Sunday, October 30, 2016

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies: Creature Double Feature: Grizzly and Orca

I've been calling these weekends 'creature features' since I first started doing them, but they're really the 'animals attack' sub-genre, and even more specifically they're the 70's version. Ants, spiders, frogs, fish, birds and even rabbits have featured in previous posts.  At some point I'll have to spread out and start doing monsters or maybe move beyond the 70's, but there are still plenty of films to go - I haven't touched The Swarm or Phase IV or The Long Weekend yet!

This time around I thought I'd go with one-word-title ripoffs of Jaws. Grizzly fits the theme perfectly, but Orca, as it turns out, is something else. I'd already rented it, however, and my current blizzard of migraines (3 today) means I'm typing (and thinking) too slowly to fit another film in. Seems to be its own theme this year - not enough time!

The Medium
Both of these films were via Amazon - Grizzly is available via Prime and I rented Orca (another reason for not slotting in a new film - my budget). The quality of both films was just okay - but I'm not sure how either of them would have benefited from an HD picture. (Though some shots in Orca are picturesque.)

The Movies
It's an extremely busy late-season weekend at a national park and head ranger Mike Kelly (Christopher George) is short-handed. He doesn't have enough people to keep track of all the campers and back-packers, but it should be fine because the park has no natural predators. All of the bears have been moved to higher country, outside of the park. Unfortunately, one didn't get the eviction notice.

How awesome is the tagline for this movie? "18 feet of gut-crunching, man-eating terror!" It promises much in the way of gory animal vs human action. Despite the tagline, however, Grizzly is not very good. A direct clone of Jaws, Grizzly features the conflicted moral authority in Kelly, the clueless bureaucrat  whose concern for appearance and the bottom line gets people killed, the too-fascinated-for-his-own-good scientist and the hardened local (chopper pilot and Vietnam vet in this instance).

Ever since I watched Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man I've been less likely to enjoy bears as antagonists/protagonists in film.  However, the bear in this movie is hard to take seriously. The gore scenes are just amateur hour - I laughed out loud during the first attack when an arm goes flying across the clearing. Actually, I often laughed out loud at this movie, and I'm fairly sure I wasn't supposed to. The bear himself is considerably smaller than 18 feet in height when seen against something - like a watchtower - that it can be compared to. Most of the attacks consist of the actor and a stuffed bear arm. It's not Night of the Lepus ridiculous, but it's close.

The story beats of the film are familiar to anyone who's seen Jaws - including the 'drunk yahoos flood the area hoping to get the creature for themselves' sequence, the 'you're fired!' scene and the 'I'm drinking because I blame myself' scene. It's not note for note, but it's damn familiar. In the end the three main characters (there's a photographer who I THOUGHT was going to be a major character, but whose plot gets dropped halfway through the film) go off after the bear themselves - both on horseback and in a helicopter. This goes about as well as it went in Jaws - except everyone but the main character dies. We do see a bear get exploded by a rocket launcher, however. It's not as cool as it sounds.

Things that stood out:
- The bear really likes to knock body parts off of things. In addition to the arm and a kids leg, the standout is a horse decapitation. I imagine that this is how mobsters get horse heads to put in beds.
- a story about 'herds' of grizzly bears stalking and killing a tribe of Native Americans is just not on the same level as Quint's Indianapolis story.
- It's apparently warm enough in fall to strip down to your underwear and 'dip your toes' in a waterfall. When you know there's a killer bear on the loose.
- You can explode a bear with a rocket launcher and have it all be a neat and tidy area of fire, rather than an immense, bloody splatter zone.

The Bottom Line
William Girdler's first animal attack film is a bit of a clunker and it made me appreciate how much better Day of the Animals - also with Christopher George - is. What does work is some of the character interactions and some of the scenery. It would be quite fun to watch with a group of slightly inebriated friends. Not so much alone and sober in a cold basement.

I saw Orca a long time ago - I think when it was on HBO in the 80's - and I remembered exactly two things about it: Richard Harris was in it, and Bo Derek gets her leg bitten off. My memory was fuzzy enough that I expected it to be another straight forward Jaws clone. No matter its flaws, Orca is more than that, at least. It's actually much closer to a revenge thriller - only here, the Rambo character is played by the killer whale.

Nolan, played by still-the-best-Dumbledore Richard Harris, is trying to raise enough money to pay off the mortgage on his boat and head back to Ireland. At first his scheme involves trying to capture a great white shark, but when he witness an orca kill a great white he changes his target. Unfortunately for him, the whale, his crew and the whole town, he completely botches the capture. He ends up killing the female of a bonded pair -by accident - and the whale spontaneously aborts when she's first captured.

With his mate and unborn child dead, the orca becomes fixated on Nolan and starts a reign of terror designed to force Nolan back on to the sea, where the killer whale can finally get its revenge.

I know, it sounds pretty stupid - and there's definitely a huge burden of disbelief to suspend here - but the movie plays it all with deadly seriousness. I mean, we've got Charlotte Rampling pontificating about how intelligent orcas are and Richard Harris (still-the-best-Marcus-Aurelius ) giving a monologue about how he empathizes with the whale because a drunk driver killed his own wife and child. It's a bit overwrought, to be honest, and it's really more than an 'animal attack' movie can bear. It's ambitious - but it's still Bo Derek getting her leg bit off that I'm going to remember years from now, not Harris' haunted gaze as the whale leads them deep into the arctic ice fields.

I actually wish the movie had realized that the whale is the hero of the piece much earlier in the narrative. The human beings aren't evil - they're just selfish and short-sighted. After several attacks on the town - including an explosive set piece with a fuel line and the tanks above town - the villagers themselves are the ones that drive Nolan and his crew back onto the water. To be fair, another day or two and the whale would probably have figured out how to lurk in back alleys, knifing people at random.

The Bottom Line
Orca is too heavy to be much fun and too goofy a premise to be taken seriously. There's some interesting stuff there - and at least it tries to be a deeper creature feature than normal - but it's just not as good a film as it wants to be. And poor Bo Derek.

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