Written by / 10/07/2014 / No comments / , , , , , , , , ,

BODY COUNT NIGHTMARE OF WALTER HILL'S SOUTHERN COMFORT

1981 rating: ****1/2
According to the bonus feature documentary from the Shout Factory Blu-Ray/DVD combo, the creators and actors of SOUTHERN COMFORT have different ideas on the movie’s significance and origin…

RIP Powers Boothe 5/15/17
While the actors (especially Peter Coyote) are convinced it’s a take on Vietnam, the filmmaker, Walter Hill, and his co-writer David Giler, believe the film’s about… well… a squad of National Guardsman who are hunted by evil Cajuns in the swamps of Louisiana… And in this 1981 cult classic, what you see is pretty much what you get.

But SOUTHERN COMFORT is much more of a military style horror than anything else... Liken to an outdoor body count slasher flick, each character has a particular fate they either deserve or are simply begging for: That includes Fred Ward as the nefarious Reece, whose cold, piercing eyes can chew through granite. Or Lewis Smith as his young white trash sidekick, Stuckey, igniting trouble by firing blanks at a group of Cajuns after the Guardsman “borrow” their boats for a swampy shortcut.

We're gonna need bigger boats
Then there’s Peter Coyote playing the group’s Sergeant, a hardnosed decision-maker just as lost as everyone else. To provide a spoiler wouldn’t be kind, but Sgt. Poole is the Janet Leigh of the movie. His exit forces the group to reluctantly rely on an inept second-in-command, Casper, played by character actor Les Lannom, exuding a perfect combination of desperately intrepid and pathetically oblivious, ultimately allowing our two main heroes, played by Keith Carradine and Powers Boothe, to slowly but surely step up to the plate.

And here, in a selection from a full interview on SOUTHERN COMFORT, Les Lannom discusses one scene where the men scramble for their lives after being tipped over in canoes. 

Les Lannom
LES LANNOM (CASPER): The camera and sound were on boats and were there in the water with us. There was no marked difference in the number of takes required to cover the stuff. You always have cover shot from the distance and that is followed by a number of closer shots from various angles and covering varying numbers of cast members. 

Les Lannom
Walter just took these shots until he felt he had the scene and action sufficiently covered. He just shot until it was right, and Walter seemed to be very good at knowing when to stop and move on to the next shot.

The one significant problem we encountered was losing a very expensive M-60 machine gun in forty feet or so of damned cold water. They looked for it but never found it. We were all wearing wet suits, so none of us were in danger of drowning (you couldn't sink!); and the most difficult part about it was making it look like it was a desperate situation. Fun stuff, though!
 

Borrowing
And when we finally waded ashore and filmed the rest of the scene, we couldn't wear the wet-suit booties. Had to wear the combat boots, as our feet would be seen. Everybody's feet were aching from soaking in the water. The water was cold (this was fairly early in the shoot) and the air temp was about 36 degrees. The socks were not much insulation when they got wet. All of us parked our feet up next to some kerosene heaters to try to thaw them out. And a little later, because this was an ongoing problem, Keith Carradine found out that he could peel off the sole from the booties and stuff them into a slightly over-sized combat boot and make the situation bearable. All of us followed suit, and the rest of the shoot was a lot more comfortable... If you discount the fact that every morning we arrived at the set and had to put on still-freezing damp wet-suits that had hung all night in our un-heated dressing rooms in the honey-wagons!

"Take no prisoners"
As the nightmare continues... making this canoe dunking catastrophe seem tame, Keith Carradine’s smart-alleck Spencer and Powers Boothe’s slowburn Hardin are what Jon Voight and Burt Reynolds were to DELIVERANCE: being out of their element yet trying to keep cool along the way.

Carradine, who had worked with director Hill in THE LONG RIDERS, gets first billing and is the peripheral leader, yet the buck really stops with Boothe’s steely gaze: a newcomer to the group, having previously resided in the Texas Guard, it's like nothing can phase Hardin. Hell, even his cigarettes can survive a trip through swamp water. 

Shout Factory Cover
Several important scenes have Carradine and Boothe’s characters sporadically discussing the situation at hand. Either commenting on the inability of the lesser men around them, or trying to make sense of the inevitable doomsday, they're a barometer for the audience and the unnerved, rattled Weekend Warriors who, through bad decisions, invite more punishment to be hurled upon them. 

They include Franklyn Seales as the group’s shuddering fear-meter, Sims. The late actor best known for playing an uptight account on SILVER SPOONS made his ground as the nicer of two cold-blooded killers in THE ONION FIELD. Also on board is T.K. Carter, familiar to horror fans as the skating cook in John Carpenter’s THE THING, serving up unforced and alleviating comic relief. And our token outcast/oddball  is the towering Bowden, played by Carlos Brown aka Alan Autry, a Cowardly Lion type with an unpredictable personality: that spooky red cross on the Blu Ray cover is his doing. 

"You betta haul ass"
After getting to know the men, each scene, where the ominous swamp is like a character in itself, provides another perilous situation for the men to survive, or not. This includes an attack of ferocious Rottweiler’s, falling trees and eventually an all-out hunting spree with the kind of slow motion deaths that Walter Hill, who scripted the original GETAWAY, might have learned from mentor Sam Peckinpah.

One of the most important elements is heard, not seen. Ry Cooder grooves a moody slide guitar soundtrack that feels part of the location – a misleadingly laidback sound that fits the film's ironic title, not the dire situation...

And the survivors have their biggest challenge once the formidable hunt is over... It’s here we get to know Hardin (Powers Boothe) the most: As he remains suspicious during an outdoor Cajun cookout, we realize he’s not only the guy to root for, but he knows what’s up better than anyone: Well not entirely. Towering BLADE RUNNER badass Brion James plays a one-armed Cajon who, through the entire midsection, is captured, questioned, interrogated and flung around like a meaty ragdoll. But when watching and rewatching SOUTHERN COMFORT, it’s his expressions to really center on: because while Hardin and Spencer may know the score, Brion’s Trapper is keeping it.
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