Silly me. I had assumed there was no mileage left in the hoary old backwoods thriller. But that doesn't appear to have hindered the makers of "Staunton Hill", a film that plays on the sub-genre's established moves like they were immutable clockwork laws of nature. The story's basic elements couldn't be more traditional if it rustled up a Sunday joint, took up Morris dancing and started wearing a purity ring: pretty-looking, young hip urbanites get themselves lost in the sticks -- check. They accidentally stumble on rustic, rather whimsical countrified yokels (with a few odd, but at first quaintly amusing habits) -- check. They're offered strange-looking meat dishes anyone with any sense wouldn't even touch with a shitty stick -- check. Before you can say 'squeal like a pig', the wonky-toothed inbred hosts suddenly get all menacing and subhuman, compelled by a previously unknown law of genetics to slaughter anything they encounter that's got a pulse -- check. Finally, The 'civilised' values of our effete group of city-dwellers render them no match for the earthy evil of country-dwelling farmer types; pretty soon the entire cast's been made into pork chops -- Check!
As "Staunton Hill" trundled along, doing its thing, and being exactly the same as every other backwoods thriller ever made (but especially "Just Before Dawn", "Texas Chain Saw Massacre" and dodgy satire "Motel Hell") I kept thinking there had to be some twist coming up, some angle that would justify its existence and have it suddenly all make sense, but if it were not for the fact that this film is the second by Cameron 'son-of-George' Romero, it's hard to imagine it would be getting very much attention -- no matter how competent the directorial style.
The film, it soon turns out, has only one real trick up its sleeve if it is to stand any chance of grabbing an audience for itself -- about two thirds of the way through, it plays it.
Perhaps taking a cue from the new wave of nastiness in contemporary French Horror, "Staunton Hill" sets out to be as grizzly, as gruelling and as stomach-churning a sight as possible. You have to wait a long time for it though – it’s almost an hour in before Buddy (B.J Hendricks), the film's hick, man-boy Leatherface stand-in straps one of the prettier blonde females in the cast to a table, strips her down to her underwear then slowly exsanguinates her from the neck, chops off her limbs, skins her, and drags the pulpy remains of her flayed torso outside to feed to some pigs! All this is shown in unflinching, unremitting detail and from that point on the film sets about dispatching the rest of the good-looking cast with a relentless Grand Guignol gusto. There is a grizzly close-up scalping of one live victim; a character has his leg shot off below the knee at point-blank-range; another gets whacked in the face with a shovel then later, fried with a cattle prod.
The family responsible for all this carnage are a typically macabre bunch, obviously inspired by Tobe Hopper's Sawyer clan, except that the Stauntons have more of a matriarchal set up: scowling Grandma Geraldine (Sherry Weston) scoots around in a makeshift wooden wheelchair with antlers attached to it, heading the team alongside the obese middle-aged daughter, Louise (Kathy Lamkin) and her mentally handicapped son Buddy. There victims are a photogenic bunch of students, hitchhiking their way to a political rally in Washington DC; the film is set in 1969, although there seems no real reason for this other than to allow screenwriter David Rountree (who also plays one of the handsome students) to get in an early, crafty reference to "Night of the Living Dead". The kids get stranded at a junkyard-cum-gas station in Virginia, eventually managing to get a lift in a pick-up truck from a helpful local called Quintin (Charles Bodin). The truck proves little use though and soon breaks down en route, forcing the gang to pitch up for the night in a nearby barn, next to a picturesque farm house and ... the rest you can guess.
The film looks handsome enough, with the serene beauty of an autumnal Virginia countryside that is imbued with an atmosphere of foreboding because of our knowledge of what is just around the corner -- much like "Texas Chain Saw Massacre" in fact. Romero's film may be steeped in the '70s classics but its structure builds to a rather desperate flashback montage a la "Saw" that casts more shadow than light on the proceedings; though unlike "Saw", anyone who doesn't see the 'twist' coming a mile off ought to be given a sharp slap to wake them up.
Anchor Bay present a mostly pleasing print of "Staunton Hill", but there are occasional sequences where it seems inferior, almost muddy and faded -- as though two sources of sharply varying quality were utilised for the transfer. Thankfully, this distraction calms down after the first twenty minutes or so. Otherwise, the disc is a disappointing bare bones affair with absolutely no extra features whatsoever.