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Pigs (US DVD/Blu-ray review)

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Thanks in no small part to affectionate coverage in Stephen Thrower’s book Nightmare U.S.A., Pigs (1973) has been facing reappraisal as one of the dreamy independent art-horror sleepers of the 1970s, placing it alongside such idiosyncratic gems as Messiah Of Evil, Lemora: A Child’s Tale Of the Supernatural and The Witch Who Came From The Sea. This belated artistic credibility is now further cemented with Vinegar Syndrome’s recently released Blu-Ray/DVD combo, presenting Lawrence’s original director’s cut for the first time on home video.

Although Pigs has been frequently sold as a type of animal attack thriller quite prevalent in the 1970s, with Vinegar Syndrome’s cover art continuing in this tradition, the threat of rampaging killer swine is never truly exploited in the manner of, say, Razorback or even the Silence Of The Lambs sequel Hannibal. As with the even more misleadingly-titled The Witch Who Came From The Sea, the film’s horror is centered around a woman’s violent response to the trauma of sexual abuse.

The story concerns the curious relationship between Zambrini (Marc Lawrence), a reclusive former clown who runs an out-of-the-way café, and Lynn (Toni Lawrence), an unstable young woman on the run. Zambrini has been tending to a pen in his backyard, where he keeps a dozen pigs that have developed a taste for human flesh. The film opens with Zambrini dropping off a fresh corpse to feed them, offering a kind of regretful soliloquy to explain his ghoulish actions.

While previous home video versions have opened with an equally blunt explanation of Lynn’s backstory, this edit of the film introduces her character with her mystery intact. Marc Lawrence had been a veteran of film noir both as an actor (The Asphalt Jungle, Jigsaw) and a director (Nightmare In The Sun), and Lynn’s character, a sort of femme fatale drifter passing through a small town to escape her past, carries echoes of the genre.

When Lynn arrives at Zambrini’s café to seek employment as a waitress, the initial exchange between them is odd, tense, punctuated with paranoid questions.  But he gives her the job and a place to stay, presumably with intention of ultimately feeding her to his pigs. While working behind the café counter, Lynn begins attracting the lustful attention of local gentlemen, including the sheriff (Jesse Vint, Macon County Line) who has been shrugging off the fearful complaints of Zambrini’s neighbors. But Lynn’s intimacy issues soon result in a few bloody corpses, and you’ve no doubt correctly guessed the manner in which they’re disposed.

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Pigs moves at a leisurely pace, and it is not especially sexy, gory or consistently frightening. What it does deliver is a well-crafted atmosphere, compelling characters and a few eccentric directorial flourishes. Pigs craftily employs jarring sounds to unsettling effect, particularly the use of discordant pig squeals that foreshadows the bold sound design of the following year’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The film mostly resists any dated trappings, barring a bouncy psychedelic pop theme song from future Nightmare On Elm Street composer Charles Bernstein.

Unlike the opening act of many horror films, there is never an established sense of “normality” to disrupt. Our protagonists, played by a real-life father and daughter, are a pair of wounded monsters, and their morbidly convenient relationship proves to be oddly touching. In other hands, this story might have explored a sexual tension between these characters, but the dynamic here is more akin to the Lon Chaney/Jill Banner relationship in Spider Baby.

A former Communist party member, veteran character actor Marc Lawrence had testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1951, naming fellow actors Sterling Hayden, Lionel Stander, Anne Revere, Larry Parks, Karen Morley and Jeff Corey, among others. While Pigs isn’t exactly On The Waterfront in terms of addressing his experience, one can look for evidence of Lawrence’s lingering guilt in Zambrini’s desire to isolate himself away from both his intrusive neighbors and his disappointing past. As in Lawrence’s earlier Nightmare In The Sun, where a moment of infidelity plunges a man into a series of false accusations and betrayals, the man’s greatest antagonist is the community itself.

Filmed in early 1973 in Lake Piru, CA from a screenplay titled Menu for Murder (written pseudonymously by Lawrence himself as F.A. Foss), the film endured a dizzying number of incarnations and has been the subject of much erroneous information. While there are sources offering various release dates throughout 1972 (sadly none in 1971, Year of the Pig according to the Chinese zodiac), the film actually premiered in Detroit, May 23rd, 1973 under the title The Pigs. According to Lawrence, the distributor offered free bacon to the audience, most of which was cautiously returned after the screening.

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Producer William Rowland would later acquire the film and have Lawrence shoot a new beginning to cash in on the phenomenal box office success of The Exorcist. Repurposing the discordant pig cries from the original film as the guttural growls of a possessed woman, the new prologue offers ludicrous dialogue about “Satan in the form of a swine” and, a personal favorite touch, includes tiny hoof prints along the walls of the room where Lynn is kept.  This version of the film played theatrically under titles like The Strange Exorcism Of Lynn Hart, Love Exorcist, and The Secret Of Lynn Hart, sharing double bills with films like Let’s Scare Jessica To Death, but has  never been issued on home video.

In 1977, Donald Reynolds filmed a new prologue/epilogue that initially played as Daddy’s Girl. This version of the story plays up the incest angle, addressing the subject as sensitively as any film that featured its title printed on the heroine’s ass ever has. After shortening the new Reynolds version prologue, Aquarius Releasing released Daddy’s Girl theatrically on November 6, 1984 as Daddy’s Deadly Darling. Variety welcomed the film’s return to the big screen with a less than charitable assessment: “Vanity horror film escapes from the vaults”. The Daddy’s Deadly Darling version has circulated on home video ever since, regardless of whether the film was issued as Pigs, Daddy’s Deadly Darling, Blood Pen, Roadside Torture Chamber, Horror Farm, The Killer, etc.

A side-by-side comparison between Troma’s 2005 Region 1 DVD and Vinegar Syndrome’s edition reveals a number of substantial changes, though I can’t imagine a viewer who didn’t connect with earlier presentations of the film suddenly being won over by this newly restored version; it’s not as radically different as, say, Bill Gunn’s original Ganja And Hess is from its alternate incarnation, Blood Couple. Both versions sport running times of approximately 80 minutes. The Troma edition has an entirely different opening where we see: an elderly neighbor catch Lynn murdering her abusive father (depicted via silhouette in a window), Lynn’s conversation with one of the doctors in an institution, and her escape using an amorous nurse’s discarded uniform as a disguise. In the director’s cut, Lynn’s backstory is revealed more gradually. Sporting the onscreen title The 13th Pig, Vinegar Syndrome incorporates shots taken from a 35mm print of Lawrence’s original director’s cut, while removing scenes added to later versions.

The director’s cut adds a wonderfully bizarre interlude that appears in the first act, where Zambrini suddenly appears in the home of his nosey neighbors in the guise of “The Great Zambrini.” With a pointed nose, ghoulish greasepaint and a top hat, he threatens and intimidates the women in an echoing voice. The context for the scene, whether it’s a paranoid fantasy on the part of the women or a real event, is unclear.  A seemingly irrational episode like this might not have gone over with more literal-minded grindhouse audiences, but for the more adventurous viewers looking to place Pigs alongside the more idiosyncratic arty horrors of the period, this restored sequence will prove to be a welcome addition to the film.

Fans of unintended weirdness may miss the moment near the end of the Troma version where the sheriff’s truck was on the way to Zambrini’s to save the day, but apparently only the soundtrack of this scene was available. The compromise was a slow push-in on a Lynn talking on the phone while the sound of the truck plays underneath, followed by an abrupt jerk back to the beginning of the shot, where it repeats with the actual soundtrack for her phone call.  Vinegar Syndrome’s cut restores the shot of the truck, rendering the scene as intended, though more conventional.

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One major point of departure between the two versions is the conclusion. In the Troma version, Lynn fakes her own death, and is later shown hitching a ride with a man who resembles her father (using the same actor who played Lynn’s father in the Daddy’s Girl prologue, but not either the Troma or Vinegar Syndrome versions). In Lawrence’s original version, the pigs not only eat people. Through the means of an unexplained alchemy, the act of pigs consuming a person literally turns that person into a pig. Or as Lawrence straightforwardly puts it in his memoir, Long Time No See, it’s “a film about pigs that eat people and the people then become pigs.” Lynn’s fate in the original film is to be consumed and join Zambrini’s dozen swine. She becomes the titular 13th pig in this casually surreal alternate conclusion. Lynn’s traumatic backstory with her father is also altered by modified dialogue: in the original cut, the line is “He tried to rape her when she was a little girl”; in the Troma version, an abrupt edit changes it to “He’d rape her.”

Beyond the absence of a few bloody dismemberment inserts unique to the Reynolds reshoots that might hold appeal to gorehounds, the only aspect of Vinegar Syndrome’s restored version that may not please some longtime fans of the film is the brightness of the image. This is not the fault of Vinegar Syndrome, who give Pigs an attractive widescreen presentation miles ahead of earlier editions. But viewers accustomed to the darker, shadowy transfers of old may be slightly taken aback. When Lynn first arrives at Zambrini’s at the beginning of the film, the Troma version is so much darker that I initially thought Vinegar Syndrome’s had incorrectly transferred a day-for-night sequence. This is not a complaint, merely an observation for anyone still hanging onto old videocassettes of The Evil Dead out of affection for the inkier transfer.

In terms of special features, Vinegar Syndrome includes a number of welcome supplements. In addition to the Pigs and Love Exorcism theatrical trailers and interviews with Toni Lawrence (conducted by an unseen/unheard Stephen Thrower) and composer Charles Bernstein, we get a feature-length interview with cinematographer Glenn Roland. While the laconic tone of the conversation might make some listeners initially restless, Roland offers plenty of fascinating tidbits on not only the production of Pigs, but anecdotes on his entire career, including other cult favorites he worked on such as Ilsa, She Wolf Of the S.S. and Massacre Mafia Style. The release also contains a wonderfully annotated promotional artwork gallery and helpfully compiles the footage from the other version of the film, with handsome-looking transfers of the alternate Exorcist knock-off prologue and both the prologue and epilogue from Donald Reynolds’s Daddy’s Girl version.

Thanks in no small part to affectionate coverage in Stephen Thrower’s book Nightmare U.S.A., Pigs (1973) has been facing reappraisal as one of the dreamy independent art-horror sleepers of the 1970s, placing it alongside such idiosyncratic gems as Messiah Of Evil, Lemora: A Child’s Tale Of the Supernatural and The Witch Who Came From The Sea. This belated artistic credibility is now further cemented with Vinegar Syndrome’s recently released Blu-Ray/DVD combo, presenting Lawrence’s original director’s cut for the first time on home video. Although Pigs has been frequently sold as a type of animal attack thriller quite prevalent in the 1970s,…

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About Bill Ackerman

Bill Ackerman is a contributing writer for Diabolique and Lunchmeat Magazine. He is the host of the Supporting Characters podcast, and has appeared as a guest on episodes of The Projection Booth, Director’s Club and Pop Culture Club. He has a B.A. in English from Ithaca College, and studied film production and editing at The New School for Social Research. He produced the 2007 film Alms, You Say, and is thanked in the booklet of the most widely derided title in The Criterion Collection. He has yet to serve either pork or bacon when hosting dinner parties.

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