Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Pig Hunt (2008)

Written by: Robert Mailer Anderson, Zack Anderson
Directed by: James Isaac
Travis Aaron Wade as John Hickman
Tina Huang as Brooks
Howard Johnson, Jr. as Ben
Jason Foster as Jake

I don't know why pigs aren't used as monsters in more movies. They can be goddamn terrifying. My uncle is a pig farmer, and I can remember when we were little my cousins and I were always warned to stay away from the boar pen. When most people think of pigs, they think of cute little market pigs (which can still mess you up pretty good in the right circumstances), but these were big mean breeding boars that probably weighed six or seven hundred pounds and still had their tusks. We were warned to stay away from them not because they might trample us, or they might bite us, but that they might eat us alive. Pigs don't fuck around.

There are plenty of movies that have pigs in them, of course. Hannibal has trained hunting pigs, Paul Naschy's Human Beasts has some pig violence in it, and of course there's the movie called Pigs, which actually has very little pig action and is boring as hell. As far as I know, though, there are only a small handful of movies where pigs are the featured monster. There's the French eco-horror movie Prey (which could have done with more pig action), the South Korean black comedy Chawz (which could have done with being a better movie), the brilliant Australian flick Razorback (one of my all-time favorite horror movies), and tonight's movie.

Pig Hunt is a close second for the best killer pig movie out there, and when the only thing leading you is Razorback, that's high praise indeed. For those of you who have already seen Pig Hunt, you might wonder why I speak so highly of it when just a few sentences ago I was complaining about Prey not having enough pigs in it. After all, the monster hog in Pig Hunt only shows up for the last ten minutes or so of movie. Well, you almost never see the titular beast in Razorback either. Telling a good story with the rest of the movie makes all the difference in the world while you're waiting for the monster to show up.

John, his artist girlfriend Brooks, and his three friends Ben (who looks and sounds so much like Keith David I was surprised to learn they're not related), Wayne and Quincy, are traveling from San Francisco to a remote rural town in Northern California called Boonville to stay at his uncle's cabin and hunt wild pigs (which really do plague that part of the country ever since they were introduced to the area by Russian immigrants). It's a little unclear as to the military status of the group. John wears dog tags, but they're his uncle's (although it took listening to the DVD commentary for me to figure that out). Wayne wears one of those digitized-looking camouflage jackets that are currently in use, but there were no name, rank or unit patches to signify it was anything but a surplus store purchase. Ben, on the other hand, wears head to toe camo, but of a dated variety not in use any more. He's definitely wearing it just because he thinks it makes him look cool, which makes his, “Semper Fi” salute and donation of a dollar to a homeless Viet Nam vet petting a dead puppy really make you root for the pig.

If that and the opening credits playing over the painting “Liberation of Baghdad” by Sandow Birk didn't tip you off, this flick has a very strong anti-war thread running through it, specifically aimed at the Bush administration's monumental clusterfuck in Iraq. Indeed, the basic synopsis of the plot is a bunch of unprepared and under-equipped people with far too much confidence for their own good dive into a situation they don't fully understand and things go horrifically wrong. Sound familiar? It's only been on the news almost every night for the last thirteen years and we're still cleaning up the mess.

Anyway, the first hint of trouble comes when the group stop for gas at a little convenience store (run by blues legend Charlie Musselwhite, in the first of two great musical cameos!). Also making use of the facilities are the nameless Hippie Stranger and a few members of his harem of dope farming cult girls. When the Stranger pulls a huge gurhka blade to save Brooks from a rattlesnake. John shoots the snake with his crossbow before the Stranger can dispatch it, and of course Ben takes the knife as a threat and pulls his big macho Dirty Harry gun to show what a badass he is. In the first of several times American swinging-dick gun culture gets cut off at the knees, the Stranger claims his blade is never drawn without tasting blood. Ben retorts that his gun isn't either, to which the Stranger replies by slicing his arm open, wiping the blood on their car window, and drawing a smiley face in it. Ben holsters his weapon un-blooded and they hightail it the hell out of there.

Eventually they find John's uncle's cabin, which was clearly home to a mind broken by PTSD for a long time before being abandoned. In addition to pig bones and wreckage of hunting gear everywhere, the walls are plastered with articles on the Iraq war and graffiti written in what looks to be blood, with slogans like FALSE FLAG. The place is in no condition for visitors, so they camp in the yard for the night and wake to be greeted by two locals named Jake and Ricky.

Now, the obvious thing to want to call these two is rednecks, but this doesn't take place in the south. One could argue that redneck is a state of mind and that people from Northern California could be rednecks just as well as people from Texas, but producer and co-writer Robert Mailer is insistent on not calling them that. Being a Boonville native (much of the movie was shot in the woods near his home), he says in the commentary that after a generation of their young men came back broken from the war to find the economy had gone to shit and all their jobs were gone, there wasn't much for any of them to do but grow dope and smoke dope and get drunk and shoot pigs. As with any impoverished rural area, a lot of the population live pretty rough and are very self-sufficient when it comes to living off the land. Given how much shit they give John and his friends about serving in the war, it's obvious these two have really seen the violence Ben idolizes in his ignorance, and they don't have the time of day for false machismo. The only one of the group they seem to like at all at first is Quincy, the foppish foodie and camp cook. He doesn't pretend to be tough and he makes good coffee, which is good enough for Jake and Ricky.

Since everyone is out in the woods for the same reason—pig hunting—the two groups join together, and as they trek along we get to know Jake and Ricky a little better. Sure, they may be tweaky alcoholic coke-heads, but it quickly becomes clear that the Deliverance vibe we get from their first appearance was a ruse. They're just some good ol' boys out in the woods looking to get wasted and shoot some pigs. The first attempt goes pear shaped rather quickly, when Jake blows a pig call and they're ambushed by rather more pigs than they expected. Wayne gets kneecapped by a stray tusk, and when the chaos finally settles down, they only got one pig to show for it. Just before Ben can make the killing shot with his revolver, Ricky steps in and hacks the pig to death with a California hook (a rather innocuous nickname for a grappling iron duct-taped to a baseball bat). “Kill guns are for pussies,” he sneers.

As Ricky field dresses the pig, he discovers something alarming. It doesn't have the layer of fatty armor under the skin that most wild pigs have. In fact, aside from the sizable tusks and it already being as large as an adult pig, anatomically it's barely more than a piglet. This, coupled with the ominous signs posted around the forest reading “Death Walks On All Fours” and Quincy's discovery of a trio of half-eaten emus (Apparently there were several real hippie communes around Boonville that raised emus for meat, but the birds got loose and now run wild in the woods along with the pigs. It's not unusual in that area to be awakened in the middle of the night by an emu pecking at your door. They wanted emus stalking the group like the Velociraptors in Jurassic Park as yet another threat, but it proved to be too expensive.), suggest there may be some truth to the legend of the Ripper, a 3,000 pound monster boar that John's uncle had become obsessed with before he died (we know he was actually eaten by the thing because we saw it happen in the opening scene).

Things keep getting worse when they stumble across a huge marijuana plantation. Jake and Ricky unload a bunch of big garbage bags and start picking. John objects (why he doesn't just walk away and leave them to it I have no idea), and when Ricky tries to shoot him with his own crossbow, Ben finally makes some use of that gun he keeps waving around and puts a slug in Ricky's chest.

Jake runs back home to fetch the rest of his clan, and the chase is on. Quincy is killed by the hillbillies, but Ben is saved by the intervention of the Hippie Stranger. At first he thinks he really lucked out, being nursed by a bunch of pretty nekkid cult girls who ply him with dope and boobies. You can see the questions start to form in his mind when they start drawing symbols on him with wet ashes. And then he gets led out into big pen out back where Wayne is tied to a wall with one of his legs chewed off, and whispers to Ben, “It's eating me.” John and Brooks find the hippie compound not long after, followed closely by Jake, and then the manure really hits the fan. I mean, the movie's called Pig Hunt. Did you really think the Ripper wasn't going to be real?

Thankfully for practical effects fans, the Ripper is real both senses of the word. Not a single CG shot was used to bring the monster pig to life. He's a 100% physical effect, combining two guys in a big furry body suit stuck together like a pantomime horse (admittedly not entirely effective even in the brief glimpse we get of it) and an animatronic head that, while not exactly realistic in the same way that Bruce the shark didn't look exactly like a great white, is expressive and nasty looking and fantastic.

I said before that Charlie Musselwhite was the first of two great musical cameos. The second is the insane backwoods preacher at the head of Jake and Ricky's clan, played by none other than Les Claypool. Les happened to be walking through the building where the special effects guys were sculpting the giant pig and got curious, as anyone would. When he found out they were making it for a monster movie, he got excited and said he had to be in it. When Les Claypool asks to be in your movie, you damn well say yes. He also did a great theme tune called “The Boonville Stomp”, as well as a lot of the incidental music. It's this bizarre, unique and totally perfect music that, for me anyway, helps the movie to stand apart from the crowd, much like Russell Mulcahy's music video-inspired visual aesthetic did for Razorback. Without either thing, you'd still have a great horror movie, but it's that extra ingredient that really makes it special.

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