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By 1987 Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan, affectionately known at the Cannon Group as Mo and Yo, had dug their company into a huge sinkhole. Underfinanced, overextended and no longer bringing in breakout respectable hits, they continued to dash off big deals at Cannes, signing big talent even as film after film crashed and burned at the box office. The popularity of attractions like Chuck Norris and Charles Bronson could only go so far, while Menahem himself continued to direct expensive films, some of which were barely released. 1 The company was so confused that it redubbed the soundtrack of its Latin musical Salsa (1988) to minimize its ethnicity. They allowed director Herbert Ross to film his Mikhail Baryshnikov ballet film Giselle in full-frame 1:37 aspect ratio, even though theatrical screenings masked off the dancers' feet at the ankles.
But Cannon was also involved in some worthy pictures at this time, like Jerry Schatzberg's Street Smart. Barbet Schroeder's Barfly was cancelled, until the director convinced Yoram to keep it alive by threatening violence against himself in Yoram's office. Best of all, Cannon provided a four-picture home for the Russian director Andrei (Andrey) Konchalovsky. His second effort produced Runaway Train, one of the company's enduring quality hits. But the director's last film, 1987's Shy People received a minimal, stealth release in America months after its lead actress Barbara Hershey won as best actress at the Cannes Film Festival.
To my knowledge Shy People hasn't been seen in a decent video version until now, and I've been looking for it for a long time. Its anamorphic widescreen images were pan-scanned for TV cable and VHS releases; it's never been on disc. The promos I edited for it at Cannon that were pan-scanned as well; I was so crazy about the picture that I conned department head Mark Lowrie into ordering a full screening just for me, so I could show it to some writer friends: mogul for a day. DVD Savant is a review site for products available for sale, but I sometimes review films unavailable on home video, especially when I think I have something fairly original to write about them, as with the exotic noirs Pitfall and Try and Get Me! Now that the movie is finally available (screened last month on MGMHD cable) I've seen it again, 28 years later, in 'scope and stereo.
The story by Konchalovsky, Marjorie David and Gérard Brach (Repulsion, Cul-De-Sac, Tess) pulls up the old, forgotten Southern Gothic backwater drama, dealing with people living on the edge of civilization. A relevant title is Jean Renoir's Swamp Water, a tale of crime and abandonment in the Okeefenokee. Aspects of the story resemble Elia Kazan's Wild River in that Barbara Hershey's character could be Jo Van Fleet's Ella Garth at a younger age. Clarence Brown's adaptation of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' The Yearling applies as well, even with its attempt to sweeten its story of hardship and loss. But I'll get to an even stronger filmic link a little further on.
Shy People begins in New York. The outwardly superficial Diana Sullivan (Jill Clayburgh), a divorced writer for Cosmopolitan, takes on an assignment to investigate a lost branch of the family sprung from a great-uncle who went to Louisiana years ago. At the last minute Diana takes along her teenaged daughter Grace (Martha Plimpton), who she discovers is not only using cocaine, but is having an affair with Diana's own discarded lover, Andre.
Just getting to the Sullivan home deep in the bayou country is a major effort, with a local lawman taking them part of the way and an old man boating them the rest. They find a rotting house in the swamp, inhabited by Ruth Sullivan (Barbara Hershey) and her sons. Paul (Pruitt Taylor Vince) is a simpleton due to an injury before he was born. Ruth has locked her youngest son Tommy (John Philbin) in the tool shed, as a punishment for disobedience. The next older son Mark (Don Swayze) has a pregnant wife, the unsophisticated Candy (Mare Winningham). The family is dysfunctional, but in no ordinary way. Mark isn't clever enough to keep a local ruffian named Jake (Tony Epper) from raiding his crab and crawfish traps, and not strong enough to solve the problem, "as his daddy would have done." Tommy is being punished for not accepting his mother's version of reality: Ruth refuses to acknowledge that her long-lost husband Old Joe is dead: "I was, and I am, Joe's wife." She also has disowned her eldest son Mike (Merritt Butrick) because he abandoned the family to go to town, where he runs a cheap bar.
Ruth initially refuses to look Diana in the face or acknowledge kinship; she thinks it's some trick to kick her off their land. Diana cannot fathom why Ruth would ever live in such primitive conditions. The woman is almost metaphysically committed to staying where she is, and worshipping the memory of the husband who took her as his second wife when she was twelve. Diana learns even darker stories about Old Joe when she, Diana, Ruth and Candy take a trip to town. Candy's the only family member who would like to leave the bayou, and Ruth has compromised by offering to buy her a battery powered TV. Ruth has her own reason for going, as she intends to put an end to the poaching problem Old Joe's way, with force. Back at the house, the bored Grace becomes intrigued with the cute Tommy, locked in the shed. Already having enjoyed shocking her country cousins with her racy clothes, language and attitude, Grace pulls out something that'll make everyone "feel real good" ... her stash of cocaine.
Shy People deals with people who were left behind by the culture half a century before -- but that still exist in great numbers, out there in the hinterlands. On a big screen or in widescreen HD, the show has a terrific visual impact and atmosphere to burn: our first shot in the wild is an aerial of a motorboat plowing its way into the unknown. All Diana knows to look for is a place called 'Sullivan Town' somewhere in the bayou. The cinematography of Chris Menges (Kes, Local Hero, The Killing Fields) combines with music by Tangerine Dream to transport us into remote swamp world. When Grace sneaks Tommy out of the tool shed to share a spooky conversation on a tree branch overhanging the river, we don't know if the thoughtless girl should be worrying about snakes, 'gators or the rough-hewn Tommy. The images and music combine for a tour-de-force sequence when the women boat back to the nearest town -- the closer they get to civilization, the more destruction of the environment they see, by heavy industry, neglect and rampant dumping.
Some reviewers in 1987 didn't buy Jill Clayburgh's Diana, a nervy and initially insensitive intruder in the swamp; is it believable that she'd really take off into the wilderness in city shoes and a skirt, smoking with a cigarette holder? Although Clayburgh made good movies in the interim, she had peaked with Mazurzky's 1978 An Unmarried Woman, which gave her a hard association with feminist themes. As Diana and Ruth grow to understand each other, Shy People generates a great deal of sympathy for both women. Perhaps the tensions are too schematic, in that each must deal with problem children. Diana comes from a place of choices and entitlement, and must go through an ordeal to understand that Ruth's life has often been a struggle for survival. 'Sullivan Town' is just a hardware store and a church across the river, both of which burned down years ago.
Barbara Hershey has the more powerful role. The flaky flower child of The Baby Maker, Boxcar Bertha and Dealing: Or the Berkeley-to-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues never lost her credibility as a serious actress, doing well in roles that might be considered exploitation throwaways, until things picked up in the middle 1980s. Her Ruth Sullivan is externally a cackling Mammy Yocum, dressed in a droopy hag's smock and wearing boots to navigate the mud. But Ruth immediately seems real, and becomes more complex as she fends off Diana's questions about the family history: why is Mike's face scratched out on all those family photos? Ruth's sobering story explains why Old Joe's most horrible act of abuse was necessary for survival. When Mark proves too weak to do confront the poacher, Ruth becomes an authentic 'pistol packing mama' to straighten things out. Konchalovsky has the unforgiving, morally rigid Ruth invade her son's nudie bar, like a female crusader following her prey into the underworld. A scene that should be ludicrous is probably the one that got Hershey the Cannes award. The great dialogue line, screamed in a smoky beer dive, is, "Now git your momma to stitch that up!"
I can't fault the acting. Clayburgh's changes of mood and expression, learning things about 'the family', are quite affecting. When faced with an ordeal she can summon up her own inner strength. Hershey transports us into another way of living altogether; it's as if she's hanging on in a frontier town in 1830. Martha Plimpton is impressively authentic in her portrayal of the coke-sniffing brat. She's as good here as she is as the perfect 'with it' girl friend to River Phoenix in the next year's Running on Empty. Mare Winningham has the thankless role, but gets in her moments as the bayou wife facing intimidation on all sides. The male members of the cast make smaller, but accurate impressions, coming off as the logical result of Ruth's contradictory impulses of mother love and manic denial of reality.
The rural fear and loathing of decadent consumer society becomes real in Shy People. When Candy's TV blares out ugly commercials at the Sullivan dinner table, we have no desire to see these people be taken out of their bayou element. The lawman tries to explain what 'shy' means, contrasting the Sullivans with the peaceful Cajuns of the bayou country. He says that 'shy' is basically wild. We can see that they live apart from average social values and customs, but they can also be just plain savage. Judging from Ruth's tales of what it took to live out there, Old Joe defended his property with deadly force.
Shy People has done a fairly good job of being invisible, thanks to its general unavailability. It's remembered in occasional 'movies that got away' pieces, and not all of the coverage is flattering. Taken at face value it might come off as a weird variation on L'il Abner. Some reviewers call it far-fetched, but I don't think so at all. The ending might ruffle feathers in that it appears to endorse a pat, Ruth Sullivan-like direct solution to Grace's drug problem. Indeed, I can see parents who have tried everything with drug problems with their kids having big differences with this scene. Yet American audiences readily accept movies with phony emotional or spiritual solutions for such things.
Filmmakers Konchalovsky, Brach, David and Menges briefly take Shy People in yet another direction, ushering the movie into the realm of spooky screen horror. Lost in the swamp as darkness falls (don't ask how), Diana is visited by a ghostly shadow from out of the mist, as Tangerine Dream's music score turns into an eerie wail. "Out in the bayou, sometimes a person sees what they wants to see." The visual motif takes us back to haunting imagery from older classics like Vampyr, with its fog-bound boatman waiting by his bell. I'd claim that the movie consciously or accidentally revisits the spirit of a pair of fairly obscure horror movies by the same man, Frank Wisbar. 2
Naturally, the weird 'phantom of the swamp' angle interests this reviewer, as it's not often one sees a quality film contrast the modernity of New York apartments and teenage coke users, with a baroque vision of swamp-bound traditions and ignorance, and then top it all with a powerful ghost story. I was knocked out by Shy People when it was new. I still have four or five different finished 1-sheets for the film, worked up and then abandoned by the Cannon art department. The review by Roger Ebert revealed that Shy People was betrayed by Cannon itself, when they sold off its distribution rights for a quick payday, instead of letting a big distributor (probably Warners) promote and open it properly.
I can't guarantee that you'll have the same superior experience I had with Shy People, but I'm recommending it just the same. I assume it will show on MGMHD again soon; perhaps it's available on some pay-per-view or streaming service. 3
1. In all fairness, the veteran filmmaker Mehahem Golan made money with The Delta Force (1986). But Over the Top (1987) is even more unwatchable than usual for a Sylvester Stallone movie, and Hanna's War (1988) and Mack the Knife (1989) haven't been heard from since.
2. Many fans of vintage horror know about Frank Wisbar, who in his native Germany (as Frank Wysbar) enjoyed a reputation as a good director. His Fährmann Maria (Ferryman Maria (1936) is a gloomy tale about a girl who runs a ferry, and must fight the figure of Death to save her lover. One of the lesser-known fugitives from Nazi
Germany, Wisbar went to work at the budget Hollywood studio PRC in 1941. In 1946, he directed a quasi-remake of the German hit for PRC called Strangler of the Swamp. Instead of a ghostly foe, the swamp menace is a weird figure played by Charles Middleton, a phantom who materializes out of the studio fog. For horror fans, the brief but powerful scene in Shy People may evoke a frisson of recognition.
3. I believe that, although MGM took possession of Shy People as part of the Cannon library, disc rights belong to Warner Home Video. That makes its release on Blu-ray doubtful anytime soon.
4. Note: While editing promos for Shy People I used tapes of early cuts of the movie, as work print reels became available for telecine. I remember much longer scenes set in the swamp, but sometimes they'd send us reels that hadn't even reached the rough cut stage. I thought that the first theatrical release had been shortened, removing the last scene in Ruth's house and ending with Grace and Diana on their way back to New York, up in the passenger jet. Is this possible or have I just imagined it? The version shown on MGMHD looks and sounds great -- love that Tangerine Dream music -- and seems to be intact. (The web has it scheduled for Sunday May 31, Tuesday June 16 and Monday, June 29 -- that's 2015.)
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.