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Thursday, February 16, 2017

B Fest 2017 Part I: Pre-Fest

It was pitch dark and raining ice when I set out for B Fest this year. I'd packed as much of the car as I could the night before, which turned out to be a great idea, but there's always something or other like the toiletries / meds that can't be left out in 20 degree temperatures overnight. And since I pack like I'm moving, a whole bunch of stuff got thrown in the back seat, on the passenger's side up front, in the trunk and anywhere else it would fit. If it had come to it, I would have stuffed a couple giveaway DVDs into the glove compartment. It wasn't quite that bad, but the silver lining about my friend Sam not being able to attend the Fest this year was that there's no fucking way he and his luggage would have fit in the car this time around.

Before starting on the journey proper, I stopped by work to drop off cookies for my coworkers as an "I'm sorry I won't be around to answer the phones or help out" present, and then it was time to roll on down the highway towards Chicago. Still in the dark and freezing rain. Once the sun came up it wasn't as pointlessly awful on the road, and since the weather in Washtenaw County tends to go west to east I was traveling through the rain twice as fast as the clouds were drifting to the east. Things cleared up by the time I stopped by my traditional breakfast stop in Battle Creek, the former Te-Khi Truck Stop (now just a Travel Court). One of the rituals of B Fest is that I need to treat for breakfast and tip nicely at this location. I'm an atheist, but a superstitious one because the year my friend Sean and I got horribly sick and missed the first 14 movies of the marathon was the same year we weren't able to go to this restaurant because the independent owners went under during the financial collapse at the end of Bush the Lesser's presidential administration. You don't mess with the demons of the road. You placate them. So, even though it was a party of one this year I treated for breaky and left a nice tip.

The rest of the trip to Chicago was uneventful. Because of reasons, I was the only person in my B Fest faction that was going to be in town on Tuesday; that meant I could pick up some Green River soda, and then hit the Half Price Books while roving around and pick up some stuff for my own amusement, including the two-disc collectors' edition of Punisher:  War Zone (which is a feature-length sick joke of near-RoboCop delightfulness). Then it was time to trust in the magic voice lady on my GPS and go to the Mean Weiner, a quite superlative burgers-dogs-and-Mexican-food diner where I met former Fest attendee Edward for dinner and to drop off a pile of books. See, Edward's obsessed with the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy, especially their actions during the Second World War. I go to library book sales all over southeast Michigan (and beyond--it's three hours to Dayton, Ohio but I drove that far for a book fair last year). When I can't find anything for myself, it's not a wasted trip if I can find something for a friend. And thank goodness for that, because the Dayton trip was an utter washout for myself. But someone donated a ton of pulpy paperbacks about the UK fighting global fascism so I scrounged up a ton of stuff for Edward. In fact, he wound up with two cloth shopping bags stuffed as full as I could stuff them, and rejected only one of the books (which he had already read, and hated). In exchange for those gigantic piles of books he treated for dinner and showed me several episodes of the insane and hilarious Danger 5 on Netflix; we talked for a couple hours after dinner, briefly said hi to his wife (who was managing his son Winston rather than talk nerdy with us) and gave me everything from the old tabletop RPG Underground, a game that had a phenomenal setting and design sense but very little else to recommend it. After Edward pointed me in the right direction to get back to my car from his place, I drove back to the hotel and experienced the joys of a completely screwed up sleep schedule.

The next morning, I went back to my hometown of Wheaton to have breakfast with an old middle / high school friend, also named Tim, and to look at all the stuff that had been changed downtown while feeling conflicted about stuff. The Seven Dwarfs diner, Wheaton's own example of what Mike Royko referred to as "diners run by short Greeks", was the spot we decided to convene. Tim's as old as I am and he'd never eaten there, so I'm glad he finally crossed the threshold there for tasty breakfast foods. Then we drove to the downtown where a Starbucks replaced a storefront we couldn't quite remember (a tutoring center, maybe?) and hit the Wheaton Historical Museum to look at various things from our town's past and check out the massively detailed railroad diorama in the basement. It turned out that the railroads were run the third Saturday of every month, which was also B Fest, and that meant that I wouldn't be seeing the full splendor of the railroad setup when things were moving. There was also a note near the diorama stating that the Wheaton Historical Society was looking for a professional but part-time railroad modeler to work the diorama and keep everything in fine fettle. Hobbyists who want to make a little scratch, who live in or near Wheaton, and who read this blog--here's your chance! A stop by the Popcorn Store (a four-foot-wide candy store that figures prominently in Wheaton kids' memories) was a washout for me (they didn't have the cherry sours I like) but Backup Tim proved his daredevil bona fides by eating Pop Rocks and drinking a Coke; a surprisingly long running commentary about how he could feel his teeth fizzing and crackling ensued. After wandering around in the cold for a couple hours Tim went back to his own home and I drove one town over to look at downtown Glen Ellyn, which is pretty much like Wheaton but one town to the east and without a courthouse. There really wasn't anything nostalgic going on as I clomped around the second suburb of the day, which was in itself a bit of a revelation. I've lived in Michigan for 22 years now, and looking at things that I used to see relatively regularly didn't pluck any heartstrings at all. So it was time to go back to the hotel and await the arrival of faction members El Santo and Juniper (or Scott and Jessica if you know them in real life instead of as screen names from the B Movie Message Board). A pleasant dinner at the Empire Chinese restaurant a block or two from the hotel ensued. I picked up the check, since I was in a "demonstrating generosity and forging alliances" kind of mood. Later that evening Josh the Younger arrived from North Carolina, having flown in to attend his first B Fest in nine years. The auditorium in Evanston exerts a powerful magnetic hold on people who have been there.

The next day, acting in my capacity as Mister Logistics Person, I set up a group outing. Melissa and Kelvin (or Chebutykin and El Dogo if you know them from their screen names), Josh, Scott, Jessica and I took advantage of the Chicago public transportation system to go to the Field Museum of Natural History (following a typically hearty breakfast at the Carriage House, a restaurant located a five minute walk from the hotel where the Seven Brothers used to be). As long-time readers of the Checkpoint know, I've pushed my group of Fest attendees to have Chicago drive us around rather than sticking someone with the task. It means we can take larger groups to wherever we're going, and it also means that if we're going to talk the person behind the wheel isn't frozen out of the conversation while paying attention to what they're doing on the road. It turned out there were several special-attendance exhibits at the Field and the party conferred briefly about what we were going to check out before deciding on an exhibit of tattoos; permanent decoration of someone's skin is a thing that's shown up in cultures on different continents and been shaped by artists across several centuries, and the exhibit was informative and interesting in equal measure. The museum also had a tattoo shop in the exhibit hall but it wasn't staffed at the time we were there (which is a good thing; I'm too square to get the Arachnos logo on my bicep forever). Melissa got a full set of the Mold-A-Rama models available at the museum and I grabbed a bright orange elephant that replaced the Stegosaurus die in the museum's collection. I also learned a great deal about Polynesian cultures, but the knowledge was not a fungible item so I'm telling you about the wax elephant statue.

Bailing on the museum about a half an hour before it closed, we went for dinner at a fantastic deep-dish pizza place called Pizano's. and unfortunately that meant waiting about an hour for the pizzas to get turned from cold dough and ingredients to a tasty, tasty heart attack on a serving tray. Which led to some fast walking to get to the bus stop we needed to get to the train station we needed to get to Santo's van in the parking lot by the Yellow Line station we'd departed from that morning. On the positive side, I developed the ability to walk up to a bus stop or train station and summon a public transportation vehicle, but on the bad side we were an hour and a half late getting to Hala Kahiki, the tiki bar that we traditionally go to the night before B Fest (Fiasco Field activated!). As I had last year, I grabbed a bunch of hideous thrift store jackets and neckties from the greater Ann Arbor metropolitan area and distributed them to anyone who wanted one (and I still have about a dozen left, having overcalculated how many of those suckers I was going to need). Melissa was kind enough to take a picture of Josh and me dressed up for the tiki bar, and here it is. I'm the one on the left; I thought I'd have the most impressively awful outfit in the room but had found an actual powder blue polyester leisure suit jacket in Josh's size for about six bucks, and he rocked the party like you'd expect in it.

Two non alcoholic chocolate drinks later (the peanut butter one was delicious beyond belief but the mint one was really chalky), I was nice and mellow, and got to hang out with lots of people who'd arrived for the Fest on Thursday or who were not going to be able to go to the event itself but wanted to get some face time with the attendees who had come from all over Hell's creation to watch crappy movies for a solid day. As has become a tradition, I guided some people over to the Hawaiian shirt and Polynesian kitsch shop and then abandoned them to the woman who explains every single item on the shelves if you don't escape quickly enough. Sorry, guys. I did it twice so it's a tradition. After festivities wrapped up at the Hala Kahiki, I abandoned my sketchy and unconvincing plans to go bowling and instead returned to the hotel. The lobby was under construction while we were all there for the Fest so I don't honestly remember what we wound up doing after that but I'm sure it involved talking about B movies and trying to avoid the numbing horror of Donald Trump's forthcoming inauguration.

Which brings us to the end of the first half of my travelogue. The next one will actually discuss the movies that were shown to the crowd, so it'll be closer to the kind of thing I started this blog to talk about.

Monday, January 9, 2017

The Celluloid Zeroes Present Franchise Kill: Jaws 2 (1978)

The Celluloid Zeroes are teaming up in January 2017 to take a look at the massively successful blockbuster Jaws, the diminishing returns of its sequels, and some choice ripoffs from around the world. It's time for a Franchise Kill.

Written by Carl Gottlieb and Howard Sackler, based upon characters created by Peter Benchley
Directed by Jeannot Szwarc

Roy Scheider:  Chief Brody
Lorraine Gary:  Ellen Brody
Murray Hamilton:  Mayor Vaughn
Jeffrey Kramer:  Deputy Hendricks
Joseph Mascolo:  Peterson

You can hardly blame Universal for wanting to make another giant killer shark movie, when the first Jaws film broke box office records and became a global smash hit. I mean, movie studios are businesses, and American big studio films are commerce first and art by accident. So after scaring the bejeezus out of a generation of moviegoers and beach-avoiders, it was perfectly natural for the studio to go back to that well. Which, of course, they did again after this film. And again a few years after that. The returns, they were diminishing. But I'll let my colleagues in the Celluloid zeroes tell you about those other movies. My job is to look at the immediate attempt to catch a second bolt of lightning in another bottle.

This is, among other things, the first movie sequel from a Hollywood studio to just stick a 2 on the end of the title from the first film and call it a day (the UK gave us Quatermass 2, but that's the name of a rocket that's launched in that movie, and it was released as Enemy from Space in the States because nobody here knew what a Quatermass was). And it's probably worth talking about sequels and franchises and movie studio economics for a little bit here, because Jaws changed the way that Hollywood did business for decades, and in 2017 we're looking at half a dozen or so franchises that are planning the next decade's worth of releases for the Marvel Studios, Star Wars, DC Extended Universe, Harry Potter, X-Men, James Bond, Star Trek and Godzilla franchises. Hell, just the fact that I'm calling them "franchises" is significant. A movie is supposed to be a work of art, but when you hear "franchise" you probably think of fast food restaurants more than cinema. Or at least you would have thought that way around about 1978, when this movie was released. Now, of course, a series of movies featuring the same characters and produced under the same studio umbrella is one of the main meanings of the term. All apologies to Howard Johnson's, but we just don't think of you that way any more.

Disney, the globally dominant entertainment empire, bought the intellectual property rights to the Star Wars series for billions of dollars and to a substantial subsection of the Marvel Comics universe for billions more. They didn't do this because they were big fans of either thing. Rather, they were making an investment with an expectation of a future return on that investment. If Terry Pratchett was better known in the States they'd be working on a Discworld movie series right now and offering Dominic West a big bag of money to play Inspector Vimes. They're planning things out so that there will be two Marvel movies and a Star Wars film every year for the next decade (or until the fad burns itself out). All of that effort to chase the nerd dollar and to dominate the American box office comes from the seismic effect that the first Jaws film had on the pop cultural landscape. Time used to be that movie studios would make prestige pictures primarily and do the occasional B movie, horror flick or science fiction film as a secondary function. Now, as several observers have noticed, there are B movie genres being given A list talent in front of and behind the camera, and hundreds of millions of dollars get spent to realize the visions that Smilin' Stan and Jolly Jack came up with half a century ago on newsprint.

It's because nobody thought that Jaws was going to be a hit. Heck, Steven Spielberg thought his movie career was over because the film went so far over budget and schedule. But if there's one thing Hollywood likes, it's a person that will make them an absolute shit ton of money consistently. And so Spielberg gets to do essentially whatever he wants until he stops directing films (with the occasional underperformer like 1941 or Hook cheerfully ignored by studios because he's also made profitable masterpieces like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Saving Private Ryan over the last three and a half decades. He begged off directing Jaws 2 because Close Encounters of the Third Kind was running over budget and schedule as well, and he probably also didn't want to make another movie involving large bodies of water for the rest of his entire life plus fifteen years. But when money talks, someone is going to step up and make that second movie (and build up a favor bank with the movie studio that would like some of that sweet sequel cash).

And Jaws isn't the only movie to stick a number on the end of its title and get people back in movie theaters, of course. Rocky and Halloween were both out-of-nowhere smash hits that hit movie screens in the second half of the Seventies and both of those got sequels with numbers after 'em and eventual franchises that would cough up another flick every few years. For that matter, they're still making movies with the Rocky Balboa character--in a nod to time passing (unlike, say, the James Bond series where they just stick another person in the tuxedo), Rocky is older and weaker and not boxing any more. But he can train someone to do that and to pass the torch to the next generation of pugilists. Other movies around this time made buckets of money, and (especially in the horror genre) producers decided to keep going back to the well and separate more dollars from more wallets for as long as fan tolerance would hold out. Which is, again, nothing new (Son of Kong came out a year after King Kong; Godzilla has been in more movies than James Bond). But with the end-of-the-Seventies emphasis on sequels and franchises comes the tendency to stamp these things out on an assembly line. There is a very definite Marvel house style for their movies (it's why Edgar Wright wound up not making Ant-Man). If it's the third act of a Marvel movie--especially a team one rather than a film about individual characters--it's time for lots of things to bombard a city with energy blasts or with their own bodies. That's just how they tell their stories, and directors who don't want to do that are well advised to not take a job working for 'em, because it's only going to lead to heartache down the line.

And, of course, movie studios that want to squeeze every last drop of money out of a franchise have started splitting single books into two movies (the final Twilight, Harry Potter and Hunger Games series adaptations), three films (The Hobbit) or five (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them). It's enough to make even the greediest horror franchise producer flinch, and it's also probably inevitable that in twenty or thirty years we'll get a franchise reboot including The Lord of the Rings:  The One Tower.

So. I was going to be talking about a particular killer shark movie in this review, and I should probably do that now. But before I do, I should mention that another poster for the movie put the returning cast members' name in huge letters at the bottom, which has to be the only time Murray Hamilton got to see his moniker in gigantic letters on a movie poster.

An underwater sequence with the Mexican non-union equivalent of John Williams' iconic Jaws score crossed with nautical adventure type music plays out over the opening credits. Two SCUBA divers are swimming through a shoal of fish as the title shows up in big blood red letters. A whole bunch of names of people who did not return from the first movie show up (their characters being too dead to return, or because the actors were unavailable due to other commitments). We're lucky to have Roy Scheider in this one; he only agreed to be in the movie in order to be let out of a contract with Universal Studios after quitting the production of The Deer Hunter, which went on to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. One might say that shows poor judgment on Scheider's part until one remembers the next movie to be directed by The Deer Hunter's auteur was the legendary fiasco Heaven's Gate. My guess is that Scheider didn't have any patience with Michael Cimino, which made him a trailblazer until everyone else in the pop culture world caught up with him in 1980.

Those underwater divers find the wreck of the Orca from the previous movie and they take a few snapshots of the boat half for posterity. Their camera flash attracts the actual Jaws score as well as a shark that attacks them, with their camera capturing their attacker (a plot point also used in my favorite Jaws ripoff, Alligator--which came out two years after this movie). As an economically viable cloud of fake blood billows in the water from one of the skin divers, but not the other, we go to the Amity Island ferry where Chief Brody is waiting to drive his police vehicle onto some nice honest roads instead of looking at the expanse of water all around him--remember, he was phobic about the ocean in the first movie and I can't imagine the struggle against the shark would cure that. Me, I'd move to Denver. Chief Brody arrives at a shindig where he buttons his shirt cuffs and ties his necktie while taking his seat as a local bigwig and his wife asks where he's been. ("Late!".) It's one of those civic events to celebrate the opening of a local business--a brand new resort hotel, in this case--while also serving as some kind of party for a scholarship fund. Maybe they're just economically boring two sets of guests at the same speech.

Mayor Vaughn is giving a speech while dressed in one of those jackets that serves to remind people that in the late Seventies, grownups sold other grownups on the idea of wearing a striped tie as wide as a paperback book cover with a plaid suit jacket. Actually, as I write this, I've got more than a dozen horrible jackets and twice that many hideous ties to hand out at B Fest before my fellow attendees go to a tiki bar to drink rum drinks and irritate the other bar patrons by playing doo-wop and Motorhead on the jukebox. So seeing Vaughn dressed like this is a life goal. Miss Amity, a local teenage beauty queen, will undertake the actual, literal ribbon-cutting here while a "money tree" with $1500 of real American currency attached to it is part of that scholarship effort. It's donated by a Mr. Peterson, who I presume is the local developer (and therefore the mover and shaker who got that hotel built). The speech ends, the Amity High School Band beats "Girl From Ipanema" into submission, and refreshments are to be served to all the locals who came out for the event. Mayor Vaughn introduces his son, Larry Jr., to Peterson and the veteran monster movie watcher starts to tally up all the possible Expendable Meat characters that are being paraded before the camera. Those two divers from the beginning of the film were the Threat-Establishing Casualties and we didn't learn anything about them other than they owned a camera and went diving in the ocean. In order to care about the next inevitable victims, we're gonna learn a couple of names and possibly even get a glimpse of their personalities before they're eaten.

Ellen Brody turns out to work for Peterson, and is one of the people making the scholarship benefit / hotel opening a reality. And the event appears to be going off without a hitch, so she's quite good at her job (with both Peterson and her husband saying they don't know what they'd do without her). Although the comic relief high school doofus says the punch is awful, so there is at least a little bit of trouble in paradise. The eldest Brody son, Mike,  and a girl he knows from school are there at the punch bowl to hear that verdict and also put their names in the Bitten To Death By A Shark hat. A pair of besepectacled dweebs stand outside the dance floor not getting any time to develop boogie fever (and also putting themselves into the dead pool), and it's slow dance time at the start of this killer shark movie. After the party sequence we get some shots of the island at twilight and of the new shark cruising around (complete with the iconic dorsal fin popping out of the water with the island in the background, a shot that might have taken weeks to get right, since salt water and mechanical shark puppets don't get along any better in 1978 than they did for the first movie).

The next morning, the captain of a small fishing boat uses the technology of yelling to tell Chief Brody and Deputy Hendricks about a large pleasure-cruising boat in the main traffic channel without any lights on. Hendricks takes the comically undersized police boat out to see what the deal is. Meanwhile Mike Brody and several teens are planning to go out on the water in small craft, because that's the main leisure activity on Amity and the gigantic killer shark from last summer is deader than disco. The comic-relief doofus from the dance is revealed as Andy, while the chief dweeb from the party is called Tim by his compatriot Douglas. And while a vacationing girl from the Big City shows up to be noticed by all the townies, I learned that "She's got tits like a sparrow," is dialogue a PG rated movie could have in 1978. A ragged flotilla of teenager-operated pleasure craft go out into the water for a water balloon fight and some light orchestral comedy music.

Back at the police station, there's a local complaining about a ham radio operator's station washing out his TV reception. It's a mildly chaotic secene where other people are griping about small-time small town grievances between neighbors, and Deputy Hendricks returns from the abandoned cruiser with the equally abandoned dive camera. Brody seizes on that opportunity to get away from the complaining Amity residents. The pleasure boat had a price tag of a cool hundred grand, and the people who owned it lived out of town in Rhode Island. At this point Brody and everyone else presumes they'll be back at some point (and possibly getting the nautical equivalent of a parking ticket) because nobody other than the professor at the start of Shin Godzilla leaves an expensive boat out in the middle of the water like that.

Back on the water, there's someone hanging from a seat attached to a parasail, getting dunked in the water a couple times while the people handling the ropes figure out what they're doing. There's a confusingly edited sequence here where we see the teenager falling into the water from below, and then the POV shark-camera starts moving while the universally recognized Jaws theme plays. If we're seeing the shark's point of view from a distance, what's supposed to be looking at the kid landing in the water from a few feet away?  The POV camera doesn't make it to the kid on the parasail seat (he gets away a second or so before he would have lost a limb at best and died at worst), and nobody on the boat notices the shark fin popping up for a second as he rises into the air. The shark settles for a water skiing woman instead, who is being towed around a different part of the bay (presumably so the wind-powered craft don't get disrupted by the power boat and vice versa). The shot of the fin following along the woman on the waterski is pretty suspenseful and well-handled, but it only lasts for a few seconds, unfortunately. The POV camera comes into play for the attack, intercut with footage of Terry the skiier on the surface, and she gets dragged underwater and killed while her mom, running the boat, eventually notices that she's light by a passenger. Also, I take it back about learning something about the shark victims in this movie, because I can't tell you anything about Terry except that she was eaten by a great white shark.

I can tell you about the same amount of information about Terry's mom, who manages to spill gasoline all over herself and the boat (and the shark, for a moment, when it attacks her stationary and non-motoring boat) before firing a flare gun at the shark that blows up the water craft and accidentally gives "boating accident" as a plausible reason for her and her daughter to be dead. But, as we in the audience know, it was no boating accident except in the most hair-splitting technical sense. Which means Deputy Hendricks is out with a standard issue grizzled old guy with a stocking cap looking at the boat wreckage while Chief Brody orders him to drag the floor of the bay until the bodies of the boater and water skiier are recovered (which is a fool's errand due to tidal currents and gravity pulling the bodies away from where they might be recovered even if they weren't in a shark's stomach at this very moment). Chief Brody interviews the shell-shocked bystanders who witnessed the boat explosion but not the shark attack and stares out at the water, wondering if there is in fact a second territorial shark feeding in the waters off of Amity Island (SPOILER:  He is of course right).
Meanwhile, on the police boat, the dredging hook connects with something so heavy and solid that it almost pulls the craft underwater as if two tigers were sitting on it. What gets pulled up is a buried underwater power line that has to be delicately untangled from the dredging hooks, lest 1) the power goes out to the entire island and 2) Both of the people on the boat get electrocuted.

The next morning, there's a little bit of domestic friction at the Brody breakfast table; Mike would rather sail around the island all summer than get a job, and discounting the shark in the water, who can blame him? His mom thinks summer vacations are more important than flipping burgers for minimum wage but his dad thinks that age seventeen is old enough to start earning some wages. But he relents, and the only thing he tells Mike is to be wary of how far out he's getting, especially if there's bad weather. Mike's boat doesn't have an engine, though, so it's unlikely to explode. At least there's that.

Over at the lighthouse, Tina the beauty queen is running off with someone's hat; he chases her over hill and dale until they find the corpse of an orca washed up on a dune. That's enough of a buzzkill for the kids, but Chief Brody shows up because there are apparent bite wounds on the whale. But he's no marine biologist (and Hooper's off having Science Adventures elsewhere because Richard Dreyfuss was busy filming Close Encounters of the Third Kind while this movie was in production). Brody thinks it's a killer shark that killed the orca, and even underplays his knowledge with the marine biologist as she measures the bite radius on the beached corpse ("I have had some experience with sharks," indeed). The biologist isn't willing to say whether or not the killer whale's been killed by a shark or not without a thorough examination and during her Science Exposition Talk she drops the tidbit that sharks are attracted to rhythmic sounds in the water. They go to whatever is making the unsual noise(s) and then bite the hell out of it. No idea if that's really true or not, but it does provide a scene where Brody thinks he knows everything about sharks and it turns out that he does not. But there's also plenty that the biologist says--all of it perfectly reasonable--that means the dead killer whale isn't necessarily the victim of a shark that's in the immediate waters off of Amity. She narrows it down to either another orca or a great white shark, but a body that's been drifting in the ocean for a day or two and then baking in the sun as an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet for every bug, bird and crab on the shore isn't one that can provide enough information for a complete forensic analysis.

Chief Brody asks the biologist if it's possible that a second great white could come to the area where another one had been killed, either for vengeance or because the hunting ground was open for them and the biologist says sharks don't take things personally (like I do for picking this movie as my Franchise Kill entry when I could have wound up watching Dick Miller in Piranha). The knot of eight or ten other Amity teenagers wander off without Mike Brody, with one of his friends promising to bring his boat back to the marina and tie it up. Mike's getting a ride back with his father, on the ground, away from the ocean.

Back in town, Chief Brody snags Mayor Vaughn to tell him about the suspected shark problem and gets shut down by the mayor, who (relatively sensibly) says there's no real proof of a shark off of Amity at this point. Yes, there's two missing divers and two missing waterskiers (and a boat that exploded), but there are lots of ways for a careless or unlucky boater or diver to die that don't involve a gigantic territorial great white shark. And that's a pretty fair hand for the movie to play at this point, because the viewer knows it's a POV camera and a shark that tallied up four victims so far, but from the evidence in front of Chief Brody, it's a pretty premature call.

Brody's irritable and edgy about getting told that there isn't definitely a shark out there yet and stomps off in a huff. It's a real defect in the script that we're supposed to apparently accept that Brody realizes he's in a killer-shark-movie sequel so of course there's another killer shark out there, while every other character is acting more or less like you'd expect. Also, I'm not entirely certain, but I think the body count in this movie already exceeded that of the original with eighty minutes left in the run time (it's Chrissie, Alex Kintner and Quint who die in the first movie, right?). If this movie had come out in 1979--and therefore after Halloween--I'm pretty sure the kill count would have exclusively been made up of  Amity High School student bodies. Instead we're likely to get a more mixed bag than that. And, unfortunately, we're likely to spend a lot more time with the kids because talk is cheap and action costs money.

While driving on the beach, Brody spots something bobbing in the surf that proves to be part of the waterskiing boat from earlier. He's not willing to go into the water after it at first, even though there's no way a shark can attack him in six inches of surf. But the desire to see what's out there wins out over his hydrophobia and he goes for the chunk of the boat's hull while a stationary POV shot and the Jaws theme plays out (which, if that means the shark is watching Brody, would mean it is going to die because sharks can't stop swimming and breathe at the same time). The boat hull piece has a burnt corpse somehow tangled up on it, and there's a jump cut from Brody's discovery of that body and fully justified attack of the raging fantods to the police chief making a set of hollow-point bullets with cyanide payloads in them.

I am not certain what a few drops of cyanide would do to a shark that six bullet wounds weren't going to do as well, but apparently Brody's plan is to get close enough to the shark to shoot it six times and then hope the poison kicks in. Deputy Hendricks sees the totally-not-suspicious towel covered bundle of stuff on Brody's office desk (the poison bottle, bullets and assorted gear from the assembly of the hollow points) but before he can take a peek at it, his boss tells him to get the dive camera film developed as soon as possible (the drug store / photo lab on the island is already closed at that point). Brody's spent so long working on his toxic ammo that he rushes out of the office for dinner, which he is running late for, and says that when the long-distance call he's expecting comes in to the office, have the switchboard send it to his house.

Which reminds me that the movie takes place in 1978, because I'm willing to bet dive cameras use digital "film" at this point now and there really isn't any such thing as a long distance call any more when everyone's got a cell phone instead of a land line.

That long distance call turns out to be from (or at least on behalf of) Matt Hooper, who is spending months on a research vessel in the Antarctic and won't be able to make a radio-to-telephone call to the Brody residence for another nine or ten months. But at least the movie remembered that Hooper exists, and that Chief Brody would undoubtedly want to get in touch with him and find out if his fears of another killer shark are justified. This sequence is the start of the film's attempt to show that Chief Brody is acting paranoid and distant while the fear of another shark starts to prey on his mind, and at that Mike Brody now has a job and won't be allowed to go boating any more. Again, that's actually the right thing to do, but the film is making Chief Brody arrive at the right conclusion via bad reasoning.

The next day at the beach, there's a ton of establishing shots to show that we are indeed at the beach, as are lots of people of various age cohorts and skin tones ranging from mayonnaise to eggshell white. Brody's out on a watchtower keeping an eye on the entire ocean, and Mayor Vaughn, Peterson and Ellen Brody are showing the beach off to condo investors with an eye towards further real estate development on Amity. Mike Brody's summer job turns out to be painting and refurbishing one of the concession stands on the beach, at least today. Which would have to be the all-time biggest bummer of a summer job if you're on the beach for hours but not allowed to do anything fun.

Out on the ocean, a boat full of teenagers enjoying the day speeds off in search of adventure while Peterson and Vaughn unsuccessfully try to lay claim to the title of "Bullshit artist" by telling a grade-school-age kid that the shark tower is really for watching birds most of the time and that Chief Brody is just up there inspecting it. Brody sees a big dark shadow in the water and rings the Shark Bell, demanding everybody leave the ocean, but it's not quite the second act yet so it's just a school of bluefish and he is unceremoniously fired (and he should have been, because he's running across the beach with his gun out and fires at the shadow in the water even though not everyone has cleared his line of fire. The movie tries to make it look like the jerkoff developers are behind his dismissal, but he's due for a psychiatric hearing after that display at the very least. Credit where it's due, there is a quite nice shot of Brody alone in the foreground while the muttering crowd of beachgoers fills the background from edge to edge of the screen. It shows that he's isolated from the community both physically and psychologically. His younger son Sean comes by to help him pick up his brass shell casings, which he dropped on the beach after emptying his revolver at the vague shape in the water.

Before he can get canned, though, Brody gets a look at the photos from that dive camera. The man who runs the photo shop in town only got one picture developed before calling the chief over so that he (and the audience) can see the other pictures fade into existence and show off the killer great white shark. It's a pretty neat scene, but I don't know why they had to do it quite the way they did. Brody brings the shark photos over to the board of selectmen, who declare they don't see a shark in them. Brody's attempt to show everyone that they have a shark problem goes pretty poorly (Peterson says there's no talking to someone who already made up his mind) and Brody says he's got no plans to fight a second great white in the ocean, so the town better come up with a plan before there's a crisis this time (a reasonable plan that goes utterly against Roy Scheider's acting as the wide-eyed fast-talking edge-of-panic Brody ranting about the shark pictures).

Well, enough of that main plot. It's time to go to a local bar and watch the Amity kids hang out.

The main thing I got from the bar scene was that the establishment lets teenagers in (what was the national legal drinking age in 1978?), and also that they've got one of the few hundred Death Race arcade games that were manufactured before angry moralists got the game taken out of production (why, yes, dear readers, people were always willing to complain about unsavory entertainment choices!). One of the kids I'm not going to bother to figure out the name of says he snagged a couple cases of beer from his father, and wants to go to the lighthouse the next day, hang out, and consume it. Me, personally, I'd be back at the bar playing Death Race, but I've always been an antisocial weirdo (thank Telstar the internet was eventually made available to civilian nerds). Everyone but Mike Brody makes plans to go to the lighthouse, but he's got the twin specters of the day job and a father who is the chief of police keeping him from going. But the glamorous new girl in town twists his arm for about three fifths of a second, and it looks like Mike's gonna be in the big group of Expendable Meat characters at the lighthouse party.

Chief Brody returns home to find that Ellen and Deputy Hendricks are commiserating about him getting fired. He hands the chief of police badge over to his former second-in-command and starts to work on getting thoroughly wasted. He does make sure, even in his current emotional state, to tell Hendricks that he knows it's not his subordinate's fault that he's getting kicked up a place on the org chart. The new chief leaves and the Brodys discuss what's going on with the chief's career path and why exactly he was let go (it looks to be the "firing a gun at the beach while yelling like a maniac" thing more than any other factor). Ellen gives her husband all the support--physical and emotional--that she can, and the next morning they sleep through Mike sneaking out to partake of alcoholic beverages and listen to the rock and roll.

His younger brother's more observant, though, and blackmails an invitation to the beach party by threatening to wake their parents up if he doesn't get to tag along. At the pier, Mike temporarily kicks his friend Andy off to invite the girls on his craft, the dweeby guy gets a girl to go along with him (which he wasn't expecting to happen, but it delighted to have happen) and there's perhaps just the tiniest bit too much of momentum-destroying footage of boats going around doing Boat Stuff. Then, just because things weren't going slowly enough, it's time for an underwater sequence where SCUBA divers swim around in the ocean. This kind of sequence in a monster movie serves the vital function of letting the audience get a popcorn refill while NOTHING AT ALL IS GOING TO HAPPEN. I'm stuck watching every frame of the film, though, and when a diver gets startled by the burn-scarred great white it comes out of nowhere and also doesn't use the John Williams shark music to let the audience know it's going to happen. Everyone's so intent on helping the diver get back to shore (I think he's suffering from the bends as he surfaces too quickly, maybe) they miss the dorsal fin in the water by the boat.

So, uh, they decided to make the shark scarier by putting wicked nasty burn scars on its face. It's emblematic of this film that they've tried to make the gigantic killer shark scarier for the sequel, and that the footage the have doesn't work towards that goal at all. And the shark appearance among the divers is confusingly handled--didn't anyone else see it? Why did everybody else go back to the boat when one person did? I didn't see anyone do a signal or anything, so if all the divers had a single buddy to mutually keep track of, they wouldn't have necessarily even noticed the shark-dodger fleeing.

Chief Brody gets into the police SUV to drive his wife to her job before turning it in and getting all his personal effects from his desk and entering civilian life. And meanwhile, there are two teenagers who have drifted off from the group (possibly the nautical equivalent of "running out of gas" while driving somewhere?), which means that one or both of them is going to get sharked. Turns out to be the boy, who turns out to be named Eddie (and his girlfriend is Tina); the shark bumps their boat, which knocks Eddie in the drink and he gets killed while his girlfriend screams for him to swim to the boat. When we're focusing on Tina and Eddie rather than the shark effects, it's actually quite an effective sequence but it's over in a minute and a half, and then we spend time with everyone back in town again. That includes Martin Brody seeing an ambulance going with its lights and sirens on and wondering what the deal is (even though he's no longer Chief Martin Brody). The ambulance turned out to be for that diver, who gave himiself an embolism by ascending too fast and holding his breath. Chief Hendricks drops a little knowledge on the Brodys when he lists all the kids who went out to the lighthouse and the parents race off to yell at their son (and protect him from the shark, but mostly they're gonna be yelling). Chief Hendricks starts out telling his former boss that he can't take the Amity Police boat out since he's no longer affiliated with the Amity Police and winds up telling him how to operate the controls (one assumes that's a job that Brody left to his subordinates since he's never liked being on or in the water). Hendricks sums up the city's options with "They can't fire both of us", which shows commendable team spirit.

Rather than assume that he's going to be able to fix the entire problem himself, Brody radios the harbor patrol and tells them to send their helicopter out to the day-sailing teenagers so they can get sent back to the port (and safety, and the Brody kids for their ration of yelling). And that means that instead of a shark attack, we get a few more minutes of High Seas Adventure on the various boats. I swear, every time this movie starts to build up some storytelling momentum it cuts to those goddamned kids sailing about and all the tension in the film just drains away. Meanwhile, the Brodys and Hendricks find the empty boat that Eddie and Tina were in a little while ago, and find Tina sobbing belowdecks and hiding. At some length, they manage to get some exposition from Tina about what happened and Martin Brody signals to a passing pleasure craft to pick up Tina, his wife and Hendricks (they're all on Tina's boat) and he motors off to save the teenagers and kill the second Amity great white. Also, this means that since he's been kicked off the force and handed in his badge and gun, he's officially a Cop On The Edge. I know I was disparaging the script earlier, but now I want to piss on a copy of it directly.

Back with the Teenage Kicks Flotilla, one of the dweebs manages to overinflate his pontoon boat, blow a patch out, and it starts sinking. He almost gets sharked before the boat can even finish sinking but gets hauled out of the briny deep into Andy's craft, which the shark capsizes as well. In the ensuing panic, plenty of the other craft get their rigging fouled or knocked over. Mike winds up getting knocked out and floating  while unconscious. He gets yanked into the chief dweeby guy's boat a second before the shark can bite him in another scene that actually works pretty well (other than the goofy-ass mechanical shark rubbing against the side of the boat). All the other craft are disabled one way or another and Mike's comic-relief goofy friend has the brainwave to throw lines to the various boats and tie them together as a more stable flotilla rather than have everyone stranded separately. Meanwhile, Brody drives his technically stolen police boat to the lighthouse, but none of the teenagers' boats have made it there yet. Radioing the harbor patrol chopper guy doesn't help either and he winds up heading off in essentially a random direction looking for the stranded kids (who realize that they need to get to Cable Junction, an island with some electrical equipment on it) because the next landmark after that is Ireland. They get spotted by the harbor chopper, but when it lands on the water (it's got floats instead of regular skids) we get a POV shot that probably means the shark is still loitering in the area. The kids get a tow to Cable Junction from the helicopter, but seconds into that process the shark attacks the helicopter (!) which sinks to the bottom of the ocean. While tied to the boats that everyone's on. Now they've got an anchor keeping them more or less immobilized, but the shark has already learned how to bump into the bottom of a boat's hull in order to get tasty snacks to fall into the ocean. Sean Brody gets knocked into the water in one attack along with a girl whose name I don't think we ever catch (she gets eaten while everyone else screams in panic).

There's a scene back in town where Ellen tells Peterson off for...something...I guess because he wanted to build condos? I don't know. It plays out like a punchline for a joke that never got set up. Maybe the director wanted to remind us that those characters were still in the movie. Back on the police boat, Brody can't get the radio to work and can't figure out where everyone is. Then it starts to rain. Back on the kids' boats, there's a lengthy scene in which everyone yells at the traumatized Sean Brody to catch a rope so he can get hauled from his lone upside-down boat to the other ones that are tied together. They're drifting towards Cable Junction, and probably will just bump into it or get near it or something. None of them can steer and there's a distinct shortage of volunteers to go into the water and try towing the boat towards the island.

Brody does the nautical equivalent of stumbling upon the boat with the dweeby guy, Mike and some namless preppy on it, who hip him to the scene about what's going on re:  sharks, Cable Junction and disabled boats containing his other son. Those kids are steering to the island as best as they can but it's not a precision task with no paddles and making noise in the water might attract the shark. Then the mast of the capsized boat sticks on the bottom of the ocean floor, stranding everyone about twenty feet from the island they were hoping to get to. We get Night of the Living Dead in eighty seconds as everyone screams at each other while they're stranded, but one of the kids hears the police boat approaching. They all yell and scream to get Brody's attention, which is probably like ringing a dinner bell for the monster.

Yup, the shark shows up as Brody gets ready to tow the makeshift boat raft thing to the island and in the confusion Martin manages to run aground (which is actually in character; he's never been nautically proficient). He throws a line to the kids so they can pull the dredging hooks over to their aggregate craft, whereupon Brody will use the dredging winch to haul them to the island. But, of course, it snags that goddamned power cable from earlier at the very moment that the burn-scarred shark bashes through the bottom of the raft. Everyone swims like crazy for Cable Junction, of course, but two people (including Sean Brody) are still on the damaged boats. And the winch hauls the power cable off the ocean floor again while Martin Brody is trying to get it disentangled from the dredging hooks.

Which means it's time to MacGyver up a shark killing solution--Brody gets on an inflatable raft and gets ready to get to the stranded boat when the shark attacks it again (giving the audience a much better look at the not very good shark puppet). He uses the exposition from the marine biologist in the first act and starts slapping the power cable with the life raft's oar, which makes a shark attracting noise (and lets audience members sing the chorus to "Have I the Right?" briefly). The shark doesn't go for it completely at first, but at least it leaves the stranded boat and the two remaining kids on it alone. Brody keeps smacking the cable as they see the shark again, luring it in to take a big bite of power cable and turning itself into instant tempura. And knocking out all the power to Amity Island, which means hundreds of gallons of ice cream will be melting in the sun, and nobody can play Death Race over at the bar any more.

Back on the mainland, one assumes that Brody gets his job back as chief and also gets to paint two shark sillhouettes on the driver's side door of the police cruiser.

Man, this movie defines the term "meh". It's not bad, it's not entertainingly terrible, and it occupies time until the end credits roll. There's really not anything else to say about it that I didn't already get to; it's just a movie that got made for absolutely no reason other than to ride the coattails of an unexpected hit. I guess Universal decided that if moviegoers were going to get ripoffs like Grizzly, The Car, The White Buffalo, Alligator, Crocodile, and others, that they might as well join in on the fun and rake in a little cash.

And, what do you know, this one made enough money for a sequel in 3-D and another one legendary for its awfulness. Gotta get through this one in order to make your way to the prime glory of the cheese that awaits.


The other members of the Celluloid Zeroes have reviewed movies in the Jaws series (or some notable ripoffs, or another killer shark movie) to join in on the Franchise Kill.

Seeker of Schlock drew the long straw and got to watch a genuine masterpiece in Jaws.

Cinemasochist Apocalypse puts on the glasses and watches Jaws 3-D.

Micro-Brewed Reviews watches Michael Caine's shirt miraculously dry in Jaws:  The Revenge.

Web of the Big Damn Spider checks out The Sea Serpent (featuring Ray Milland!).

The Terrible Claw Reviews gets stranded in The Shallows.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The Celluloid Zeroes present Political Science Fiction: The Parallax View (1974)

The Celluloid Zeroes celebrate Election Day 2016 by looking at politically-themed horror and science fiction movies of the past to distract us from the horrors of the present. Join us, won't you?

Written by David Giler and Lorenzo Semple Jr. (and an uncredited Robert Towne), based on the novel by Loren Singer
Directed by Alan J. Pakula

Warren Beatty:  Joseph Frady
Paula Prentiss:  Lee Carter
William Daniels:  Austin Tucker
Hume Cronyn:  Bill Rintels

I wasn't around to experience the paranoia and self-loathing of America as the Sixties turned over into the Seventies, but I can tell from the art that had been produced at the time that it was no Goddamned fun at all. "Art," a mass communications professor of mine used to say, "is anything that communicates." And the pop culture produced by America in the Nixon years was communicating in the language of rage-fueled screams. There was also a boom in conspiracy theories at the time--one of the most common ones being the secret truth behind the Kennedy assassination; certainly the official story that a lone nut with a gun decided to change history all by himself, not influenced by anybody else at all, wasn't enough for some people. 

Come to think of it, that's the official story to both of the Kennedy assassinations, and also for that of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Given that a whole lot of prominent left-wing politicians were winding up dead at the hands of lone nuts who were unconnected to any other social movements or organizations, it's no wonder that the national mood (at least according to some of the movies I've seen) was of bitterly suspicious paranoia and fatalistic acceptance of approaching doom.

Well, this review is scheduled to go live on Election Day 2016, where the United States of America will decide whether or not "loud man from television show" is enough of a curriculum vitae to become the most powerful man on the planet. And if you think things looked dire in 1974, imagine how we're going to look with four decades' hindsight if a man who can be provoked into a week-long tirade by a tweet gets to control the American thermonuclear stockpile. Actually, if that happens, we'd better hope that radioactive cockroaches have a sophisticated oral tradition because there's no chance that humanity's going to make it to the end of a Trump presidency if someone from China says something mean about him on television.

I guess I'd rather spend some time in a fictional world where evil is in unquestioned control of my country, but that it's a corporate villain rather than a single human one. Because at least a corporation is going to try and perform in a manner that makes money. There's no point in being the richest man on the cinder that used to be Earth, so an evil CEO looking to reshape the country into something favorable to his company (over a dozen or so of the little people's dead bodies) is preferable in many ways to the evil that could potentially be in charge in January of 2017. I'm sure that the filmmakers thought this was going to be a horror movie, but I wonder if they ever saw things getting so bad in real life that their film would be a comforting escapist entertainment.

The film starts in Seattle (you can tell that's where things are taking place because of the Space Needle and a totem pole sharing the same shot). It's the Fourth of July, and "Senator Carroll" is going to make an appearance with reporters and gawkers thronging around the streets. Word on the street (literally on the street; it's a parade marching down the streets in Seattle) is that the Senator is going to run for President in a year (which sets the film in 1975, I guess, a year after its release, and just far enough in the future to be The Future while still looking recognizable to everyone in the audience at the time). The Senator--whose political party is pointedly not given--waves to everyone, gets into the elevator at the base of the Space Needle and goes up into the monument in order to press the flesh with some supporters away from the turmoil and crowds at ground level. We first meet Joseph Frady, the doomed-as-fuck protagonist, trying to scam his way past a security guy in an eye-searing necktie and burgundy suit (apparently the Secret Service had business casual days in 1974). Frady gets shut down and has to stay back down on the ground with all us mere mortals as Senator Carroll ascends to the Olympian heights. It's totally not foreshadowing that the inevitable local marching band is playing "When the Saints Go Marching In" as the elevator keeps rising.

Just as Senator Carroll starts to make a speech that's meant to launch the next phase of his political career, two shots ring out and his blood splatters the windows of the Space Needle. It's telling that the one journalist we've seen in the film so far is on the outside observation deck so there's a barrier between her and the Senator as he's killed--she's separated from the events as they happen. A red-jacketed waiter with a pistol is immediately grabbed by the horrified bystanders--what we the audience sees, and they do not, as the second man in a waiter's jacket also with a gun making a discreet exit. The known gunman makes a break for it and goes to the top of the Space Needle, scuffling with three men who pursued him in a wordless sequence and eventually falling from the top of the landmark to his death. 

A Congressional committee investigates the killing of Senator Carroll, and after four months of hearings they hand down their conclusion:  Carroll was killed by an unstable madman who wanted to be famous and to protect the country from what he saw as a political threat. According to the seven-member committee, there is no evidence whatsoever of a larger conspiracy around the killer's actions. So don't ask any questions about that. The credits roll over a still of the committee and a dissonant brass fanfare.

Three years later (so...1977?) that journalist who didn't get to the Space Needle at the start of the film social-engineers his way into a middle-class house by claiming to be looking for an escaped parrot; he gets to their back porch just in time for a police narcotics raid to smash its way into their front door looking for dope that pretty obviously isn't going to be there. His presence as the narco squad throws the middle-aged couple around and breaks their stuff looking for smack earns him a trip downtown, where he is not booked on any charges but is threatened by police. Joseph Frady sasses them back, pointing out that he's not the one who did anything wrong in that situation. He's just a reporter who witnessed firsthand a textbook example of police brutality, and he leaves without having to post bail and in one piece. Then it's back to the newspaper offices where we learn that Warren Beatty might well be a Method actor, cause he looks like he actually knows his way around an electric typewriter. Frady gets told that his story is going to be spiked, and that he's not allowed to do any more tweaking of the local drug squad. His editor informs Joseph that he's not going to commit any more shenanigans in pursuit of stories and gives him the rest of the day off.

Over at the Hawaiian-themed flophouse hotel where Frady lives, the manager (who looks like the person Joe Pantaliano was cloned from) tells him that there's some mail as well as four phone messages from the same person waiting for him. The message leaver, Lee Carter, shows up in person--just in time for Frady's girlfriend to walk out irritated at his former squeeze knocking on the door of his hotel room--and tells the newspaper reporter that she believes that she's the target of a murderous conspiracy. She's got a crumpled old newspaper article on the Senator Carroll assassination and tells Joseph that half a dozen people in the news photos have died in the past couple of years in various accidents. Or "accidents", if you believe her. She believes she's next on the list, along with Austin Tucker (Carroll's chief of staff). Tucker thinks that they saw something they weren't supposed to as they witnessed the killing, but neither he nor Lee can think of what that might possibly be. And Lee's the television reporter who saw Carroll's blood hit the window after he was shot--she was on the scene and paying close attention through the shock and trauma she was feeling at the time. Which is a good reason for her to think she's going to be on the death list, if indeed there is one.

Frady doesn't buy the conspiracy angle at all; he quotes the various ways the dead people from the news photos bought their farms, and they're all pretty plausible (dying of an allergic reaction to a wrongly prescribed antibiotic is an awful way to go, but it's hardly suspicious of anything but colossally bad luck or homicidal negligence on the part of a doctor). But he also only lists four of the eighteen people in the pictures in question, and Lee tells him that two more have died since the last time she tried to tell him about the conspiracy that she thinks is knocking witnesses off. Six deaths out of eighteen people randomly captured in a few photographs over four years isn't exactly a smoking gun, but it also does seem at least a little hinky. The problem, of course, is that two points are always colinear and three are always coplanar. If you have a few data points they're going to look connected because the human mind appreciates patterns and finds them everywhere.

Lee wants to go to Salmontail, which is a small Washington town where one more witness just suffered an accidental death (drowning while out fishing). Frady pretty much openly doesn't care about any of this death conspiracy bullshit and provokes Lee into a crying jag--which I can see, because if I thought I was one of a rapidly shrinking pool of potential murder victims and someone I trusted wasn't listening to me it'd set me off pretty quickly. Frady attempts to look and sound like less of an asshole and fails; the next we see of Lee is her body on a medical examiner's table. She was drunk and sedated and then killed in a car wreck; the pathologist says it's an obvious suicide. Which makes Joseph wonder if there might have been something to this "conspiracy death list" business after all.

Well, just because there's a nebulous criminal conspiracy bumping people off who happened to see something they shouldn't have is no reason to go off half-cocked. Frady starts out by talking to a source of his who used to be an FBI agent (but is now officially persona non grata at that agency). He wants a fake ID and a falsified background so he can pass as just the right kind of antisocial misfit. The former Fibbie comes up with a name and a persona while talking to the reporter (looks like "Richard Martin" is going to have a conviction in his past for exposing himself to women). 

And then up in Swallowtail, Frady enters a bar, his demeanor completely different from his earlier brash irreverence (and his voice pitched just barely above a whisper). He's quiet and contained, and orders a glass of milk instead of something like a shot and a beer. The cowboy-hatted drinkers at a nearby table aren't going to let that offense to their sense of machismo stand, because someone else's drink choice is something that must be audited and mocked by Real Men. Joseph beats the ever-loving shit out of the man who tried to antagonize him in a donnybrook that travels the entire length and breadth of the bar as well as the gift shop. Turns out that the guy he stomped a brand new mudhole into is a sheriff's deputy, and the older guy he was drinking with is the county sheriff (who didn't want to stop the fight because he enjoyed watching his jerkoff deputy take a beating).

Introductions thereby made, the sheriff and Frady get to talking, and Joseph learns that the judge who drowned in Swallowtail did so when a dam released hundreds of thousands of gallons of water. There were alarms and warning lights, but apparently the judge didn't notice any of them and was wiped out by the flood waters. The sheriff points Frady to the dam's watchman, who bought a brand new hunting shotgun right after the "accident", and the two men go check out the dam. While Frady fishes (and looks for anything suspicious around the drowning site) and the sheriff chats from the shore, the klaxons go off at the dam. They're loud enough to get the attention of a dead man, and it turns out that there never was a watchman at the dam--the sheriff pulls his duty weapon on Joseph and plans to keep him in the path of the water until there's two sudden drownings in the same spot to explain away. But Frady's resourceful enough to lay the authority figure's face open with his fishing lure and drag him into the path of the water. Serves you right, asshole. The pair fight as they get swept downstream and Frady survives, while his would-be murderer does not.

Over at the sheriff's house (arriving via stolen police car), Joseph pokes around a bit and finds a briefcase full of documents from the Parallax Corporation, but has to get the hell out when the deputy walks in to see what's going on--and there's a great shot where Frady and the deputy are both in the same frame on opposite sides of an interior wall, neither one aware of the other's presence. Joseph leaves through a window and steals the deputy's car (!), which the other man notices and pursues in the sheriff's vehicle. Some fancy driving gets Joseph out of immediate danger but he smashes into a supermarket and makes tracks on foot, escaping by hopping into the bed of a freight truck that happens to be going the right way ("anywhere but where all the cops are coming from"). 

Being a resourceful chap, Frady gets back to the newspaper office without too much further incident, and in a late-night meeting comes across as just the kind of paranoid ranter that he dismissed earlier in the film. Because, let's face it, "all the witnesses to this already-solved political killing from four years ago are getting murdered" does not sound like the kind of thing a rational person would say. Not only that, but even the sheriff trying to kill Joseph can be explained away (as can the bank book the reporter found with $107,000 in it, which is more than most hick town public servants can expect to put away for retirement in 1974). There was a scandal a few years back and that sheriff, along with two deputies, were all indicted. Once he saw a reporter sniffing around his turf, obviously the sheriff wanted to avoid further scandal and planned to kill Joseph out of pre-emptive self defense. The only problem with this theory is that Joseph Frady gave a fake name when he signed in at his hotel and claims he never told the sheriff he was a reporter (which might even be true, but why would the sheriff come up with a fake watchman at the dam as a way to get Frady killed if he didn't think the man was investigating him?).

Frady's editor refuses to advance him any of his salary so he can go looking for Austin Tucker, so he decides to take a slightly different tack. Talking to a behavioral psychologist friend (who is introduced playing Pong against a chimpanzee and beating the hell out of it), Joseph asks for advice on his interpretation of the Parallax mail-in personality test; he thinks they're casting a wide net looking for loners that are hostile and angry, and can have those emotions channeled in a productive (for Parallax) way. He thinks that whatever the Parallax Corporation is, they're interested in violent loners. And with a little coaching from a genuine psychologist, he can learn how to answer their questions so that he can look like the kind of unstable personality they're looking for. His psychologist friend does him one better, and administers the test to a criminally insane orderly in the lab--by the way, what the hell kind of liability insurance does a psych lab have if they have a chimpanzee and a criminally insane dude running around with minimal security precautions?

While he's having lunch and reading the paper, Joe gets approached (from behind, without him noticing) by someone who says he can lead the newspaperman to the reclusive and paranoid Austin Tucker. Before he'll be allowed into Tucker's presence, Frady has to consent to a strip search ("Are you out of your fuckin' mind?") but eventually relents because he wants to get to the truth about what's going on, and Tucker was in the same room as Senator Carroll when he was assassinated and is currently still alive. Tucker's first question is something a justifiably paranoid person would ask--who sent Frady to look for him? The second thing he says is that he'll pay $10,000 to be left alone and left out of whatever story Frady's writing; Tucker says he's lived through two attempts on his life so far and isn't planning to hang around till someone gets lucky the third time.

Tucker, Frady, and Tucker's bodyguard / security goon sail out into the Pacific on Tucker's personal boat, since the former politician's assistant has decided to talk, but nowhere that he can be observed or approached. And he busts out a handheld photo viewer that has one of the pictures Lee Carter was using to keep track of people that were marked for death on it; also on the viewer is a shot of one of the waiters at the Space Needle on the day Senator Carroll was murdered. Tucker doesn't quite explain anything to Frady yet, possibly thinking that the journalist has been sent to end his life, but that shot of an unsmiling man in a waiter's vest means something to the recluse. 

Neither Joseph Frady nor the audience figures out what that might be, though, because without any warning other than a shift from a closeup to a long shot, a bomb explodes on Tucker's sailboat. It burns to the waterline and Frady's presumed dead (along with Tucker and his security guy). Frady sneaks back into his editor's office while he's sacked out at his deck chair and sees that his own paper reported three deaths in the sailing "mishap" rather than two, then wakes the sleeping man up and scares the snot out of him for a moment before finding out that his own close call and then (reported) death convinced his boss that there might just be something to this "list of people who were in this photo all winding up dead" business. But when the editor says he's going to call the police and the FBI to report what he knows about the ongoing shady business Frady warns him that talking to anyone in law enforcement could wind up getting him killed. 

Next thing that Frady wants to do is pretty clever:  He asks his editor to print an obituary and then together the two men are going to fake a will with the editor named as executor. All of Joseph's belongings will get moved out of his hotel room and donated to charity (if they want 'em). And while he's thought to be dead, he'll have a chance to try out for Parallax, who are the real villains behind everything. Oh, and one other request, while Frady's asking for things--he doesn't want anything in the paper about the mysterious happenings around the Senator Carroll killing and the way all those witnesses keep dying. His editor thinks they could blow the lid off the political assassination from four years ago. Frady thinks they can expose the company that's been recruiting assassins and blow the lid off of a dozen killings (and coverups) or even more. With no ceremony whatsoever, the two men agree that Frady will stay "dead" and try to figure out what's going on with the mysterious Parallax corporation.

So when he's living in some crummy apartment somewhere "Richard Paley" gets a personal visit from a Parallax representative named Jack Younger, telling him that he'd scored very well on a personality test. Well, he actually says they were "very interesting scores", which could mean dozens of different things, couldn't it? The man from Parallax says that "Paley" might well qualify for unusual work for Parallax, which would make the the test-taker rich and give him a rewarding job, and give Parallax a finder's fee for locating someone capable of doing the work that needs to be done.

While talking to Jack, "Paley" burns his hand on his stove and lashes out in anger, putting on exactly the kind of show that Parallax is looking for from its unstable violent loners. Younger tells him that his aggressive tendencies are exactly what the corporation is looking for, and leaves a business card (and instructions to call if "Richard" wants to progress with the organization). Which, of course, Frady does, making his way to a nondescript corporate office in a skyscraper. Whatever Joseph thought was going to happen when he went to the Division of Human Engineering for a job interview, it wouldn't have been what he gets. There's a single chair in a room, wired with sensors to detect the physiological responses from the person sitting in it. 

Then he's shown a film with a collage of contrasting images (which is also shown to the audience in a single unbroken and unmoving shot). Half of the things he's shown are positive images of (white) people in love and being cared for my parents who love them but the other half of the time, it's Nazi rallies and Communist leaders; the pictures get bleaker and show poverty and misery, death and destruction along with shots that show isolated lonely figures stranded in a photo. This is the point where I started cringing in sympathetic fear for Joseph Frady, because whatever Parallax is looking for in him, they're not going to find it. And if they're willing to kill a dozen people to clean up after what certainly looks to be a successful operation, whatever they're going to do to a nosy reporter won't be any fun. Even more so if they somehow find out that he was supposed to have been killed in a previous Parallax operation.

The film starts to get darker and more frightening; a woman's screaming face appears more than once, as do guns, a lynched body, and shots that show an American flag in an American Nazi's office as he gives a Fascist salute. Chaos, sex, death, hopelessness, homosexuality, monsters, fire, a child about to be beaten by his father and (oddly enough) a Jack Kirby drawing of Thor show up in a quick disturbing montage before the film slows back down and resumes showing the viewer monuments to dead presidents, the flag, and peaceful rural scenes again. Then an announcer asks "Richard" to proceed to the Parallax offices (without giving the slightest hint about what he can expect next). But Frady spots the man from Tucker's photo leaving the building and follows him from a discreet distance.

Well, it's probably not good news that the Parallax man goes to an airport and checks a bulky suitcase with a luggage handler outside (and, in these paranoid post-9/11 times, it's amazing that there's no security checking the luggage that's going onto a plane). Frady gets to the airport and determines which jet has the fateful package on it, runs onboard (again, with no security preventing him from just buying a ticket that day and hopping onto the runway to catch his flight). As the Parallax man watches from a parking garage, the plane takes off and soars off to its destination. And on board, Frady goes to get a newspaper to read during the flight and  hears one of the passengers in First Class refer to someone on board as "Senator", as well as saying that the politician is "following in Carroll's footsteps". Yes indeed, if Parallax has anything to say about it, along with the other sixty or eighty people on board the 707...

There's an interesting tracking shot of Frady walking back to his seat after being kicked out of first class by the stewardess--when he walks up to the first class cabin the camera pans right and left and the viewer gets a look at every single passenger on the plane; old, young, men and women, and a mix of races (it's a real cross-section of humanity). But on the way back it's just a medium closeup of a worried looking Warren Beatty. He's surrounded by dozens of people in a narrow metal tube and he's completely isolated by his knowledge that something horrible is going to happen to everyone on the plane (including him). I was stunned and amazed to find out that one of the flight attendants was taking payments for plane tickets while the jet was already in flight (which must have been a real thing if audiences in 1974 were going to swallow the rest of the story).

After going to the john on board, "Richard Paley" leaves a note written in soap on the bathroom mirror that there's a bomb on board and then thinks better of it, writing the message out on a napkin and handing slipping it into the stack of napkins during beverage service. Which means that it gets discovered without him being noticed as the one who did it, and the plane (full of people smoking cigarettes, another signifier for 1974) heads back to the airport because even if it's a joke, the flight crew has to take it seriously. The flight returns to Los Angeles because of a sudden mechanical problem the pilot just noticed right this second, and after the passengers get off the plane it explodes (offscreen, so they don't have to put a gigantic Michael Bay style effect in a paranoid thriller that isn't really an action movie).

When "Paley" goes home to his crappy apartment, there's a guy from Parallax already there sitting in the dark (courtesy of an unscrewed light bulb) to make him a job offer for $25,000 in cash. The "Manufacturers Intelligence Group" can use someone with Richard Paley's skills and psychological makeup in their security program. Thankfully Frady's got enough on the ball to play along and not show just how terrified he's got to be. That goes double for when the Parallax man tells him that there's a Richard Paley who served in Vietnam and died there, and by the way, who are you really, Mister Paley"? Frady comes up with a new name and an embarrassing background as a way to explain why he was impersonating a dead man, which hopefully is going to hold up when Parallax checks up on him a second time. The recruiter tells his prospect that Parallax appreciates anti-social misfits and can give them a sense of true worth, which is even more valuable than a paycheck (and speaking as an anti-social misfit myself, I'd run the other way as fast as I could if someone tried to tell me I was secretly awesome and well suited for a mystery job halfway across the country).

Well, it turns out that Joseph bugged his own apartment and he's got the Parallax man on tape; the next thing we see is his editor listening to the conversation in his office and accepting a delivery order from a new guy from his preferred takeout place (and it's not surprising to see it's the man from Austin Tucker's photo viewer, per se, but it does register on the blood-freezing scale pretty high). Well, it's probably not too terribly surprising when a late-middle-aged man who lives for his job and eats greaseburgers regularly dies of a coronary, but the film's already mentioned a drug that induces cardiac arrests (and when the homicide investigator tosses the editor's petty cash back in his desk drawer, the envelope full of tapes from Joseph's stash is nowhere to be found).

I'm sure the word didn't get back to Frady about what happened to his boss (who is also the only person who knew he was still alive), and he continues on the assignment for Parallax, with his contact letting him know there's a man from the organization who'll meet him and set him up. The name that "Richard Parton" gets from the recruiter is Ben Harkins; when Frady spots his contact at the hotel he calls his room from the lobby and gives him a set of utterly fictitious instructions (the poor sap's gonna get yelled at by his managers at Parallax when this all shakes out, but at least he's being shunted to Hawaii as part of Frady's scheme). Frady goes back to the Parallax headquarters in character and complains that his contact never showed up to meet him. You can tell it's a thriller from 1974 because the hero outsmarted his antagonist instead of beating him to death or chucking him off a building.

Meanwhile, the Parallax recruiter takes a meeting with plenty of unsmiling people in suits; we don't find out what's going on there but it's safe to say that things are looking bad for Frady when and if they find him again. The security meeting takes place in a skybox at a convention center that's getting ready for a political rally of some kind (the tables have red, white and blue cloths and there's a marching band practicing when we see it). Judging from the other times Parallax has been spotted anywhere with politicians, and from the Sousaphone player who blatantly does not know what he's doing, it looks like another misfit loner is going to shoot his way into the history books. 

But this time things are different. Joseph Frady is up in the catwalks looking down at the meeting space. Think about the scoop you'd get by simultaneously foiling an assassination and exposing the group of shadowy manipulators that are killing progressive politicians for money.

Of course, Parallax has been doing this for a long, long time and they're ready for just about any contingency that might come up. Sure, Frady realizes how dangerous they are because of the number of witnesses that have died from the one killing that he knows about, but you don't get offices in a mirror-windowed skyscraper off of the promise of one targeted political killing. He was paranoid, and the film suggests that there is no level of paranoia too great for the Seventies in America. When he finds himself near a planted gun and with a horrified onlooker pointing at him from below, Joseph Frady realizes that Parallax turned their own potential exposure into one more domino to fall in their meticulously planned scheme. The politician that was pursuing the youth vote is still dead, and a former journalist who faked his death and killed Austin Tucker is the lone crazy man who shot him.

But don't worry--the lone crazy man didn't get out of the convention center, and America remains safe because a good guy with a gun (belatedly) took out the bad guy with a gun who shot a left-wing politician for no reason. Nothing to see here any more. Nothing to concern yourself with. Go back to the game, or go out to see a movie. America remains safe, under the careful watch of its guardians. And a Congressional board of inquiry took nine months to investigate, eventually determining that Joseph Frady was obsessed with a previous political assassination and went on to try and carry one out in a fit of delusional psychosis. There's no evidence of a conspiracy whatsoever.

Holy shit, this was an intense movie. A political horror film about a doomed protagonist that finds a little knowledge and proceeds to ensnare himself further and further--it's a Watergate-era version of The Wicker Man or a non-supernatural Lovecraft film. But instead of a charismatic Scottish lord or a godlike being from beyond time and space it's just a group of men in an office deciding who lives and who dies--and Frady never meets anyone higher-up than the recruiter over the course of the story. For all that he uncovers, he never scratches more than the surface of what Parallax is up to. And coming after a decade marked by political killings by the double handful, the slogan on the top of the movie poster is completely true:  Murdering someone you see as a political threat is as American as apple pie. The only difference between 1974 and 2016 is that street executions get broadcast live over the internet now, but the man with the gun still goes free virtually every time.

What a wonderful time to be an American.

Other Celluloid Zeroes have their own entries for the Political Science Fiction roundtable.

Micro-Brewed Reviews is perfectly fine, and you're the paranoid one wondering about The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Psychoplasmics peers into The Mist and doesn't like what they see about the human condition.

The Terrible Claw Reviews takes a look at Shin Godzilla.

Web of the Big Damn Spider reviews A Report on the Party and Guests.

Monday, October 31, 2016

HubrisWeen 4, Day 26: Zombeavers (2014)

HubrisWeen is a 26-day blogging marathon where a seasonally-appropriate movie gets reviewed every day from October 6 to the 31st in alphabetical order. Click on the banner above this message to go to the central site and see what Checkpoint Telstar and the other participants are covering today.

Screenplay by Al Kaplan, Jordan Rubin and Jon Kaplan
Directed by Jordan Rubin

Rachel Melvin:  Mary
Cortney Palm:  Zoe
Lexi Atkins:  Jenn
Hutch Dano:  Sam
Jake Weary:  Tommy
Peter Gilroy:  Buck

Sometimes the title is enough to see why a producer cut the filmmakers a check. This one's just barely out of the gold standard of exploitation movie titles like Blacula or Shriek of the Mutilated, but if video stores were still a thing this would get rented twice a month for decades just because it was called Zombeavers. You know exactly what you're getting with a title like that. You're getting beavers, and they will be zombies (probably from toxic waste exposure, the "just add water" of monster explanations). The cast will be made up of five stereotyped jerks who go into the woods and get gnawed down to the Final Girl, who will combat the zombeavers and will triumph, but with one of those "it's not really over" endings that have been in use for about half a century in monster flicks.

I'm saying the plot probably isn't going to be all that original, but sometimes you just want to watch a movie that does what you expect and want it to do. Bonus points if there's some originality and wit, or at least some cool makeup effects from the monster attacks and a quotable line of dialogue or two.

And since this is movie 26 of HubrisWeen, I could use the B movie equivalent of comfort food right now.

Some honky-tonk piano music plays on the soundtrack as the black screen fades up to show the side of an open-backed transport truck. It's a medical waste disposal business that promises discretion, environmental safety and effectiveness. And, yeah, it pretty much looks like I called the Monster Creation Cause correctly. There's two guys in the cab (a quiet one and a chatty one, and when the chatty one says he dated a dude briefly, the quiet one resigns himself to his fate with a fake-jovial "Can I hear all about it?". Some more vaguely stoned-sounding conversation later, the driver smacks into a deer standing in the literal middle of the road and a canister of chemical whatnot gets launched from the truck bed, down a hill and into a river. The first gory sight gag of the film ensues when the quiet one goes out to check the grill for damage and pieces of the deer fall down onto the pavement for the entire duration of the shot.

Roll credits! There's an animation that shows beavers in the river along with the barrel of nasty mutagenic chemicals, falling trees, people running away from the beavers, and a hunter using a telescopic scope (as well as an axe, a pickup truck, and some "Scooby-Doo" style shots of the people continuing to run from red-eyed beavers). So far there's some actual cleverness on display, I'm happy to report. The barrel drifts into a beaver dam and then immediately springs a leak so high-pressure bright green Evil Chemicals can spray out. The delightfully unconvincing beaver puppets don't seem too concerned about it at this point.

I have to say, the sheer obviousness of the setup is making me enjoy the movie more. I get the feeling the director and writers are doing exactly what they set out to do. That's a novelty in low budget horror cinema, and at least so far the filmmakers are skilled enough to make things entertaining rather than just cliched.

Now it's time to meet some of the Expendable Meat characters--they're sorority sisters on a getaway. One of them is a college student named Jenn, crying in the bathroom of a gas station when she gets a text from her boyfriend, who appears to have cheated on her ("I'm sorry" is all I've got to go on textually, but I don't think he killed her dog). Interrupted by a loud fat middle-aged trucker who blocks the door when she tries to leave, Jenn goes back to the car driven by her friend Mary, with other friend Zoe holding a little dog named Gosling in the back seat. Mary's rules for the weekend are no texting and no boys--it's a girls' mini vacation up at the requisite cabin in the woods. Jenn's the Wronged One and Zoe's the Slut (she's got a collection of presumably solicited dick picks on her phone); Mary is The Nerdy One (she wears glasses), but is also The One With the Car Keys.

But enough of that setup and characterization, it's time for a Threat-Establishing Casualty as a local man loses his fishing pole to whatever yanked it out of his hands in the lake before a POV shot jumps him and the screen cuts to black. Back to Mary's car as they approach the cabin, Zoe also shows that she'll be The Dumb One for this movie, in that she thinks the raft on the lake is a big piece of scrap lumber that someone dumped there. The trio gets out of the car, showing that the wardrobe department for the movie wanted to see who would wear the shortest shorts. I think Jenn takes it, but not by much. Zoe's dog runs off to go pee on as much of the new environment as he can, and a middle-aged neighbor teleports in to say hello to everyone. Zoe takes some delight in being rude to the new arrival, so she's not just The Slut and The Dumb One but The Sarcastic One as well. Mrs. Gregerson goes back to her own house or possibly cabin next door after dissing the hell out of Zoe in return (I think she meant to do it on purpose, but I'm not totally sure) and then it's time for a half-submerged POV camera to look over at the three young women for a little while.

Inside the cabin, Jenn discovers that she can't get a cell phone signal out in the sticks. Mary gives her friend a pep talk about not getting back together with her asshole boyfriend when Zoe discovers that her phone can't contact a cell tower either; the "no social media or texting" part of the weekend turns out to be physically impossible to defy. Then, because it's about fifteen minutes into the film, the trio put on swimsuits and it's time to lie on the raft and tan. Zoe removes her top because it's that kind of movie and she's the designated slutty one, but the expected "something swam past me in the lake" sequence doesn't happen here. We do get to see the fisherman's #1 DAD cap float by in the background but none of the characters notice it.

When Jenn sees the local beaver dam she wants to go see if any of 'em are at home (Zoe says they're just big rats that can swim, and wants nothing to do with this, but eventually joins the expedition). There's a nice bit of physical staging where the toxic green crud and the medical waste barrel aren't immediately visible to the protagonists but they see the chemical goop soon enough. They theorize that it's beaver urine, used to mark the animals' territory--which is not that bad a guess, but it utterly wrong. An encounter with a rogue bear ends with a redneck hunter firing a shot into the air to spook the animal into leaving, then the hunter ogling the girls and correcting their mistaken assumptions about wild bear behavior. The hunter's name is Smyth, and he's enjoying himself just a little too much as he derides the women for wearing swimsuits and having tattoos. Because it's just simple country folk who live out wherever it is in Indiana that this movie takes place, and none of them like to have fit and attractive college kids show up in bikinis (or topless). Another POV shot tracks the three women as they go back to the cabin.

That night it's beer, popcorn and a gave of "Would You Rather" where the questions quickly turn Cards Against Humanity wrong, but outside there's a low-slung POV shot coming towards the cabin. It's probably not a zombeaver, though, unless they're carrying flashlights. Someone starts thumping on the cabin walls and Zoe goes off with a flashlight to see what's what. SPOILER:  It is the three women's boyfriends, who thought they were being clever by scaring the shit out of their special lady friends. Zoe's boyfriend Buck turns out to be just as much of an asshole as one would expect for this kind of film. Mary's guy is named Tommy and appears to be a frat-joke type (he's got a letterman jacket). Mary says the guys have to leave out of respect for Jenn's feelings, but Jenn herself says it's all right if they stay. She's not interested in her boyfriend Sam touching her, though, and they spend some awkward together time on the couch while the other two couples are noisily breaking in the bedrooms elsewhere in the cabin.

Sam doesn't want to explain why there's a picture of him making out with someone else at a party (we don't see her face, so there's a pretty good chance it'll wind up being Mary); Jenn slaps his face twice and he goes in for a kiss; I thought the movie was going to do the "they really like each other after all" bullshit but instead Jenn knees the son of a bitch in the groin. Good! Do it again!

In the afterglow, Mary's distant and Tommy wonders what's up (other than his inability to bring her to climax). She says she's worried about Jenn, but her boyfriend doesn't quite buy it. Later that night Jenn's going to take a shower but gets startled by a beaver with Evil Dead style solid white eyes; she's in her underwear when she runs screaming for Sam to do something about its presence. Her friends accuse Sam of having done something to her to set her off like that, but then switch it up and start sarcastically talking about keeping the intruder as a pet. Eventually Jenn, who thinks the animal might have been rabid, sends everyone into the bathroom to look (Sam, armed with a baseball bat, takes point until Tommy gets tired of him not going into the room). Of course there's nothing there, and of course Buck starts talking shit about it being a really scary bathroom.

And of course that's when the beaver pops out of a cabinet, snarling and screeching, so that Tommy has to play the chorus to "Have I the Right" on it with the baseball bat to end the threat. The beaver is tossed in a garbage bag and dropped out on the porch and everyone talks about how much they don't want to get rabies (and rabies shots). There's a split vote on "go home or not", but everyone's too intoxicated to drive at that point anyway. The eventual decision is to sleep on it, possibly go back in the morning, and Jenn says she's sleeping in Mary's room rather than trust any of the guys. Mary's hesitant to go along with that, which means it almost certainly was her and Sam making out in the unclear photo. Oh, and out on the porch? The beaver that was clubbed to a bloody pulp is still snarling and writhing in its Hefty bag coffin.

The next morning, Smyth is setting animal traps out on his patch of hunting grounds and the six students go out for a swim. Jenn notices the torn-open trash bag on the porch with bloody animal tracks leading away from it (which sure do look like something got out of the bag). She's the only one who is sensible enough to not want to be there, though. Out on the lake, Jenn stays on the shore while everyone else (including the dog) is on the raft. While Tommy, Buck and Zoe are swimming in the lake, Mary and Sam have a little talk about that Facebook photo and it turns that yes, they were making out at a party. Mary feels worse about it than Sam, and their conversation plays out as the other three people talk Jenn into taking a swim. As she walks into the lake we do get the "Something swam past my foot!" dialogue and lots of underwater POV camera shots.

Jenn refuses to go any further into the lake, and when Buck plunges underwater Zoe assumes he's playing a joke. Then the blood starts spreading and he resurfaces holding his own gnawed-off foot! Tommy gets pulled down and everyone swims for the raft; while Tommy improvises a tourniquet for Buck's ankle, Jenn runs inside to call for help on the cabin's land line. But, of course, the beavers have already clawed and chewed through the phone lines for no reason. The entire beaver colony starts circling the raft (though we only see two on the screen at any point, which makes me think there were two puppets that the production could afford to build). Jenn gets attacked in the cabin by another zombeaver while the ones in the lake start breaking through the raft boards to get to the people panicking atop it. Sam chucks Gosling in the water as a distraction, and as the poor thing dogpaddles for his life, the beavers turn to follow him. Usually the dog lives in movies like this, so I commend the filmmakers for being nasty enough to have that distraction work.

Back in the cabin, Jenn fights off the beaver that attacked her the previous night (it's essentially in two halves connected by bone and gristle, and still snarling hours after taking a kitchen knife through the skull, pinning it to the table. The stress fractures start to show in the group when Zoe, good and pissed off that Sam killed her dog, drops a big enough hint about the Mystery Photo that Jenn puts two and two together accurately. Zoe points out that Jenn is the last one to know what was up, but Tommy points out that he didn't know either. Yipes! Jenn says that's not the biggest concern facing them at this point, and she's both right and sensible.

Then the beaver nailed to the kitchen table starts slapping its tail on the wood to signal the other ones outside and we get a neat shot of several sets of beavers' eyes gleaming in the night when Sam tosses the severed head of the in-the-cabin beaver out to them. A plan is sketched out:  Tommy will drive Buck and his severed foot (in a bag full of ice) to the hospital, where hopefully he can get it reattached. Zoe says she's going with them, and isn't taking "that's a terrible idea" for an answer. And since Tommy parked farther down the road for "sneaking up and scaring the women" purposes, he needs to borrow Mary's car for the suicide charge.

Buck and Tommy three-legged-race for the car and Zoe piles into the vehicle along with them, which cranks up on cue after the plot-required failure to start ("It's a hybrid! You have to finesse it!"). They drive off; everyone still in the cabin wonders if they should have left (since the plan actually seemed to work). Then an undead beaver takes a leap at a window and leaves a streak of blood on it. Sam figures it's time to start boarding up windows and otherwise prep for the siege. Remember Mrs. Gregerson from the very start of the film? She heard the hammering and yelling from the cabin next door and has an argument with her husband about whether or not they need to go see if something's up over there. Mr. Gregerson stays seated in his easy chair reading a magazine and reaches down to scratch his faithful by unnamed dog; he winds up displaying affection to a rabid undead beaver instead. There's no way that shot works even within the logic of a not-very-serious horror movie, but I like it anyway.

In the car, heading for the hospital, there's the inevitable tree across the road to block egress from the killing ground. There's a pickup truck (probably Smyth's) with guns and an axe in the bed. Tommy tells Zoe to drive her boyfriend back to the cabin while he grabs more weaponry and goes for help on foot. Mere seconds after he says that's his plan the poor guy gets squashed like a bug under a falling tree (offscreen, as the stunt was probably too unsafe to try and do in real time). Remember, even undead beavers make pretty talented lumberjacks. Smyth shows up as the cavalry and shoots one of the rodents, then gets Zoe and Buck into his pickup and drives off for help and medical attention. Smyth declares that the beavers are probably suffering from giardia (there was an outbreak forty years ago or so), but it must be a mutant strain because the beavers aren't dying even after sustaining trauma that should drop them like a bad habit.

Back at the cabin, the windows and doors are boarded, blocked and duct-taped, but it turns out beavers can gnaw through the barricades. Sam stabs one in a really odd manner that suggests the actress didn't want to injure the puppeteer. Commendable dedication to safety, but it doesn't really look like she's fighting for her life. The futility of keeping beavers out with wood is discussed and Sam, Jenn and Mary all get to do some of that "try not to damage the prop or hurt the puppeteer" fighting against the zombified beavers. Smyth's truck returns (I thought it was on the other side of the downed tree, but it apparently wasn't). While the inside-the-cabin people pry boards off the door, Buck notices the beaver swarm forming on the cabin's lawn. Zoe and Buck go for the next cabin over while Smyth shoots at the pursuing rodents. They make it to the neighbors' place and discover that there's some disarray but nobody's home. That's probably a good sign. Then Zoe discovers Mr. Gershenson's body and sees that the phone lines inside that house have been chewed through.

Over at the cabin, Sam earns her Smart Girl merit badge by reading up on beavers to see what the trapped protagonists might reasonably expect from the animals outside. When Sam gets to the point where beavers are listed as monogamous Jenn brings up the "my boyfriend cheated on me with you" point and Sam comes across as even more of an oily creep than he had previously. I did like him saying that they can't turn on each other because it's just what the beavers would want, though. The nature guide lists tunnel construction as a skill beavers have and everyone looks down at the floor nervously.

Then it's time to go to the neighbors' place again, where Smyth says that the hospital won't be able to do anything to save Buck's foot because it's been kept directly on ice, which damages tissue too much for microsurgery. Plus the road is blocked, and Buck's too heavy to carry on foot to the hospital even without the issue of homicidal beavers all over the place. Next morning's a safer time to go for medical help but Smyth does say he's willing to burn Buck's stump closed to give him a better chance at survival.

That night, Jenn makes her way into Mary's bedroom and starts what Mary (and the audience) assume is a seduction attempt right before a hitherto unknown side effect of the zombeaver bites makes itself known--Jenn's teeth fall out as the new bucktoothed chompers grow in, her fingernails develop into claws, and she contracts a case of adult onset lycanthropy / undead drooling and biting disease. Of course, Jenn isn't the only one who got bitten, and that means there's anywhere from one to three zombie-bite casualties in the neighbors' house waiting to reveal themselves. Which Buck does, tearing Smyth's throat out with his teeth and chasing Zoe upstairs after she shoots the hunter, accidentally mercy-killing him when she was trying to save him from her erstwhile boyfriend.

At Cabin Number One, Sam and Mary are in a room with the doors boarded up to keep Jenn out when the beavers gnaw their way in through the floorboards, and in Cabin Number Two, Zoe winds up doing a Texas Chainsaw High Dive out of the second-story window when Mrs. Gregerson gets up from her deathbed and tries to attack her. There's a brief weird moment where Sam and Mary play high-stakes whack a mole in the room before escaping for the bathroom and another brief escape. Mary tells Sam to strip down and examines him for bite and scratch wounds; he's clean, but when she strips off it's time for a desperation fueled lovemaking session. While this is going on, one of the zombeavers (played by possibly the most creepily adorable puppet seen so far) bites into a wall near an outlet, sets itself on goddamn fire, and runs directly into the drapes so the whole cabin can burn down too.

As if that wasn't enough of a problem, Sam gets written out of the script when Zombie Lycanthrope Beaver Jenn bursts through the floor and rips his favorite parts of his anatomy off with her teeth. Mary's now inside a burning cabin with the doors nailed shut in her underwear, but thankfully Zoe busts Smyth's pickup through the cabin wall. The escape attempt is very, very brief and culminates in Zombie Castor Canadensis Smyth shooting at the truck and Zoe crashing into a tree in the confusion. Oh, and that bear from earlier has been bitten so there are several human zombeavers to deal with as well. But none of the menaces are as fast as the pickup truck, so Zoe's able to get out of the area after going past all the shambling monsters and over Jenn (who was on top of the truck for a little while). At the downed tree, Mary and Zoe continue on foot and find a zombified Tommy still pinned under it. Poor guy never even got to be a monster in the attack at the end.

Mary turns out to have swiped a pistol from Smyth's truck and holds her friend at gunpoint, fearing that somewhere among her open wounds Zoe's got an infected beaver bite or scratch. But it turns out that when Jenn kissed her earlier that passed the virus along, and she's the one who turns out to be metamorphosing as the sun rises. Thankfully Zoe's got an axe, so she winds up living through that trauma as well. We hear her killing Mary rather than seeing it, which is probably the right choice. After all, we've spent pretty much the entire movie with those characters and losing one near the end shouldn't be a gory awesome set piece.

As Zoe limps off into the uncertain future, she winds up taking a Bummer Ending right to the face as the idiot driver from the pre-credits sequence doesn't see her in the middle of the road, and nobody with any knowledge of what went down at the lake will be able to give a police statement without a Ouija board.

Well, what do you know? I made it to the end of HubrisWeen for the fourth consecutive time! It's really tough to avoid zombies when you're doing the Z movie for this event, but at least this one was more about animal attacks and lycanthropy than the usual shuffling moaners (even if it did hit lots of the same Romero-type plot points). It's easily the best possible movie that could be called Zombeavers, with plenty of quietly weird jokes going on (I'd say other than the inherent absurdity of the premise, the horror-to-comedy mix is about 70-30 here). None of the actors pissed me off, which is also not what I would have expected from a comedy horror movie about undead aquatic rodents. Heck, there's even a song that recaps the plot over the end credits sung in a swingin' hepcat Rat Pack style; whoever came up with that idea knew just what they were doing and what kind of movie they were trying to make. They succeeded utterly.

And there's a post credit stinger that teases the possibility of Zom-bees as a sequel. Because of course it does.

"That's it for this year, everyone. Time to take a haunted carriage ride back to the land of imagination and rest up, because there's only 339 days until the next HubrisWeen!"