It's been a long time since Hollywood relied on that time-honored terror tenet, killer animal cinema, as a means of scaring up box office business. While cable locations like the Sci-Fi Channel and TNT seem to drag out the marauding mammals and evil invertebrates with ridiculous regularity, we haven't seen a real big screen beast-a-thon since the glorious Crispin Glover grandstanding of Willard. Indeed, most of Tinsel Town must still be smarting from big ass belly flops like The Swarm – or more recently, Eight-Legged Freaks. We just don't see as many nasty nature epics getting the greenlight as we used to. At one time, they were a passion pit perennial, wedged in between soft-core sex farces and...soft core erotic thrillers. Seems that nothing stirred up the throbbing biological urges of the drive-in patron better than penguins gone wild, untamed reticulated chipmunks and mutant prairie dogs of hate!
So naturally, when you hear a tempting title like Pigs, and see DVD cover art showing an unsettling horde of sinister swine chowing down on blood-drenched human flesh, your mind is instantly transported back to humid, fog-filled sedans drenched in a combination of perspiration and heavy petting. You relish a chance to revisit the panic that is animals run amok, and you hope that the production values are a little better than bargain basement, the better to serve the slippery, slimy bloodletting. Well, get ready for a grand case of cinematic blue balls, as Pigs is not really a frenzied farm animal classic after all. Instead, it's a weird psychosexual potboiler about an abused girl and the nearly incoherent ex-circus performer farmer that befriends her. Sure, there is some hog horror to be found, but it's more a side dish than meaty main course. Ms. Batshit and her equally unhinged "friend" are the true stars of this incredibly strange slice of early 70s cinema.
Lynn is a very troubled girl. After being raped by her father, she takes her revenge and is sent to a mental hospital for evaluation. Wanting to escape, she steals a nurse's uniform and heads into the California desert. She ends up at a rundown cafe owned by pig farmer (and former circus performer) Zambrini. He takes her in, no questions asked, and soon the two develop a kind of co-dependent bond of craziness (Mr. Z isn't operating with a full six-pack either).
In the meantime, the local sheriff is running around like a lawman with his head cut off. Seems many of Zambrini's neighbors can't stand the loud, snarling livestock that he keeps back behind the diner. Some even say he robs graveyards and morgues to feed human meat to his beasts. Frankly, Zambrini's Pigs are the last thing anyone should worry about. Lynn is still dangerously disturbed, and has only one, knife-wielding way of dealing with her impending problems. Luckily, she has her new found "buddy", and his always-hungry hogs to mop up her occasional "misfortunes".
In a clear case of never judging a disc by its cover – especially when it's being released by a certain independent B-movie company – Pigs is not about killer swine. Oh sure, we have murderous sows and harmful hogs here, but they are not the kind of evil livestock we have come to expect from this type of film. Amazingly, the main reason why Pigs isn't centered on brutish boars is because it never really was meant to. In a fright flick version of The Flintstones, these porkers are merely convenient "garbage" disposals, accidentally learning their love for human flesh. No, Pigs actually began life as a film called Daddy's Deadly Darling, and as stated above, centers on the criminally insane Lynn and her unlikely alliance with local eccentric – and pro-pig patron – Zambrini.
This vanity project by Hollywood heavy Marc Lawrence (far more famous for his bad guy roles in classic Tinsel Town titles than for this leap behind the lens) was created as a showcase for his somewhat talentless daughter Toni. So, naturally, it had to be more of an exploitation type horror movie than a standard angry animal extravaganza. Indeed, anyone whose seen Axe, or The Child, will have a much better handle on what Lawrence was trying for here than the white meat chicanery of the new-fangled title from Troma.
At first, you kind of hope that Pigs is about the name nasties. Memories of Hannibal, and Gary Oldman's/Mason Verger's primed slaughter sty ever present in the back of your mind, you anticipate some brisk bacon-based backlash. Heck, maybe we've even got an early Motel Hell on our hands (Zambrini does own a restaurant after all). And we do eventually get a little pork chopsocky during the incredibly bizarre finale. But for the rest of the brief running time (this film is only 81 mins, and is padded with long opening and closing song montages), the heinous hams of hate are basically placed on the back burner, called upon only for the occasional insert shot or unearthly grunt.
In between we have the standard enclave of eccentrics, field hands and loners, their quirks all serving Lawrence's abnormal narrative quagmire. Then to make things even more uncomfortable, daddy director adds an undercurrent of sexual tension between Zambrini and Lynn which makes the storyline-inspired incest seem that much more plausible – and sickening. While we realize that this is reading a lot into what is basically a stupid little slasher film, one has to wonder why Pops insisted on all those up close and jiggling cleavage shots.
Indeed, Lawrence's lensing is one of the more intriguing aspects of the film. Troma's version of this film seems pretty solid, considering the IMDb confirms the hour and twenty minute time, and this would mean that the print we're watching more or less preserves the filmmakers fudged up vision. Unless it's a processing error – and it could be – Lawrence liked to repeat shots, reinserting moments shown before, sans dialogue, in order to pad the plot and to allow for the sound to sync up. It makes a strange movie seem even more surreal, and adds a palpable aura of the unreal to everything that happens.
For example, we will see Lynn turn and grab an object. The next shot of someone talking will appear, without audible dialogue. We return to Lynn repeating the same motion, and then cut back to the speaker. Astonishingly, the conversation can now be heard. Weird! Lawrence also loved natural light, using its suggestive powers to keep scenes and onscreen action mired deep inside the cinematic shadows. Without a doubt, you may feel the need to grab a miner's helmet during some of the incredibly dark sequences in Pigs.
But where Lawrence's legacy really lies is in the perverted, perplexing performances. He manages to turn even the most mundane character (say, the sleazy oil rig worker Johnny) into a real piece of miscreant Method art. The director obviously allowed a great deal of ad-libbing on set – or at least he sounds like he's making up his dialogue as he goes along – and the rhythms are very arcane and disconcerting. Both Lawrence and his daughter even trade a strange stand-off where all they do is repeat each other's lines, and the scenes with the crazy next door neighbor ladies sound like they've been lifted from some inebriated rants by the Baldwin Sisters ("recipe", anyone?).
Only Jesse Vint as the young gun sheriff seems set on playing it straight. Yet even he has problems doing that when he's saddled with couplets revolving around people turning into pigs, the legal rights of the recently dead, and the loyalty of murdered dogs. Along with the strange shot selections, narrative belches, the dumbfounding script and even more baffling performance choices, Pigs proclaims its idiosyncrasies freely and proudly. That they usually work FOR the film, not against it, is just another impenetrable conceit of Lawrence's cinematic style.
Frankly, Pigs is more peculiar than pleasing. Had it been about psycho sausage fodder chewing through the countryside, scarffing down civilians with applesauce abandon, we'd have a decent reminder of the whole Food of the Gods genre of drive-in delights. Instead, Troma's tease hides a disturbed, deranged example of psychological incongruity that uses its logic-defying fundamentals to create a kind of existential horror hemorrhage. All emotional breakdowns, auditory hallucinations and garbled messages aside, one couldn't ask for a creepier, if mostly confusing entertainment. Individuals enraptured with that bygone era of filmmaking, when atmosphere and just the slightest amount of gore sold the story, will eat up this healthy serving of ridiculous pork rinds.
Presented in 1.33:1 full screen and unusually dark for a transfer, Troma's print of Pigs is pretty good. Once you get past the dimly lit dynamic of the film (this is the only movie where people turn on the lights in a room and it gets even gloomier) and realize you'll be missing a lot of detail in the contrast-hobbled image, you'll enjoy the dry, demented ambiance of the arid California setting. In many ways, the less than stellar visuals give the movie a real seedy air, adding greatly to the mixed sexual suggestions the movie is playing into.
Let's face it – there's not much one can do with badly synced Mono from 35 years ago. As long as Troma keeps the aural elements from being drowned in distortion or lost in a sea of hiss, they've done their job. Thankfully, the Dolby Digital remaster (???) preserves the dialogue and highlights many of the auditory experiments director Lawrence indulged in. Indeed, there is one scene where Lynn is wandering in the wilderness, and she hears random eerie, far off noises. The effect is pretty decent, and the DVD retains the frenzied mood in a nice, non-offensive manner.
Maybe now that he has finished his magnum opus, the Make Your Own Damn Movie Box Set, Lloyd will stop cramming that stupid "fill in the blank" intro onto every DVD Troma releases. His short skits used to be a highlight, and while Debbie Rochon is always easy on the eyes, and the device was clever the first couple of times, it has LONG since worn out its welcome. The rest of the bonus features here are the standard Tromatic treats. We get PETA ads (icky!), some trailers, a music video by Goldfinger (again taking the animal rights angle) and a lesson on making fake blood from Make Your Own Damn Movie. Perhaps the best added bits are the production notes that describe the film's creation and real reasons for existing. We learn about the title change as well as the movie's mixed-up distribution problems. While they're no Criterion, at least Troma tries to flesh out all of its film offerings, which is more than can be said for some low budget DVD distributors.
Pigs may play like a Shake-N-Bake version of A Touch of Satan, or any number of early 70s excuses for morose middling macabre, but it has an arch ace of its sleeve that many of these films just can't emulate. No, we are not talking about the title ham actors, or the equally mannered ways of star Toni Lawrence. Actually, it's the lunacy of daddy Marc that makes this movie worth watching, if perhaps only once. His idiot savant style filmic free-for-all, containing more tics and peculiarities than an entire mental ward, really has to be seen to be disbelieved. With an "en-scene" that is more mess than mise, and a habit of purposefully editing in constant cinematic stutters, Pigs plays like a schizophrenic's version of The Farmer's Almanac. While it is by no means a classic, it certainly stands as a testament to a time when independent cinema was autonomous to a fault. It's just too bad the title terrors got left out of most of the macabre. There is nothing more menacing than a trotter on a tear – unless, of course, it's Toni Lawrence trying to emote. Now that is something that WILL give you nightmares for days to come.
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