Yandro cares about in that whole story, of course, is "gold". But the legend of Polly Wiltse, pining away for the only man she wanted, and casting a spell to fetch him back three-quarters of a century later, got told all around the mountains and John heard it from people who heard it from other people, and so the beat goes on. Zebulon say there's no chance of his grandfather fulfilling that bargain--at least, not without a 19th level cleric--but he's certainly willing to climb Yandro's high hill and take a look around for a witch's cabin (and a gigantic pile of gold she put together in the intervening years to entice the cad back to the top of her mountain). 

John's the picture of honesty, and won't take Yandro's money to show him where that mountain is. That doesn't mean he won't show the man how to get there, just that the promise of a third of the gold that a witch is using for a vengeance spell doesn't interest him (smart man). Yandro brings the company car around the next morning and there's a fantastic shot that pulls back more than a mile to show the one road the two men are on surrounded by sloping hills all covered with trees. By the time they reach Yandro mountain night has fallen, and John and Zebulon have to climb in the dark. The stories say that Polly Wiltse will be there at midnight, and there's plenty of ascending they have to do in order to get there by the deadline.

A series of stock audio animal roars flood the soundtrack and John refers to the Bammat and the Behinder, but they don't put in an appearance here, which is too bad. Onward the two men climb until they're right at the top of the mountain. There's plenty of spooky backlit fog to warn John and Yandro away, but the undertaker's still thinking about that gold and presses on (John follows; the dog's the smartest one of the trio and wants nothing to do with the top of Yandro's high hill but eventually goes to protect his human). Lost in the smoke-machine fog, John and his faithful animal companion eventually find the undertaker paralyzed where he stands. Eventually he makes his savings throw and escapes the Hold Person effect that had him stuck to the ground; and wouldn't you know it? There really is a desrick on Yandro and there really is a gorgeous young witch girl waiting for Joris Yandro to come back and live up to his half of their bargain.

John asks the woman if she's really Polly Wiltse, waiting for the man who ditched out on her after seventy-five long years. SPOILER:  Yes. That is indeed her. She says her spell fetched Yandro back, and apparently Zebulon's close enough in looks and temperment to his grandfather that the spell snagged him instead. To hear him say it, of course, he's just there for the gold that he should have as the rightful heir to everything his grandfather earned. Which is some very exact phrasing, of course, and you've got to be really careful about exact phrasing when you're dealing with spells and witches and enchanted gold. Polly smiles and says she accepts Zebulon, then reveals a huge glowing pile of gold that his grandfather earned. It vanishes when the undertaker runs over to it and he goes into a shouting fit about wanting his gold. He offers Polly half of it (that she witched up) if she'll let him take the other half, and of course that's not the deal. The deal is that he spends a year in Polly's arms for the gold. Yandro's a businessman first and a human being second, so he tries to turn down the deal on the grounds that people are going to die all over the place during that year and he's going to give up a great deal of revenue if he's not there to bury them.

Greed for gold overcomes greed for cash money in Yandro's mind and he agrees to Polly's bargain, walking into her desrick to lay in her arms for a year. Polly, before she goes into the cabin, tells John to go to Hark Mountain for his next quest, but she also can't tell him where that is. Once he's near it, though, he'll find the Ugly Bird and if he lives through that encounter it'll point him in the right direction. Then, as she heads back into her stone cabin to shut the door and put the moves on Zebulon, she drops the glamour she'd been using as a honey trap and we (and Yandro) see her real age (which is, of course, 75 years past that of the gorgeous young woman she appeared to be. And Yandro's locked in a windowless one-room cabin with her for a year. And her store-bought bed, a possible callback to Lily's earlier suggestion about what to do with the silver that Mr. Marduke dowsed for. Yandro, a man given to shouting, winds up screaming in terror as the POV shot representing Polly's true form closes in on him.

Then it's time for another ramble, as John sings and plays, walking through more lovely scenery until Honor Hound runs off in a panic and somehow winds up at the bottom of a pit surrounded by cliff sides. John climbs down to check on his dog and the poor thing's just frightened, not hurt. There's a sign for the Hark Mountain Trail past some hanging ivy, but while John's happy to continue on his path, his dog wants less than nothing to do with the quest. Which results in John helping Honor Hound out of the pit but staying in it himself; his dog goes home and John stays on his quest. After all, as he says, Honor Hound never took an oath to wander the world as a Defier.

After all that lush greenery in the background, the twisty mountain and valley paths that John follows look good and ominous (the locations were chosen brilliantly) and after a bit he finds his way to the top of a mountain and then falling down it--fair's fair, while I'm praising some aspects of the movie the editing for him falling down Hark Mountain didn't make a damned bit of sense. Hark Mountain turns out to be the property of O. J. Onselm, who runs a strip mine there. That makes two villains out of two that think they can own a mountain and the mineral value inside it, which is pretty interesting. Around about this time, in the Man-Thing comics published by Marvel, there was a construction-magnate villain named F. A. Schist who wanted to pave a huge part of the Everglades to build an airport. I'm guessing that "evil industrialist" was just something in the air when writing fantasy and science fiction at the time, and given that the "after" picture of a strip mining concern looks like Mordor, the people writing industrialists as the bad guys had--and have--a point.

To make his evil more personal and less of an environmental statement, the filmmakers have John uncover a woman's body in the chips and shards of cast-off rock; she's been petrified somehow and that means John probably needs to up his game in case there's some kind of backwoods Medusa. We only see her face, though, and I'm not entirely sure that's what the deal is. Seconds after he sees the body, John gets surprised by the aforementioned Ugly Bird, who is indeed hideous--just as advertised. In the film's most ambitious effects sequence John runs down the mountain as the stop-motion Ugly Bird swoops down on him. For whatever reason it's not quite willing or able to kill John, and flies off in ill humor. John figures it out just as soon as the creature is gone--it dropped a feather about the size of a palm tree leaf, and when our hero touches it to the silver strings of his guitar it withers away and bursts into flame simultaneously.

Meanwhile slightly farther away, the mine owner, Mr. O. J. Onselm, hammers on someone's front door and yells for them to give him some food. He's the second Shouting Asshole Villain in the film, and I have to say that's probably two too many. So much of the movie is done so gracefully and with such care and devotion to the stories that Wellman wrote and then the bad guys are straight out of a live-action Disney movie or possibly a second-tier action figure selling cartoon. At any rate, John rambles on up to the cabin where Mr. Onselm tells him to get off of his mountain (which is much bigger than a lawn). Just looking at the silver strings sends Onselm away in a panic, and finds out from the random NPC that the mine owner was bullying just what the deal is. The deal is this:  Mr. Onselm is a witch man, who uses his powers to run roughshod over everyone around him--he doesn't pay for his food or anything else he wants because he'll hex the shit out of people that cross or deny him. The actor who delivers the back story keeps pronouncing the antagonist's name as "Onslem", which I found pretty distracting. But retakes cost money, and stop-motion Ugly Birds are expensive.

Hoo boy, I thought the day player who dropped the info about Onselm was distracting, but seeing Hedges Capers talk about ectoplasm as an explanation of how the Ugly Bird came to be (where he also mentions that killing the bird will end Mr. Onselm's life, and vice versa). The homesteader walks off, not willing to take on Mr. Onselm even though he knows John has a weapon on his guitar that should work against the witch man (and that Ugly Bird). Onselm comes on back with a three other guys to serve as his goon squad against John (they aren't fatally allergic to silver) and Onselm hexes John with a dose of Hold Person after his guitar gets confiscated. John busts free of the spell and grabs Onselm by the throat, and the Ugly Bird shows up as Onselm's second line of defense. John swats it with his guitar when it dives for him, and the bird melts into a puddle of stop-motion goo (as is to be expected). I did not expect to see the same thing happen to Mr. Onselm, and the camera wisely keeps its distance from the withering and melting shape of the witch man as he collapses into nothing. Partly because it's a cheap effect after all and partly because I don't like the idea of the movie's protagonist doing something so awful to someone else, even if they had it coming as surely as Onselm did.

The various people living around Hark Mountain only know one way to relate to the powerful, though:  they're just as afraid of John for destroying Onselm's threat as they were of the witch man himself. So on John rambles, not even getting a place to bed down for the night for his troubles. Of course, if he was doing it for the money or the rewards, he wouldn't be the hero that he is, but it's still got to sting when he just has to move on with the "Lonely Man" piano theme playing behind him. (Hey, Netflix:  Where's my Silver John series? There's got to be some white dude out there that can sing and act and play the guitar...)

Unfortunately John's got no guitar and no way to get another one at this point, but just as he did at an earlier point, Mr. Marduke shows up to help. The dowser appears to have moved up in the world since he last saw the Defier; he's got a van instead of just a donkey while John's got nothing but his bedroll and his guitar strings. Time for some driving footage through more of Appalachia with some jaunty Dixieland jazz on the soundtrack. The van parks itself (!) by the side of a lake and John and Mr. Marduke have a wash up while John tries to figure out what he expected from everyone and whether or not he's willing to keep on Defying when he knows what he's going to get from the people that he helps out. Marduke says that Defiers are feared and hated while they're alive and then revered when they're safely dead and buried and not around to trouble the powerful or frighten the people who could use their help.

Marduke asks if his current reduced circumstances mean that John's going to settle down in one place and live the Appalachia 1971 equivalent of the settled life, and John decides that if he has to melt his guitar strings down again and turn them into silver bullets he'll do that to fight evil in the world. He says he's not much with a gun, which is a distinct change from the military veteran John of the stories. But if you're trying to make a movie to appeal to the counterculture in 1971 you're not going to have a crack rifle shot from the Army as the hero. At any rate, Mr. Marduke--after talking to John again and determining whether or not he want to continue Defying, and more importantly, why he wants to keep doing it, digs through a crate he had in the back of his van and produces a fine new guitar with no strings. From there it's another jaunty drive on to Somewhere Else and Marduke bids adieu to his friend for the time being at a fork in the road (SYMBOLISM!). Incidentally, the review of this flick over at 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting explains Mr. Marduke's presence in the film as a mentor figure as well as a worker of wonders. I missed out on that utterly and completely, but hey. I bet El Santo didn't know about that Joe Bethancourt album.

John tries out his new guitar while seeing where his next adventure is going to take him, and after one more musical interlude he comes across Honor Hound and Lily on the road (the dog gets a more affectionate greeting than his girl does). He continues on his way, Lily and Honor with him for a long stretch by land and ferryboat, through a largish town and then over hill and dale. She makes another attempt to get John to settle down and maybe not go Defying all over creation, but he's not willing to settle down just yet. And after he sings a love song to Lily, John gets a flash of insight from his guitar that the true silver strings aren't meant to woo his best girl. And so he's got to get back out into the world and start Defying. 

The next stop on John's Tragical History Tour is a plantation where walking through the gates tints the world a sickly, jaundiced yellow. The sharecroppers in the fields look up in fear as John walks by. This section has the most extras in the background so far (it's also the first section of the movie that remembers black people lived in the South as well; as far as I can recall, all the short stories were about white people and white people problems of the natural and supernatural varieties). John introduces himself to one of the laborers, who calls himself "Uncle Ananasi". So Mr. Marduke isn't the only semi-supernatural personage that John's encountered so far.

Over at the weighing station, the expected Colonel Sanders-looking son of a bitch is shorting everyone at least half a dozen pounds at the scale (Uncle Ananansi is the only one who calls the weighing manager out as a liar, and he gets shorted about forty pounds). The guy running the scale asks the laborer if he really wants to go up against Captain Lajoie H. Desplain IV, and the older black man says he does indeed want to do that. Captain Desplain turns out to be a black man in charge of overseeing the sharecroppers--or possibly slaves, if one accepts that John could have accidentally walked back in time twelve or thirteen decades when he made it to the plantation gates. And since there weren't any people in the fields until he walked through them and the sky went all weird, I'm going to say that's at least a possibility.

Lajoie and Uncle Ananansi face off against each other and the overseer throws away the older man's voodoo charm before saying "you will be much worse than dead". Which means that four years after George Romero rewrote the rules for zombies, there was at least one drive-in flick that remembered the curse of being forced to work for your master even past the point of death as the real meaning of the term. John starts singing and playing as Captain Desplaines and Uncle Ananansi have a ruckus and gets hauled away by two beefy white dudes who snag his guitar effortlessly (that seems to happen to him a lot). Uncle Ananansi picks up the guitar and just shows the strings to his oppressor, who has a fatal coronary just from seeing it (with plenty of playing-to-the-cheap-seats gesticulations before he drops). John and Uncle Ananansi swap totems of power and the movie has the crowd of black agricultural cheer and sing, lifting John up on their shoulders (yes, really) as he sings. Lily's left behind as John's carried away on the currents of destiny--and also in a scene with Mr. Marduke because a location shoot on a cotton farm with a hundred extras costs a hell of a lot more to film than a bit with two secondary characters talking to each other. That's probably why the sequence with Captain Desplaines gets wrapped up about fifty seconds after John walks into the time bubble, too.

Lily talks to Marduke (who claims his name is actually pronounced Marduk, and hints at having walked the Earth since Babylon was the biggest city in the world) and learns that Defying is a solitary pursuit, and a lonely one. But it's a calling that genuine Defiers can't refuse; they have to go where they're needed, not where they'd like to be. Which leads to the last and best shot of the film, Silver John walking towards the Capitol building with his guitar slung over his back, hoping to do what needs to be done to fix the problems facing the nation and the world. Like his showdown with the Devil, that's a battle that's just not within the capabilities of this movie to show. But I sure was happy to think about all the implications of that last shot when I saw it.

Man, I'm so glad I watched this one. The problems that it tended to have were those of budget and scheduling more than anything (I have the feeling that the monsters John mentions on Yandro Mountain were supposed to show up at some point but we have to make do with hearing them offscreen and John naming them than seeing 'em show up--perhaps the Ugly Bird took too much money and time to realize and the Skim and Flat just weren't able to show up in the film). But the filmmakers let their obvious love and respect for the Wellman stories shine through in every frame, even if the budget they had meant John was never going to face the Devil down. I'd rather they didn't try to show Satan in the movie than see them pass off an immobile rod puppet as the Lord of Darkness, myself.

I'd read the stories first if I were you (and you haven't done so yet)--they'll let you know the flavor of the world that Wellman was writing about, and I'd wager that if you read the source material first and then watch the adaptation you'll be much better disposed towards the movie; watching it on its own I think most viewers would either give up before John gets his guitar (which is about half an hour into the movie) and not see the middle two sections, which are the strongest. Keep your expectations modest. This is a quiet success and a small one, not a movie that's likely to change your life. And if you don't like soft folk ballads, put the blu-ray case down and flee as quietly as you can.

"I think I've figured out a way to drive everything lurking in the woods off without needing to learn how to play the guitar."


  1. Oh wow, I remember having Alfred Hitchcock's Monster Museum as a kid--that was a fantastic collection. If I recall correctly, a lot of the stories focused on monsters as people--like the Bradbury story about the kid who was the only human in a family of monsters, or the story where the kid finds out his new best friend from the Old Country has a stranger quirk than his accent and his customs. Of course, it also had straight up monster stories like the ooze one or the Wellman story.

    Dude, serious nostalgia moment--gotta see if I still have a copy.

  2. On a different note, its odd that the "obi-wan" figure was named "Marduk." With a name like that, in a Christian story, I'd assume he was a bad guy. Maybe the hippie-fication also brought a little New Age-iness with it?

  3. There's no corresponding Marduke / Marduk character in the stories by Manly Wade Wellman, so it's definitely an addition for the movie. Exactly why they did that, I'm not entirely sure, but your idea makes just as much sense as anything else.

    MONSTER MUSEUM was the business. And if you don't have a copy now, you can grab one off Amazon for pretty cheap, I bet.