If there’s anything we need right now while most of us are quarantined at home or working an essential job, it’s escape. We have access to absolutely everything created with the touch of a finger, but we’re struggling with boredom nonetheless. Since humans cannot survive on Tiger King alone, many are asking for guidance on what to watch. Before you watch The Office for the sixteenth time or claim that you’re finally going to tackle The Wire (you’re not, no matter how many times I’ve said you should), maybe it’s time we take a look in our own backyards.
Few states are as cinematic as Texas, yet movies tend to focus on West Texas, Austin, Dallas, border towns or nameless Texas towns where chainsaw-wielding cannibals live. It seems like East Texas is the “red- headed stepchild” of Texas cinema. Still, our region Texas has been featured in more films than you’d think, and I have watched all of them (as far as I know). Here is the first of my two installments exploring the small but incredibly rich world of East Texas cinema.
Of all of the movies on this list, Bernie is possibly the most well known. Directed by Richard Linklater, the film tells the true story of Bernie Tiede, played here by Jack Black, an assistant funeral director who manages to befriend and later murder the town grump, Marjorie Nugent (Shirley Maclaine). Set and partially shot in Carthage, Bernie is maybe of one the most accessible entries on the list. In terms of style and story structure, it’s mainstream. It’s also safe, and clean(ish) enough to watch with your grandmother. It remains controversial for some Carthage residents, who see this movie as making light of murder and making fun of East Texas locals. The film pretends to not take sides, but by the end, you get the feeling that Bernie got an unfair trial.
Although exploring murder, the film is a comedy. Much of the humor comes from the real-life Carthage residents who appear on screen and deliver commentary to help move the story along. It’s sort of like a Greek chorus but with southern accents. Mix that with the absurdity of the real events, and it almost has to be a comedy. Black and Maclaine give stellar performances alongside Longview native Matthew McConaughey, who plays District Attorney Danny “Buck” Davidson, a man whose devotion to law and order makes him just as eccentric as everyone else. Bernie is an absolute must-see.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5. Available on Amazon Prime.
For every toe Linklater has dipped into the commercial side of filmmaking (School of Rock, Bad News Bears), he always loves taking riskier moves that end up beloved. Perhaps his riskiest is a non-documentary, three-hour film focusing on the adolescence of a young man growing up in Texas over the course of 12 years. Boyhood offers a glimpse into the life of Mason (Ellar Coltraine) from age six to 18, the son of a mother (Patricia Arquette) trying to rebuild her life and a free-spirited father (Ethan Hawke) trying to grow up himself.
Boyhood tells the story of growing up more fully than films that were conceived and completed in a shorter timespan. While much of the film takes place in Austin and Houston, the film does venture into East Texas during a sequence when a relative gives Mason his first gun and his first Bible. In this 12-year project, we see these characters actually grow up. With its mix of humor, tragedy and a fair bit of nostalgia for our own childhoods, Boyhood is a shining example of why Linklater is not only one of the best filmmakers from the Lone Star State but in the industry as a whole.
Rating: 4 1/2 stars out of 5. Available on Prime and Vudu.
BUBBA HO-TEP ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Some of you think that Elvis Presley died in August 1977. That’s what they want you to think. The truth is that Elvis switched his identity with an impersonator to go back to the simple life, and after an accident, he wound up in an East Texas nursing home. This is not me going insane. This is the plot of the 2004 horror comedy Bubba Hotep. Based on a story by Nacogdoches native Joe R. Lansdale, the film follows Elvis (Evil Dead’s Bruce Campbell), or as they all know him, Sebastian Haff. He is in the middle of an existential crisis when his fellow residents begin to face a very real crisis, a lethal one: a lost mummy has found its way into the nursing home and begins “sucking out the souls” of the patients. In order for the forces of evil to be stopped, Elvis teams up with fellow resident President John F. Kennedy (Ossie Davis) to save the day.
What sounds like the insane ramblings of a madman, Bubba Hotep is a very charming and funny romp. Few films can truly become instant cult classics, but this one absolutely qualifies. Fans of Campbell, specifically those who know him from his performances in Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy or the criminally underrated sci-fi western The Adventures of Briscoe County Jr., will no doubt love this. This probably won’t endear itself to Elvis fans, but come on, it’s probably better than say, Clambake or Viva Las Vegas.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5. Available on Prime, Vudu, and PlutoTV.
COLD IN JULY ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️1/2
Speaking of Joe Lansdale, not only is he a master of the absurd, but he’s very adept at suspense. Case in point, the 2014 neo-noir Cold In July. The story, based just in “East Texas,” follows Dane (Michael C. Hall), a family man whose world is shaken when he is forced to kill a burglar to protect his family. Haunted by his actions, things are made worse when he finds out that the man he killed was the felonious son of Russel (Sam Shepard), a recently paroled convict. After Russel begins slowly tormenting Dane, he is inevitably caught by the police trying to flee to Mexico. Where the happy ending should be is just the beginning of a mystery that forces Dane and Russel to work together, along with private detective Jim Bob, played to perfection by Don Johnson.
Cold in July is co-written and directed by Jim Mickle, best known for the post-apocalyptic vampire noir Stake Land and directing episodes of the series Hap & Leonard, which is also based on a series of Lansdale penned novels. Cold in July is a pitch-perfect, edge-of-your-seat, Southern-fried thriller — an under-the-radar gem. It balances incredible tension with gallows humor and some incredibly satisfying action. If I have to knock it for anything, I would deduct points for Hall’s incredibly distracting, bad haircut. It’s as bad as the rest of the movie is amazing.
Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5. Available on IFC Unlimited.
DAYLIGHT’S END ⭐️1/2
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. It’s the apocalypse, everyone you know is dead, you have to fight to survive every day against the very creatures that caused the end of the world and may have done something to the most important person in your life. Daylight’s End is the 2016 version of this story. Set in Dallas, with parts filmed in Tyler, the story follows Rourke (Johnny Strong), the brooding, haunted loner trapped in a post-apocalyptic world taken over by… vampires? Hey, that’s a change! Rourke teams up with a group of survivors, led by Lance “I will do your movie for $5 and a sandwich” Henriksen, who have found a means of escape. But night is falling, and if they don’t move before the sun sets, they’ll have to fight and… I think by this point in the sentence, you’ve played the entire movie in your head.
Directed by William Kaufman, Daylight’s End is a fairly well executed but painfully rote, low budget thriller with sci-fi-grade special effects and a done-to-death plot. The change from zombies to vampires was nice, but that still doesn’t mean this hasn’t been seen a thousand times already. It’s the kind of story where you know what’s going to happen an hour before anyone on screen does. It also never becomes laughably bad, so it can’t be enjoyed on a “so bad it’s good” level. It’s just there.
Rating: 1.5 stars out of 5. Available on Prime and Hulu.
EATEN ALIVE ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Tobe Hooper became the mack daddy of redneck horror with his groundbreaking 1974 film The Texas Chainsaw (sic) Massacre, a work that set new standards in the genre and became what Joe Bob Briggs declared to be “the greatest movie ever made.” Hooper followed this masterpiece with the 1977 movie Eaten Alive. Eaten Alive has everything: serial killers, rednecks, blood thirsty crocodiles, murder hotels, prostitutes and Freddy Kruger (Robert Englund) before he was Freddy Kruger. Like Hooper’s previous effort, it’s loosely based on a true story. Very loosely. The film is the story of Judd, played by Neville Brand who was best known as Al Capone in the TV series The Untouchables. Judd owns the Starlight Motel, an East Texas dive where you check in, but you won’t check out, probably because Judd has fed you to his pet crocodile.
Eaten Alive is not the greatest movie ever made, and I am sure Joe Bob Briggs would agree with me. It does have a weird charm to it that lovers of 70s exploitation cinema will enjoy and will cause “normies” to run away screaming. This is far from Hooper’s best work, which includes the original Chainsaw, its underrated first sequel, the 1979 TV movie Salem’s Lot, and (depending on if you believe he actually directed it or not) the Steven Spielberg produced classic Poltergeist. It’s not essential viewing, but any list of East Texas cinema would be incomplete without at least one killer redneck movie, and let’s be honest, it could have been far worse than this one.
Rating: 3 stars out of 5. Available on Prime.
THE GREAT DEBATERS ⭐️⭐️⭐️1/2
What would any list of films be without the underdog story? Sure, chances are you’re fairly certain that they’re going to go the distance, or all the way, or whatever the mantra might be. The question for each one is how well the story is told. The Great Debaters, a film I almost missed when making this list, tells the story of the Wiley College debate team from Marshall, Texas that overcame the odds to take on Harvard University in the 1930s. Led by their coach, Melvin Tolson (Denzel Washington), the team gets lessons in not just debate but in life, love, racism and how to stand against adversity.
The film was directed by Washington, his second behind the camera, and produced by Oprah Winfrey. The Great Debaters is a safe underdog story but one that absolutely needed a big screen adaptation. I wasn’t exactly on the edge of my seat for the climax of the film, but for me, the heart of the film is everything leading up to it. It is heartwarming, tense, well-acted and has some dynamite dialogue. It doesn’t reinvent any wheels in cinema, but it is very much worth your time.
Rating: 3 1/2 stars out of 5. Available on Prime and Vudu.
Stay tuned next week for part two of our East Texas movie tour. Until then, happy watching from home.
John Baggett is an East Texas native, raised in Chandler before moving to Tyler. He is a member of the advertising sales team for the Tyler Morning Telegraph. He has written movie and theatre reviews for the Tyler Morning Telegraph, EGuide Magazine, and the Athens Daily Review. He is also a board member at Tyler Civic Theatre where he made his acting debut in the play The Disappearance of Maud Crawford. He recently produced Dream Girls and Mamma Mia and will be one of the producers of West Side Story and Breakfast at Tiffany’s for the upcoming season, COVID permitting.
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