Monday, March 14, 2011

Terror in the Woods Again

Well, I'm making my whenever-I-flippin'-well-want-to sojourn to Sequoia National Park, and this post is coming to you live from the luxurious Wuksachi Lodge. There's a little snow here, as you can see. I snowshoed my way around the park today and my legs are rebelling against the rest of me.

Last time I was up here, I did an installment about horror movies that were set in the woods. Let's continue that theme, but let's throw it a curveball—environmental horror films. You know, "Animals Gone Wild"? And for some reason, this particular genre defies quality. A lot of people hold the Oscar-nominated Warner Bros. film Them! (about the giant ants) in high regard, but once you start superimposing insects and animals onto backgrounds—or worse yet, integrate them with shots of people—to make them look big, it's always goofy to me.

Bert I. Gordon (Mr. B.I.G.) is a director best-known for his special effects-laden horror and science fiction films, usually involving supersized (or shrunken) creatures or people. Filmmaking was truly a family business—wife Flora did the rudimentary special effects for many of his films, and daughter Susan appeared in several as well. Cheap and cheerful, they're nevertheless fun and endearing in their odd way.

The Amazing Colossal Man and War of the Colossal Beast, with the towering, disfigured Glen Manning, are two titles most people are familiar with, but Gordon was threatening the world with Earth Vs. the Spider as early as 1958, and in 1965 he provided moviegoers with ginormous Beau Bridges, Tommy Kirk and breasts (not theirs) in Village of the Giants, based on H.G. Wells' "The Food of the Gods."

In 1976, Gordon got around to making Food of the Gods with Wells' original title, and it's a hoot. A bunch of guys are on a hunting trip on a remote Canadian island where they encounter giant wasps, chickens and rats. The critters have grown to enormous size as a result of eating a mysterious "food" that has bubbled up from the ground.

I just saw the sequence in which '40s star and pioneering femme director Ida Lupino is being menaced by giant caterpillars in the kitchen of her cabin. Next, we see normal-sized rats crawling around a hilarious model of the exterior, and then a giant rat puppet starts chewing on Ida's throat. It's very bloody, but it's also ridiculous. Poor Ida. This was Pamela Franklin's last theatrical film...I wonder if the experience of making it pushed her into early retirement.

Another independent director, William Girdler, whose laff-riot Abby has been mentioned in these pages a couple of times, jumped on the bandwagon with Grizzly, a Jaws ripoff about a gigantic killer bear stalking a national park that even features Susan Backlinie, the first victim in the opening scene of Spielberg's film. The ever-reliable Christopher George, whose exploitation career was legendary, stars as a ranger trying to hunt down the renegade ursus before all the campers are eaten or flee in terror. Since the bear is supposed to be 18 feet tall, there are lots of high-up POV shots of the creature pursuing its prey.

As the opening credits roll, a helicopter (whose shadow you constantly see) is flying over the beautiful terrain while breezy '70s adventure music plays on the soundtrack. But then—when it's time to reveal the film's title, the music strikes a terrifying note. Not to worry, though...when the title has passed, the music calms down again.

This was actually a huge financial success for Girdler and Edward Montoro's Film Ventures International. Jaws had given the public a taste for animal disaster films, and Grizzly fit the bill. And, as Jaws had shocked people with its more-or-less explicit sequence featuring the shark attacking and killing a young boy, Girdler does Spielberg one better by showing a kid actually being dismembered by the bear.

I'm really intrigued by the sequel, Grizzly II: The Predator, filmed in 1983 but never released, featuring early appearances by George Clooney and Charlie Sheen! Now that I'd like to see.

Even more po'-faced is Claws, which has the distinction of being a rip-off of a rip-off (Grizzly) and a movie that most people have never seen—or even heard of. I only know of it because the television syndication company I worked for distributed it. Made in 1977, it stars Jason Evers (The Brain that Wouldn't Die) as a logger who, when he's attacked and left maimed by a bear, becomes obsessed with hunting and killing it, especially after it attacks his own son on a camping trip and the kid slips into a coma.

Now that plot sounds pretty good, doesn't it? Sort of a "Moby Dick" for the wilderness set? Well, just imagine this film made on a budget that makes Grizzly's budget look like Jaws' budget. Get it? Throw in some terrible performances and terrible direction—oh, and every single grizzly attack occurs in slow-motion and ends in a freeze-frame.

Girdler struck back with Day of the Animals, in which a bunch of hikers are attacked by animals driven wild by the depletion of the ozone layer. This film has tons of documentary footage as padding, including shots of a hawk flying over a mountain, landing in a tree, and then—in close-up—looking around and blinking with its tongue sticking out. I think there are about 650 of these shots in the film. There's also a pack of exceedingly well-groomed German Shepherds prowling around.

And those of you who are used to seeing Leslie Nielsen in his Frank Drebin-style comedy roles are in for a shock. He plays a really mean bastard who also seems to be affected by the ozone depletion, becoming more and more unhinged until finally, shirtless and sweaty, he takes on a grizzly in hand-to-hand combat. Susan Backlinie is also back for this one to get killed (again). This time, we get a POV shot of her falling off a cliff, face-up, having been attacked by a bunch of birds, but not the swooping, blinking one, I don't think.

Now I can watch this film with amusement and nostalgia for those teen years when I used to go see this crap all the time at the drive-in, but when it was first released, my reaction was boredom. Imagine my fury when—a few months later—I returned to the drive-in to see a film called There's Something Out There—and it was Day of the Animals retitled! Edward L. Montoro presents, my foot. It got to the point when I'd see certain opening logos—like Film Ventures International and the Jerry Gross Organization—and I'd groan, knowing I was in for a crappy Italian crime drama that had been advertised as a horror film, or a retitled piece of junk I'd just seen weeks before. Oh, well...that's show business.

One of my favorite environmental horror films is the tongue-in-cheek Piranha, made for Roger Corman's New World Pictures in 1978,cowritten by John Sayles, directed by Joe Dante and with music by the wonderful Pino Donaggio (Carrie, Dressed to Kill). It shamelessly throws its conservative special effects budget in our face (there are repeated shots of the killer fish, obviously painted on glass, swimming past the lens), but some of the work is quite good, and it certainly delivers on the gore. Plus, you have Corman favorite Dick Miller and the always-welcome Barbara Steele along for the ride. Reportedly the producers of Jaws were really pissed about this one, but it's actually more of a send-up than a ripoff. And frankly I find it the more entertaining of the two films.

I haven't seen the remake yet, but I intend to catch up when it's on cable. Interestingly, it's old-timer Corman himself who seems to be keeping the animals-gone-wild theme alive with his Syfy films Dinocroc, Supergator, Dinoshark and, of course, Dinocroc Vs. Supergator. I haven't seen them either, but I can imagine they all contain the requisite level of cheese.

Now that we have convincing, first-rate CGI, making environmental horror films would be a breeze. But without terrible superimposition, ridiculous puppet models and bad matte paintings, they just wouldn't have the same charm.

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