Color, 1981, 99 mins.

Directed by Walter Hill

Starring Keith Carradine, Powers Boothe, Fred Ward, Peter Coyote, Franklyn Seales, T.K. Carter, Brion James, Lewis Smith / Music by Ry Cooder / Cinematography by Andrew Laszlo

Format: DVD - MGM (MSRP $14.95)

Letterboxed (1.85:1) (16x9 enhanced) / Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono

"Not since Deliverance," proclaimed the poster for Southern Comfort, director Walter Hill's underrated follow up to his solid western, The Long Riders. While the central concept of the film - a group of men stranded in the wilderness fighting the elements and unseen human foes - bears some resemblance to Boorman's 1973 film, the agenda here is quite different and much closer to horror film territory, resulting in an underrated, memorable film deserving of a much more sizeable cult following.

In the opening prologue, a group of weekend warriors for the National Guard are dispatched for a training mission into the bayous of Louisiana. The ostensible leader of the group, Poole (Peter Coyote), is unable to contain some of the more reckless recruits, who suggest swiping some of the locals' conoes for a little sunny rafting. When the Cajuns appear and begin shouting protest, one of the men fires back in jest, igniting an impromptu war which finds the amateur soldiers scurrying for their lives through dark, unfamiliar territory besieged with booby traps. Along the way they pick up a hostage, a one-armed Cajun trapper (the late Brion James), but their captive only serves to further muddy the waters. As their numbers dwindle, the men must resort to increasingly extreme methods of survival to make it back to civilization alive.

Southern Comfort could be read on many levels: an indictment of blind macho posturing, a critique of myopic American military strategies in Vietnam and the ensuing trauma suffering by soldiers, and most obviously, a primal nightmare in which the viewer is trapped in a strange, menacing land, stalked by invisible assailants out for blood. Keith Carradine and the unfairly overlooked Powers Boothe provide excellent performances as the most sympathetic of the Guardsmen, and regular Hill composer Ry Cooder turns in his finest score ever, a chilling concoction of Cajun musical tradition and atonal suspense riffs. The supporting cast is also typically strong for Hill, including T.K. Carter (one year before Carpenter's The Thing, Fred Ward, and many others. (Look closely at one of the hunter Cajuns to spot Radley Metzger hardcore porn actor Sonny Landham, also a Hill regular.) However, the real star here is Hill, who perfectly evokes the soggy, treacherous environment with insidious skill, pulling one surprise after another as the men dodge falling trees, man traps, and much, much worse. However, Hill's real moment to shine comes in the horrific final 20 minutes, which provides a devastating twist on the "return to civilization" coda from Deliverance which instead notches up the terror tenfold. Be warned, this sequence also contains a genuine (if extremely common) animal slaughter that may put you off bacon for the rest of your life. However, this element is responsibly handled and integrates smoothly as a powerful, extremely bloody metaphor for the survivors' plight.

Barely released on home video and only viewable on late night cable screenings, Southern Comfort has suffered from notoriously bad video transfers which drowned the shadowy cinematography in a blanket of grain and muddy colors. The MGM DVD undoes most of the damage with a sharp anamorphic transfer (which, like most other Hill titles, mattes off information from the top and bottom compared to the full frame VHS masters). The film will never look like a glossy big budget production, but this is by far the best edition ever available, in many respects outclassing the carelessly produced theatrical prints. For some reason a mild jitter is evident in highly detailed areas during anamorphic playback on some monitors (watch Coyote's mouth during the prologue) but is completely absent on others. The mono audio is fine, duplicating the original mono track with good fidelity and no fancy whistles and bells. The sole extra is an excellent, gripping theatrical trailer, which should be enough for the ridiculously low price tag. The only major gripe lies with the DVD cover art, which slaps a confederate flag behind the title and makes this look like a trashy, Z-grade '80s war film. Don't be fooled; this is an impressive, nerve-shredding film, recommended without reservations.

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