The Bad Movie Report

The Legend of Hillbilly John

Now, this here is what we refer to as a tough call. In a lot of ways, it's neither fish nor fowl; it can't really be judged by the same criteria applied to the rest of the films on this site, and yet, it has to be, since in the final analysis it's a low-budget fantasy film, despite whatever other pretensions it may have.

The Legend of Hillbilly John is based on several of Manley Wade Wellman's excellent Silver John stories, stand-alone horror tales that draw on the rich vein of Appalachian folklore. The stories have been collected several times, as Who Fears the Devil? (the original, apparently unmarketable title of this movie), and most recently as John the Balladeer.

A fellow named Marduke (Severn Darden), a dowser by trade, introduces the movie to us by the simple expedient of speaking directly to the camera. He tells us that here in the Appalachians, the devil is quite real, and goes by any number of names... one of which is the Army Corps of Engineers. Jarringly, he steps from a pastoral wooded scene to a highway construction area, and begins to tell us the tale of John.

The first story, which might be called "The Origin of Hillbilly John", begins with John (Hedges Caper), recovering from a night of pleasure with his girlfriend Lily (Sharon Henesy) by singing a new song all the way back into town, only to find that in his absence, his Grandpappy John (Denver Pyle) has decided to "sing the Defy", an act which will bring him into conflict with the Devil himself.

Grandpappy, however, has an ace up his sleeve: he has scraped up enough money for five newDenver Pyle ROCKS! silver dollars, "each with face of poor Mr. Kennedy shinin' like a new sun." He melts down the coins and draws them into strings for his guitar, for the Devil fears "true silver". Grandpappy sings the Defy, but loses his gamble and his life, because, of course, silver dollars haven't been silver for some time. "The Government of Men," we are informed, "is hand in hoof with Him."

John swears to follow in Grandpappy's footsteps, and Marduke does his dowsing act to find several Spanish pieces-of-eight with which to string Jon's guitar with true silver; he takes his leave of Lily, and with only the companionship of Grandpappy's hound dog Honor, takes his act on the road, traveling and fighting evil. You know, like Kane in Kung Fu.

In the second story, John confronts Zebulon Yandro (Harris Yulin), the latest in a line of greedy undertakers who have made lots of money off peoples' grief (don't get me started), and seems in general to spend his time crashing parties and bumming people out. According to John's encyclopedic knowledge of folklore (via old songs handed down from Grandpappy, among others) Yandro's grandfather promised a witch girl he'd "lie in her arms for a year" if she witched up some gold for him out of her hill. Of course, being a blackguard, he splits with the gold and reneges on his half of the deal, and the witch girl witched up a whole lot more gold in hope of drawing her errant lover back, but to no avail; and so it has been for 75 years.

Susan Strasberg:  Also Rocks.Not Susan Strasberg; Does Not Rock.Learning that there's a bunch of gold with his name on it, Yandro convinces John to take him to that hill - and of course they have to be there at midnight to see the gold, because that's how it works. Not only do they see the gold, but they find the witch girl, still waiting for her lover. Upon discovering that she is Susan Strasberg, Yandro eagerly agrees to fulfill his grandfather's promise: a year in her arms for the gold. After the witch girl offers John some cryptic directions, he leaves them, but no sooner does the door close on her cabin than the witch girl ages to her true 75-plus years, and Yandro finds himself trapped in a doorless, windowless room with a hag.

Ugly Bird!  Good God Almighty!Next, John (or, more actually, Honor) finds the hidden trail to Hark Mountain, where he must face the evil O.J. Onselm (Alfred Ryder) and his minion, the Ugly Bird. John plays El Kabong on the Ugly Bird's head, causing it to melt and Onselm to shrivel and die.

Marduke shows up again, this time with a surprisingly intelligent van named Abigail, and replaces John's wrecked guitar. Lily also shows back up, about this time, trying to convince John to give up his defyin' ways and settle down. Instead, they wind up on an evil cotton plantation, run by the Voodoo Captain Lajoie (Percy Rodrigues), who is done away by the mere sight of the true silver strings.

Hey, he's got my vote.Borne aloft by the grateful black crowd, John once again splits off from the disappointed Lily. Marduke appears again, offering her a ride home on his donkey, Asmodeus. "Their type never hangs around long," Marduke tells her. "Defiers. They always go where they're needed." So, of course, in our closing shot, we see John walking toward the Capitol building in Washington. The end.

As I said before, you can't judge The Legend of Hillbilly John as you would standard drive-in or B-movie fare - it's that rarity, a sorta thoughtful film. In true 1972 style, it wears it's politics painfully on its sleeve a time or two, with its "highways & dams = evil" pretensions, and the rather suspect hailing of John as a hero by the black cotton pickers simply because he brought the guitar (it's the outspoken black worker who actually does in Captain Lajoie while the villain is choking the guitarless-and-therefore-helpless John). But all that aside, the closing image is damn clever. My aging hippie heart embraces it.

Directed by John Newland - the host of One Step Beyond for all you oldsters - Hillbilly John treats its subject matter fairly matter of factly, by which I mean after a few jarring instances, we fall into the arcane sentence structure and belief systems of the backwoods pretty easily. The cinematography is handsome enough, showcasing some beautiful scenery, and the editing and camera placement is fairly spot on. The major problem we have here is budget, pure and simple. Newland has overcome it well in a couple of instances: entering the cotton plantation through enormous yellow gates, everything is tinted yellow until Lajoie's death; and as Grandpappy John sings the ultimate line of The Defy (written by Hoyt Axton, no less), his death is symbolized by the film breaking. It's an audacious, arty moment, and deserving of applause.

The Ugly Bird expresses his opinion of folk singers in general.Overall, though, Hillbilly John reminds me of those impoverished PBS productions of works like The Lathe of Heaven or Between Time and Timbuktu, where the ideas count more than splashy graphics or special effects. The only special effects on display here are the Ugly Bird, a fair piece of stop-motion animation, and Onselm's withering death, both achieved through very fuzzy process shots (or, more likely, very primitive rear projection). The rest of the magic on hand is achieved by sheer dint of acting - when Yandro is held motionless by some unseen force, and the eye-popping, AaaaAAAaaaaAh!  Lay-dee!mouth-ever-widening death of Lajoie. The subject matter cries out for something more spectacular, and though the filmmaker in me sympathizes, the filmgoer in me feels cheated. Placing the stories in the modern day, usually an economic decision, seems rather odd here, as most of the costuming and sets have a distinctly period feel; in fact, in the few instances when we see modern devices such as cars, they seem like flagrant anachronisms. Keeping the stories in their intended early 20th century timespan might have helped the overall flavor of the movie.

Speaking of acting (I do tend to digress), some of it on display is fairly suspect. Hedges Caper as Ain't they cute?John is especially problematic - much of the time he gives a very simple, heartfelt performance... but sometimes one suspects that it is simply because he can't act. I still don't know, and I suppose its a tribute to the filmmakers that I don't. In the final analysis, he's likable enough, has a strong, pleasant voice (he wrote most of the songs, too), and is no real detriment to the film. His opposite number, Sharon Henesy, gives a performance equally uncluttered by artifice, but I suspect there is some genuine talent underneath. It should also be added that if you had to have an illustration for the term fresh-scrubbed beauty, it would be Ms. Henesy. In fact, our young lovers would be ideal poster children for the hippie movement.

Newland wisely shored up these two younger actors with some veteran talent, like Strasberg, Yulin, Ryder, Rodrigues, the ever-dependable Denver Pyle and R.G. Armstrong, playing a feller who proudly avers he's traveled as far as "Frankfort, once't or twice't." Past these folks, though, the going gets tough, with several sub-community theater performances in evidence, though never long enough to terminally damage the proceedings.

The film's worst failing, past its chump-change budget, is its structure - the best-developed of the stories are the first two, with the second two being dispatched in about ten minutes each. Worse, the plantation story is not truly resolved by our hero; John could never have faced the Devil - not on this budget, anyway - but a good, solid climax would have been nice.

Can I recommend The Legend of Hillbilly John? No, not really. Certainly not for casual viewing. Though far from being a terrible film, it stands mainly as a testament to Good Intentions, High Aspirations, and Hope. It is the sort of film that is more enjoyable in the having seen than actually you ponder the things that might have been, and could have been, in a just universe.

On the other hand, though, the music...especially Hoyt Axton's Defy Song, "The Devil", kicks ass.


Silver John deserves better treatment, but it could have been so much worse...

- July 26, 1998