Filmed mostly in 1981, this seldom-viewed regional production from Florida played at a handful of film festivals (including Cannes and the very first Miami International Film Festival), received a limited theatrical release in the South in the early 80s (mostly in its home state and in South Carolina) and was shown on TV numerous times, including as a "CBS Movie of the Week" in the mid 80s. Aside from that and whatever foreign distribution deals they had going on (I can find no poster and no retail boxes from any country), this was never released on video at all here in America. It only somewhat recently (in 2009) garnered a DVD release and that appears to be self-distribution shepherded by whoever currently owns the rights to it. On the website promoting the film (where I have gleaned most of the information found here), they really talk this thing up. It is “an internationally successful independent film” and a “timeless cult classic.” In one breath it's a “gutsy independent” and the next they're boasting it's PG-rated and “...mostly a very clean film, has only one profanity and one situation where a man and woman inhabit the same house while being unmarried.” Considering most of the movies I watch for this blog, that sounded so old-fashioned and chaste it literally made me burst out laughing when I read it.
Despite receiving no wide release or home video deal here in the U.S., this was not a no-budget home movie. It was shot on 35mm and in Panavision over a period of years (production began in 1979 and it wasn't completed until 1983) with a budget that was (according to several sources) over a million dollars. All of that can only make one wonder why no one bothered exploiting the huge video market available at the time to maximize the profits. Usually the absence of a video release for an American film made during this era meant one of two things: 1. Distributors didn't want it, either because they had no clue how to sell / market it or the owners wanted too much money for distribution rights. 2. The film was caught up in a web of lawsuits, post production / money woes or copyright / ownership problems. None of that appears to be the case here as this actually had a budget, a distributor and a fairly well-known star. One can only assume that whoever handled it thought they made enough from selling the TV rights, though that was really a terrible business practice considering the amount of money the video market was raking in at the time. Knowing all of that, my apprehensions were high so I set my expectations low and ended up walking away from this pleasantly surprised.
While out on a bird-hunting and trap-checking trip gathering up dinner, crippled backwoods loner Booker T. Robertson (Julius Harris, the only “name” in this cast) and his Basset Hound Pete (Scamp of Joshua Creek; yes the dog is credited) stumble across a run-down trailer and see numerous people scurrying inside. Doesn't sound strange until you realize this is deep in the murky, swampy back country just North of the Everglades where hardly anyone lives and everyone who does live there knows everyone else. Booker quickly and quietly sneaks away to avoid the people and then decides to head back home. On his way he stops by and checks up on an old friend's abandoned home and runs across an unexpected visitor: Royce Hagen (Will Sennett). Royce is the son of one of Booker's long-time friends who's since passed away. Following his intuition, he's decided to give up traveling the world and making big bucks working on a freight ship and instead desires a more low key life out in the sticks. With Booker's help, he begins fixing up the home he's inherited and cleaning off the land in hopes of soon starting a cattle ranch there.
Booker eventually introduces Royce to a family who've recently and mysteriously just shown up in the area. Consisting of Pa (John Hallock), Ma (Helen Blanton), three daughters and two sons, the Perdry family are shy, quiet, secretive, strange and (gasp!) vegetarian, but they're all hard workers who will bust their asses all day long and ask for nothing in return. Royce likes them not only because of all the cheap labor they provide but also because they seem “like real backwoods” folks. Booker warns him they may be “too backwoods” and he should keep his relationship with them strictly business. Of course, the more Royce works with the family, the more he begins enjoying their company, especially eldest daughter Twyla's (Cassey Blanton).
Local legend has it that in a nearby stretch of woods referred to as “Hole in the Wall” lies two worlds: one for men and one for magic, and between those two is a hole where beings from the other world can enter into ours. What these beings are and what they may do upon entry has yet to be determined, but I'd imagine with their work ethic and lack of desire to get paid for said work would make them a big hit all throughout Florida picking fruit, landscaping yards and such. Booker correctly suspects the Perdry family may be these other beings and stops coming around Royce's property once he starts romancing Twyla and lets her move into his home.
Twyla proves to be even stranger than Royce originally thought. She divulges nothing about her past, has somehow managed to stay a virgin well into middle age, fears being left alone and is horrified of a cute little kitten. She paints the walls with nature murals, makes odd artwork and is highly sensitive to violence inflicted upon birds. So what's for dinner? Lots of fruit, veggies and bread but hopefully no fried chicken. That leads to nausea, vomiting and blackouts. Meanwhile, someone or some thing is lurking around at night slaughtering cattle (and dogs) in the area. These deaths all show the signs of being wolf attacks, though wolves were driven out of Florida years ago and none have been seen in the state for over 40 years.
This movie has problems; many of them, in fact. While the story held my interest easily enough, it's going to be slow-going and too tame for others. There's a distinct lack of plot complication here and things are at times frustratingly vague. The editing is often very poor and shots (especially during some of the dialogue exchanges) are clipped too soon. The absolute worst aspect of this production, and the hardest to really adjust yourself to, is the acting. Aside from Harris, the woefully inexperienced cast lacks both charisma and talent and their performances could be best described as “blandly inept” That not only causes most of the characters to come off flat but it also detracts from any attempt at human drama.
Problems aside, I still liked this quite a bit. Part of that has to do with me being an absolute sucker for movies delving into the mysteries of nature and made by those who have an obvious affinity for the natural world. This delivers on that in spades and manages to create a wonderfully haunting yet fully organic horror atmosphere that feels as distinctly American as the backwoods folklore at the center of the story. The amount of quiet creepiness generated from nature itself is pretty incredible here at times and the director clearly knows the areas of Southern Florida where this was filmed and makes the most of these locations. Along with cinematographer Michael Levine, they're able to capture both the beauty and the darker, more sinister qualities of the area utilizing perpetually overcast skies and big, moss-covered, shadow-casting trees and various other swampland fauna. Shots are staged and framed wonderfully here (evident even in the full screen version I viewed) and the juxtaposition of nature with unknown supernatural forces invading our world is nicely executed.
Extremely interesting use is also made of various animals, including owls and other birds, cats, foxes, horses, wolves, cows, snakes and numerous other critters often seen in ominous close-up. Sometimes these moments don't work at all. Sometimes they'll elicit an eyebrow raise or even unintentional laughs, like when there's a random cut-away to a raccoon head for no apparent reason and when an armadillo suddenly appears from out of nowhere and scurries across a field in front of a dog. However, when these moments do work, they're very inventive. There's an especially hypnotic sequence toward the end when the two main characters prepare to shoot an animal they blame for the cattle mutilations and we're treated to a rapidly-edited barrage of images of a variety of animals (which are living, dead and stuffed or skeletal) all set to pulsating synthesizer music by Phil Sawyer.
While some forgiveness of where the film fails will be required, I think more patient viewers will be adequately rewarded with this one. It's based on a 1951 novel of the same name by children's book author Elizabeth Coatsworth (The Cat Who Went to Heaven) and was filmed entirely in the De Soto, Hardee, Manatee and Polk counties of The Sunshine State. The director also made (and starred in) the low budget, family-friendly adventure comedy Lithium Springs (2004).