Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Retro Review: PIGS (1973)

(US - 1973)

Re-released on the drive-in circuit incessantly throughout the 1970s and well into the 1980s under at least a dozen different titles and numerous re-edits, 1973's PIGS was the sole big-screen solo filmmaking effort of Marc Lawrence. Lawrence, who shared directing duties with John Derek on 1965's NIGHTMARE IN THE SUN and also helmed a few scattered TV shows in the early 1960s, was best known as a blacklisted character actor with communist and mob ties, whose career dated back to 1932, usually playing gangsters and killers (he had a memorably funny line as a Vegas gangster in the 1971 Bond outing DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER). PIGS finds Lawrence in total auteur mode--directing, producing, co-writing (with his wife Fanya Foss, though only an "F.A. Foss" is credited), and starring, along with his daughter Toni Lawrence, who would later be briefly married to a pre-fame Billy Bob Thornton in the late 1980s. After spending much of the 1950s and 1960s working in Europe after being blacklisted, Lawrence returned to the States and remained steadily employed into his 90s, with his final appearance coming in 2003's LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION. Lawrence sunk his own money into PIGS, even taking out another mortgage on his home to get it completed. He ended up with a strangely effective psychological horror film that on the surface, looks like a precursor to the over-the-top hillbilly/redneck horrors of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, EATEN ALIVE, MOTEL HELL, and nearly every Rob Zombie movie, but is really more in line with bizarre, low-budget, '70s indie oddities like MESSIAH OF EVIL, DEVIL TIMES FIVE, ALICE SWEET ALICE, HAUNTS, and to an extent, 1982's BUTCHER, BAKER, NIGHTMARE MAKER.

A troubled woman on the run from a mysterious past, Lynn Hart (Toni Lawrence) stops in a small town off the beaten path and gets a job at a sparsely-patronized greasy spoon owned by Zambrini (Marc Lawrence), a retired circus clown who spends much of his free time feeding a dozen huge pigs he keeps in a pen on his property. The busybody townies insist Zambrini is behind a number of disappearances and he's been feeding his victims to the pigs, then engaging in second-hand cannibalism by eating them. That's actually the "B" story in PIGS, which really centers on the troubled Lynn, who's actually an escaped mental patient, locked up after killing her father, who molested her when she was a little girl. Finding a kindred spirit with the equally outcast Zambrini, Lynn begins seducing and killing the local yokels and providing more bodies for Zambrini to feed to the hogs, with the slow-on-the-uptake sheriff (Jesse Vint, a couple of years away from the 1974 sleeper smash MACON COUNTY LINE) gradually figuring out that something isn't right with the new girl in town and maybe Zambrini is feeding people to his human-flesh-craving pigs.

Marc Lawrence (1910-2005)

With an insanely catchy theme song that should've been a huge 1973 radio hit, PIGS would end up in the hands of numerous different and frequently shady distributors over the years. A couple of years later, Lawrence would add a ludicrous prologue that has Lynn a victim of some kind of demonic porcine possession in a re-release that went out under three titles: LOVE EXORCIST, THE STRANGE EXORCISM OF LYNN HART, and BLOOD PEN. It was also relaunched in the late '70s as DADDY'S GIRL, with a tone-deaf pedophile prologue that was more fitting for a T&A comedy. And in 1984, Aquarius' Terry Levene got a hold of it and sent it out on the grindhouse circuit for one more go-around as DADDY'S DEADLY DARLING, which is actually a rather appropriate title that's a bit more representative of the film's tone and mood than the bluntly exploitative-sounding PIGS. Each re-release and retitling would lead to more edits and newly-shot footage, but Vinegar Syndrome's recent extras-packed Blu-ray release of PIGS represents, with the input of Toni Lawrence, the original vision of PIGS intended by her late father. Well-acted by both Lawrences (Toni is especially good and has a kind-of Brooke Adams/Jennifer Salt/Adrienne Barbeau thing going on) and at times quite unsettling, PIGS often exhibits the kind of occasionally sloppy, one-take, DIY aesthetic you'd expect from an ultra low-budget drive-in horror movie shot on-the-fly in just ten days. But it makes an undeniable impression and has a disturbing and uneasy feel that it establishes and maintains throughout, keeping its WTF? elements in check and playing it totally straight and low-key. It's a grimly serious horror film despite some absurd elements that would've been played for sick, dark humor by other directors. It's an interesting approach and there's enough here to make you wonder about all of the offbeat ideas that Marc Lawrence might've had churning around in his head when he was paying the bills by appearing in big Hollywood movies. You might even find yourself so intrigued by PIGS that you'll wish it didn't turn out to be the end of his directing career. (R, 81 mins)

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