Sunday, August 24, 2008

THE MANEATER SERIES COLLECTION Volume 2 (2008) dist. Genius Products

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

There was once a time when “killer animal” movies thundered across the cinematic frontier like the Plains buffalo. During the 1960s and 1970s, nearly every genus of the animal kingdom, with the possible exception of sponges, was made out to be maneaters, sometimes even potential challengers for the Dominion of Earth. “Mankiller” films vied with “disaster” flicks for supremacy at the box office during those two decades, but when “political correctness” and the need for a “kinder, gentler nation” took hold of our country in the 1980s and 1990s, the “deadly beast” movie fell somewhat out of vogue. However, like any good predator, it lurked in the shadows waiting for its chance to pounce on its prey. Now that we are a more bloodthirsty people again, voracious creatures are once more tearing people limb from limb and splattering the Silver and Small Screens with arterial spray. THE MANEATER SERIES COLLECTION Volume 2 is a trilogy of “bad beastie” flicks, each from a different class of the animal kingdom. There is a ravenous reptile, a murderous mollusk and a malevolent mammal spreading stamping ruin and running amok through mankind’s’ efforts to get in their way as much as possible.

CROC (2007) d. Stewart Raffill

CROC is the story of Jack McQuade, the down-on-his-luck owner of an animal farm/zoo in Thailand. Jack is struggling with tax agents, creditors, bill collectors and the vicious Konsong Brothers, corrupt builder/developers who will stop at nothing to take away his enterprise for their own greedy land schemes. Adding to Jack’s problem is the sudden arrival of an enormous, man-eating crocodile, responsible for many deaths on Thai beaches and in Thai lagoons. Jack, his nephew Theo and his sister Allison are forced to team up with an Animal Welfare agent named Evelyn and a one-legged crocodile hunter named Hawkins. Jack, Evelyn and Hawkins must find and kill this malicious monster before anyone else is dragged off to his larder to become a snack.

CROC has a lot going for it. It is a well shot film that blends some spectacular Thai scenery and settings, a cosmopolitan cast and extras and a nice mix of real crocodile footage, some silly but appealing CGI croc animation and some reasonably good croc props and puppets to create some very attractive visual sequences and imagery. It also doesn’t hurt that the movie is simply dripping with beautiful Thai actresses, most notably Sherry Phungprasert who plays Evelyn. If you have a fondness for Asian subcontinent lovelies, CROC is a feast for the eyes, and with some moments of richly textured Thai culture and even more impressive Thai coastal exteriors, this is a very pretty film. When coupled with the generic bit still appealing orchestral score, CROC feels like the kind of TV Movie I would have sat down to watch on a Saturday night 30 or 35 years ago. From a purely visual standpoint, CROC is the best of the Maneater Series so far.

The story is very predictable and derivative at times. Jack’s character is a young, handsome blend of Chief Brody and Hooper from JAWS, while the Hawkins character is a tattooed, gravelly voiced but also more caring version of Quint. Despite these obvious conventions and the even more evident direction of “the croc must die” search & destroy main concept, there is some good tension between the Konsong brothers and the McQuade clan and allies, which helps to make CROC a little more than just a JAWS retelling. There is also a smattering of romance liberally but thoughtfully layered over the story involving the McQuade boys, but it does not hijack the action or divert story momentum. If anything, the romance seems to be a vehicle for showcasing the beautiful Thai ladies of CROC, and for that let us be glad. What is even more heavily sprinkled throughout the plot is gory croc killing galore. Whether its swimmers, beach-goers, bad-tempered brats or wealthy pool loungers, this croc has an insatiable appetite and as the story progresses the croc-spawned carnage gets more intense. What was a surprise was the climactic battle with the reptilian villain was more dramatic rather than an action-based, but that felt more refreshing than disappointing and helped CROC seem more like its 1960s and 1970s cousins instead of taking a page from today’s poor fare.

CROC’s main weaknesses stem from weak acting. Michael Madsen is the only veteran on the cast, and while he knows what he is doing and delivers his lines with timing and panache, his grunty growls and sneering snarls are sometimes a little hard to hear. The rest of the cast seemed to be chosen for looks over experience or talent and it showed at times. Peter Tuinstra (Jack McQuade) and his female lead Sherry Phungprasert (Evelyn Namawong) gave sincere performances but their craft still needs a lot of honing. Given time, they may be able to match their impressive looks with equally impressive acting talents, but for now they both come across as rookies. Not so with the actors who played the Konsong brothers. Both may be equally inexperienced, but they are also inept and their “performances” quickly took the viewer right out of the fiction and reminded you that this is a movie.

Being what it is, a TV Movie made by Sci-Fi for their network and that of RHI-TV, this production was going to be short on cash, so well-known actors and actresses would be a luxury no one could afford. At least the makers of CROC knew enough to cover that lack with gruesome killings in the jaws of a rapacious reptile and lovely Thai scenery, both wild and womanly. In the end, it was the right decision, for while not the best film I have ever seen, CROC was fun, over-the-top when it needed to be, occasionally dramatic and suspenseful and worth the 90 minutes I spent watching it.

EYE OF THE BEAST (2007) d. Gary Yates

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 (1978). 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.

GRIZZLY RAGE (2007) d. David DeCouteau

GRIZZLY RAGE is the story of recent high school graduates Wes, Lauren, Ritch and Sean, who decide to take a vacation “out in the wild” and joyride their way up to Saranac Grotto, which they break into since it is a “no trespassing” area. Tearing around the trails in their SUV at high speed, the foursome smashes up their vehicle while simultaneously running over a grizzly bear cub. Stranded and at the mercy of an angry grizzly mama bear, the youngsters must cope with all the fury of nature if they are to survive.

Don’t be fooled by the title or the premise of this film, it doesn’t even remotely live up to its potential. In fact, while I have enjoyed most of the Maneater Series so far on one level or another, this turkey unseated IN THE SPIDER’S WEB as the lead weight in the pond of these films. At least IN THE SPIDER’S WEB had a semi-coherent story and it looked good. GRIZZLY RAGE had very few strong points. The general theme of this film is sound and had the rest of the writing been up to par, GRIZZLY RAGE could have been as enjoyable as the recently released GRIZZLY PARK. The theme of GRIZZLY RAGE seemed to be that self-absorbed, vain and wild-child kids, stripped of their parents’ affluence, their technological toys and their false bravado, are no match for the power of the wilderness. On the surface, that seems like a great idea for a film. The problem is that the character concepts were flawed from the start. Asinine youths with no sense of respect or interest in anything but “fun”, roaring around in their extreme-sports vehicle may appeal to a small segment of the viewing population, but their shenanigans wore thin very quickly and before long they became unsympathetic characters who routinely did harm to themselves. As has been said before, making your characters jerks simply to see them drop like ducks in a shooting gallery doesn’t work. Even if the point of this film was to show what morons these kids were in the form of a cautionary tale, you have to build sympathetic traits in the characters before too much time passes, or the audience doesn’t relate, then they no longer care and the film becomes a pointless exercise in endurance.

Speaking of something pointless, the screenplay suffered from a series of useless subplots and long, irrelevant padded sequences. Early in the film, a subplot about the land where the kids were trespassing being a toxic waste dump seemed to be headed in a sort of CABIN FEVER direction, but that sub-story was never developed and never had any reason to exist. Even worse, three times characters ventured into a series of abandoned cabins stuffed to the wainscoting with rusted chains and other vaguely menacing contraptions. This subplot seemed to try to evoke a WRONG TURN feel, and was it a wrong turn. Nothing came of this plot addition except to lead us on a fruitless search for nothing of consequence except poorly lit sequences where nothing happened. There were three segments of the film where long stretches of time were wasted and nothing was achieved. The kids worked and worked to get their SUV running again, tried to extricate it from a pit and tried to fix its injuries. None of this moved the narrative forward. Sean’s character tried to run out of their wilderness trap only to sidestep into a needless subplot and then return to the point he started with nothing accomplished. Finally, Wes’s character climbed up and down cliffs to get better cell reception, but all to no avail. All the while nothing is happening in these story swamps and narrative bogs, there is a grizzly bear hunting them, a grizzly we see far too infrequently in the first two-thirds off the movie. By the end, the grizzly comes back with a vengeance, but he should have taken out his rage on the writers who first ignored him and then made him into more of a relentless slasher and not a force of nature. Had the grizzly been made into a brutal murdered and this flick not taken itself seriously, it could have been fun. I actually felt bad for the actors of GRIZZLY RAGE, for the morass of the story and the messes that were their characters weren’t their fault. They gave sincere efforts and their performances were given in earnest. When you don’t have much to work with as screenplays go, no performance in the universe can turn around the slip over the cliff side. Finally, the climax of GRIZZLY RAGE was so anti-climactic and thoroughly meaningless that it seemed like the film makers just threw up their hands and said “I don’t know how to end this story, let’s just end it on a sour note”. I love a good downer ending, but there has to be a reason for the depressing denouement. This just felt like people who had come to the end of their mental energy and were too spent to pick up their toys and put them back in the box, then decided to throw a tantrum and run out to the street corner. What a disaster!

In addition to the story problems, there were other troubles that plagued GRIZZLY RAGE. The camera work was inconsistent at best. In the beginning of the film, there were too many shots that were too close and too rapidly edited, making the film seem more like a music video. Even the bear was hard to see and when it was visible, the shots were too close and too stylized. For a short time, the photography improved and viewers could see the landscape, the characters and the bear, and I had hope. By the time the sun went down, problems returned with redoubled fury. In addition to it being too dark to see anything at times, which does not make a film scarier, it just makes it less comprehensible, a miserably obnoxious element was added. All through “that dark night” there was “lightning flashes” and the occasional rumble of thunder, but even that dissipated, but the foolish flashes continued. After a while, it felt like an attempt to add a strobe light so that the outdoor scenes felt more like a “rave” and we were back in the lunkheads’ world again. I have seen few visual effects that did less to add a sense of mood and did more to be simply distracting than those flashes of light. I was not in a forgiving mood by that point, but that little tidbit made me hate GRIZZLY RAGE even more deeply, but I had not reached the bottom yet. Music can sometimes soothe the heart of the savage beast, but in this case all it did was rankle. Too many soundtrack songs of the thrash or metal ballad variety were added to this pile of refuse. A title track would have been nice, but it has been thoroughly established by 50 or more years of cinema history that emotive orchestral accompaniment works best when you are setting a film in the wilderness. All the addition of the songs did was to continue to sidetrack any story momentum when any was present. The soundtrack felt like a showcase for bands and song writers and made the plot even more immaterial.

Like the rest of the Maneater Series, the extras menu of each film in this boxed set was empty. It is too bad for two out of three of these films were set in Canada, two out of three dealt with native peoples, two out of three were directed by veterans with interesting tales to tell, two out of three had actors with long or at least interesting pedigrees, all three had attractive female stars worth interviewing, so there should have been no shortage of ways to create bonus features that could have delighted a viewer and created some goodwill. Listen to me folks! Make bonus features a part of your discs or you won’t be getting thrifty consumers in this tough economy to buy your wares.

If we look at THE MANEATER SERIES COLLECTION Volume 2 from the perspective of a baseball analogy, this boxed set batted .660, which is pretty impressive. CROC is an extra bases hit, EYE OF THE BEAST is a single and GRIZZLY RAGE is a strike out. My advice when you pick up this pack is break it up. Keep CROC and EYE OF THE BEAST and trade in GRIZZLY RAGE at your local used DVD store. That way you’ll get two films worth watching and be able to put some cash toward something else you want. GRIZZLY RAGE can get flung into a wood chipper and the other films can take a rightful place on your shelf next to other films that made your smile or cheer.

No comments: