by Jason Coffman
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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a group of young people on their way to an event are sidetracked and find themselves at the mercy of murderous hillbillies. I see you’ve been frantically waving your arms trying to get me to stop since about the fourth word of the previous sentence. Sorry about that.
The annals of horror are packed with countless films in which young city folk find themselves on the wrong end of any number of pointy things carried by crazy rednecks. Permutations of this particular subgenre have been popping up with alarming regularity ever since H.G. Lewis first unleashed 2000 Maniacs on audiences in the early 60s. However, some recent films have proven that given a twist or two, the formula can still be effective: Fabrice du Welz’s Calvaire, Kim Chapiron’s Sheitan, and David Gregory’s Plague Town all gave the “crazy hillbilly” story different takes that kept them from feeling like tired rehashes.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Staunton Hill. It’s a by-the-numbers hillbilly slasher film with some effectively nasty gore makeup and effects, competently made but otherwise indistinguishable from any number of direct-to-DVD films on the same level. Except, of course, for its principal marketing hook: the film was directed by Cameron Romero, of the Pittsburgh Romeros. Yes, his dad is Horror Legend George A. Romero, and a quote from Dad graces the back cover of the DVD box. Is that enough to catch the attention of horror fans weary of watching yet another group of college kids get chopped up by yet another clan of subhuman inbreds?
As the film opens, it’s 1969 and five friends are on their way to join demonstrations in Washington D.C. They’re hitchhiking out in the country somewhere and spark some racial tension among the locals (this is a group of mixed ethnicity, see) before running into a guy with a truck who offers them a ride. They hop in and the truck dies in the middle of nowhere, so they decide to hike across the countryside and hope to find a main road that runs parallel to the one they were taking when the truck gave out. Unsurprisingly, they stumble upon a farmhouse and decide to crash for the night, meeting the residents of the house the next morning. You know what comes next: somebody’s going to get fed to the hogs, and it’s probably not the huge muttering guy with the overalls and the shovel. Veronica Mars versus Giant Hillbilly, Giant Hillbilly wins every time.
The problem with Staunton Hill is that there’s just nothing here that really stands out. The formula is followed down the line, the characters— on both sides of the skinning and dismembering— aren’t that interesting to begin with, so once the slaughter starts the audience isn’t really invested in either side. Maybe the biggest flaw is that everything is played completely straight; something to relieve the predictable unpleasantness every so often would have been nice. The film isn’t poorly made, either, which ironically acts against it. Instead of being so bad it’s memorably entertaining, it’s just facelessly competent. In that regard, if you’re a huge fan of this type of film Staunton Hill will probably be right up your alley. Otherwise, there’s nothing here you haven’t seen before done at exactly the same level many, many times.
Anchor Bay released Staunton Hill 6 October 2009 on DVD.
Jason Coffman is a film critic living in Chicago.
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