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“The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Deliverance,” “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” “Buckwild.”
It’s hardly surprising to see portrayals of rural culture and parodies of hillbillies trotted out to make audiences laugh, cringe or cry. And though American cinema has explored this trope extensively, it’s never long to wait before another television series or film is added to the roster. In fact, we seem to be insatiably fascinated with the hillbilly figure. Habitually violent, often undereducated, frequently incestuous, and never clean, it’s not hard to imagine the characters – alternately villains and fools – that occupy these stories blending together into one gruesome bogeyman.
In fact, this particular bogeyman has sparked a sub-genre of horror and horror comedy, known as redneck, or hillbilly, horror. But what is it, exactly, that makes the hillbilly – an unsavory term used to refer to a person living in a rural area, thought to be unsophisticated – trope so scary, funny, or addictive? And what separates hillbilly horror from the rest of the genre?
American horror films, both inside and outside hillbilly horror, frequently draw on rural settings. The fear of the woods, particularly, of wild places and being out of reach is as much a part of American cultural heritage as “The Scarlet Letter.”
Night Shyamalan’s (director of “The Sixth Sense” and “Signs”) latest film, “The Visit” is a new example of this familiar formula. Released on Sept. 11, “The Visit” does a bit of genre-bending, as different reviews and rating sites list the film alternatively as horror, horror/thriller, and horror comedy, but set on an idyllic, snowy farm in rural Pennsylvania, it is hardly hillbilly horror.
The teenage heroine, Becca, (played by Olivia DeJonge) and her brother, Tyler, (Ed Oxenbould) – visit their estranged grandparents for the first time and hope to make a documentary of their meeting, an adolescent endeavor which gives “The Visit” its found footage style. Begun with lighthearted jokes about today’s youth, mostly generated by Tyler – or as he likes The Ladies to think of him, “T Diamond Stylus” – the kids quickly pick up on their grandparents’ strange behavior. They try to chalk it up to old age, then sadness, but soon become terrified to be alone with these two odd old folks.
From the start, “The Visit” uses its rural setting to its advantage. Open, icy fields and dark farm sheds – complete with antique-looking shot guns – make for an eerie, unforgiving backdrop. Still, there’s a difference between creepy sheds and true fear. The first pricks of fear in “The Visit” come from the isolation of the farm more than any other feature; the kids panic when they realize it’s too far to run for help, and the local police department can’t or won’t take their calls. In short, there’s no one to hear their screams.
Of course, the isolation card gets played in hillbilly horror, too. Eli Craig’s 2010 film, “Tucker & Dale vs. Evil,” a horror comedy about two West Virginia pals whose casual weekend completing some do-it-yourself improvements on their mountain vacation cabin doesn’t exactly go as planned. Their outing turns into a bloody fiasco when they meet, greet, and terrify a group of preppy college kids. “Tucker & Dale” uses the device of kids alone in the woods to explain how quickly a handful of functional college students lose their wits – even their heads – to the dangers of unfounded assumptions.
The two films both follow outsiders as they enter an unfamiliar, rural landscape and come into contact with older strangers. The kids from “The Visit” and the college chums both misinterpret – with dangerous consequences – what they see. But that is where the similarities end and other stereotypes prevail.
“Tucker & Dale” draws its entire plotline – not to mention its irony – from the college kids’ incorrect expectations that Tucker and Dale are inhumane, irrational murders. And they assume all this because the overall-clad pair are hillbillies. Using the companions’ fear of hillbillies as leverage, the true villain of the film – a slick-backed frat boy named Chad – is able to convince the others that Tucker and Dale are nothing short of monsters.
In contrast, “The Visit” creates a tenuous link between rural culture and the violence committed by the two grandparents. Their actions can be attributed to old age and mental illness.While the grandparents are every bit or perhaps even more ruthless (and considerably less hilarious) than Tucker and Dale, or their polo-wearing assailants, no one expects them to behave violently, or strangely. Other stereotypes – including many less-than-generous assumptions about the elderly – prop up “The Visit,” but their rural setting remains just that. Nana and Pop Pop may be monsters, but not just because they live on a farm.
While rural settings have often played a prominent role in American cinema, the hillbilly trope, inextricably tied to rural culture, seems to carry with it an even greater power to terrify, and by the same token, to entertain. Assumed to be unclean, unpredictable, dangerous, it is as if the figure of the hillbilly has come to embody all the frightening qualities the mysterious woods once held. Those, and one more: ignorance. But in an age where the need for constant information borders on obsession, it makes sense for American audiences to be frightened by that.
One thing is for certain. As long as we remain in our seats, there will be more hillbilly drama, horror and comedy to come.