The Legend of Hillbilly John
(aka Who Fears the Devil)
(aka Who Fears the Devil)
Adapted from Manly Wade Wellman
Director: John Newland
I absolutely love this movie. Now, some ‘B’ movies are so bad they’s difficult to see through to the end, but this will grab you and take you for a Nantucket… well, a Blue Ridge Mountains sleigh ride! The Ugly Bird is so hacked-together, it actually creeped me out pretty bad. The slow-burn, shades of goldenrod 1970s atmosphere gives the film a rainy Sunday-afternoon gothic feel.
You know how you remember those movies and after-school holiday specials you saw just once as a kid, and the memory is of a mist-enshrouded tale of thrilling fantasy… but when you see it again as an adult you suddenly see it through new eyes? The special effects look they were done in a garage, the acting is terrible beyond description, and the story lacks the key points that make sense of it all. (That’s the way I remember Vincent Price’s Once Upon a Midnight Scary, with its short renditions of John Bellairs’ The House with a Clock in its Walls and Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.) This is the special soulful, wistful magic you will find in this movie.
Once you are fully ensconced in a suspension of disbelief, it becomes less about the effects; it’s the darkness that grows inside you as the uncanny implications of the story sink in. If Mr. Yandro is not a shape-changer, then there’s a man and a hideous, giant bird so deeply intertwined that physical harm to one is reflected in the other through some unspeakable magic. The only thing that can stop the duo is the pure silver that John the Balladeer has cast into his guitar strings.
Directed by John Newland, the movie adapts two stories from Manly Wade Wellman’s Who Fears the Devil: “The Desrick on Yandro” and “O Ugly Bird”. The title song, The Devil, by Hoyt Axton is stirring, and sets the mood instantly, preparing us for some hillbilly folk tales and run-ins with the Devil up in the Appalachians… about as far from city folk as you kin git.
Denver Pyle really gets things heated up singing about defyin’ Old Scratch in the beginning. Guess who appears? Don’t worry– Grandpappy John’s got silver banjo strings melted down from official US currency, silver dollars! But… money is the root of all evil, and Silver John sees his Grandpappy die. John swears to go defying for as long as he walks the earth.
The film version adds a character named Marduke who tends to bump into the wandering John on a regular basis, (much like Grizzly Adams and Nakoma,) and lovely lady Lily, who is deeply enamored of John, yet respects his instinct to wander. The main story line stays relatively true to the source material. Silver John takes on first a cheap, stop-motion vulture and a man named Yandro who can freeze a man with his finger, then a Voodoo joungan who’s made a business of enslaving good mountain folks. (Wellman actually lived on Yandro Mountain.)
Overall, the movie captures the feel of Manly Wade Wellman’s work, presenting a film that is enjoyable despite its low-budget shortcomings. In fact, the lack of special effects makes the film more successful, stimulating our imaginations rather than making our eyes roll with cheesy effects. Do not be scared off! It’s not for everybody, but definitely worth a look!