Cult Movie: John Boorman's Deliverance created blueprint for rednecks' revenge horror films

Ronny Cox, Jon Voight, Ned Beatty and Burt Reynolds in John Boorman's Deliverance
Ronny Cox, Jon Voight, Ned Beatty and Burt Reynolds in John Boorman's Deliverance

THERE used to be a sticker on the heavy swing doors of one of the BBC radio studios here in Belfast that always caused me to smile every time I passed it. It was made up of just five words – “Paddle faster, I can hear banjos” – which, if you're familiar with Deliverance, is both an amusing and fairly terrifying line.

Director John Boorman’s man-versus-nature or city-slickers-versus-slack-jawed-yokels epic first arrived on cinema screens in 1972 and has been traumatising generations of potential outdoor pursuits people ever since. There’s a rare chance to see the film next Thursday at The Strand cinema in Belfast but be warned it’s not for the faint of heart or the short of paddle power.

Based on a popular novel by James Dickey (who also supplied the screenplay), Boorman’s movie tracks a quartet of city-dwelling friends who decide to take a weekend trip into the wilderness to indulge in a little male bonding and canoeing on the wild Cahulawassee River. Beautiful as the surroundings are, they are also a portal into hell as the hillbilly locals stare blankly back with growing malevolence and the deep dark woods get ever more sinister.

The two main protagonists are Ed (Jon Voight) and Lewis (Burt Reynolds). Both men are adventure friendly and initially embrace their journey into nature’s murky pit. Ed less so compared to the gung-ho Lewis but that’s probably because he’s keeping an eye out for the other two travellers, Drew (Ronny Cox) and the doomed Bobby (Ned Beatty), who are pretty obviously out of their depth.

At first they engage with the weirdness they see around them – there’s that infamous duelling banjo sequence that inspired that aforementioned sticker for a start – but the ominous vibe soon gets ever darker as the real horror starts to unfold.

Boorman’s vision of the hillbilly set as a bunch of bloodthirsty inbreeds still feels harsh but his constant ramping up of the tension as the worlds of city and country collide is hugely impressive. A mainstream movie this may be but the horror is very real and genuinely shocking when it arrives. Without knowing it, Deliverance also creates the bloody blueprint for just about every 'rednecks' revenge' horror film that followed – no Ned Beatty against a tree, no Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

There’s a queasy and edgy sense of realism at play in the main performances, but particularly in Voight and Reynolds, that make this a huge step above your standard nature horror. Unlike most of what would follow, this has a budget, a talented director with a genuine vision and a slow-burning tension that most city slickers in peril flicks would jettison for full blown bloodshed by the second reel.

It’s a grim but rewarding watch; the soundtrack alone is a work of art.

So slip into your finest all-weather clothing and make your way to the Strand next Thursday. And don’t forget that paddle. You have been warned.