Before the found footage craze hit horror, we had endless “me-too” films being done in the Grindhouse style. And like most fads (like found footage), it was done to death by indie filmmakers. Don’t get me wrong, it was a cool concept and harkened back to the days of old, but hinging your film on a particular style can only take you so far. Enter director Joaquin Montalvan’s Legend Of The Hillbilly Butcher, which takes on the Grindhouse style while also paying homage to Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Sounds like a natural fit, but is it style over substance?
Carl Henry Jessup (Paul E. Respass) is a backwoods hunter whose local delicacy amongst his neighbors is serving up tresspassers (aka people). In fact, his late daddy left Carl the same butcher knife he used in his own cannibalistic activities. The only people whom Carl calls family are his half sister Rae Lynn (Theresa Holly), and best friend Billy Wayne (Chris Shumway). Carl misses his parents after their tragic murder-suicide. He tries to summon them to live again with the help a demon named Sam Bakoo. Unfortunately, Carl’s soul isn’t worth the price, and in turn sets off more trouble for the cannibal.
Might as well start off with the film’s Grindhouse claim, which honestly is pretty damn impressive. The film really does look like it’s been through the ringer, sporting a faded, scratched up and otherwise ugly-looking picture. Unlike some indie productions which basically take the quick and easy guide in Adobe After Effects, Montalvan put forth a real effort in making the image look bad in a good way, while not phoning it in and doing it with the standard default settings. It really does give the film character. The same goes for the gore effects. Granted, they’re done on the cheap, but the post effects on the image help to mask this and look better than they normally would.
On the acting front, Paul E. Respass does an adequate job as Carl Jessup. Respass was able to take an obviously flat character script-wise and give it some depth, particularly with the demon subplot. Speaking of which, casting the scrawny-looking Allen East as Sam Bakoo gave the role a bit more weight (I see the irony in that) than if it were played by a more ordinary person. Theresa Holly is a treat as Carl’s half sister Rae Lynn. She’s very charming in the role, and does give the character much-needed sympathy in a film where the majority of it’s characters don’t exactly lend themselves to it.
Remember that “style over substance” quip? Yeah, unfortunately that’s the case for Hillbilly Butcher. Beneath the cool look of the film lies a script that has a serious pacing problem. Long dialogue sequences punctuated by long pauses, long stalking sequences and a just plain long runtime make this more of a chore to sit through than anything. When things do happen, the low budget origins sneak up and disappoint us with a real lack of gore. And that’s another problem with this film, as it doesn’t go all-out with it’s concept of a cannibalistic hillbilly. If the concept was explored and developed further, rather than going the artsy route with the dream sequences involving Bakoo, it probably would’ve been more exciting.
As it stands, Legend Of The Hillbilly Butcher is a missed opportunity. True, it does an excellent job of establishing a Grindhouse look and feel that many low budget films fail to grasp, but it suffers with not fully embracing it’s concept, including it’s painfully slow pace. It’s a shame, since Montalvan, his cast and his crew really seemed to be fully invested in creating a great film that attempts to pay homage to Tobe Hooper’s classic. Hopefully Montalvan will be able to put more into his next film than post-production work.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer for the majority of the film purposely attempts to replicate the grungy look of an old Grindhouse film as much as possible. The shots that aren’t purposely fiddled with in post sport strong colour saturation and fairly good detail. As for the rest of the film, it really does look like an old VHS tape of a film that wasn’t in the best of condition in the first place. As such, colours are faded, dirt and scratches cover the image, as well as out of focus shots and in some instances the image has a slight shake to it. Very impressive post-production job!
Unfortunately, the Dolby Digital 2.0 track is a sore spot. The overall loudness of the film is very unbalanced. Normal conversations are sometimes hard to hear, but when characters shout or scream, the levels are blown out and it’s distorted. Ambient effects also suffer, as they’re either too quiet or too loud, making their additions in post pretty obvious. What makes things worse is that the disc doesn’t come with any subtitles. It’s tolerable, but just keep your remote handy for quick volume adjustments.
First up is Gutting Da Hillbilly Butcher, an hour-long making-of doc. Consisting of talking head interviews with cast and crew, with director Joaquin Montalvan doing much of the talking. Topics include everything from the origins of the film, how the look of the film came about, casting choices, how the cast went about preparing for certain scenes, sound design, effects shots, how to morgue breathe (?!) and more. It’s pretty in-depth for a low budget film of this nature, though the continued use of the filters used in the film on the raw footage is kind of annoying.
Following that is a six minute short film Straight Razor, which was Montalvan had filmed prior to starting on Hillbilly Butcher. Shot in a similar Grindhouse-style to Hillbilly Butcher, the film is pretty surreal and has some weird imagery.
Horror Happens Interview is an 29 minute candid interview from the Home Grown Radio NJ show, Horror Happens. The host of the show, Jay K aka Jason Kolucki, interviews Montalvan with actors Paul E. Respass and Theresa Holly. The group cover different topics from the making-of doc, including Montalvan’s love of horror, differences in the script from the actual film, inspirations for the characters and more.
Rounding out the extras are three trailers for the film.
I’d have to say that I’m impressed with the effort put into the extras for this film, even if the film itself isn’t the greatest.