An ongoing column that draws clear lines between high art cinema and low trash exploitation.
Genre cinema has often been thought to be the antithesis of the arthouse. Sure, people accept that there are artistically inclined genre films but these are often thought to be the exception and not the rule. While these lines have been are continue to erode, exhibitors have done their best to keep these worlds separate. Exploitation films were enjoyed in the raunchy, rambunctious grindhouses while those from European Auteurs were viewed in arthouse theaters. What happens, however, when a film straddles the line? The distinctions between grindhouse and arthouse are not always so easily defined. The Art of Trash aims to look at movies that reside somewhere between these two spheres. These are films that appeal to both exploitation as well as arthouse sensibilities, and, most importantly, these are films that challenge the ways that we view and judge cinema.
One of the most endearing aspects of genre output from the 1970s is the flock of unique voices it attracted. The fact that the production of horror films could be relatively affordable and result in a sizable return of profits saw an increase in production that lasted well into the 1980s. While it definitely lead to some diminishing returns, there are a handful of titles that transcend their budgets, their plots, and stand the testament of time. One of these films is actor-director Marc Lawrences 1972 supernatural-horror PIGS.
The first thought that probably comes to mind upon hearing the title PIGS for a horror film, is undoubtedly one of killer pigs (which is only furthered the films posters and loglines, most of which figured the pigs prominently). The film did bear numerous other titles including DADDYS DEADLY DARLING and THE 13TH PIG but the simplest, although the most misleading, is without a doubt the most evocative. Rather than another creature feature, PIGS is a dark psychological horror film that blends in elements of the supernatural but never strays far from its character study core.
In her first screen role, Toni Lawrence (daughter of director Marc Lawrence) stars as Lynn Hart, a runaway woman harboring a dark secret. Lynn stumbles into a small town where she meets and strikes a friendship with an old, outcast named Zambrini. Zambrini takes pity on the woman and hires Lynn to work at his roadside café and offers her residency at his farmhouse. But at his farmhouse, Zambrini keeps a pack of pigs, which the town has grown to fear. Dejected and alone, Zambrini and Lynns bond grows stronger as both of the dark secrets come to light.
PIGS is a completely singular work. There are aspects that feel familiar but the way they are put together is quite unlike anything of its time or really anytime. This is perhaps because Lawrence didnt have a great deal of experience in the genre. The technique of throw everything at the wall and see what sticks is applied here and the result is surprisingly beautiful. But just because he lacks the prior experience behind a camera doesnt mean that he falls short in ratcheting up terror, quite the opposite is true. From the brief shots of the pigs charging towards their gates in a violent manner to intense stabbings, PIGS is full of horrific imagery,yet what makes it work so well is the human story beneath it all.
The feature that stands out the most in the film is the sound design. The score is composed by Charles Bernstein and sets the perfect atmosphere for the films time and place. Though it was produced a year prior, the score operates in a similar fashion as does Robin Hardys The Wicker Man. Like THE WICKER MAN, Bernsteins music serves two purposes: it sets the tone of the geography (rural America) while also offering a deeply uncanny mix of comfort and uneasiness. The title track Somewhere Down the Road is a haunting folk melody that, by Bernsteins own assertion, was written with the intention of creating the feeling of impending danger. Used sporadically throughout the films run-time, its recurrence grows grimmer and grimmer along the way.
The sound design does not end with the musical numbers but continues into the intense use of sound effects. Though the pigs are seldom pictured, their violent squeals are consistently laid over the sound mix and results in a visceral, unnerving feeling. They are also mixed quite loudly overtop the rest of the soundtrack, which only isolates their presence. Lawrence, then, ingeniously uses the screams to signify not only the uncertain terror of the pigs themselves but also as a mark of Lynns psychological deterioration, audiences left uncertain whether their noises are diegetic or within the mind of Lynns character (or quite possibly both). It is this fracturing of psychological and real spaces that breathes life into Lawrences film.
In his impressive book on American independent horror cinema, Nightmare USA, Stephen Thrower calls the film a love story. This is an assertion that is hard to argue with. As mentioned, Lynn and Zambrini are driven to each other by their shared loneliness and feelings of undesirability. There love story lacks physical intimacy, but it is no less a story of love because what it lacks of sexual tension it more than makes up for in the characters deep psychological connection. They are broken and they see something in each other than can help them to be fixed.
Produced independently, the film had (as could be expected) a troubled release. It didnt play in New York until 1982 ten years after its completion. After being sold under various names around the world for years, Troma eventually picked up the rights to the film and re-released it for home video. The film has collected a fan base including Thrower who claims it to be one of the titles that influenced his work on Nightmare USA but it remains under-seen and certainly underappreciated (it currently holds a 3.9/10 on IMDB). This is really a shame because PIGS is one of the most unique, if not best, horror films of the 1970s.
In her interview included on the stunning, new Vinegar Syndrome Blu-ray, Toni Lawrence claims that the only reason her father had for making the film was money. Regardless if this is true or not, Lawrence reveals himself as a true artist along the way. The film looks nothing like a cash-grab but rather sits more comfortably in line with other eccentric genre films at the time like THE WITCH WHO CAME TO THE SEA (unsurprisingly another film also highly praised by Thrower). PIGS, while not devoid of them, could have resorted to schlocky exploitation clichés at numerous moments, but Lawrence chooses instead to place a much stronger focus on the psychological underpinnings of his two central characters. Beneath PIGS uglier moments, is a beautiful, haunting, and smart film.
PIGS is now available on Blu-ray/DVD from Vinegar Syndrome.