A slightly more obscure horror movie featuring the much beloved Jessica Harper, star of Suspiria (1977) and The Phantom of the Paradise (1974), The Evictors kicks off with a sepia-tinted prologue set in Louisiana, circa 1928. The gun-toting Monroe family refuse to vacate their home after the bank seizes the property. A gunfight with the local Sheriff’s department ensues, ending with the Monroe clan presumably shot to pieces. Then, in the summer of 1942, shifty estate agent Jake Rudd (Vic Morrow) sells the house to Ben (Michael Parks) and Ruth Watkins (Jessica Harper), a sweet newlywed couple who are swiftly unnerved to find a note in their mailbox ordering them to leave.
Ruth befriends a kindly handyman who tells how back in 1934, the previous homeowners died under mysterious circumstances, although viewers clearly see they were murdered by a psychotic redneck. Friendly, wheelchair bound neighbour Mrs. Ole Gibson (Sue Ane Langdon) recounts another incident from 1939 when a newly arrived husband and wife were electrocuted and burned alive. With Ben overworked at his lumber mill, Ruth finds herself alone in the country house being menaced by the mystery madman.
Great acting rarely overcomes a mediocre movie, but Jessica Harper and Michael Parks come pretty close. Easing comfortably into Forties garb (Harper, especially, could pass as a double for Jeanne Crain), these engaging actors deliver beautifully etched performances conveying the depth of love between the young couple and make them easy to empathise with. Ruth is no brittle scream queen but a quietly resilient woman who stays calm and rational even while scared out of her wits, and who loses none of her vibrancy in the aftermath of trouble. Ben is by turn, a gently masculine figure who never belittles his wife’s fears and stands by her, even though his biggest worry is ensuring Ruth is provided for should he be called to fight in the war. It is these characterisations that make the unfolding tragedy so gut-wrenching, rather than the hackneyed script or execution.
Although haunted house movies were back in vogue during the late Seventies, the film wrong-foots the audience with eerie noises and talk of a mysterious past, being more a precursor to the 1930s rural thriller Raggedy Man (1981) starring Sissy Spacek. The Evictors is perhaps too slow-moving for a modern audience and the repeated flashbacks are intrusive. Even though each storyteller strives to portray past events as ambiguous, viewers are given a clear view of the killer’s face. Charles B. Pierce relies on ghostly wailing and other eerie sound effects to gloss over his somewhat bland staging of the ensuing shocks. However, he does show a real feel for the period and the Louisiana region including supporting performers with authentic accents and ensuring that, far from being hostile, the Watkins' neighbours are warm and hospitable albeit wary of the house's reputation.
Pierce was among the last keepers of the flame of American regional filmmaking, juggling careers as cinematographer, writer (he co-wrote the Dirty Harry movie Sudden Impact (1983)) and set decorator (his last credit was on screenwriter-actress Bonnie Hunt's talk show) on mainstream fare with rural outings as writer-director. His Sasquatch-like docudrama The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972) was a surprise hit on the drive-in circuit (Pierce went on to star as well as direct the belated The Barbaric Beast of Boggy Creek, Part II (1985)) as was his vampire film, The Town that Dreaded Sundown (1976), though he earned a small place in bad movie infamy with the Lee Majors “bionic Viking” flop, The Norsemen (1978).
Pierce does mount a few suspenseful sequences, not least Ruth’s gripping confrontation with the madman and its tragic aftermath. The eventual unmasking of the scheming culprits is undone by a rather slapdash denouement, but the epilogue set five years later carries some unsettling implications.