“Southern Comfort is a beautiful and affecting piece of moviemaking. It’s also horse manure.”
The end of Pauline Kael’s New Yorker review is a blunt representation of the mixed critical reception Walter Hill’s survival film received upon its release 40 years ago. Many respected the craft, but just as many took umbrage at what they saw as a heavy-handed allegory for the Vietnam War (Hill has always refuted that reading of his movie). Also working against it were the constant—and largely negative—comparisons with John Boorman’s similarly themed Deliverance, released nine years earlier.
Although its reputation has grown steadily in the decades since, there are still few who hear “Southern Comfort” and first think of a film, and not an alcoholic drink. Even fewer think of one of the most relentlessly unnerving horror movies of the 1980s—and yet Southern Comfort certainly fits the bill.
The plot is simple. Eight soldiers from the Louisiana Army National Guard, along with new Texan recruit Hardin (Powers Boothe), head off into a bayou on weekend maneuvers. It never even occurs to them they might be in danger—their guns are filled with blanks. Hopelessly lost, the troop’s leader, Poole (Peter Coyote), decides to “borrow” three boats to get the men to the other side of the river. Partway across, the boats’ Cajun owners return and start shouting. Young hothead Stuckey (Lewis Smith) shoots his blanks in their direction, and they return fire. With real bullets. Poole is killed instantly, leaving the rest of the men frightened and leaderless, and at the mercy of assailants determined to continue their pursuit to the death.
The cast of Southern Comfort is almost entirely populated by accomplished character actors, and that only adds to the stomach-squeezing tension that grows as the movie progresses: With no one guaranteed safety on the basis of their star power, anyone could die at any minute. That being said, the intensely charismatic Powers Boothe soon establishes himself as the film’s center of gravity. As a transfer from the Texas Guard, the lone outsider amongst the group of close-knit, trigger-happy men, Hardin is our taciturn audience surrogate. Nobody gets a lot of backstory here, but his simple, warm reply when Spencer (Keith Carradine), the other level-headed Guardsman, asks about his relationship with his wife—“I like her, she’s got a good sense of humor”—is concisely instructive as to the man’s character.
Southern Comfort follows the basic narrative structure of numerous slasher movies: A group disappears into a remote location and gets whittled down in increasingly brutal ways. To his credit, Hill chooses not to linger unnecessarily on the violence; instead he creates brief, searing images that leave a lasting mark—perhaps the most potent is of three dead Guardsmen that had already been buried, dug up and tied to a tree to taunt the survivors.
The dread-laden atmosphere is heightened by the disturbing lack of guidance from a person in charge. Poole seems a solid chief for the brief time he’s calling the shots, but once he’s slaughtered, there’s a chasmic vacuum at the top. Stepping into Poole’s place is Casper (Les Lannom), and he’s woefully inadequate for the job, wearing his leadership like an ill-fitting John Wayne costume. He has no control over his troop’s loose cannons, and his orders are all delivered with an undertone of desperation, as pitiful as his wispy little moustache.
“Why are we following this dumb bastard?” asks one of the men. “Because he’s got stripes,” replies another.
Casper’s ineptitude is particularly scary because it underlines that no one has any real clue what to do. Even Hardin and Spencer are at a loss as to how to get them all out of there. Although it’s evocatively photographed by Andrew Laszlo, there’s an unyielding sameness to the bayou that imprisons the troop; no landmarks to situate them among the endless sludgy brown expanse of cypress trees. And their Cajun pursuers are only glimpsed in close-up during the breathless final sequence; for most of the duration, if they even show themselves at all, they are just unsettling specks in the corner of the eye. As the group’s numbers dwindle, the purgatorial nightmarishness of the situation keeps building.
It’s easy to understand why Southern Comfort has been taken by so many as a Vietnam War allegory. Ill-prepared soldiers head into swampy unknown territory where they are overwhelmed by locals who know the land—drawing a comparison to Vietnam doesn’t exactly take much of a leap. Yet it’s also easy to understand why Hill has maintained that he didn’t intend that allegory. Tying the film to one specific war flattens it, muddies the situation with politics and enables the audience to separate themselves from the raw terror of it all, when it’s the viscerality of the terror that makes Southern Comfort so profoundly unnerving.
Beyond the conventional slasher scenario of a group being murdered one by one, there’s the more fundamental fear that the film evokes: A total loss of control. It’s only one of the Guardsmen that fires those inciting blank shots, but from the moment he does so, the rest have a target on their own heads. The Cajun attackers are almost always out of sight, so there’s no reasoning or bargaining with them. There’s no one in charge with a clever plan, and no one on the outside riding to the rescue. When Hardin and Spencer do manage to escape the swamp, it’s because they unwittingly make camp for the night near some railway tracks, and only realize when they hear a train go by the next morning (and even with a way out at hand, their peril is far from over).
Until the climactic showdown, action man heroics are in short supply here. These are regular people, bewildered and frightened, running for their lives. While Southern Comfort may lack the gore of some of its genremates, on a structural and thematic and gut level, it feels like a horror movie. And 40 years after its original release, it remains as relentlessly terrifying as ever.
Chloe Walker is a writer based in the UK. You can read her work at Culturefly, the BFI, Podcast Review, and Paste.