Southern Movie 44: “Two Thousand Maniacs!” (1964)

It might be a good thing that Herschell Gordon Lewis’s 1964 Two Thousand Maniacs! is a hard movie to find. Lewis, a former English professor who is called the “Godfather of Gore,” became famous in the 1960s and 1970s for making bloody, disturbing horror movies. (He didn’t limit himself to those. Other productions from the 1960s included the “nudie” movies Goldilocks and the Three Bares and Boin-n-g!) Two Thousand Maniacs! present a wild and exaggeratedly horrific portrait of a small Deep Southern town whose commemoration of  the Civil War includes killing Yankees who are passing through. In this one, characters quickly become caricatures . . . and the absurdity quickly becomes obvious.

Two Thousand Maniacs! opens with a raucous, upbeat banjo-and-guitar song about how “The South’s gonna rise a-gain” as we watch a hillbilly in overalls  using binoculars to scope out passing cars from a tree. As he looks at the license plates, he signals to a man down the road whether he should leave a road sign that reads “Augusta 110” or remove that and put up a detour sign that will redirect them. They do this several times, grinning and waving like imbeciles as they do. In the middle of this, the scene shifts to a small, Southern downtown that is empty of cars and other normalcy, but has a throng of people waving Confederate flags and cheering (at nothing in particular). There is a banner across the town’s main street that reads “Pleasant Valley April 1865 – April 1965.” For anyone who doesn’t know their Southern history, the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse occurred on that former date, so this is the centennial of its end.

Soon, the two cars they’ve diverted arrive in the little downtown, and the flag-waving people run out to greet them. They surround the first car, which is a white convertible with two couples in it, and cheer them into the main intersection. The newcomers are confused and wary, but a loud and charismatic man in a suit and string tie presents himself as the mayor and assures them they’re being welcomed as guests of honor! Guests of honor to what? they want to know. Their concerns are waved off, and the two couples are coaxed out of the car and leave the scene. Right behind them is another convertible with a woman driving and a male passenger. We learned a moment before that she has picked him up as a hitchhiker and that he is a teacher heading to a convention. They too are surrounded and greeted with cheers, then convinced that they’re guests of honor too and coaxed out of the car despite mild objections. Near the end of these sequences, the two men from the road show up and are introduced as the “centennial chairman” and the “program chairman.” After the six guests of honor are ushered away, the two chairmen discuss a half-baked plan to go back to the road and lure a few more unsuspecting motorists for their own personal pleasure, but are scolded by the mayor for it. However, that doesn’t stop them from devising a plan to separate the couples and do as they will.

Up in the hotel room, one of the couples, the Millers fuss a little bit about the situation. The blonde bombshell wife Bea rolls around on the bed in her black lacy dress, while she shares that she doesn’t trust her husband John not to cheat. He responds in a swarthy way, then the phone rings. It is one of the local women Betsy who giggles and flirts, asking the husband to come down and meet her. Of course, John agrees, and against his wife’s lazy objections, he goes down to the lobby to meet her, and they leave arm in arm. Now that the wife is isolated, the two chairmen tell another man named Harper, who is sitting in the lobby, that it’s time for him. He calls upstairs and offers Bea to leave with him, and she coyly agrees and comes downstairs in a yellow outfit.

Now outdoors, Bea and Harper are sitting alone. They talk for a brief moment, then embrace and begin to kiss. When they stop, she asks what he does in the town, when they’re not hosting a centennial, and he brushes off her question, then pulls out a pocket knife, saying, “Feel how sharp that is.” She is reluctant but does it, and he slices her thumb open. She screams, outraged at the blood coming from her thumb and insists that he do something about it. Okay, he replies, and uses the small knife to cut off her whole thumb! As she screams louder, the scene faces out.

Next we see, Bea Miller is in the mayor’s office. Mayor Buckman has his arm around her shoulders as she weeps loudly, while Harper laughs and yucks it up over to the side. The mayor asks to see the wound, unwraps the rag on it, and agrees that it looks bad. Then the two men, with big smiles, call in the two chairmen for assistance. Bea begins to scream and thrash wildly, but they put her on the mayor’s desk and hold her down. One man gets an ax by the mantle. She struggles against the three holding her down, but to no avail— he lifts the ax and with great joy chops off her arm at the shoulder. As she lies dead, they pick up the arm and marvel at it gleefully.

One pervasive problem with Two Thousand Maniacs! is the sound quality. The recording equipment was clearly low-quality, and because the actors are shouting so many of the lines, it is hard to hear what they’re saying, especially indoors. This problem was particularly bad in the arm-chopping scene, when the men’s dialogue is going on alongside the woman’s screaming.

Back at the hotel, that hitchhiking teacher Tom White has figured out that something is up. He goes to the room of Terry Adams, the woman who picked him up, to share his concerns, but she thinks the treatment they’re receiving is wonderful. He disagrees, saying that his friend who is a history scholar didn’t say a word about any big Civil War event happening. (I’m not sure how it would be possible that no major Civil War events would be happening in April 1965, but okay.) Terry begins to see his point, but only stands there and rubs her face absent-mindedly. Tom then tries to make a long-distance phone call from the room, but is told by the front desk that he can’t. So the two hatch plan to use their spare change for a pay-phone call.

Tom then goes out and uses a pay phone to call the convention hotel in Atlanta. It takes a bit to get connected, but he does, then he is confused by being told that neither his friend nor any of the convention people are there until tomorrow. He tries to relays the urgency of talking to someone there, but gets nowhere. (It is at this point, when he is leaving the phone booth, that my suspicions were confirmed. As Tom leaves the phone booth, it is in a park full of palm trees— they’re filming in California.) When the scene shifts away from Tom, we see a laughing Mayor Buckman at his desk, proclaiming ironically, Sure, Mr. White, I’ll give him the message . . . The call was not routed to Atlanta, it was routed to the mayor! He folds up the message into a paper airplane, lights it on fire, sails it into the fireplace, and stomps on it.

That evening, the town is gathered around a campfire, where Bea’s arm is roasting on a spit, as a bluegrass trio plays “Rollin’ in my Sweet Baby’s Arms.” Again, the sound quality is terrible as people woohoo around the song. The other couple, who were in the first convertible, don’t seem to notice a human arm roasting nearby, but do notice that Bea is gone and John is with another woman. After we see John drinking moonshine and hanging on his new lady, Terry stops Mayor Buckman and asks what that is that’s roasting. He tells her that it’s . . . symbolic and that he’ll explain everything tomorrow. Terry looks concerned, and the mayor asks where Tom is. Terry reminds him that they aren’t a couple, that Tom’s car had broken down so she gave him a lift. The mayor guffaws again and says that he just wants them all at the party.

After the mayor leaves with the two chairmen, Tom sneaks out of the darkness, taps Terry to leave, and leads her to a marker in the woods. It says that the town was the site of a Union massacre in 1865 and that the town has pledged vengeance.

“What does it mean,” Terry asks in a whisper.

“It means that we’re here to be killed,” Tom replies.

And they run off into the dark woods.

Meanwhile, the mayor and the two chairmen are looking for them, but give up and say that they should return to the “horse race.” At the campfire, the second couple is led out (forcibly) by Harper, who tells them they’ll need their rest, and a very drunk John Miller is picked up to take part in the “horse race.” He protests that he doesn’t even know how to ride, but they tell him loudly and with wild shouts that he doesn’t need to. They drag the drunk man across a field— then tie him up to be drawn and quartered! Last we see of John Miller, one of his legs is being dragged across the grass.Yet, after the spectacle, the crowd isn’t as hyped as they have been. They look somber, almost remorseful . . . until one of the chairman shouts for some music and reminds them all, “You know what happens to anybody who backs out.” We don’t know, but they seem to. The bluegrass trio breaks into “Look away, Dixieland,” and the quiet crowd soon regains its momentum and goes off clapping and singing.

The next morning, the second couple David and Beverly Wells wake up to the bluegrass trio playing in the street outside their window. Beverly comments that this is starting to seem odd, and David agrees. He tries to call the others’ rooms, but is told that all of them are out for a walk. It’s eight AM, and given John’s drunken state the night before, it is unlikely that’s true. So the Wells opt for getting dressed and finding out what’s going on.

Meanwhile, the mayor tells his two accomplices that he doesn’t like that teacher fellow. He’s onto them and shouldn’t be allowed to start trouble.

Down in the street, the Wells are accosted by Harper and Betsy, and separated. David Wells is taken out to a field, despite his protestations, to a barrel roll. The stiff Yankee has lost all humor about the situation – can’t find his friends, separated from his wife, doesn’t know why he’s there – and tries to refuse. On top of a nearby hill, Betsy leads him to a small crowd where a yellow barrel with a Confederate flag on it is poised to be pushed down a hill. David isn’t interested, but is told that he must crawl through it, or they can’t have a barrel roll! Still unwilling, he is forced through, then is stopped midway while Mayor Buckman pounds nails into the barrel. We begin to realize what will happen: David will roll on the nails all the way down. By the time he reaches the bottom, he is bloody and dead. Over his red painted-splattered corpse, one of the excited chairmen proclaims, “This is the best centennial anybody’s ever had!”

Back at the hotel, Tom White finds a man guarding the hallway outside his door. He acknowledges him nonchalantly then goes back into his room and out the window to Terry’s room. Tom comes in her window, telling her to remain quiet. Then she goes out and lures the man into her room so Tom can hit him over the head. The pair escape the hotel on foot, but Harper comes chasing them. As they run through a field, Terry falls into a mud puddle, which Tom declares to be quicksand, but he extracts her. Right behind them, Harper falls into the same mire and drowns. For a moment, Tom considers going back to help him but doesn’t, and they continue to run, as creepy organ music accompanies their escape. However, for a moment, the music shifts to something sentimental as Terry washes her legs in a pond. Tom looks on. I guess we’re supposed to surmise that they’re falling in love, but this out-of-place scene is awkward.

Since we’ve figured out by now that the townspeople are picking off the Yankees one by one, our attention now shifted to the demise of Beverly Wells. She is led across a pretty green space in town to a yellow scaffold with a huge rock poised on top. Beverly is informed that she’ll be judging something for them. Judging what, she asks. Judging whether that rock has fallen or not! After struggling and protesting, Beverly is tied to a platform below the scaffold, and the locals begin to throw softballs at a target that will make the rock fall (kind of like a dunking booth). Of course, this task takes way too long, and the scene contains a lot of bad jokes and cheers from the crowd. Eventually, Beverly is crushed by the boulder, and the townspeople grin maliciously and nod silently.

With everyone dead except Terry and Tom, we know that Two Thousand Maniacs! is coming to an end. When we see Tom and Terry again, they run into a dirty, little boy named Billy who asks, “Whaddayoo want, Yankees?” Tom coerces him into showing them where their car is by promising that there’s candy that he can have. The boy falls for the trick, but the keys aren’t in the car. They send Billy for the keys, but the crazy mob is coming, and the rude boy arrives back just as the mob is upon them. He doesn’t want to give up the keys but does, and Tom grabs him and puts him in the car with them as they speed away.

Of course, it won’t be that easy. As they leave down a one-lane dirt road, a rickety truck follows, with banjo music playing. They drop Billy off at the paved road, and he kicks the dirt and complains that he didn’t get to drive and didn’t get any candy.

Tom and Terry return to civilization and report what has happened to the police. The officer who takes their complaint doesn’t believe a word they say, and even tells them that he’s never heard of Pleasant Valley. Tom retorts, asking how the man doesn’t even know the towns in his own county! But the country lawmen has his own retort: he’s going to given them both a breathalyzer test to be sure they aren’t drunk. Next we see the trio, Tom and Terry have led the officer to the turnoff, and the dirt road is gone. The lawman says that he’s lived around there is his whole life and that there never has been a Pleasant Valley. But Terry points out their car’s tracks, and the three go on foot to find it. They don’t go far when the lawman tells them that there are local legends about a town called Pleasant Valley, which the Union soldiers burned to the ground a hundred years ago. Tom and Terry are shocked: have they seen a whole town full of ghosts? As that conversation plays out, the stone marker about the massacre and the vengeance, which is nearby, disappears.

Tom and Terry drive away and stop at the state line. (The sign only says, “State Line.”) They debate for a moment over what happened to them, but they have Billy’s little play noose to prove that it was real. Tom tries to get out, saying that he’ll hitchhike his way to Atlanta, but Terry tells him to stay and drive. She wants to them to stay together, since she owes her life to him. She never wants them to be apart— it’s a love story after all!

Back in the boonies, the two so-called chairmen of the centennial whimsically wonder what the next centennial will be like. Maybe the Yankees will come in rocket ships next time. They get up to go back to town, so they don’t miss the “deadline,” and on their way, call Harper to come out of the quicksand. He comes out of the muck and, with equal nonchalance, wanders into the woods with them. And that’s where it ends.

Although films like Two Thousand Maniacs! are not meant to be taken seriously as cultural documents, they do perpetuate and reinforce stereotypes and misconceptions. Keep in mind that, by 1964, Americans had seen years’ worth of news coverage of Civil Rights protests where the white opposition was waving Confederate flags just like the ones in this film do. However, the cultural effects must’ve been minimal, since I seriously doubt that many American moviegoers went to see Two Thousand Maniacs!. Put simply, the film plays on the worst stereotypes – violent Southerners who enjoy hurting people and who harbor resentment over the Civil War – and exaggerates them to the point of ridiculousness: torture and even cannibalism. The problem with the portrayal is in the lack of nuance. The Lost Cause from the late 19th century and the return of Confederate flag in the 1960s are connected in complex ways, but films like these try to conflate them as being the same thing. Most of the flag-waving whites seen in those mobs in the ’60s were not Civil War scholars and, given their ages, were three to four generations removed from the war itself. Unlike the ghost-town Southerners in this movie, the real ones were only partially seeking vengeance for the loss in 1865— there was a much more tangible threat to the “Southern way of life” right there and then.

In  “The Southern Implications of the Film ‘Two Thousands Maniacs!’,” published on Medium.com, William Matthew McCarter had to this to add:

Lewis’ plotline in Two Thousand Maniacs does what more traditional media could not do — creates monsters out of those who live in the South. By focusing on the literal ghosts of a violent and vengeful Confederacy, Lewis is able to make implicit claims about the “ghosts of the Confederacy” that still haunted the South a hundred years after the Civil War and played on the anxieties of the people in the rest of the United States.

What is interesting about Lewis’ film is not what is there, but what is missing. Although the film was released in the midst of America’s Civil Rights movement, there is no mention of race relations in the South or of the segregated South.

Unfortunately, the (minor) damage done to American culture by Two Thousand Maniacs! didn’t end there. In 2005, a sequel titled 2001 Maniacs was released, this time starring Robert Englund (of Nightmare on Elm Street fame) as Mayor Buckman. That travesty was then followed by 2001 Maniacs: Field of Screams in 2010. Let’s hope there aren’t more.

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