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Saturday, 18 June 2011

Roger Corman Blogathon: The Intruder - 1962

What is it that makes a film truly horrifying?
Is it the cheap shocks, over dramatic sound effects and over abundance of gore that plague the majority of recent horror films? I don't think so; I believe it is either achieved through complete mastery of the films atmosphere, thus making it perfectly unsettling as is the case with the masterful The Shining.
Or is it achieved when a film takes a look at the ugly side of human nature, the darker side, but the side we all know exists.

The Intruder is a film that shows the darker side of human nature, the mob mentality, the ignorance fuelled prejudice, the fear which eventually leads to violence.
There are few characters that can be called "good", some are just less racist than others, and the film does not have a particularly "happy" conclusion, but more on that later.
It is a slightly depressing film, but a powerful one that is brutally honest in it's depiction of the prevalent attitudes towards racial integration in the South at the time.

 Racism in the South of the US is a subject that has come up time and again throughout Cinema, from The Birth of a Nation to Mississippi Burning. As a subject, it is rooted firmly in American Culture, this doesn't mean that racism is inherent only to the US, it is in every country. But in the US it a subject that has been fought over for years, there has been a Civil War and an ensuing division in opinions between North and South. 

This film takes place in the late 50's - early 60's in a small Southern town called Caxton. A stranger arrives in town, he is effortlessly charming and affable, soon he has made many high placed friends who will help him with his task. This task he says is "social reform". He has been sent by a society in the North, to find out who opposes racial integration, in other words the court order granting Blacks permission to go to the same school as the White children. He soon discovers that not one White person in the town actually agrees with this court order, but there is still division amongst the inhabitants, some have decided to vehemently oppose integration whereas some go along with it despite their prejudices because "it's the law now".

He rapidly comes into contact with some of the more influential residents and easily convinces them to support his cause. With their help he makes a strong and defiant stand against racial integration, saying that if no one in the town is in favour of it, it should not be imposed as they do live in a democracy after all. He also takes advantage of the hatred between North and South, by accusing the Northern "nigger lovers" of seeking to turn the South over to the Black Man, who if such things continued would eventually rule the world. Furthermore, he capitalises upon the peoples general bigotry, by claiming this integration program had been largely thought up by the Jews, especially the Communist ones. 
As I'm sure you can see his case relies almost entirely on the ignorance of the people he is trying to convince. For that is where racism and bigotry stem from, Ignorance. But as I said previously, fear has a large part to play in these people attitudes towards Blacks. And the Intruder, the instigator of trouble uses this fear of the Blacks, fear of the unknown brought about by ignorance, to stir up violence against the Black community.
This might seen a bit of a stretch of one's imagination, to be expected to believe that a whole community can be brought to the boil by a single man they know nothing about, but thankfully Shatner's performance is incredibly charismatic. He is brilliantly unlikeable and pathetic but it's not hard to believe that he could have convinced all these people for he was by all appearances an educated man and these people were very uneducated.  

But throughout much of the film, I was wondering if the Intruder really was a true racist. Was he just exploiting the current situation and the people general mindset to gain power over them? Wouldn't he have sided with them and stirred them up no matter what the cause was? After all, his main ambition was power, he seized the perfect opportunity and then brought everyone's prejudiced feelings to the surface, feelings they had been burying due to the fact that integration had been ordered by law. He is just the catalyst that causes all the resentment and fear to surface and take the form of violence.
And yet he is young and inexperienced. He thinks he will be able to control the mob he has created, but as with all such things it gets out of hand and eventually turns on him.
An interesting subplot that runs throughout the film's length but may seem rather unimportant up until the very end is the Intruder's relation with a certain Sam Griffin, an salesman passing through the town who remains detached from the events right up until the climax. And yet he plays a crucial role for he is the only character to see through the Intruder's designs and to eventually reveal his true nature to the town's people.
For he was indeed doing all this entirely for his personal gain, manipulating the populace so as to gain power over them.
At the end of the film it is shown that the town's people, however violent and prejudiced they had been, were ultimately guilty only of being ignorant. However the Intruder was guilty of so much more, he knew the truth, he was educated and knew very well he was convincing the people of completely fabricated facts and yet he mislead then right up to the end. So as horrible as the people seem at times, the true villain can only be the Intruder himself.

 In 1962, Corman made 4 films, The Intruder being one of them. The others were named Premature Burial, Tales of Terror and Tower of London.
He is not known as the King of B-movies for nothing, much of his work is made up of trashy films shot over a couple of days on a very tight budget. All but The Intruder were exploitation films, but only one failed to make a profit, that's right, his only thought provoking and truly great film was the only one that lost him money.
A Young Roger Corman
This in itself is rather saddening, it must have come as quite a blow for Corman and I can imagine what he must have thought of his audiences who would go and see a film full of monsters, violence and nudity and yet couldn't be bothered to see his finest work.
After this Corman returned to his exploitation films and never tried something similar again.
That said, in this film Corman doesn't stray far from his B-movie roots. It was shot on a very tight budget, but fortunately it was shot on location which adds a much needed element of realism to the proceedings. And despite the tiny budget, Corman is too limited creatively, still managing to create some very nice shots and thrilling sequences such as the setting up of the burning cross.

Charles Beaumont, writer of several episodes of the Twilight Zone, adapted the script from his 1959 novel of the same name. He also wrote the screenplay for The Mask Of Red Death, a classic Corman B-movie that I haven't seen yet.
The screenplay is particularly excellent; it's what makes the film great in fact. Sure Shatner is great, as are some members of the supporting cast, and Corman directs competently, but it's the screenplay that makes this such an unforgettable film. He manages to avoid the red neck stereotypes that abound in such films rather well by showing that they are not exactly villains. The screenplay also handles some very sensitive issues such as when a young Black man is accused of raping a young White woman, very well. It could have been a crude and overly preachy take on the events in the South at those times, but instead it's a very fine film.

What I found to be very intriguing is the nature of the main character; of course it becomes evident that he is a pathetic megalomaniac with visions of grandeur. But throughout the film he claims to be a envoy of the so called "Patrick Henry Society", no one ever really confirms the existence of this society at all, they all follow him blindly as soon as he mentions his supposedly high connections. It could well be possible that he represented no such society.
His incitement of the inhabitants of the town was done purely for personal gain, but as he was undeniably a skilled and very convincing orator, no one seemed to question the fact that he came from a society in the North. This may not sound very convincing in today's modern and cynical age of the internet, but I believe that such a thing could easily have occurred in the late 50's.

Anyway, I mentioned previously that the films conclusion is far from being a "happy ending", well it might actually seem to be that way at first as the innocent victim is saved and the instigator of all this trouble is overthrown. But upon reflection, one realises that this is far from being the end of this unhappy tale. The Blacks and the Whites didn't dance in the streets after it was over, they returned to their homes, just as wary of each other as they had been before. Everything has returned to a relative status quo, as it had been before the instigator arrived, but this status quo is far from being a pleasant one. 

Ultimately, this film is a rather horrifying look at the harm a manipulative and quite frankly evil man can do with the power he has over ignorant people. 
I would highly recommend it as it's a fine example of a terrific film made on a minuscule budget. very inspiring for aspiring film makers like me, especially since Corman avoided the usual nudity and violence of such now budget exploitation films and made something truly thought provoking.

Ironically, while Corman was shooting this film in a small town called East Prairie, Missouri, the local people objected to the films portrayal of the racism that had taken place there and he, along with his crew, was eventually thrown out of the town on the grounds of being a communist. For naturally there is no better way to protest against being portrayed as bigoted racists than accusing someone of being a communist and then persecuting them for it.

Luckily Corman and his crew used guerilla style film making to complete their film, which turned out to be a masterpiece of low budget film making and one of the best films ever made on the rather controversial subject.

The film is extremely hard to find, but should you want to watch it you can find it Here in it's entirety on Youtube, for free of course. 

This was written as part of Nathanael Hood's Roger Corman Blogathon hosted at Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear.

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