Friday, January 20, 2017

138. All the Kind Strangers

138. All the Kind Strangers (1974)
Director: Burt Kennedy
Writer: Clyde Ware
From: Cult Cinema
Watch: archive.org

A photojournalist is kidnapped by a group of children who want him to be their new dad. If he refuses or tries to escape, they make it clear they intend to kill him.

The movie opens with our protagonist, Stacy Keach, whose character has a name, but, let’s be fair, he’s Stacy Keach, driving down a lonely highway. A child is walking along the side of the road with a bag of groceries. Keach pulls over and offers to give the boy a ride home. As they’re driving, Keach reveals that he’s a photographer and even offers to take the boy’s picture.

Stranger Danger alarms were going off in my head as well. It turns out, though, that this isn’t that movie.

The boy directs Keach down increasingly rough and unmarked paths until they reach the isolated farm house where the boy’s siblings live alone. When Keach is introduced to them, it’s not clear that they’re siblings. There’s a real Lord of the Flies/Children of the Corn vibe here of kids living by themselves, off the grid and without the constraints of society.

All the children defer to Peter, the eldest, who has dreams of getting out and seeing the big cities—specifically New Orleans and Mardi Gras. After Keach meets Peter, they go out and Keach learns that his car won’t start leaving him stranded until the next morning. It’s also at this point that he meets “mom,” a woman the children are holding captive and forcing to play the role of parent. Over dinner, it becomes clear that they want Keach to take over the role of “dad.” The next morning, his car has vanished.

As has most of the movie’s transgressive edge. This is a mid-70’s TV movie about how frightening these unenlightened country folk are and so can’t or won’t go into really unnerving territory. Whether that’s good or bad depends upon your tastes. Were this same plot done today by Eli Roth or one of his protégées, there’d be all sorts of overt torture, incest, and taboos present just for their shock value, something I’m not a particular fan of. I don’t object to any specific type of content, but have it there for a reason. If you’re just trying to shock me or prove how edgy you are, you’re really boring.

The rest of the movie, predictably, is Keach trying to escape. Since the timeline of the film is only a couple days, there isn’t much opportunity for him to develop a plan, start playing the kids’ loyalties against each other, or even get a proper lay of the land. When the conclusion arrives, it doesn’t feel like a natural payoff to the events of the story so much as the inevitable end of a TV-movie: what kind of content will 70’s network television allow? That’s going to be the end of this film.

Looking at the film thematically, there are two conflicts at play: children vs. adults and country vs. city, both framed, curiously, as spaces necessitating escape. The kids, while being a threat, are not evil. Instead of seeking to free themselves from the power of adults, they crave that control—they want parents, to the point of wanting Keach to take on the specific role of the stern father who’ll beat them when they break the rules (which, again, if made today would be taken to a very uncomfortable extreme). The adults—two single people—are actively trying to escape parenthood. Could this be part of the abortion debate that had been kicked off with Roe the year before? That seems like a stretch, but it is interesting to see that inversion—rather than kids’ attempts to escape responsibility being the threat, it’s that very desire to be held accountable that is the threat. Parenthood becomes a form of imprisonment.

Likewise there’s the conflict of country vs. city—and it’s framed very specifically in that order. The urban, city-hopping Keach is under assault by this family of farmers. More than that, Peter, the head of this family, is longing to leave the country and go visit the city. Building off of that previous theme of parental responsibility being a prison, he can’t leave until someone else takes his place. That same dynamic, though, implicitly applies to city life. Peter speaks of the cities and what they have to offer with awe and Keach supports that view, but indicates that it’s something Peter will have to wait to see. Peter, a person who in terms of responsibilities is already an adult, will have to wait to enjoy the pleasures that Keach already enjoys. That Keach ultimately accuses Peter of trying to leave while making Keach the head of the family implies that their roles, in both spaces, are interchangeable, but that Peter doesn’t deserve Keach’s place.

There is a real sense of contempt and fear of rural folk, so it’s probably worth noting that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which is also about the threat of these isolated backwoods folk are, came out in October of the same year. What was going on in the culture to make people so resentful of non-urban populations? The question seems doubly-important now since, today was the inauguration of the the new president, a president whose victory, despite the reality of statistics and polling data, is being blamed on uneducated rural voters. Since that’s the narrative being put forward, there’s an almost gleeful backlash against that very population over the anticipated forthcoming suffering they’re going to endure due to government cutbacks. That’s a narrative of city vs. country that posits country as a threat deserving of either correction or escape, a narrative that says both, “You hicks aren’t allowed to do that do us!” and "You don't deserve what we have!" So I’m curious of what prompted it in 1974 as well as how we’ll see it play out in our culture now.

All of which is a lot of empty theorizing for a film that doesn’t really warrant it. The movie opens with a sense of tension that may be based purely on the fact that we have so many stories of weird children and child predators—that the threats present in the movie’s set-up are due less to what’s in the movie than what stories we’ve seen since then. After that, it’s a touch dull but moves along well enough. A film of middling quality, but it is at least in the public domain. I’ve uploaded an MPEG to archive.org here. It’s the kind of film you can safely watch until you’re bored and then fast-forward to the end.

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