Horror films are very basic things. They’re mechanisms designed to induce simple, even primal, emotional reactions. Unease. Fear. Sometimes just nausea. Almost any filmmaker, even inexperienced and inept ones, can succeed to some degree in scaring an audience. For instance: Put a person in a room. We suspect that there’s something deadly in there. Now pull the field of vision in tight around that person, so that we can’t see much of the surrounding area in any direction. Directors have been using this set-up since movies started, and it still works. Because we’re all afraid, on some level, of the same thing: Not Knowing. That’s why popular horror film elements include the dark, deep water, and fog. After all, we can never tell, until it’s too late anyway, if there’s something out there. Or down there. Or up…Boo!
Yet, you can, if you really try, mess up even a Horror Movie. One popular method is to smother your Horror Flick with a “message.” Sure, people still debate the “meanings” of great Horror Movies. In Don Siegal’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, did the aliens represent Communists? Or perhaps they represented Anti-Communists? Both are well-argued positions. And the chaotic nihilism of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead was obviously a critique of Vietnam era America. Right? The point being that these are great Horror Films because the directors didn’t saddle them with “themes.” They’re just scary. If critics want to come along later and blather on about how it’s the “subtext” of these movies that makes them so effective, well, let them. We know that these films are scary because they were made by talented people whose sole objective was to frighten us. So just make the movies, guys. We’ll provide the “meanings” ourselves, after we leave the theaters.
In a similar vein, Big Time, or “Name” Directors also tend to spell disaster for Horror Movies. Why? Because they can’t just make them scary. As already noted, any kid can do that! Having Big Time Directors making Horror Films is like forcing a famous French Chef to make you a burger and fries. Chances are that, feeling superior to the task, he’ll attempt to transform your simple burger and spuds into a culinary Work of Art! Beaming, he brings his creation to the table, waiting for your exuberant praise. Instead, you stare at your plate, wondering where the hell the food you ordered is. So you get up and go to SuperDawg instead. At least they know what you want.
Think about the era of the Modern Horror Movie, post the collapse of the Studio System. The actual starting point of the Modern Era can be more or less pegged to the release of Night of the Living Dead. Now think of the great Horror Films since then. Almost all have been the work of young filmmakers, early in their careers, working on shoestring to moderate budgets. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Carpenter’s Halloween. Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. Alien. The Texas Chainshaw Massacre. Jaws. All the work of comparative novices, all just trying to scare the hell out of people. Compare these films with, say, Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I think you can see what I’m getting at here. (As a side note, here’s my favorite factoid about Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a movie I loathed. For months we were subjected to pompous pre-release publicity regarding the faithfulness of the movie to Stoker’s text [hence the title]. However, the film turned out to be such a travesty that they had to release a novelization of the movie, also titled Bram Stoker’s Dracula, written by another author [!!].)
All of this inevitably brings us to the decade that was most guilty of both Message mongering and Big Name directorial pretentiousness (among many other things). I speak, of course, of the 1970s. Certainly no decade was more full of its own “morality.” This made the “artists” in La-La land (cutting edge in this regard, as they remain today) ever more ready to “educate” bourgeois audience members with important “messages.” Obviously, these Artisans were superior to the kind of crap that the hicks wanted, like Westerns and Horror Flicks. (Oh, Commerce, whom doth enslave the Artist with corrupting Chains of Gold!) Well then, perhaps these sorry vehicles could be made to serve The Cause also. After all, to teach the masses you had to sometimes sink to their level.
Also (not that the Artists would be influenced by this), films like Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist and The Omen showed that you could make a boatload of money with this stuff. This piqued the attention of The Suites (those barbarians!) at The Studios, who soon forced the Creative Ones to produce similarly puerile fare. But, aah, thought that Exalted Class, let me then make lemonade with these lemons. I’ll go behind the money-grubbing backs of the philistine Suites, and use their tripe to educate and uplift The People. Even if (especially if) they don’t want to be educated. And so we end up with flicks like Prophecy, an “environmentally conscious” Horror Movie directed with ponderous, undigested dollops of “artistry” by name director John Frankenhiemer (The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May, etc.)
To give credit where it’s due, the film fails to become absolutely ridiculous for about two whole minutes (although then, all at once…Boom!). We open with a largely blank, black screen. Only the sound of strong winds keening is on the soundtrack. Slowly, bobbing dots of light are introduced, along with the sound of a dog, breathing harshly. The dots are eventually revealed to be men with flashlights and miners’ helmets. Splashes of illumination reveal that they’re in a forest. This opening admittedly goes on too long, and isn’t exactly brilliant or anything, but it does manage to create a serviceable tension.
All of which flies out the window when the lighting improves. Suddenly, we can see the dogs straining at their leads, as blaring trumpetty music erupts. This is to cue us that something “exciting” is happening. Even this, though, is, at worst, merely predictable and mediocre. But the film’s true quality is soon revealed in a remarkable shot. The dogs, ever more excited, drag their masters along faster and faster. Until, finally, it happens. The lead dog, apparently blinded by the thrill of the chase, runs straight off a cliff (!!), like Wyle E. Coyote or something. I mean, picture it in your mind (although it won’t be as goofy as actually seeing it on film). The actual shot of the prop “dog” being shot over the edge of the cliff must be seen to be disbelieved.
Somehow, the guy harnessed to the dog manages to stop before going over himself. He and his two comrades begin hauling up the whining pooch. Suddenly, just when we most expect it, the unfortunate canine gives out a yelp, and the leash snaps. Now, given this rather odd series of events, and considering that it’s pitch dark out, you might suspect that the guys would head back to base, or wait until daylight to investigate further. But no. They quickly decide that the best thing to do would be to lower two of their number down and see what’s up. They repel down the cliff-face, say about forty or fifty feet. The guy left above nervously waits.
Eventually, the silence is interrupted by faint, “horrible” screaming. So what does the last guy do? He repels down also. Luckily, they didn’t bring any more guys along. Presumably, they would have kept lowering themselves down one or two at a time until the sun rose and revealed a gorge heaped with hundreds of mutilated bodies. Also (and apparently we’re not supposed to think about this), the film’s monster as ultimately revealed proves to be nowhere near tall enough to snag a dog that was hanging forty feet or more from the bottom. I guess the filmmakers thought we’d forget about this distance by the time the monster is eventually revealed. This is known in film jargon as “cheating.”
In a truly weird sequence, we watch the sun come up in the morning. As quiet classical music plays, the screen artfully displays a montage of shots showcasing the rangers’ ravaged corpses. This includes such tasteful images as that of copious blood dripping down upon one of their helmets. Of course, the freshly dripping blood indicates that the rangers died very recently. So again, why didn’t they wait for the approaching dawn before investigating further? This scene is ultimately revealed to be a classic (and classically obtrusive) “Look at how artistic I am!” segue. We pan from the bodies and sweep across the lush forest before finally dissolving into a shot of Talia “Adrian!” Shire as Maggie. Maggie is playing the cello at an orchestral performance (hence the classical music used to “ironically counterpoint” the corpses). To the annoyance of her fellow cellist, Maggie is failing to keep up. Instead, she stares off into space distractedly. (She’s probably fantasizing about that hunky Apollo Creed again.)
Actually, we learn that she’s distracted because she’s pregnant. She hasn’t told her husband Rob yet because he’s one of those “I’m not bringing a child into this hellish world” types. He’ll insist that she get an abortion, which she doesn’t want. We then get a little speech from her friend, to make sure that we understand that the progressive filmmakers aren’t against abortion per se (heaven forbid!). Instead, the point is that it’s her body, and her decision, alone. The thought that anyone might believe that a child’s father should have some say over whether to kill it or not apparently never struck them (although in this case, it’s probably for the best). Still, Maggie defends her husband as “dedicated.”
We now see how dedicated. It turns out that Rob’s a Heroic White Doctor who ventures into Society’s Slums in order to Minister to the Underclass. (Did I mention that this film was made in the ’70s?) Hey, I wonder if he knows Dr. John “Elvis” Carpenter from A Change of Habit (see my review elsewhere)? Of course, the entire “Heroic White Guy” thing might be construed by some as patronizing (being dangerously reminiscent of Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden”). But then, it’s always been difficult to keep up with the constantly changing “rules” of progressive politics. Hopefully, it they ever remake this flick, they’ll defuse the whole issue by casting a Black actor as the husband (an “authentic” Black, too. Not some Uncle Tom, like Sidney Poitier!).
To make absolutely certain that we understand that the filmmakers are “socially aware,” we cut from an American Indian rally in front of the White House (“White” House. What a giveaway!!) to Our Hero entering an artfully squalid Black slum area. His wavy hair and unkempt beard alert us that, in spite of his suspect lack of pigmentation, this is no member of the Establishment (Right on, Doc!). He arrives at a hellhole apartment to find a (otherwise suspiciously robust) baby who’s been bitten by rats. Our Doc engages in some Righteous Dialog with the baby’s exploited mother, so that we all “get” that making people live in buildings where rats bite their babies is, you know, wrong and all. None of this is exactly subtle. Apparently, the filmmakers live by a slightly altered version of Teddy Roosevelt’s motto: “Carry a big stick, and beat the audience over the head with it at every opportunity.”
Rob’s supervisor, Vic, shows up. This allows Rob to further enlighten us with a little speech about the Evils of the System. Vic then asks Rob to take on an important task. It turns out that the Indian Rally we saw was tied in with a current court case. It seems that a Lumber Company (Boo! Hiss!) has bought some land up in Maine. The local Indian tribe claims that the land is theirs and has blockaded the area. Vic wants Rob to go up and write an Environmental Impact Report for the EPA (don’t they have their own guys for that?) that will scuttle the company’s plans for using the land when they win in court. Well, they don’t state it exactly like that, but it’s obvious that both Rob and Vic assume that the Lumber Company is the bad guy here.
If the purchase of land was legally valid (but, like, was it, uh, you know, morally valid?), then the only way to halt them is to trump up an Environmental report that will keep them from using the land in the first place. Say, did anyone else ever notice that Hollywood is itself a big industry? But, you know, not one of those Evil Industries! Like, you know, all the others (including Television). Hilariously, Vic reveals that the reason that he wants Rob on the job is that he’s so “good” with people. Vic feels that both the Indians and the Lumber Company will open up to him. Frankly, from what we’ve seen of Rob, he’s a barely contained hotheaded Radical who’s far from being good with people. One look at this guy and the Lumber Company (with good reason) would suspect that he’s out to get them and stonewall all the way.
We next see Rob and Maggie flying over the panoramic forests of Maine. Maggie is reading sheet music (because, you know, she’s a musician. I guess that means that people who read books are authors.) We can tell from her expression that she hasn’t brought up the aby-bay situation with Rob yet. When they finally land, we see another plane disgorging a telltale Happy Family that have “Victim” written all over them. They engage our protagonists in a little dialog, reemphasizing just how gol-durned Happy they are. Yeesh! Haven’t these people seen even one Horror Movie?! They might as have “Gonna die a horrible death” stenciled on their shirts.
Speaking of ready-made victims, up drives Mr. Isely, the Mill Manager for the Evil Lumber Company. There’s just no way that this guy’s going to see the end of the movie. The oddest element of this scene, though, is when the remaining dog (from the start of the movie) is flown overhead in a harness suspended from a helicopter (?). Presumably, this is to alert us that the stuff we saw in the beginning of the movie in fact ties in with the rest of the picture (duh).
Rob asks Isely about the dog (which is still flying around up there, like it’s practicing flying scenes for an all-canine presentation of Peter Pan). Isely reports that the dog is the only remaining member of a company search team that went in looking for some missing men. Rob asks how a rescue team could itself disappear, and Isely posits the theory that they were whacked by the Indian Tribe that’s blockading the forest. He goes on to relate how the Indians have been crediting the disappearances to one of their gods, the Katadin (or something. Close enough.) Holy Moly! The “Monster taken for an Ancient Deity” routine was cornball twenty years before this movie was made (for instance, see my review of The Giant Claw). Shouldn’t there be some kind of “statue of limitations” on Film Cliches?
Isely believes that the Indians are using rumors of the Katadin to scare off the superstitious lumberjacks (say, didn’t I see that exact plot on a Scooby Doo episode? Oh, wait. Duh. It would have to be the lumberjacks trying to scare off the Indians. Otherwise it wouldn’t work right politically). I think that Isely’s blaming the Indians for the disappearances is supposed to be subtly racist. But frankly, it seems a more realistic notion than, say, theorizing that a giant mutated beast is running around the forest gobbling people up. Excruciatingly, we spend the next few minutes “enjoying” travelogue-type footage of the beautiful forest (c’mon, get on it, would ya?!), as Isely drives Rob and Maggie up to their cabin.
This is interrupted (thank goodness!) by a line of Indians blocking the road. Their leader is John Hawks. This is pretty much by default, as he’s the only Indian played by a “name” actor, in this case Armand Assante. Of course, Assante is also the only “Indian” here who’s not played by, you know, an Indian. He’s apparently been awarded the Ubiquitous Ethic Status that Hollywood has afforded such other “exotic” actors as Omar Shariff, Anthony Quinn and Lou Diamond Philips. This means that whenever a script calls for say a “name” actor to portray a Spaniard, or an American Indian, or an Aztec, or a Greek, or an Israeli, or an Eskimo, or whatever, they call on one of these guys.
Isley and Hawks engage in the inevitable “The Courts said you can’t block the roads/Whose Court, White Man?” debate, until it looks like the Indians and the Company men are heading for a rumble. Of course, Rob sides with the Indians, yelling at Isely for “provoking” a fight just because his Company won some court case or something. We now witness what has to be (I would hope) the most boring Chain Saw/Axe duel in the history of cinema. Rest assured, though, that because of the musical cues helpfully provided by the filmmakers we at least know that this is supposed to be exciting. When Hawks ends up just under the spinning teeth of the chainsaw, his comrades let the trucks through.
The journey to Rob and Maggie’s cabin is completed by boat, speeding across a scenic lake (glad they could find such convenient housing for our couple). By the next shot, the couple has settled in (a camera shot prominently showcases a rifle mounted on the cabin wall, which means we’ll see it again later). Maggie practices her cello, while outside Rob catches some dinner. As he reels in a fish, we see a duck disappear from the surface of the water. Next, a “huge” fish jumps from the water near Rob’s boat.
There’s only two problems here. One, the fish, even in this quick glimpse, looks really cheesy, and it “leaps” awkwardly. Second, let me explain the concept of “scale.” Because we’re on water, and the fish leaps a ways from Rob’s boat, we can’t really tell if it’s supposed to be big, or only looks big because it leapt right in front of the camera lens. The first time I saw the film, with four other guys, this scene lead to a confused discussion about whether the fish was supposed to be large or was merely close to the camera. The only real reason that we finally decided that it was supposed to be big was in the context of the disappearing duck, which presumably it gulped up. I guess that what I’m ultimately saying is that the filmmakers could have done a better job getting the “suspiciously huge animals” ball rolling.
The filmmakers’ apparently caught on to the problem, as we are next treated to a scene of Rob repeatedly telling Maggie about how big this fish was. I guess that clears up that question. Outside, we see John Hawks spying on the cabin. Then we cut to a collage of stock shots of animals running away. This sequence is so poor that it wouldn’t have been out of place in an old “Jungle Jim” picture (substituting jungle animals for forest ones, of course). A “mysterious” rustling in the woods along with a grunting sound indicates the nearby presence of our monster. Inside, Rob and Maggie snuggle in front of the fire (er, is Rob ever going to start working on this report thingie?). Maggie brings up the idea of kids again, and Rob reiterates his “no children” position.
This leads to a short Oscar™ Clip moment. Rob stands over the fire, giving a little speech about Life and stuff. This homey scene is interrupted by a noise out on the porch. Opening the door, Rob finds a raccoon experiencing some kind of fit. Proving himself to be a city boy, Rob stands there with the door open until the ‘coon launches himself at him. Now, frankly, there’s no reason why being attacked by a raccoon shouldn’t work (they can be mean little bastards), except for inept execution, as here. First, the raccoon attack shot is sped up, to make the attack look fast (yeah, that always works. For Benny Hill, anyway.) Then, as it attacks both Rob and Maggie, we are treated to classic “actors rolling around with obviously bogus stuffed animal” shots (speaking of old Jungle Jim pictures!). The ‘coon finally ends up in the fireplace.
Next, we catch up with the DeadMeat Family. They now longer look quite as happy now that they’ve actually had to hike around for a while (not that that’ll save them – too little too late!). Dad thinks he hears something, but when his daughter turns off her radio all is quiet. They continue on, but we are let in on the fact that something is lurking amongst the trees (bum bum bum!). Meanwhile, Maggie watches a kyack race while Rob calls in to Vic. He reports that something weird is going on, and is sending in tissue samples of the raccoon to be analized (uh, can we assume he pulled it out of the fire at some point?). On his way back to Maggie, Rob is intercepted by John Hawks and Ramona, another leader of the resistance, or whatever. We waste a couple of minutes with some robotically scripted “Oppressed Indians” stuff (which certainly has some validity, although you couldn’t prove it by the stiff and pedantic dialog Assante spouts here). Rob and Maggie (who has joined them) agree to go and see what they have to show.
First, they drop by Ramona’s grandfather, M’Rai. This old gent stills lives by the “old ways,” including residing in a teepee (pu-lease!). M’Rai also mentions the series of tunnels that runs under the area (plot point!). As he talks, Ramona removes a cigarette from his hand. Although it has burned down low enough to burn his fingers, M’Rai has failed to notice (plot point!). M’Rai brings them to a special pond. He says that magical things grow there. Maggie mentions that they heard of the legend of the Katadin. M’Rai replies that it is no “legend.” He has seen it. It has awakened to protect the Tribes. Rob notices a strange bubbling in the pond, and John goes out with a net to see what’s there. Meanwhile, an increasingly worried Rob examines the abutting plant life, which is mutated. John returns to reveal a giant tadpole. Noticing clumped logs in the pond, Rob is told that the pond is feed by the river that the paper mill rests on.
On this ominous note, we cut to the Plant itself. Blaring music beats assaults us, making sure we get how the mill is, you know, evil and whatnot. As we zoom in we see that Isely is leading Rob and Maggie on a tour of the plant. Oddly, it appears that the actors are touring a real paper mill. I wonder why a real plant would give permission for a movie with such an anti-industrial bias to film on their property? And while it’s easy to make a big loud factory look unsavory, you wonder what the filmmakers’ ultimate point is. That we shouldn’t manufacture paper? Isely mentions that they use chlorine to beach the paper, but avers that none gets into the surrounding waters.
Rob asks to continue the tour. The real reason that Rob asks to continue the tour is that the film’s director obviously loved the plant as a “set.” In all, we spend seven solid minutes of screentime here, inside and out. Ultimately, Rob accuses Isely of using illegal chemicals to process the logs. Isely hotly denies it, pointing out that any such chemicals would show up during the regular analysis of the plant’s watershed. Still, as Rob and Maggie boat away, he detects a silvery material on her boots where they slipped into the mud surrounding the facility: mercury. Now, mercury is highly toxic, and one would assume that this discovery would cause the EPA to close the plant ASAP. But that would end the movie, so Rob’s investigation continues.
Cut back to the cabin. The director diligently attempts to cram a bunch of expository dialog, regarding the properties of mercury, down our throats while keeping it interesting. This involves tapes recordings and having Rob expository to Maggie from different points both inside and outside the house. Well, “A” for effort, “F” for execution. We hear how awful the stuff is, and then Rob maintains that the plant has been dumping it for over twenty years (!) now. Uh, so until this land dispute showed up, no one noticed the effects of this deadly poison on the surrounding land and population? Why haven’t people been keeling over left and right? Anyway, as the tape continues, we learn that mercury travels up the food chain. It also attacks organisms at a fetal level. In case you don’t get it: Maggie’s pregnant. And they’ve been eating fish from the lake.
Believe me, the filmmakers use that aforementioned big stick to make sure that no one misses the point. We learn that mercury is a mutagen, causing mutations in exposed fetuses. Then we move on to the utterly clichÃˆ concept regarding how a fetus goes through different “evolutionary” stages as it matures (this idea was particularly popular in movies dealing with characters regressing to cavemen and such). The Katadin is described to us as having parts of all animals. So Rob theorizes that what has appeared is a mutated something that has retained parts of all the various animal “stages” that a fetus goes through. Again, this is talked out at length, as if this will make it any more plausible.
Well, guess what? Audiences go to horror movies prepared to suspend disbelieve, wanting to suspend disbelief, if the film is even halfway decent. In other words, you’re not “convincing” the audience at any deeper level by going into such detail. You’re just boring them. In the 1950’s, animal gigantism was regularly ascribed in (seemingly) dozens of films to “radiation.” This didn’t make much sense, but that slender reed of a rationale was all the audience needed. In the 1970’s the cause of animals running amok in (seemingly) dozens of films was put down to pollution. And guess what? That’s still all we need. Just say, “Look! Mercury! Why, who knows what hideous mutations that will cause?!”, and let it go. It’s all we need. (There’s one more problem with the “Katadin” here having parts of all different animals. But for that, let’s wait until it finally appears.)
Well, in fact, that’s right now. I guess with the scientific groundwork laid, we’re ready to meet our Star. So we cut back to the DeadMeat family, snug in their sleeping bags. Sure enough, our monster appears, resulting in one of the funniest “attack” scenes ever. And while we keep hearing about the “Katadin” having parts of all different animals, well, no matter what the script says, they apparently didn’t have the money to pull it off. Instead, we’re stuck with a big mutant bear (gee, wow) that looks all gooshy, as if it’s just been scalped all over, and then melted a bit. The monster attacks, looking like what it is, a big rod-controlled puppet. In fact, in one shot, seen over the fleeing daughter’s shoulder, it looked so muppety that I started singing “It’s time to start the music/It’s time to light the lights…”.
However, it’s Sonny Boy who gets the award for the film’s silliest death scene (an impressive award in this flick). With the zipper stuck on his bright yellow sleeping bag, Jr. tries to hop away from our monster. Alas, he gets body slammed, causing him to rocket into a boulder. Upon hitting this rock, his sleeping bag-encased body explodes into a mass of feathers. Believe, as goofy as this sounds, it looks worse. On this the scene ends, as we watch the feathers waft softly to the ground (how, er, poetic).
Rob and Maggie are next collecting blood samples from the local Indians. However, they are interrupted when Isely shows up with the sheriff. Somehow, he has convinced the law to bring in some of the Indians on suspicion of murder. Now, considering the way these people died, it seems unlikely that anyone could possibly maintain that the deaths were by human hands. Still, knowing he find no justice in the White Man’s court (wow!), John Hawks escapes into the woods, eluding pursuit. Meanwhile, Rob wants to check out the “murder” site, so he, Maggie and Ramona are soon aloft in a helicopter (where did he get a hold of that?).
They set down at the attack scene. However, a bad storm is approaching, and the pilot warns that they’ll have to take off again in a couple of minutes. While the bodies are gone, Rob and Ramona notice a series of marks slashed deeply into the surrounding trees, a good ten feet off the ground. Ramona notes that bears make such marks, but of course not so deep or high. Rob finds a largish sample of hair and flesh (the local cops must have a crackerjack forensics department), which Ramona notes is from no bear. John Hawks now shows up, presumably looking for evidence to clear him of the crime. Uh, how long did it take to rent that copter? I mean, would Hawks really arrive on foot at the same time they did by air?
Inside the helicopter, the pilot prattles on to distract the nauseous Maggie (what about us? We’re nauseous, too). He points out poachers’ nets in a nearby river, set to collect anything floating downstream (plot point!). Maggie leaves the copter for some fresh air, in spite of the pouring rain. With nothing else to do (besides, it was in the script), Maggie walks over to the nets. Her shocked cries brings Rob, Hawks and Ramona running. There they see her discovery: two mutated baby bears entangled in the nets. Of the two, one is still alive, mewling pathetically. Hmm, this could be the evidence that Rob needs. (Of course, there’s also Horror ClichÃˆ™ #293 to consider: never take a baby monster with you, because…) Again, as with mama, you don’t exactly need to be the Master Historian of Puppetainia to recognize the technique used to, uh, realize the mutated little bear.
Unbelievably, John and Rob tuck the bears inside their jackets to carry with them (yuck!). Rob says they need to keep the living one alive for evidence, but why couldn’t they just take the dead one for that? Obviously, an autopsy would reveal it’s abnormalities. Back at the copter our heroes learn that they’re stuck. The storm is too violent to allow them to take off (bad news for the pilot. After all, Horror Movie ClichÃˆ™ #86 states that superfluous characters can pretty much kiss their butts good-bye. Not to mention Horror Movie ClichÃˆ™ #144: Any side character who can possibly rescue or provide needed transportation to endangered Main Characters can pretty much kiss their butts good-bye). Rob asserts the need to find shelter, so as to keep the baby bear alive.
The only available shelter within walking distance is (hey, whaddya know?) the little Teepee complex where M’Rai lives. So off they go. Arriving at the village, Rob commandeers a teepee. Some of the Indians are sent to bring back the authorities. Rob begins ministering to the mutant bear cub, working to keep it alive. Maggie, meanwhile, stares dazedly at the mutated youngster. Of course, we understand why, but since she still has yet to inform Rob about her pregnancy (!), he’s confused by her reaction. By the way, here’s a tip for all you young Monster Movie makers: Let’s say you’ve constructed a “monster,” whether via a mask, or makeup, or, perhaps, a puppet of some sort. Then let’s posit that it’s, perhaps, something less than lifelike.
In this case, it’s generally to your advantage not to film it in a series of well-lit close-ups. Because when you do, you make it difficult for your audience to continue suspending disbelieve. And ironically, the better the actors are, the harder suspending disbelief becomes. By which I mean that if the monster is really, really phony looking, the audience will tend to wonder why the characters themselves don’t realize how goofy the monster is. After all, it’s pretty obvious to us out here. You start wondering why they aren’t humiliated at being threatened by such obviously ridiculous beasties. “Hey, I’m not going to get killed by that, am I?!” I mean, you get offed by King Kong, hey, at least that’s kind of cool. But getting whacked by, say, a Killer Shrew, or the Giant Gila Monster, only adds insult to injury.
Later that night, things have stabilized. The storm has passed, and an I.V. set-up (!) is keeping little Kermit in the pink. A prolonged camera shot lingers on some bows and arrows (bows and arrows!), just to establish their presence. Noticing Maggie’s distress, Rob takes her out for a stroll. She finally (finally!) takes the opportunity to drop her little bombshell. This sets up an Oscar™ Clip moment for actress Talia Shire, as Maggie rails at the injustice of it all. “Why didn’t I know?”, the stunned Rob gasps to himself. “You didn’t want to know!”, wheezes the distraught Maggie. “You were too busy playing God to be a human being!” (Wow!)
Needless to say, Rob is a little nonplussed. Still, you have to give Maggie an “A” for perseverance: She still intends to have the baby (!). Just then, Ramona calls Rob back to the teepee. Apparently, our little articulated tyke is feeling better. As Rob examines it, Isely and the Sheriff drive up. John Hawks, still running from the law, ducks down into the tunnel system under the teepees (remember?). Rob confronts Isely with the results of his malfeasance. Grabbing the ashen Isely, Rob demands to know if he knew about this. “I didn’t want to now,” Isely confesses. (Hey, just like Rob didn’t want to know that Maggie was preggers! How artistic!)
Now that all our potential victims are gathered in one place, it’s time for Mama Bear to show up. We see a furry figure lurking in the trees. But, Ha! It’s only granddad M’Rai wrapped in a bear fur coat. However (now that we’re “off guard”), a second later a tree is knocked over, revealing Our Star. Various extras start falling to our puppetty predator. M’Rai is somewhat bewildered, trying to figure out why the Katadin, here to protect his people, is instead turning them into Purina Puppet Chow. A fuel drum keels over, starting a fire. This provides some rather perfunctory pyrotechnic “excitement” to the scene: a guy catches fire, a car explodes, etc.
Hilariously, Rob runs into the teepee and grabs Yogi Jr., which is about the absolute last thing I’d have thought of. John Hawks pokes his head up, shouting for the others to head down into the tunnels (boy, have those turned out to be convenient!). Curiously, we see characters running for what seems to be dozens of yards across a compound that maybe measures fifteen feet. The pilot gets slashed, but the fuel drums explode, distracting our Bruiny Beast. Rob manages to grab him and drop him down into the tunnel. Just then, Mama tears into the teepee to get at Rob. This is certainly “in tents.” (Ha! My little joke.) Not too surprisingly, Rob makes it down safely.
After a time, it sounds like Mama has moved off. As they wait anxiously, Baby Bear starts making noise (why the HELL did they bring that thing into the tunnel with them? Would anybody be that stupid?) We are now subjected to a long, “artistic” series of facial and ocular close-ups of the various characters as they hold their breath, listening for Mama. This sequence helps us visualize what the climatic gunfight in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly would have been like, had director Sergio Leone been a talentless idiot. Now, in real life you’d probably stay down there a spell. Instead, our characters decide to check out the situation after around a whole two minutes of quiet.
Since it’s the Sheriff, an obviously minor and expendable character, who proceeds to stick his head up out of the tunnel, I think you can guess what’s going to happen. And gee, since the soundtrack has been silent for a while, I wonder if we’ll be “startled” by a sudden, loud Monster noise or something. Sure enough, the Sheriff soon falls back down the hole, wearing a mightily unconvincing “slashed face” mask. Aiii-eee!! At this point, apparently tired of waiting, Mama grabs her other, dead, baby and shambles off (very unconvincingly too, I might add). In what’s only the latest of director John Frankenhiemer’s series of pointlessly over-“artistic” camera shots, the shocked M’Rai watches, as reflections of the fire plays upon this eyeglass lenses, right over his eyes. Yawn!! Look, you’re not fooling anybody. It’s a Mutant Bear movie! You can “art” it up all you want, and it’ll still be a Mutant Bear movie! Just deal with it!
In the morning, the survivors leave the tunnels. The pilot is grievously wounded, and needs medical attention ASAP. The closet settlement is Hawk’s Indian village, but they have no communications gear (They don’t have phones? Or a radio?!). Therefore, even once they get there, it’ll be hours more before any help can be gotten. (By the way, isn’t anyone looking for the missing Sheriff and deputy?) Isely, in a penitent mood because, you know, his plant is the cause of all this, offers to run off to a “Microwave Tower,” five or six miles off. There he can radio for help. Say, aren’t there any manned Ranger Stations in these woods? This whole set-up is just too phony for words. The Indians have cars, don’t they? But they don’t have phones?!
We waste some time cutting back and forth between the main group and Isely. Isely finally nears the Microwave Tower, only to stumble over the dead bear cub that we saw Mama take off with. So, in over 800 square miles of forest, Mama just happened to decide to head over to the Microwave Tower. Maybe she intended to make a call herself, to get a veterinarian for her kid. Anyway, as you might have guessed, Isely pays for his crimes in the most obvious way possible. First, the “Chase.” Of course, he almost makes it inside the Tower fence, only to get caught at the very last second! (How “suspenseful”.) And, since the “Microwave Tower” is conveniently unmanned, no outside authority has yet been alerted to our heroes’ predicament.
The gang make it to the village, which is mysteriously deserted. They settle the pilot in one of the deserted houses. Meanwhile, Hawks scouts around. He returns with news of a heavy construction vehicle left about a mile from the village. He’ll run back with tools and get it started. Then they can (slowly) drive into town. The truck is soon up and running, and the journey begins. Night falls as they continue through the woods. This goes on for a while, ratcheting up the “suspense” before the inevitable attack (oops, hope I didn’t blow anything for you).
Of course, if they’re trying to avoid Mama, maybe they should stop hauling HER BABY around with them (in fact, the only reason they still have it is to make it even vaguely plausible that Mama would pop up in their area). Finally, after over three solid minutes of “driving through the woods” footage, Mama finally shows up (thank goodness!). Mama immediately knocks over the “tank-like” vehicle. As if on cue, Baby Bear attacks, savagely biting Maggie. Gee, kids today, huh? No gratitude at all. Everyone runs off, except for the pilot, whose stretcher is strapped to the overturned truck. Mama gets to him, and let’s just say that he won’t be “heading” off into the Wild Blue Yonder anytime soon.
Off they run, pursued by Mama. They run into the lake, and dive in. Hilariously, we discover that Maggie is still clutching Jr., who’s still biting into her neck. Given that the Jr., puppet comes equipped with inch long fangs, one must marvel at Maggie continued vitality. Finally, noticing his wife’s plight, Rob swims back to help her out. He pretends to struggle with his inanimate foe, finally managing to subdue it.
Meanwhile, M’Rai plays out his obligatory role. In a plot device as hoary as they come, he must confront his “god,” and be destroyed by it. This he does, if in singularly goofy fashion. (Apparently, he turned into a mannequin and was waved to death by a Mechanical Bear offshoot of the more popular Mechanical Horse, ala Urban Cowboy.) Now, it was pretty hard to swallow when Isely just happened to bump into Mama near the Microwave Tower. And then Mama just happened to come across the characters’ escape vehicle. So imagine how even more unbelievable it is when it turns out that, after the characters drove through the woods for hours, they end up being attacked right by Rob and Maggie’s lakefront cabin! Gee, lucky break for them, huh. They swim across the lake, landing exhausted onto the pier.
But Mama just keeps on coming. They watch her come across, until she sinks below the surface. Then, rather than running inside, they all sit waiting for her to come bursting up out of the water. Finally taking this for their cue, they scoot. In the film’s funniest line, Rob shouts, “Let’s bear-acade this place!” (I know, I know, but that’s exactly how it sounds.) In a scene that plays like an incredibly inept homage to Night of the Living Dead, the characters stack flimsy furniture against the doors and windows. Rob grabs the rifle (the one the camera lingered on earlier in the movie) off the wall, but there are only two cartridges in the box.
They fall to the center of the floor, waiting. After another “tense” period of silence, Mama crashes her way through the ceiling. Hawk notches up an arrow, while Rob fires a bullet into Mama’s throat. Mama falls away. Gee, is she dead? Is the movie over? (No such luck.) Mama suddenly explodes her way through the cabin wall. Rob fires his last shot, while Hawk unleashes a series of arrows. No good, of course. As they run from the cabin, Hawk get nailed by Mama. He flies a good twenty feet on wires and lands DOA. For those keeping track, that leaves Rob, Maggie and Ramona.
Now, I know that those of little faith undoubtedly thought that the film couldn’t get any stupider. Well, guess what. Mama, who in pretty much every attack we’ve seen (because they can only move their marionette in so many ways) always swats her victims to death, unwisely decides to change tactics. Instead, she grabs Rob and holds him up to her face. Unfortunately for her, Rob has grabbed an arrow and proceeds to take advantage of the situation by stabbing Mama repeated in the head. Of course, Mama could just drop him, but apparently she’s the stubborn type. She probably thought she could crush him to death before he could do much damage, but was unaware of Horror Movie ClichÃˆ #47, which states that it takes at least ten times longer to kill the hero (or his girlfriend) than anyone else in the picture.
Betrayed by her ignorance of movie trivia, Mama at last expires. This is “realized” by having what looks like (I swear!) a teddy bear crash over onto a really bad miniature of the pier (which, when you think about it, is exactly what they used). Now, remember how earlier I pointed out that the whole White Guy coming to the rescue of the persecuted minorities thing could be construed as patronizing? Well, how about this: A White Guy from the city comes to the woods. There a monster has been killing a bunch of Indians who have lived in the forest all their lives. White City Boy then grabs an Indian weapon (which he’s never used before) and kills the monster single-handedly. Hmm, no, that’s not unlikely.
We end on a shot of Rob and Maggie flying back to civilization. But wait, could there be one last “surprise” shock left? Unfortunately, yes. As we watch the plane peacefully fly offscreen over the majestic forest *SUDDENLY!* another mutant bear shoves his face into the camera. Wow. They must have spent a lot of time coming up with that! I mean, another mutant bear. Very, uh, original. Keep up the good work, guys. Oh, and don’t call us. We’ll call you.
While no specific scene comes to mind, one must honor the performance of star Robert Foxworth, who plays Rob here. It’s a performance of literally eye-popping intensity, reminiscent of how Silent Film actors played characters like Rasputin or John Brown at Harper’s Ferry. Foxworth’s Rob is so intense with self-righteousness that one expects any object he glances at to burst into flames. The “Rebel” Beard and Haircut aren’t helping any either.