Friday, July 06, 2007

Swamp Country

1966's SWAMP COUNTRY was filmed on location in the Okefenokee near Waycross, Georgia and probably never played a theater or drive-in north of the Mason-Dixon. Regional filmmaking used to be quite common back in the days before Hollywood soaked up all the theater screens and independent distributors were still able to peddle their low-budget pictures from town to town.

SWAMP COUNTRY toplines a middle-aged country-western singer: Rex Allen, who played singing cowboys in a bunch of Republic B-westerns in the 1950s. Strangely, Allen doesn't do any singing in the movie, leaving the many musical interludes to another country star. Baker Knight, who made music history by writing hit songs like "Lonesome Town" (a hit for Ricky Nelson) and "The Wonder of You" (Elvis took it into the Top Ten), stars as Baker Knight, a slacker with a penchant for singing songs and getting into trouble. He's also dating Nora Cox (Carole Gilbert), who can't decide between the roguish Baker or the straight-arrow town sheriff Jim (Allen). Adding to our fun is the fact that Gilbert is supposedly playing a young woman, but oddly looks older than Sue Casey (THE BEACH GIRLS AND THE MONSTER), the actress playing her alcoholic mom. At one point, Casey tells Allen that he's "old enough to be (Nora's) daddy," although siblings seem more plausible from their appearances.

SWAMP COUNTRY is all over the place during its 93 minutes. The main story concerns Dave Wetzel (David DeLie), a guest at the local motel accused of strangling the hotsy-totsy chick staying in the room next door. Panicky, he overpowers sheriff Mel (Lyle Waggoner, later to star in THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW and WONDER WOMAN)--and, no, I don't know why the town has two sheriffs--and escapes into the swamp. While Jim, Mel and their posse roam through the swamp on Dave's tail, the shiftless Baker finds himself the target of an Italian bootlegger (Vince Barbi, who has either the thickest real accent or the worst fake accent I've ever heard) who wants to cut his fingers off.

Meanwhile, Nora's ten-year-old sister (Marian Patrick) gets lost in the swamp chasing her damn dog, one of the posse is eaten by a bear (!), Dave saves the little girl from a panther attack (!), Baker sings more tunes in his Johnny Cash baritone, and Nora eventually solves the murder using a trick right out of a SCOOBY-DOO episode. No stunt doubling is used during the big fight at the end (or stunt choreography, for that matter).

I liked SWAMP COUNTRY a lot, though I'm not going so far as to call it a good film. It certainly isn't a Hollywood production, which is to its benefit, as the locations, accents and colloquialisms are authentically sweaty and colorful. Not only is it the first film for Waggoner (who screen-tested for Batman the year he shot this), but also for character actor Ted Gehring, whom you've seen in a zillion TV shows over the years.

Knight only appeared in this film, and while he isn't much of an actor, he is a heckuva singer, and it's interesting that his musical success was as a songwriter, rather than as a performer. I love the title song, which plays over a series of POV shots of the mysterious swamp. Michael Terresco's original score is pretty crazy, often just a plink-plank of a guitar that changes in tempo according to the on-screen action.

SWAMP COUNTRY represents something of a lost subgenre of exploitation movie, the Southern fried melodrama, which has nearly fallen extinct, much like the drive-ins that once upon a time played hundreds of them.

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