Thursday, February 28, 2008

EYE OF THE BEAST (2007) d. Gary Yates

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Giant monster movies have been a staple of the horror genre since the 1930s when KING KONG spread stamping ruin across the screen. During the 1950s and 1960s, murderous monsters of every shape, size and description savaged towns, cities and continents for every reason imaginable. Whether they were classics like THEM or less impressive efforts like THE GIANT GILA MONSTER, giant monster movies started making their way to drive-ins and then Saturday afternoon or late night television. It is there that cult classics like THE GIANT MANTIS and FROM HELL IT CAME would leave their indelible mark on the minds of horror film lovers forever. EYE OF THE BEAST, part of Genius Products’ “Maneater Series” and originally airing on the Sci-Fi Network, feels very much like one of those flawed but fun favorites of old.

EYE OF THE BEAST is the story of a small, Canadian fishing village named “Fell’s Island” and the horror that lurks beneath the surface of the lake. Marine Biologist Dan Leland, played by James Van Der Beek, is sent to Fell’s Island to determine why the fishing stocks are in such steep decline. Before long, Dan teams up with local fisheries officer Katrina Tomas, played by Alexandra Castillo, and as people start to disappear, body parts are found and boats are broken into matchsticks, the legend of Fell’s Island appears to be true.

Taken as just a drama, EYE OF THE BEAST has a story with some surprisingly complex conflicts intertwined into its monster movie premise. There is strife between the white local fishermen and their Indian counterparts. In addition, Dan Leland’s character becomes the focus of hostility as he is viewed as a potential threat to the deteriorating fishing industry. Dan is at odds with the reputation-conscious heads of his Science Department NORA, who are not interested in “tales about sea monsters”. Finally, Officer Katrina Tomas has her own demons buried deep within her memory which come forth even as her affection for Dan grows. All of these conflicts make the story a great deal more interesting than one would have expected from a low-budget “giant squid movie”. However, just like the monster flicks of old, EYE OF THE BEAST is more about the characters than it is about the monster and the archetypes created, some very similar to the characters in JAWS, are the real focus of the film. Another wise choice the film makers exercised was to insure that citizens either disappeared at the hand of the monster and/or we got to see it in action every now and then, keeping the premise upper most in the viewers’ minds. It is at the end of the film during the climactic battle with The Beast that mistakes are made.

Whether it was a function of a lack of funds or poor film-making skills or subscribing to the misbegotten philosophies of modern camerawork/editing or all the above, what should have been the pinnacle of the film was incomprehensible. All the final battle scenes were shot too dark, too close, were shot on the back of a leaping kangaroo and were edited too rapidly. The argument might be made that since the budget was low and special effects had to be used “judiciously”, the only way to make the battle scene work was to “cover up” the inherent visual weaknesses. If that is the case, I present Exhibit A: THE BERMUDA DEPTHS. I can’t imagine that TV movie had much more of a budget than EYE OF THE BEAST, and yet the battles with the giant turtle in that film were easily seen. Hell, all of that film was easily perceived, because people still knew how to shoot scenes back in the late 1970s. It may also be said that part of the experience of watching a giant monster movie, or any horror film of yore on an old TV in the 1960s was the reality that the film was going to look like crap. That may be so, but it doesn’t have to be that way now. There is no reason that I had to replay the final battle of EYE OF THE BEAST five times to get a sense of some of what was happening. With today’s technology, it should have been a slam dunk.

Like the rest of the “Maneater Series” so far, the extras menu of EYE OF THE BEAST is empty. Of all that series, a commentary about making a “giant squid movie” was a must. It simply can’t cost that much money to have the director rattle off a few lines in an interview or to author a commentary that would help to explain some of the triumphs and travails of making a monster movie. Listen to me folks; engender some cheap good will among the consumer and stick in some baubles other than trailers. Trailers make you feel like you’re getting the hard sell. A small but fun set of extras makes the viewer feel like the film was an “enterprise”, not a “tourist trap”.

Overall, EYE OF THE BEAST was a surprisingly enjoyable viewing experience. Maybe it helped that I went in with low expectations and maybe it helped even more that the way had been paved by the many “drive-in classics” I have endured over my life. If you go in with a light heart, a beer in one hand and a fillet-o-fish sandwich in the other, you too will probably enjoy EYE OF THE BEAST.

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