I love genre cinema. I will always have a soft spot for horror, action, sci-fi, and all the subgenres that exist inside those larger categories. What I have never felt any real connection to are those films that exist in the realm of pure sleaze. You know the ones: the films from the ’70s and ’80s, filled with ugly violence and sex that is the opposite of titillating, usually shot on cheap film stock with semi-amateur casts. But knowing these films have a large following and several companies devoted to restoring them makes me wonder what I am missing. With that in mind, I am going to do a deep dive into the world of sleazy exploitation. This is My Exploitation Education. This week’s entry is PIGS.
When you commit your life to making your way through as many exploitation movies as I have over the last couple of years, you sit through a lot of crap. I mean a lot of crap. For anyone who thought I reviewed every exploitation flick I watch in this column, I hate to admit that the films I write about are merely the tip of the blood-soaked, gratuitously nude iceberg. But occasionally, sitting through the crap is worth it. Every now and then, you stumble across something so weird and different, so honestly unlike anything you’ve seen before, that the clouds part and the movie gods reach down to touch the screen and reveal a transcendent experience. That is not the case with PIGS. But for about thirty minutes in the second act of this low-budget, would-be slice of hicksploitation, the flick threatened to turn the corner and become something special. Honestly, at this point in my jaded viewing habits, that’s enough for me to get excited about.
PIGS (a.k.a. THE 13TH PIG and DADDY’S DEADLY DARLING, among many other alternate titles) tells the heartwarming tale of Lynn (Toni Lawrence), a troubled young woman on the run who finds acceptance and a makeshift father-daughter relationship with Zambrini (prolific character actor Marc Lawrence, who also wrote and directed), the gruff owner of a small town café. Oh, yeah…and Zambrini steals bodies from the morgue to feed to his pigs…and Lynn might be dangerously psychotic…and the two crazy old spinster sisters (Catherine Ross, Iris Korn) who live up the hill in mortal fear of the pigs believe Zambrini is somehow murdering people and turning them into his pigs. But other than those wrinkles to the plot, it’s a heartwarming story.
All joking aside, it is the film’s willingness to veer far away from its Ed Gein-inspired set-up to tread in increasingly outlandish waters that makes it worth watching. The scenes with the spinsters driving the ineffectual sheriff (Jesse Vint) nuts with their crazy ideas do not add much of anything to the plot. That said, their over-the-top performances (especially from Ross) and general feel of being airdropped in from a John Waters-directed version of WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? move what could have been a rote psycho-slasher flick into genuinely surreal territory.
That same sense that other movies and genres are intruding on PIGS infuses other scenes. The relationship between Lynn and Zambrini is weirdly sweet in a bug-eyed crazy sort of way. Sure, he feeds dead people to his pigs (and possibly has moved on to actually killing people for hog feed, but that idea is never made clear) and distractedly mumbles to himself before lashing out in verbal tantrums whenever anyone other than Lynn tries to talk to him. And okay, she seems like a space cadet who eyes a straight razor in Zambrini’s medicine cabinet with far too much interest and has nightmares about being slashed to death. But the script by Lawrence (writing as F.A. Foss) consistently has Zambrini going out of his way to protect Lynn while assuring her that the past does not matter and asking for nothing in return. Finding an actual heart in the middle of an otherwise sleazy, low-rent exploitation flick is not only surprising, it is practically bracing.
If not for a third act that dutifully falls into by-the-numbers territory, PIGS could have been one of the most fascinating, ugly, oddly heartwarming films I’ve covered in this column. Unfortunately Lawrence the writer/director ends up taking less chances than Lawrence the actor and adheres to the conservative morality of so many pre-TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE horror films when it comes to punishing supposed villains—no matter how sympathetic they are.
While I really do have a big soft spot for PIGS, it does have its share of issues. Whenever the action shifts to the Sheriff’s investigation into possible nefarious dealings at Zambrini’s café, the film sputters. Particularly frustrating is the way that Lawrence positions the film as a hicksploitation entry, but undercuts that idea by largely casting the film with recognizable character actors and clearly just driving five miles outside of Los Angeles until the production came across their first rundown oil field. You can practically hear the location scout saying, “Aha! Rural America!”
But criticizing a low-budget ’70s exploitation flick for not being regional enough is sort of ridiculous. PIGS is a damn fine slice of exploitation filmmaking working overtime to provide something different and entertaining. I just wish that Lawrence had followed through on the initial arc of Lynn and Zambrini forming their own family unit of troubled outsiders. And maybe one more scene of the titular swine feasting on cadavers. After all, it is the hook of the movie.
–Matt Wedge (@MovieNerdMatt)