Movie Review: DELIVERANCE, or How Time Can Still Underrate a Bonafide Classic

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Director John Boorman’s great Deliverance has been so thoroughly canonized by scholars and fans as a sober-minded adventure (a distinction I’m not going to dispute; this isn’t one of those revisionist criticism pieces where I spend 1000 words badmouthing a beloved classic) that it’s easy to forget just how effective the film is as pure horror.  That’s the great thing about Deliverance. In one light, it’s a provocative treatise on the role of modern man and his relationship with nature, and in another, it’s a white-knuckle panic attack about some Regular Joes encountering horrors that their day jobs couldn’t have prepared them for.

In fact, I’d call Deliverance the white-knuckle panic attack story.  Its basic contours – a group of murderous hillbillies terrorize four friends on a weekend canoeing trip – might have been unique in 1972 (I’m searching for direct antecedents, and the closest one I can think of is the 1932 chiller The Most Dangerous Game, though that earlier film’s villain goes about his cruelty with more methodical calculation), but it didn’t stay that way for long.

Just two years later, Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel’s more overtly horrific The Texas Chain Saw Massacre stunned audiences using its Grindhouse-ized spin on Deliverance, and TCM‘s commercial success brought forth a influx of imitators, some good (Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort, Hooper’s satirical sequel The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2), most bad (John Frankenheimer’s Prophecy, Friday the 13th, Sleepaway Camp, Cabin Fever, Wrong Turn).  It’s hard to imagine the subtle, creeping menace of Boorman’s film spawning the less artful bludgeonings of hockey-masked killers and chainsaw-brandishing psychos, but remember this: another early ‘70s shocker – Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left – took inspiration from Ingmar Bergman’s Academy Award-winning The Virgin Spring.  We live in puzzling times.

Though not as puzzling as 1972, and Deliverance reflects that unease.  Much like it has today, the media had bifurcated itself.  On one hand: the hippie culture, and free love and tuning in and connecting to the world and each other and We Shall Overcome.  One the other: Vietnam, and Nixon and Altamont and class warfare and Martin Luther King murdered outside his hotel room.  You didn’t get the sense that these two mindsets co-existed peacefully; rather, it’s Blue Velvet – the placid, emotionally open surface hiding spiritual and moral rot.

With Deliverance, author James Dickey and director John Boorman put this dichotomy front and center.  Its middle-aged leads (a pre-crazy Jon Voight, Ned Beatty, Ronny Cox, and the great Burt Reynolds) aren’t hippies – far from it – but they’re intrigued by the popular representations they’ve seen, and this canoe adventure is their way of dipping their toe into the counter-culture pool.  Escape the drudgery of corporate life, reconnect with nature, the whole nine yards; Reynolds’ charismatic alpha-male even injects more faux-mysticism into their getaway by reminding his friends how they’ll get to experience the Cahulawassee River valley’s majesties before developers flood it to create a dam.

Problem is, the reality of nature wastes no time in shattering these guys’ preconceived notions of the wild.  Their fight against evil rednecks and the Cahulawassee’s rapids provide the most potent readjustments, but from the jump, things are off.  Look at the film’s oft-imitated “Dueling Banjos” sequence.  Ronny Cox’s sensitive musician Drew starts jamming with a local retarded boy, but the exuberance of their playing quickly fades; we see the boy’s uncomprehending gaze regard Drew, and the message is clear: don’t you dare think you can just waltz on in here and use this place for your own amusement.  It doesn’t work like that.

This sentiment most directly links Deliverance and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (one wonders, at times, if Dickey and Boorman should sue), though I prefer the ominous mood the earlier film conjures, and not simply because of TCM‘s over-reliance on Lone Star Grand Guignol.  Whereas TCM has the texture of a nightmare, Deliverance feels more mythic.  Leatherface and his family terrorize the TCM kids because they can; unlike, say, Halloween or Friday the 13th, the protagonists don’t transgress morally or spiritually (drinking, drugs, premarital sex) – they simply wander into the wrong place at the wrong time.

Deliverance, however, takes on the resonance of a gruesome fable.  Its white-collar heroes enter the wild hopped up on tales of the disappearing wilderness and its enduring majesty, and they leave savagely corrected.  Nature’s mysteries co-exist with its splendors, and these mysteries not only rape and maim and kill, but they require that its inhabitants do the same.

Warner Home Entertainment’s 40th Anniversary Edition presents the film in a forty-two pack Digibook.  The printed material is attractive and well produced; there are some especially nice insights from Billy Redden, who played the “Dueling Banjos” child.  The digital transfer has pleasing grain and good textures; DP Vilmos Zsigmond worked with mostly natural light, resulting in some gritty – but clear – visual tableaus.  The disc also has an immersive 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track.

Supplements are mostly the same as the previous Deliverance Blu-ray, though there is one major addition.  The carry-overs are the great John Boorman commentary, the four-part retrospective (“The Beginning,” “The Journey,” “Betraying the River,” and “Delivered”), the “Dangerous World of Deliverance” vintage featurette, and the trailer.  The lone new arrival is a “Deliverance: The Cast Remembers” featurette, which contains good – albeit slightly familiar – remarks from the principal cast.

It’s a tribute to all concerned that Deliverance still carries the same visceral and intellectual punch today that it had in 1972, and Warner’s 40th Anniversary Blu-ray does it justice.

The 40th Anniversary Edition of Deliverance streets on June 26th.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.

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