MARCH 16, 2010
I was surprised to learn that William Girdler was only my age when he died (in a helicopter crash), shortly after the release of his epic The Manitou. I had figured he was in his 50s or something, especially since that and his previous film, Day Of The Animals (aka Something Is Out There), featured mostly middle aged characters. It’s rare to see someone write/direct a film populated primarily with characters that are far older than they are. It’s really a damn shame that he died so young; in just seven years he made NINE features, all of which have a cult following (and are quite entertaining, at least of the ones I have seen). I wonder what he would have done in the 80s...
Anyway, Animals is a treat. It’s apparently a “but with more animals” version of his previous film Grizzly (which itself was a Jaws knockoff), so I hope I haven’t spoiled that film for myself, but if its even half as much fun as this, I’m sure I’ll still have a damn good time. Like Frogs or Long Weekend, the film is about animals taking revenge on the humans that have ruined their habitat, but it’s far more entertainment-minded than those films. And by that I mean I laughed at pretty much every death scene. The key one is when Jon Cedar’s character is killed by snakes AND a dog (odd team up) as he tries to get into a car that will allow him to rescue a little girl. Stupidly backing into his snake-filled car, he is first bitten a few times by the rattlers and such, and then the dog leaps on him and tears him apart. Not only is his death a bit of a surprise (since he was a pretty decent guy and had been more or less set up as a hero), but it’s also a bit of a hilarious “bummer”, since it seems likely that the little girl isn’t going to get rescued either (but she does, much later).
I just wish there was some more variety, or at least fewer dog attacks. The film’s poster suggests an entire Wildlife Treasury box of antagonists, but it’s primarily dogs for the film’s final half hour, which is odd as they aren’t exactly forest dwelling animals. They also prolong one of the dog attacks (at the helicopter) by obviously re-using shots; I’d rather the attack was just shortened and then maybe a lion or some rabbits show up and make things worse.
Can’t go wrong with the cast though. You got one of the many Christopher and Linda George (real life husband and wife) team ups, although their characters oddly rarely speak to each other despite being in the same location for the bulk of the film. Like Girdler, George died way too young; his performances are usually the highlight of the numerous horror films in which he starred during the late 70s/early 80s. But even better: Leslie Nielsen in a rare villainous role. He plays the requisite asshole of the group (a la NOTLD’s Mr. Cooper), and turns from mildly abrasive to full blown crazy over the course of the film, ultimately attempting to rape one of the female members of the ill-fated hiking group (after knocking around a woman AND her 10 year old son). Even scarier - he plays his final scenes without a shirt. If you’ve only seen him in his spoof comedies, this shit will blow your mind (it’s still not as disturbing as his sleazy john character in Nuts, however). Incidentally, one of his Airplane! co-stars also shows up - the little girl who takes her coffee “black, like her men”. RIP Peter Graves, by the way.
It also has enough characters to keep it from getting boring, and refrains from killing them too quickly, which allows for more suspense. As with Tremors, they repeatedly put supporting characters in danger, but allow them to escape with minor injuries. A movie like Rogue sort of weakens itself by keeping the supporting cast out of it for the entire last third of the film, but this one keeps everyone around. And Girdler split them into three groups, so we get different settings, different group dynamics, and yes, different animals (though again, dogs seem to be everywhere). And as this is a 70s disaster film, you get a wide variety of characters - a cancer stricken football pro, a journalist, a young couple, Nielsen’s bitter businessman, the mother and son, etc. Some faces may be more familiar than others, but it really is an ensemble piece; even the Georges don’t have noticeably more screen time than the others. And it stays with them - there are some haz-mat guys wandering around at the end, but it's not like The Crazies where we keep cutting away from the action to show government and scientist types yammering about the problem and how to solve it.
I just wish Media Blasters/Shriek Show had given the film more respect in the AV department. The transfer itself is fine - in that it’s anamorphic and doesn’t seem to be washed out. But they were using a terrible print as the source, the entire film is covered with scratches, color artifacts (the woods are purple during a big chunk of the climax), and even skips! At one point Nielsen is walking along with George, talking about food, and then suddenly he is stopped, talking to one of the other characters about something else entirely. The sound is pretty lousy too, it sounds like a record playing from the next room. Basically it looks like the stuff you get on Mill Creek releases, except you’re paying 20 bucks instead of 20 cents. The “TV Version” is also included, and it’s taken from a much cleaner source (no major print damage), but it’s also washed out and horribly cropped - they seemingly matted the (cropped) 1.33 TV ratio to 16:9, which means you’re missing the sides AND the top and bottom of the image! Examples below:
No idea why they did this (and, obviously, both versions are more compressed than they should be in order to fit what is essentially two films on one side of the disc), but I wish they had looked for a better print, or at least tried to clean up the one they had. The technical issues carry over to the commentary too; Lynda George is muffled, Cedar sounds hollow, and Scott Spiegel sounds like he’s outside of the recording booth entirely. Spiegel is there to moderate, presumably, but he does a lousy job of keeping them on track. For every story about the film itself, there are about five about other movies/people/subjects entirely. Some of them are amusing - George talks about Pieces! - but others are extraneous at best; I must admit I don’t really care to hear their thoughts on the merits of Gigli, the Mission: Impossible movies, or random Bill Shatner anecdotes, especially when the audio is so all over the place. The retrospective interviews are better, especially as they include animal wrangler/co-star Susan Backlinie (best known as the girl who gets killed in the opening scene of Jaws), though George is absent for some reason (they had her for the commentary, they didn’t grab an interview?). Basically, it SOUNDS like a really great package on paper, but the actual presentation is largely shoddy and, frankly, amateurish. Make sure you pick this up dirt cheap.
Now, on to Grizzly! Or Abby, Girdler’s infamous “Black Exorcist” that was pulled after Warner Bros. threatened to sue. Anyone have a copy of that one?
What say you?