Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Legend of Hillbilly John (1974)

          Lore emanating from insular communities can be fascinating, because local legends are shot through with metaphors reflecting ideals and superstition; the nature of fictional characters elevated to heroic status is as revelatory as the nature of figures regarded as monsters. All of which goes to say why the offbeat fantasy picture The Legend of Hillbilly John is interesting even though it’s far from impressive as a piece of filmmaking. Based on stories by Manly Wade Wellman, an imaginative fiction writer who spent time in the Ozarks researching the folklore of mountain people, The Legend of Hillbilly John concerns a traveling troubadour whose guitar has magically powered silver strings that repel the devil. Moving from one rural enclave to the next, the hero discovers residents living in fear of various oppressive forces, then helps the residents escape tyranny by, in some fashion or another, robbing the oppressive forces of their power. Taken to its most literal extreme, this mode of supernatural crimefighting manifests as the hero battling a giant bird that’s put onscreen by way of old-fashioned stop-motion animation. In other words, the narrative spirit is willing but the cinematic flesh is weak.
          The story’s hero, John (Hedges Capers), is an easygoing singer whose Grandpappy John (Denver Pyle) loses a fiery musical duel with the devil. Thereafter, John carries a magic guitar from one Appalachian community to the next, accompanied by a dog he calls “Hunter Hound.” In one very long sequence, John escorts a dangerous man called Zebulon Yandro (Harris Yulin) to a meeting with Yandro’s ultimate fate. And in the most dynamic sequence, John duels with “Ugly Bird” atop Hark Mountain. Somewhat holding the pieces of the story together is Mr. Marduke (Severn Darden), a host/narrator who lists among the enemies plaguing the Appalachian Mountains the devil and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. (The insertion of a ’70s ecological message is as pointless as it sounds.) Some have noted that a core flaw in this weird picture is the way the filmmakers altered John’s personality from the source material, transforming him from a backwoods avenger to a peace-and-love hippie. Indeed, the less authentically rural a moment in this movie is, the less entertainment it provides. Still, there’s something inherently unique about The Legend of Hillbilly John, though curious viewers should be advised to set their expectations very, very low.

The Legend of Hillbilly John: FUNKY


Booksteve said...

I mentioned this film on my blog once and said that I had never seen it and a few days later, one of my readers sent me a copy. I hate to say it but I never did get around to watching it. Saw it on the shelf just the other day, though. I need to give it a shot.

thingmaker said...

This is a movie that exists in a hazy place... It's so very bad that it might drive people away from Manly Wade Wellman's stories, yet there is something fascinating about it as a wrong-headed attempt at adapting those stories.