Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Swarm (1978) dir. Irwin Allen

Logline: African killer bees attack a small town and then the world, declaring all-out insect war on the human race. Assorted big name actors hem and haw over a course of action. People hallucinate giant bees hovering over their beds.

Animal of Choice: A swarm of African (or Brazilian) killer bees that have migrated to the United States.

Thinking Ecologically: Ecological concerns are present, but also conveniently brushed over whenever the plot dictates. For instance, Michael Caine's character must convince the military not to airdrop liquid poison on the bees, as it will kill all normal honey bees as well, and hence kill crops (due to a lack of fertilization) and then humans (due to a lack of crops). Makes sense, but then Caine resolves to drop poison in pellet form on the bees (which doesn't work). How exactly does he know that other creatures won't gobble up the pellets by mistake? Another moment when the film neglects the ecological consequences of an event if when the bees-- somehow-- blow up a nuclear power plant. We're told the number of people who died in the blast, but we're not told (nor do any of the characters appear concerned) about the lingering environmental effects of having a goddamn nuclear power plant blow up. The remaining military-affiliated survivors ultimately kill the bees by pouring oil on the ocean and lighting it (and the bees resting on its surface) on fire. Success!

Thinking About Animals: For the most part, the African killer bees exist as a "moving black mass," deliberately attacking all in its path. (Its first appearance, kamikaze buzzing its way into the cockpit windows and the engines of two helicopters, reminds me of a very similar scene from the Japanese film Genocide (1968), which is as a bit like The Swarm on the whole except that it was made a decade earlier and isn't terrible). But calling them a migrating "black mass"-- one that has infiltrated the United States, patiently waiting to rebel against humankind (particularly small town America) while reproducing and shifting the demographics of the dueling populations-- takes on an off-putting connotation when Richard Widmark's character, General Slater, repeatedly growls and calls them "the Africans," like when he exclaims, "No more Africans!" Richard Chamberlin's character attempts to explain that the bees should actually be called "Brazilian bees," considering their genetic heritage stems from the crossbreeding of African and Western honey bees in that country, but this factoid doesn't deter anyone from pondering how to kill all them "Africans." I don't know if there's much to be made from this observation. Then again, in a cast as large as this one I was only able to spot a few black actors, all of whom were background extras. But then, the bees also reenforce their hives with chewed up plastic cups, so if they exist in the film as some sort of nefarious metaphor, then it's a pretty weird one. Yes, there is so little of interest transpiring in the film that I'm reduced to imagining it as a racist fever dream.

Evaluation in Brief: Producer and director Irwin Allen, known for his work spearheading big-budget big-star disaster films of the 1970s like The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974), decided to capitalize on the Animal Terror genre by combining it with the slackening genre that he helped create. The result, 1978's The Swarm, is a perfect storm of boredom. A box office flop upon its initial theatrical release, one can only really find the film these days in its extended cut, which clocks in at an excruciating, nearly unfathomable 156 minutes. One feels every second of the endless sequences of its near-geriatric stars (Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda, Cameron Mitchell) standing around bickering in the same cheap sets and the belabored tangent of a subplot concerning a folksy love triangle between three more (Olivia de Havilland, Ben Johnson, Fred MacMurray). The action bits, though not always poorly filmed, are sparse in comparison to the rambling exposition and emotionless character development. Most of the actors seem as bored as we are. There are a couple laughs to be had (three children hiding in overturned trash cans to escape the swarm; Michael Caine giving Katharine Ross a brief "Life May Survive" speech as a raging firestorm is rear-projected behind him), but take away a couple and you still have 154 grimaces and watch glances.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Empire of the Ants (1977) dir. Bert I. Gordon

Logline: Land developer Marilyn Fryser (Joan Collins) carts a group of prospective buyers over to her worthless island property. What remains unclear is if the land's value increases or decreases upon the discovery of a colony of gigantic mutant ants that have taken up residence.

Animal of Choice: Sometimes horse-sized, sometimes elephant-sized mutant ants.

Thinking Ecologically: Over the opening credits, a group of men in radiation suits stand on a ship out at sea and roll barrel upon barrel of radioactive toxic waste into the ocean. One of these barrels washes up on shore, begins to leak, infects ants. There you have it. What's notable about this ecological disaster is how forthright and uncomplicated it is. Generally the disaster or pollution in this sort of film is caused through ignorance or accident, which creates a sense of unease as it forces the viewer to question what sort of unknown pollution could be affecting their own world. Here, the pollution is deliberate and unambiguous, sucking some of the real world dread out of things. We never discover who these polluters are or what their game is. What a loss. (One other small point: it's fitting that a sleazy land developer and her clients end up as the mutant ants' victims, though the film never bothers making this connection as wickedly clever as it might.)

Thinking About Animals: Some opening narration over stock footage announces that ants will be the "next dominant life form of our planet," taking pains to draw parallels between the actions and behaviors of ants and humans. Upon concluding, the narrator asks, rhetorically, "Scary, isn't it?" Maybe, until we actually meet the mutant ants. They're big, hairy, clumsy brutes who mostly scream like insectile banshees and appear to walk on hind legs. For most of the film they're a disappointment: where's the strategy for world domination fueled by the collective mind of the colony, as our narrator promised? We don't see much of this until the end, when the survivors discover that the ants have taken over the minds and wills of the occupants of the island's town through use of their queen's pheromones. The townspeople are dosed with the pheromones weekly, convincing them that they must work to serve and protect the queen (primarily by keeping the colony well fed by way of the local sugar refinery). This is a fun idea, though its execution reeks of lazy 1950s science fiction motion pictures. The ants are never threatening or interesting. The odd ways in which the real-life ant footage is cut into the film makes it so that the ants hardly even ever act like ants. The film's best scene is one in which the survivors stumble across a conflict between some black and red ants in the middle of the forest. It works because, for a moment, we can pretend we're watching a nature documentary and not Empire of the Ants.

Evaluation in Brief: Director Bert I. Gordon's late career is a holdover from the 1950s' science fiction monster fad. During that decade and part of the one following, he developed a dubious reputation for making films about super-sized monsters, like War of the Colossal Beast (1958) and Attack of the Puppet People (1958), with rear projection and trick photography techniques. They were dreadful films, existing solely for their visual gimmicks, and popular appraisal has not treated them kindly (eight of Gordon's films appeared on Mystery Science Theater 3000, eclipsing the contributions of any other director). Though still making films throughout the '70s, he hadn't made a giant-sized film since 1965's Village of the Giants, and it appears as if the Animal Terror boom of the latter part of the decade encouraged American International Pictures to give him the opportunity to flex his meager talents once again with The Food of the Gods (1976) and Empire of the Ants (1977), both of which purport to be adaptations of tales by H.G. Wells (they're not). Suffice it to say, Gordon's bag of tricks does not translate particularly well into the context of the late '70s. Empire of the Ants is simplistic, hokey dreck that would perhaps seem charming if it didn't already appear so desperate to connect with a modern movie-going audience by throwing in some halfhearted attempts at sex and gore. It's so out of step in its generic storytelling that it feels as if it's been brought to the '70s in a time machine and left with the instructions that it should-- in order to avoid influencing the future-- inspire the interest of absolutely no one. Not even Joan Collins could save it.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Frogs (1972) dir. George McCowan

LoglineThe wealthy Crockett family has gathered at their secluded island estate to celebrate the Fourth of July and the birthday of their patriarch, Jason Crockett (Ray Milland). It would be a joyous festivity if not for the steady mysterious disappearances of guests and the incessant croaking of those beady-eyed amphibians staring through the windows...

Animal(s) of Choice: All of them. Frogs, lizards, snakes, alligators, spiders, scorpions, leeches, birds, turtles, and crabs.

Thinking Ecologically: Jason Crockett is peeved with what he notices is an increased frog population around his island estate. Feeling that their nonstop croakings ruin the ambiance of his yearly celebration, he hires a man to spray pesticides in and around the lake. As a last ditch effort he also considers pouring oil into the lake, which will certainly thin out the frogs along with most other lifeforms. Crockett proudly declares, "I still believe man is the master of the world" and his actions demonstrate as much when he attempts frog genocide merely because of their unpleasant noise. When Pickett Smith (Sam Elliott), an environmentalist photo journalist, asks Crockett why he can't attempt to live with the frogs in harmony, Crockett grunts, "you call that racket harmony?" It would be a little easy to read Crockett having "overdone it with pesticides" as the sole cause of the particular animal revolt highlighted in Frogs, but it seems more apt (especially in light of the presumed apocalyptic conclusion for this cinematic world) that he is instead emblematic of the general human response to the environment, which rarely considers the welfare of the little creatures in its all-consuming antropocentrism.

Thinking About Animals: As mentioned above, the film features more than just frogs wreaking swampy revenge. So why a title focusing on only a singular species? The frogs are certainly central to the Crocketts' dilemma and they're always seen hopping about somewhere in the background of every scene, but they take a passive, unobtrusive role when it comes to the actual violence (barring the final scene, in which they hop on a man en masse and kill him. I think). Instead, the cavalcade of other vengeful animals (primarily snakes and lizards, probably because they were the cheapest and easiest to handle) seem almost as if they're in the employ of the frogs and are doing the amphibians' dirty work for them as they sit out of reach, observing and ribbiting. (The violence these animals perpetrate on their human victims is, on the film's shoestring budget, often amusing. For instance, one guest of the island is killed in a greenhouse when a handful of lizards invade and deliberately knock vials containing poisonous gases off of shelves).

One other bit of perplexing animal-related business that's less explicable than odd and noteworthy: Unsurprisingly, Crockett has an array of stuffed safari animals heads lined up on his study's wall, and the film's closing scene pulls the peculiar move of including a bunch of quick zooms of these stationary heads each accompanied with the incorrect animal sound (imagine seeing a lion clucking). Does this moment speak to the unity of animals against humankind, intimating that they've become a single, multi-headed organism seeking revenge? Does it instead imply Crockett's general ignorance of animal life? Is it a simple audio mistake? You've got me stumped.

Evaluation in Brief: Besides Night of the Lepus (1972), Frogs is the only other pre-Jaws Animal Terror film I've covered this month. That said, it's interesting to see how much debt some of the post-Jaws slate of films owe to earlier Ecological Apocalypse films like Frogs as opposed to the Unstoppable Creature model that Jaws ushered in. Despite its misleading title, Frogs would find its closest descendents in films like Day of the Animals (1977) and Long Weekend (1978), with their mutual emphasis on the entirety of nature turning foul-- rather than a lone isolated species-- and the consequences of this ecological shift proving cataclysmic for human life on Earth. Unfortunately, Frogs is a lot less interesting and thematically rich than those later films. The animal attacks are goofy and bereft of tension, composed as they are of long scenes of the human victims stumbling through the woods from one snake to another. One of these attacks is so bizarrely filmed that it's tough to be certain whether or not the victim is being ravaged by a group of spiders or steadily piling grass. Sam Elliott goes through the motions of playing our brooding hero, while Ray Milland hams it up and without an ounce of irony foreshadows James Mason's cantankerous plantation owner from the later Mandingo (1975). The film plays its hokey moments of non-terror straight, which in situations like this generally lend a film a bit of unintentional humor to the general humorlessness. An accidental chuckle or two will indeed spring forth, but Frogs is neither the somber and serious ecological warning it aspires to nor the camp classic one would imagine it to be.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Slugs (1988) dir. Juan Piquer Simon

Logline: The sewers of a small town (formerly a toxic waste dump) are oozing flesh-eating slugs into the daily lives of the unsuspecting populace. With any luck, the county health inspector, Mike Brady (Michael Garfield), will follow the slime trail of clues back to the source in time and save the townsfolk from having their bones stripped clean by these horrific gastropods.

Animal of Choice: Thick and juicy mutant Black slugs that have graduated from plants and carrion to living human prey.

Thinking Ecologically: Wishing to pave no new ground, Slugs relies on the tired formula that films from the subgenre were employing a decade prior. The ecological catastrophe plugged in this time is that the afflicted town was built on a toxic waste dump that plastic and chemical factories contributed to throughout the 1950s and 1960s, when them dang pesky regulations were a bit looser. Somehow, the toxic waste and its gases infected a population of black slugs living and multiplying in the sewers. Post-mutation, the slugs then lash out against the careless species that created them. In addition, we have the requisite health inspector and science-y types who attempt to tell those in charge of the town about the problem only to be rebuffed and ignored in the interest of securing the town's economic betterment. Also typically, the heroes have little issue with destroying half the town to rid it of the slug menace, here by setting the sewer on fire with a combustible "lithium-based arsenic," resulting in manholes and houses throughout the town exploding in fireballs. That's certainly one way to achieve a clean ecological slate.

Thinking About Animals: Again we find a film invoking the mutant clause, allowing its filmmakers full carnivorous rein in whatever flights of fancy they would like to attach to their slug antagonists. Consequently, several attacks fail to make much sense, even when evaluated on the film's imagined slug physiology, like when a teenaged boy is (presumably) pulled off a boat by the slugs into a lake and turned into a bubbling blood geyser. How they pulled him from the boat, how they devoured him so quickly, and how they survived in a lake without drowning are mysteries we'll simply have to live with. More moments follow this opening bit of nonsense (a chopped up salad slug that lives on in the belly of a man who unknowingly swallowed it; a slug sliding into a garden glove and latching on in an unbreakable death grip to the human hand that soon enters), but as usual it's those moments of slug fact that prove most unnerving, like the existence of many rows of teeth attached to their mouths' radula and their possession of a hermaphroditic nature (their ability to self-fertilize and reproduce without a mate makes them tough to eradicate and sets us up in the film's final shot for a non-existent sequel).

Though we're shown a single slug being deadly enough, the film often relies on gathering together large numbers of the creatures in order to make them scary, which is never quite accomplished. Icky, for sure, but there's something inherently ridiculous about the notion of killer slugs, especially as late as 1988 when almost every other type of believably threatening animal had already been tackled by the subgenre. The film is aware of this, highlighting as much late in the film with a self-deprecating meta moment in which the incredulous sheriff sputters in disbelief, "Killer slugs, ferchristssakes? What'll it be next, demented crickets?"

Lastly, it must be pointed out that we've stumbled onto yet another film that's uninterested in protecting the lives of its non-human cast. A handful of real slugs are stomped, dissected, and exploded, so if such images are likely to upset you then your slug-centric thrills are best sought elsewhere. Though the carnage is minimal compared to some other of the subgenre's animal rights deniers (Kingdom of the Spiders (1977), I'm glaring at you), slugs nonetheless die in this film for entertainment purposes and that's always a suspect motivation.

Evaluation in Brief: From the director of sleazy slasher classic Pieces (1982) comes this month's first and assuredly only Animal Terror splatter film: Slugs: The Movie (that's the full title, as per the opening credits). That wily Spaniard creates a fascinating conglomeration of the two subgenres that never gels into a wholly cohesive film but nonetheless produces one delectable 90-minute piece of cinematic trash. It's rather jarring when what we've been watching up to a certain point-- a by-the-books ecological horror film in line with any of those more mundane entries from the late '70s-- explodes into fountains of gore, with scenes of a man messily hacking his own arm off with a hatchet and a diner at a restaurant vomiting blood into his wine glass before his eyeball explodes. These strange visual and tonal juxtapositions are supplemented by impressive practical effects, inane dialogue, flat acting, and prehistoric gender politics. The other European takes on the genre that I've covered this month-- Tintorera (1977), Rats - Night of Terror (1984), Tentacles (1977)-- only capture fleeting aspects of that distinctive (and oddly comforting) Eurotrash vibe. Slugs is the whole slimy package.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Ticks (1993) dir. Tony Randel

Logline: The careless leaking of chemical growth enhancers in California's forest region by illegal marijuana growers has mutated the local ticks into oversize, gooey bloodsuckers. These voracious insects will force a group of troubled misfit teens from the city-- who are participating in a wilderness program-- to take their survival expedition a little more seriously.

Animal of Choice: A forest full of ticks, "the vampires of the insect world," pumped up on chemical steroids and thirstier than ever.

Thinking Ecologically: The mutant tick menace has been created by (who else) Clint Howard. His character is an illegal marijuana grower with a hydroponic shack deep in a Californian forest outside of Los Angeles. He's constructed a Rube Goldberg-esque steampunk fertilizer machine that sprays his crops with "chemical enhancements," an herbal steroid that resembles thick green sludge. His machine springs a leak which drips a steady stream of the chemical sludge onto a tick egg sac, encouraging the sickening and unnatural growth of the insects inside. Somehow, the mutated tick eggs then wind up spreading all over the forest (from rocks to trees to cabin closets), presenting a threat for the film's characters in any location.

The main characters, most of whom are teenaged participants in an Inner City Wilderness Project expedition, characterize the forest as a terrible place to be in compared to the relative urban splendor of their Los Angeles home. The project leader's daughter asks of her comrade what others could possibly find to be so inspiring and poetic about the wilderness, and then describes her own impression of it being "suffocating, vile, and full of rot." The film doesn't exactly prove her wrong. Early on, the project leader notes to himself that the teens have been infected with "urban living" and its "every man for himself instinct," making it unlikely for any bonding to take place among them. However, nature does change them: they bond and unite through mutual hatred of the "vile rot" that natures throws at them, resulting in them going so far as to burn most of the forest down in order to destroy the dangers that lurk within. The film's closing shots are gorgeous overhead views of the city (Los Angeles has rarely looked so pretty) as the characters return home to their comfortable urban existences. There's nothing like a death-filled jaunt through the woods to make you appreciate all that you have back in civilization!

Thinking About Animals: With the spread of Lyme disease in recent years, ticks have scuttled their way to the top of many personal Least Liked Insects lists, but concerns over them were clearly less specific in the early 1990s so Ticks primarily plays off the natural ick factor of hard-to-squish bugs that suck your blood. To make them a good deal more threatening, the film increases their size to that of a rat or large toad, grants them the ability to burrow and scurry around under their victims' skin, and makes them more active blood hunters, no longer waiting patiently in tall grass but pursuing over distances and dropping from ceilings. Another added aspect to the mutant tick physiology (though one not explored nearly enough) is that the strengthened neurotoxin that their bite imparts causes hallucinations in their victims. Like in most other Mutant Animal Terror films, playing the mutant card allows the filmmakers to avoid the reality of ticks and create purebred monsters that merely bear the same name. But one of the creepiest moments of tick action is also the most realistic: one of the characters, when attempting to pull a mutant tick off of himself, ends up pulling the body off but leaving the hungry head still latched on with its mandibles' death grip. Sure, the head then proceeds to crawl around under the flesh of this character and eventually (through the aid of oral steroids) emerge from the shell of his body as a even bigger MegaTick, but for a moment the horror was vaguely grounded.

Evaluation in Brief: Though a product of the early '90s, Tony Randel's Ticks is fundamentally similar to its forebears in its general approach to Animal Terror (ecological disaster --> change in animal behavior --> mysterious animal/human deaths --> all out human war against the affected creatures). The most significant differences between Ticks and similar films from the '70s and '80s would be a) its vibrant Nickelodeon color palette, and b) a plethora of slimy, icky, putrid, oozy gore. The film's eponymous creatures are birthed out of leaky, puss-filled egg sacs, and when they bite their victims the disgusting results fall somewhere just shy of the Body Horror realm. Ticks is not complex horror filmmaking, but it entertains and grosses out at precisely the levels it intends to. With Seth Green, Alfonso Ribeiro, Mickey Dolenz's daughter, and the rest of the cast giving likeable performances, the film neglects to kill most of them off and this doesn't bother us, enjoying as we have been their lighthearted bonding through adversity. For a horror film, that's a sign of a certain quality. It was released this past week on Blu-ray courtesy of Olive Films with a rather vibrant transfer and director commentary. It comes recommended.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Nightwing (1979) dir. Arthur Hiller

Logline: A dying Native American medicine man's spell may or may not have unleashed a colony of literally bloodthirsty vampire bats on a Hopi Indian reservation in New Mexico. Regardless, the bats have tossed aside their usual cattle snacks for more challenging human prey. What to do about this dilemma sets the leaders of two tribes in the reservation at odds, but they'll have to join together if they hope to avoid the fangs of a cruel death.

Animal of Choice: Thousands of bubonic plague-carrying vampire bats that may also be the harbingers of the end of the world.

Thinking Ecologically: The central ecological issue in the film is curious because of how completely the character's actions regarding it ignore actual ecology. We witness a philosophical disagreement between a reservation deputy, Youngman Duran (Nick Mancuso), and a Tribal Councilman, Walker Chee (Stephen Macht), about the fate of some recently discovered oil shale located in the reservation's sacred canyon. Duran (and his tribe's elder, the medicine man Abner (George Clutesi)) wish to see the canyon untouched at all costs. Chee, who views himself as a progressive, cosmopolitan representative for the tribes, wishes to sell mining rights to an oil company so that he can use the money and recognition to bring his people into the modern world and provide them with resources currently unavailable to them. (Though Chee himself proves to be less than honorable, his argument that the standard of living for the tribes could be improved by this sale isn't totally without merit).

One would imagine that part of Duran and Abner's insistence on maintaining the canyon as it is and as it always has been would be the desire to preserve its geographic structure along with its desert flora and fauna. But no: to prevent the oil company's mining, our heroes Duran and Abner conspire (the former through action, the latter through ghostly spirit) to destroy the canyon. By setting the underground bat cave on fire with the shale and the bat's ammonia-like droppings, Duran and Abner reduce the bat colony to cinders and set the entire canyon ablaze, resulting in a fire near-apocalyptic in size that Duran triumphantly touts "will burn forever." It's troubling that our supposed heroes would value the symbolic significance of the canyon over its physical existence, and are more than willing to sacrifice the land itself for the notion of its purity.

Thinking About Animals: The bats of Nightwing might be the film's least interesting feature. Their time on-screen is limited, and what we're told about them doesn't quite match reality. David Warner plays Phillip Payne, a self-designated "Exterminating Angel" who uses grant money to travel around the world and kill as many thousands of vampire bats as he can. He labels these flying rodents the "quintessence of evil" and backs this title up with the claim that unlike every other creature on earth-- which all in some way exist in a symbiotic give-and-take relationship with the environment-- vampire bats give nothing but only take and destroy. (Other species of bats at least do the environment the favor of eating massive quantities of insects). Of course, Payne's claim is neglecting the fact that although vampire bats do drink blood, this action rarely kills their prey (usually large mammals who don't miss the small amount of blood that the bats draw out) and though they do occasionally carry and transmit rabies to their prey through their otherwise harmless bite, my search has revealed no evidence for bats' ability to carry the bubonic plague, as the film depicts. So Payne's assertion of their being pure "evil" feels somewhat exaggerated. The film also gets wrong random facts about vampire bats, like their purported ability to consume 1.5x their own body weight in blood (it's closer to 1/2 their body weight).

Evaluation in Brief: Known for well-regarded films like Love Story (1970), The Hospital (1971), and The In-Laws (1979), Arthur Hiller has his directing filmography oddly smudged by the inclusion of Nightwing. (Though, to be fair, it's not quite as perplexing an inclusion as the Joe Eszterhas-scripted An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn (1997), one of his latest credits). The film is a peculiar choice for Hiller's particular talents, and unsurprisingly Nightwing rarely succeeds as a horror or thriller film in light of them. Limp and undramatic scenes of rubber bats attacking frazzled actors aren't about to set anyone's pulse rate into a frenzy. More of the running time is expended upon tribal tensions than bat terror, but because the characters are only a shade darker than "thinly sketched" the film never elevates itself into the realm of legitimate and engrossing drama. A confused and rather forgettable entry from the first wave of the Animal Terror subgenre that neither embraces its exploitation foundations nor commits itself to fully exploring its less fantastical human conflict.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Tentacles (1977) dir. Ovidio G. Assonitis

Logline: The tourist community of Ocean Beach must fend off the eight-pronged advances of a gargantuan octopus who would like to both hug and suck the marrow out of each of the maritime vacationers.

Animal of Choice: A monster octopus, blowing bubbles from below, occasionally resembling an enlarged bathtub float toy.

Thinking Ecologically: The old standard capitalist environmental malpractice creates the beast by having "damaged the water fauna," though the particulars of the inciting incident are so vague as to render the whole thing baffling. Henry Fonda runs a company that has been excavating an underwater tunnel (for some reason) and said company has been experimenting with broadcasting radio signals "above regulated levels" into (?) or out of (?) the water, which for some reason coaxes the octopus to rise from the depths and eat people who are using or are nearby any equipment that emits radio waves. OK. The oddest detail in this explanation is that Fonda-- the head of the company responsible and so (one would imagine) the likely human villain of the film-- denies direct responsibility for the time-and-money saving "experiments" and isn't lying. It seems that his second in command, with his lofty "personal ambitions," was the culprit, and Fonda chastises him and orders him to continue his tests at the proper regulated levels. The wealthy industrialist... doesn't want to save money? Tentacles has inverted my world. (This described conversation is, in addition, the last time we see Fonda or his crony, exactly one hour into the film. The company never receives its comeuppance from the tentacles of our monster).

Thinking About Animals: No sympathy for this "dang octopus." Though one character admits that it's "an animal disturbed by man's stupidity," it still steals babies from beach-side strollers and sucks the marrow out of Bo Hopkins's girlfriend and so deserves what's coming to it. What winds up coming to it is actually the most interesting tidbit of human/animal relations that the film has to offer: Hopkins, a whale trainer, enlists the assistance of two orcas to track down the octopus and rip it to shreds. His heartfelt speech to the whales, in which he tells them how his respect for them surpasses that which he holds for any human, concludes with him stating that he understands if they choose to flee captivity after the deed is done. The whales gladly attack the octopus, screeching in glee as they savagely rip chunks out of its body, and the octopus moans in pain and frustration. Naturally, the whales return to their keeper after three days of having fun in the ocean, and this is the joyous image that the film cuts to its credits on. We're left with a vision of animals glad to be used as a human instrument after destroying an animal that has rebelled, in whatever clumsy and violent way, against human instrumentation of the environment. Victory.

Evaluation in Brief: With its formidable cast, ocean setting, tentacled beastie, incredible music, and Italian origins, Tentacles was primed to be my most anticipated of this month of viewing, so it's sad to report that it's more or less a dud. The cast of veterans (John Huston, Henry Fonda, Shelley Winters) appear mostly ashamed to be slumming it in a film where rubber tentacles attack wet women and capsize bathtub boats. Moreover, the characters are underwritten and the story that they're set loose in is-- when not by the numbers-- thin and unsatisfying, leaving bizarre threads dangling and offering no real sense of resolution beyond the assurance that the big bad has been turned into octopus calamari. The film's finest moments are when Assonitis pots down all diegetic sound and allows Stelvio Cipriani's classic score to carry the often pretty visuals. A better occasional music video than a film, perhaps.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Pack (1977) dir. Robert Clouse

Logline: After being abandoned on Seal Island by heartless summer vacationers, a pack of domesticated dogs turn feral, terrorizing the island's inhabitants and a group of city-dwelling bankers on a fishing trip. With communications down and a ferry not scheduled to arrive for several days, this rag tag group-- under the leadership of the inimitable Joe Don Baker--  must gather together, board up the windows, and pray that they find some Milk-Bones in the pantry.

Animal of Choice: A pack of mangy mutts and mongrels, a dalmatian, a collie, a Labrador retriever, a Doberman, and an Irish setter.

Thinking Ecologically: The film shows us the typical group of clueless city folks inserting themselves into "the wild" and acting like fools. They fall off cliffs, attempt to get into automobiles while holding 7-foot-long fishing poles, and leave the front door open with feral dogs baying for blood right outside. They mostly die. The rural locals of the island community certainly fair better in their environment, and at least don't appear quite so thick. And, of course, it's the negligent, unthinking actions of city folk that produce the canine menace: numerous families vacationing on the island over the summer purchase dogs for those few months and then abandon them on the island when they leave, because dogs "won't be happy in the city." This perplexing and cruel logic carries the very large and faulty assumption that domesticated animals are equally adept at thriving-- perfectly happy-- in the wild. Yes, of course, set your gerbil free into the woods. It will live a long and pleasant life with all of its gerbil friends.

Thinking About Animals: The vacationers' action of abandoning their pet dogs on Seal Island transforms the location into an isolated realm in which the domestic pets becomes feral and lash out against humankind, who betrayed their trust and loyalty. Though these feral pets are often frightening, they also carry a strong sense of pathos when we see them, cold and downtrodden, taking shelter from the rain. In this same scene, they induct a recently abandoned dog into their ranks, and the prevailing sense derived from the assembled pack is one of loneliness: these are pets banding together out of necessity, not choice. A spark of jealousy appears to rear up in them whenever they encounter and attack other domestic dogs still loved by their owners. The pack is too far gone (and perhaps too wise) to be lured back into domestication by the warmth of human kindness, so their relentless pursuit of the people on the island is tinged with bitterness.

Strangely, the film complicates this acceptable explanation by having Joe Don Baker insinuate that the dogs may be in the early aggressive stages of rabies. There's never any definitive proof of this hypothesis (the dogs aren't foaming at the mouth or dropping dead), so it might be more fruitful to read this as Baker and the other humans attempting to fathom how cuddly pets could turn so violent and dangerous while shirking their own responsibility. Labeling the dogs' violent tendencies as the result of disease is easier to process than to realize that human neglect and cruelty produced the same. Consequently, this designation of being diseased allows the human characters to feel perfectly justified when they decide to "kill those bastards," which leads-- ultimately-- to them burning the dogs alive in a boarded up house set aflame.

The most unintentionally chilling moment of animal/human relations comes to us as the film's coda. After the rest of the dogs have been made all crispy, Joe Don Baker's character notices that one of the dogs (the pack's newest recruit) has snagged his dangling leash on a log and so has survived the blaze by being unable to enter the house. Noticing that the dog is frightened rather than viscous and so probably not fully feral, Baker approaches the dog and offers it crackers. The dog is extremely reluctant, terrified of the man who he has just seen burn his puppy pals alive. Out of hunger and (again) necessity, the dog eats some of the crackers, still casting mistrusting glances at Baker. But then Baker extends his hand and the film freeze frames and allows the credits to roll over the image of the skittish dog licking the top of the human's hand (like a mafia underling kissing the don's ring), resubmitting himself to the whims of humankind, who may or may not betray and abandon him once again. It seems clear by the loving way in which the image is framed and the triumphant music that accompanies it that the film wants us to view this as a victory, as a reunion of canine and human. But in consideration of what we've already seen, it doesn't sit so easily. Dog and human are reunited only through domestication and subjugation.

Evaluation in Brief: The Pack is director Robert Clouse's first Animal Terror film, a genre he would revisit half a decade later with my much beloved killer mutant rat film Deadly Eyes (1982). Unquestionably, The Pack is the tighter and more skillfully made of the two. (At the very least, its killer dogs aren't played by rats in dog costumes). The story is simple and not particularly deep but also lean and effective as a thriller. The isolated island setting lends an intimacy and inevitability to the horror often missing in this sort of film (while usually the killer creatures could be lurking anywhere, here we're assured they're always just outside). Joe Don Baker plays a more likeable lead than I've ever seen him capable of. The canine actors are well-trained and indeed menacing with their snarls and patchy matted fur, which help the film create a fair amount of suspense in its final act as the pack lays siege to the humans' cabin fortress. I can't foresee returning to The Pack anytime soon, but it's a good boy and it deserves a treat.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Dark Age (1987) dir. Arch Nicholson

LoglineAfter a rash of crocodile attacks in the Australian outback, a ranger and croc conservationist, Steve Harris (John Jarratt), is compelled to kill or capture the gigantic beast responsible in order to prevent the frightened and angry citizens from calling open season on all crocs.

Animal of Choice: A 30-foot-long ancient croc, who may also be the physical manifestation of the spirit of Australia's aboriginal population.

Thinking Ecologically: Though a much stronger film on the animal front, Dark Age isn't unconcerned with matters of ecology. Primarily, it questions the readiness with which the white men of Australia poach and slaughter the protected local crocodile population, which is valued by the indigenous people and, you know, the ecosystem. The oafish croc-killers (never glimpsed jumping into a boat without a beer can in one hand and a rifle in the other) are the real monsters, as we see them in one montage splattering the outback with croc innards to no end at all, nearly wiping out all of the creatures. Ranger Harris's superior at the preserve is more concerned that the Japanese contractors who wish to build condominiums in the area aren't spooked off than with perserving the crocs, blurting truly thick-headed lines like "I don't care if they go extinct" and "the only place for a thing like that is in a museum, stuffed." This nonsense is contrasted nicely with the aborigines and their harmonious co-existence with the giant croc, who they view as not a nuisance but an essential part of their environment and cultural heritage, worthy of respect and reverence. For them, killing the croc would be as devastating (symbolically and ecologically) as us killing all the bison of the American plains. Oh, wait...

Thinking About Animals: The about-face that Dark Age completes with regard to its looming crocodile menace is rather extraordinary. This is, after all, an animal that we watch, in lingering detail, slither through the water up to a crying human child in order to crunch his head between its jaws. How could this same beast become sympathetic and inspire us to fear for its safety? Harris offers a perfectly logical answer when he tells his lady friend that we "shouldn't judge [crocodiles] like humans. They don't know kids are taboo." A small child looks like a tasty snack to a 30-foot croc and there's really nothing unnatural about that, so why does this or any other human's death (especially when said humans were decidedly invading the croc's territory) necessitate the elimination of the crocodile? Again, the implicit superiority of humankind to all other animals is what's being expressed by all the characters rallying for the creature's demise: how dare a lowly crocodile presume to threaten humankind's lofty status. But the wonderful thing about this particular case is that Dark Age is in fact critiquing the presumption of anthropocentrism by making its adherents the obvious villains and arguing that a human-eating crocodile has as much of a right to life as any croc-blasting Australian drunkard (maybe even more so: the drunkard should know better).

The last half of the film pivots to a protracted and quite tense capture and rescue sequence, wherein Harris, his girlfriend, and a handful of aborigines attempt to transport the drugged croc to an isolated lake where the croc can live peacefully under aborigine supervision. What is most fascinating about this part of the film is how skillfully it demystifies the animal menace, transforming what we previously saw as a toothy monster into a vulnerable and sympathetic creature. As it lies on its belly in one of Harris's croc pens, groggily writhing around every once in a while under sedation, we realize it is both an animal to be feared but also one susceptible to harm and cruelty, if humans so choose. If humankind wishes to continue in its belief in our species being exceptional, Dark Age argues for us to be exceptional in our compassion for creatures both big and small.

Evaluation in Brief: Curiously, crocodiles were left out of the initial late '70s burst of Animal Terror flicks. Alligators had their go in 1980 with the hit NYC-set Alligator (1980), but crocs wouldn't get their fair share of the cinematic spotlight until late in the '80s with Dark Age and the two Italian-made Killer Crocodile films (1989-1990). One reason for this might be that filmmakers simply had to wait until special effects were advanced enough so as to make and film a convincing giant croc. (While much of Dark Age's croc action is rather incredible, some stray shots still find the croc resembling a stationary canoe). Some evidence for this might be the glut of monster crocodile films that bubbled to the surface around the new millennium and the advent of competent computer-generated imagery: Lake Placid (1999), Crocodile (2000), and the quintuplet that hit in 2007 (Lake Placid 2, Croc, Primeval, Rogue, and Black Water, the latter two of which I heartily recommend). Despite the obvious visual improvements made in those films of the more recent wave, Dark Age remains one of the most distinguished and responsible films of not only those featuring scaled quadrupeds, but of nearly all Animal Terror flicks. Imagine: a film in which the animal "monster" is not the villain, despite its man-munching, but an animal worth saving. Dark Age offers a perspective that is alien to the subgenre, and that makes it a refreshing viewing experience. That is also happens to be a decent film certainly doesn't hurt either. But it's a shame that Dark Age is an anomaly, rather than the norm.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Razorback (1984) dir. Russell Mulcahy

Logline: A gigantic razorback has been terrorizing the denizens of the Australian outback, decimating houses, stealing grandchildren, and scarfing down wives, with his existence only acknowledged by a few true believers. The husband (Gregory Harrison) of a North American reporter who was gobbled up by the mythical hog arrives down under to investigate and smells some wicked bacon cooking in the air.

Animal of Choice: A big ol' hog.

Thinking Ecologically: Ecological concerns are minimized in Razorback, if not dismissed outright. One native Australian laments, "these boars are eating us out of house and home," and we're informed that their newfound voracity is a result of an increasing illness among the population, but there's no chatter as to the sickness being human-made. By way of the efforts of the American investigative reporter (Judy Morris), there is some fleeting concern expressed over the wanton and widespread hunting of Australian wildlife for slaughterhouse processing, but the film evacuates any validity from her cause the minute she's devoured by the same wildlife that she has come to Australia to protect. The film's Australian landscape possesses a harsh beauty, but it's the beauty of nightmares. Razorback does not romanticize the land it sees as rotten, dangerous, and in need of bloody cleansing.

Thinking About Animals: The titular pig is monstrously sized-- as big as a hippo-- and unambiguously characterized as an insatiable and unstoppable demon. In the film's opening scene, he explodes through the wall of a house, stealing a child and leaving the decimated abode in flames. He appears suddenly and mysteriously in the night like some creature of legend, spooking the locals without ever confirming his own existence. And yet, in spite of the threat he poses, the film backs up the assertion that he's just a dumb animal. We're told that because boars have small brains and extremely basic central nervous systems, they only exist in one of two states: "dangerous or dead." This allows our big boar to take multiple gunshot and stab wounds and keep moving, but it also compels him to follow our clever hero down a conveyor belt at the slaughterhouse, tricking the pig into stampeding right into some whirring fan blades. The significance of the razorback dying by use of what essentially becomes an enormous meat grinder is not lost: the avenging spirit of the hunted Australian wildlife, exacting supernatural revenge against the human hunters for all of their cruelty in murdering kangaroos and boars, is converted down to a status that devalues the symbolic significance of his reign of terror. Pieces of meat.

Evaluation in Brief: Russell Mulchay was the premiere music video director of the 1980s, crafting numerous videos for Duran Duran, Elton John, Fleetwood Mac, Ultravox, and countless others. Heck, in directing the watershed video for The Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star," the first music video to be aired on MTV in 1981, one could claim that Mulcahy established the general tone and format of the next two decades of music videos. But then he made his first feature film, Razorback, in 1984 and it completely bombed at the box office (not even a $1 million return on a $5.5 million investment). He recovered his film career (if only momentarily) with the modest though enduring hit Highlander (1986), but his films never gained the critical or commercial acclaim that they perhaps should have. For one, Razorback is a fine film, composed with a mind towards atmosphere, suspense, and visual dynamics. Courtesy of Mulcahy and DP Dean Semler (who also worked, not coincidentally, on the second two Mad Max films), the sun-ravaged Australian landscape takes on a nearly hallucinatory feel at points, illuminating odd rock and land formations bathed in high contrast primary colors, as the razorback lurks just out of the camera's sight in the brush, perhaps himself a gruesome mirage. Razorback, for its intensity and the surety of its cinematic vision, is one worth tracking down.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Tintorera (1977) dir. Rene Cardona Jr.

Logline: Two Mexican playboys (Hugo Stiglitz and Andrés García) ditch their rivalry and decide to live the sweet life in Cancun together as they bed and swap a bevy of bikini-clad vacationers. Though this hot beach-side action keeps the two friends well occupied, they dedicate what remains of their spare time to harpooning sharks. It's all fun, games, and profit until they encounter Tintorera, the infamous tiger shark.

Animal of Choice: A wheezing/growling 19-foot-long tiger shark with a taste for nubile foreign women and hunky Mexican men.

Thinking Ecologically: Ecology is not a pertinent concern in Tintorera. The film is uncritical of its heroes' ruthless hunting of fish and sharks, being somehow justified as a business enterprise (though we never see them sell their kills and the two pals are, collectively, already fabulously wealthy). There's also one scene in which Stiglitz and his latest lady toss their empty drink glasses into the ocean, polluting the sea with their sloppy drunkenness. That's all I've got.

Thinking About Animals: The lead tiger shark is large and ferocious, but not abnormally so. In his every appearance he's portrayed by an actual shark (it's stock footage, meaning that there's no animatronics here). But, then, he's not all that realistic: he growls like a jungle cat as he glides through the water near Cancun's shore, though the film's Wikipedia page summary ponders whether or not he's emphysemic. Moreover, while his attacks appear to be largely standard dangerous shark behavior, at times they also bear the trappings of intentional spite: on one occasion, he (perhaps) deliberately ruins one of our shark hunters' catches by ripping it in a half and making it unsaleable. A display of fishy solidarity.

A sticking point for many viewers will be the fact that Tintorera records, in full and lingering detail, the deaths of numerous aquatic specimens. A variety of fish and sharks are harpooned by the actors and/or their stunt divers. We watch as a tortoise has its throat slit so that its blood can pour out into the ocean to lure the shark. A devil fish is harpooned underwater for similar ends and, unnervingly, the camera returns multiple times to capture blood pouring from its gills into the water around it with every dying breath it takes. These moments are all tough to watch. While one can perhaps assume that some if not many of these fish were then eaten or sold at the local fish market (which may make the killing somewhat preferable to the pointless animal slaughter of a film like Kingdom of the Spiders (1977)), there's no guarantee of this nor does it ultimately provide much comfort. During an early (and messy) fishing expedition, Stiglitz's character opines, "Killing these sharks makes me sad, even though they're animals." Stiglitz soon changes his tune (they're only animals, after all), but we don't forget that it makes us sad too.

Evaluation in Brief: Without question the most perplexing entry in the Animal Terror canon. Tintorera is only intermittently a horror film, and a reluctant one at that, as it more closely resembles an Erotic Island Paradise/Endless Beach Party flick disrupted only by infrequent shark attacks. Clocking in at an astonishing two hours and six minutes, the film is never particularly dull, spending the majority of its running time developing and exploring the fascinating just-shy-of-homoerotic relationship between its two male leads. However, it is fair to say that anyone turning towards Tintorera for Jaws-y thrills is destined to be disappointed. Rather, it's an almost sophisticated ramble through a seemingly endless string of  emotionless ménages à trois as Stiglitz and García's characters start to realize that all this free love has opened them up to new, previously unfathomed romantic possibilities. Sadly, soon after the subtle blossoming of this realization one of them is snapped up by the bloody jaws of fate (read: the tiger shark), and it's left to the survivor to exact revenge and come to terms with his grief at whatever cost. Poetically, that cost is his right arm.