Yee-haw! Southern Fried Exploitation was box office gold during the 1970’s, a genre that usually had one or more of the following elements: race cars, moonshine, redneck sheriffs, scantily clad country girls, shotguns, and/or Burt Reynolds . One of the foremost practitioners of this art was Max Baer, namesake son of the heavyweight boxer and erstwhile Jethro Bodine of TV’s THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES, who scored a surprise hit when he produced, wrote, and costarred in 1974’s MACON COUNTY LINE.
The story’s set in the 50’s, complete with some vintage tunes on the soundtrack (The Chords’ “Sh-Boom”, Laverne Baker’s “Jim Dandy”, Big Joe Turner’s “Corrine, Corrina”). “The story is true”, reads a pre-credits scrawl, “only the names have been changed” (Actually, the story was concocted by Baer and director Richard Compton, but what the hey…). Brothers Chris and Wayne Dixon (played by brothers Alan and Jesse Vint ) are a pair of fun lovin’ cats on a road trip through the Deep South before heading into the service. They pick up hitchhiking hottie Jenny Scott (Cheryl Waters) in Louisiana, and the three of them drift along down the highway.
The lighthearted tone ends on the return trip when the brother’s ’49 Chrysler breaks down in Georgia. The hick garage mechanic (Geoffrey Lewis in a funny part that seems almost improvised) tells them they need a fuel pump, but they don’t have enough cash, so he jury-rigs it for them. Gun-loving Macon County Deputy Reed Morgan (Baer) pulls into the garage and hassles the trio, letting them know in no uncertain terms to get out of town when their car’s repaired or be arrested for vagrancy. Morgan heads to pick up his son (Leif Garrett) at military school while the Dixons and Jenny wait for the slow-poke hick to fix the damn car.
While Morgan’s out of town, a pair of home-invading creeps (James Gammon, Timothy Scott) force their way into his house and rape and murder his wife (Joan Blackman ). The creeps also smoke a cop who pulls them over, but end up caught by the cop’s partner (Sam Gilman) after a car crash. Meanwhile, Morgan returns home with his boy to discover the carnage inside, sees the Dixon’s abandoned car near his house (the pump shit the bed again), and all hell breaks loose, as Morgan hunts down the trio into the dark Georgia night. The final portion of MACON COUNTY LINE plays like a horror film, with Chris, Wayne, and Jenny trapped in a nightmare, and a shocking surprise ending that packs a lethal punch!
The camerawork by DP Daniel Lacambre is startlingly good for a low-budget effort like this, and Compton’s direction helps ratchet up the tension. Baer gives a surprisingly effective performance as the ramrod-straight Morgan, shattering his country bumpkin Jethro image forever. Bobbie Gentry sings the closing credits theme song “Another Place, Another Time”, and Baer would later produce and direct the film adaptation of her biggest hit, “Ode to Billy Joe”. MACON COUNTY LINE was the most profitable film of the year, costing $225,000 and raking in over $30 million worldwide, so you just know a sequel was inevitable.
While Jesse and Alan Vint never rose much above low-budget Exploitation fare, the stars of 1975’s RETURN TO MACON COUNTY – Don Johnson and Nick Nolte – certainly did. Baer wasn’t involved in this, so writer/director Compton takes sole responsibility for this 1958-set sequel (despite several anachronisms, like Hamburger Helper on the general store shelves and a 70’s-era Smokey the Bear public service billboard), and guess what – it’s not bad! Compton seems to be going for an AMERICAN GRAFFITI vibe, only with a harder and darker edge. Like it’s predecessor, RETURN TO MACON COUNTY is peppered with classic 50’s rock on the soundtrack (Fats Domino, Chuck Berry , Eddie Cochran, Ricky Nelson , The Fleetwoods, The Ventures), otherwise it has little to no relationship to the original besides the title.
Since most of the protagonists in MACON COUNTY LINE wound up dead, we’re introduced to Nolte and Johnson as Bo and Luke – umm, that’s Bo and Harley – and their spiffy, fuel-injected ’57 Chevy, which they plan on driving out to California to enter and win the Grand National. Along the way, they pick up wild child waitress Junelle (Robin Mattson) and cruise on down the highway. When Harley gets in a jam with some local JD’s (that’s Juvenile Delinquents) and loses all their money, the trio go back to town to retrieve it, with crazy Junelle pulling a gun on the JD’s! They cause quite a ruckus, and run afoul of Macon County Police Sgt. Wittaker (the always-hissable Robert Viharo). Bo punches the cop out, and the chase is on, with both the JD’s and a pissed off Wittaker out for revenge…
Johnson and Nolte are both likeable in early roles, but it’s Mattson who stands out as the off-center (and obviously disturbed) Junelle. She went on to fame as a Soap Opera Queen on shows like GENERAL HOSPITAL, SANTA BARBARA, and ALL MY CHILDREN (and as an aside to all you film buffs, the Script Supervisor listed in the credits is Shirley Ulmer, widow of cult director Edgar G. Ulmer ). The oddball ending of the film is completely unexpected, but it did leave me feeling satisfied. RETURN TO MACON COUNTY didn’t do nearly as well as the first film, but stands on its own as a good example of Southern Fried Exploitation. I’d recommend both of these films, each for different reasons. What do ya’ll think, Burt?…