Keep on Driving: Marc Lawrence's Rural-Horror Gem, PIGS
In the backwoods of America, many a secret is held. Nestled in the woods, desert landscapes, the brick and wood of farms, homes and businesses, lies the spilled blood and tears of such secrets. This is often the rich soil that many a good rural horror story or film have been born from. Few decades were more ripe for it than the 1970's, ranging from the game-changing charms of Tobe Hooper's TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974) to the Southern USA-auteurism of S.F. Brownrigg (DON'T GO IN THE BASEMENT, SCUM OF THE EARTH). In the midst of all of this is an undeservedly obscure title courtesy of Hollywood character actor turned (albeit briefly) director, Marc Lawrence, by the name of PIGS. (As well as DADDY'S DEADLY DARLING, THE 13th PIG, the wickedly inexplicable and ridiculous LOVE EXORCIST, among a few others.) This fascinating tale has languished far too long and has finally re-surfaced again, with a lot of care, love and respect via the folks at Vinegar Syndrome.
A man in a leather vest hauls a large and suspiciously bulky burlap sack. The sound of pigs can be heard as the act is bathed in night sky and moonlight. Muttering, “Always on a full moon, the pigs get hungry” and he starts talking to the cargo, which is revealed to be a corpse. Explaining the origin of his beloved swine's craving for human flesh, he ends the conversation with “I'm very sorry.” Cut to the daytime and a pretty brunette is driving down a dirt road while the film's main song repeats the refrain, “...keep on driving...” She briefly stops to dump a nurse's outfit in the brush and then takes a cue from the song until she pulls up to a small, rustic looking business called “Zambrini's Cafe.” Loud sounds of pigs shriek in the background, but this does not deter her as she walks in and is greeted by the man from the beginning of the film, the Great Zambrini himself. (Director Lawrence.) The young woman, Lynne (Toni Lawrence), is looking for work. He seems grumpy but accepts and shows her to the room, complete with stained walls and all the bare bones charm of a Super 8 post-mortem cleanup.
Turns out that Lynne's new boss has a bit of a reputation in the small town. The local sheriff, Dan Cole (Jesse Vint), visits the spinster house occupied by dotty Mrs Macy (Catherine Ross), who is adamant that Zambrini is “feeding them dead people” but then insists that not only have the pigs been loose and at her house, but that the corpses are becoming the pigs. Dan points out that transubstantiation of the dead into swine is not technically against the law, and leaves. There's a fabulously nightmarish vision of Zambrini, in circus-ghoul white-face, threatening Macy but in a rather cryptic way. A serious visitation from an eccentric retired-carny-magician or hallucinations from a fragile shut in? Lawrence cares enough not to give us any answers and bless him for it.
A local blue collar Joe Schmo by the name of Ben (Paul Hickey) comes into the cafe and starts chatting up the pretty new girl. After warning her about Zambrini's reputation of having a high turnover rate of lovely young waitresses who disappear, he then invites her out later. Lynne plays with her ankh necklace and accepts. Meanwhile, the Sheriff finds her discarded nurse's outfit in the brush and Lynne keeps trying to call her father. (An act that always seems to result in her having breakdowns ranging from teary to full tilt mania.) When Ben gets a little handsy and sexually aggressive, things start to spiral into an even more dementedly captivating and strangely sad whirlwind that results with an ending that is as strange as it is fresh.
Marc Lawrence's PIGS is a really undervalued jewel in the 1970's horror filmography. Better known as a character actor whose resume is littered with films ranging from THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (1950) to the insane Terrence Hill vehicle SUPER FUZZ (1980), Lawrence only has two features listed as a director. One was the 1965 film NIGHTMARE IN THE SUN (which IMDB also has actor/director John Derek listed as director, though the actual film credits only list Lawrence) and, of course, PIGS. This is a real shame since given Lawrence's keen eye for tone and composition, just imagine what he could have done post-PIGS.
This film is proof that you don't need a huge budget or any of its associated trappings of bloat to make something effective. The use of the rural, Southern California location and a solid cast of character actors who look as well as act every inch of their respective roles, is incredibly effective. (This, combined with the human darkness of the backwoods, most definitely brings to mind the works of another wholly underrated figure in genre cinema, S.F. Brownrigg. Especially titles like DON'T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT (1973) and KEEP MY GRAVE OPEN (1976).) The mix of earthy locales and grisly violence is mixed in with a sense of dreams blurring into nightmares and reality itself being a rather nebulous creature.
Speaking of the cast, Lawrence is absolutely magnetic as Zambrini. To the extent that you are left wanting more of his character, especially given the small allusions to his circus past. There are little touches that humanize him, with his surprisingly sensitive interactions with Lynne and protectiveness over his pigs. His real life daughter, Toni Lawrence is quite good as the mysterious and troubled Lynne. She pulls off the haunted qualities of Lynne and much like the film as its own entity, leaves a firmly lasting impression. The rest of the cast is great, with Vint as the stoic and fair Sheriff and Jim Antonio as Jess Winter, a man from Lynne's past. Both men are especially memorable.
Audio might not be the number one star of this film but it is definitely a major player. This is apparent from the opening frame where in lieu of music we get night time rural quiet mixed in with the omnipresent sound of crickets to the intense, disconcerting thrum of pigs snorting and squealing used throughout the entire film. When music is used, it is equally effective. Both the score and the two more modern rock/pop songs used, most notably the haunting “Somewhere Down the Road,” were created by film composer Charles Bernstein, who really knocked it out of the park here. Rarely has a Jew's Harp been used more effectively to convey the chilling isolation of back-desert USA. There's also the slightest nursery rhyme refrain that slides in as Lynn's grip on reality starts to slide out. (In a brilliant move, Bernstein had Toni Lawrence herself do the sing-songy vocals.)
There are always a variety of factors that can hinder the success of a great film. With PIGS, the amount of several different versions and titles have not helped. Ranging from slight re-cuts of Lawrence's original film to brand new footage clearly shot after the original had wrapped. The worst of the bunch is the brazenly godawful DADDY'S GIRL, which features an intro and outro with assorted actresses in bad wigs that are supposed to be Lynne. (The "best" is toddler Lynne wearing a Goodwill Melissa Manchester wig, with the little girl's real hair clearly peaking through the synthetic follicle monstrosity.) Class is an abstraction when your way of dealing with the serious theme of abuse is having the film's title printed out on the undercarriage side of a girl's panties. Speaking of one of these things is not like the other, PIGS was also released as LOVE EXORCIST, with additional footage added to force a sexy possession theme on the film. Inexplicable is a fitting word for that, though Jim Antonio actually does pop in this new footage, as a doctor trying to fend off the low-budget, squealing, demon possessed "Lynne." (It should be noted that you can see all of this footage, along with trailers and some great interviews with Toni Lawrence and composer Charles Bernstein on the new Vinegar Syndrome release.)
Adding to further confusion, PIGS was also released on home video under titles like DADDY'S DEADLY DARLING and HORROR FARM. The original print of the film, remastered and released with typical great care by Vinegar Syndrome, is titled THE 13TH PIG, though the original script title was MENU FOR MURDER. But you can call it whatever you like, since PIGS in its full, untampered with form, is a stylish without being stylized, gritty but dreamlike and a film with a singular tale involving two misfits with a dark past and the potentially mystical nature of swine.