Crawl (2019)

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Treated myself to a new movie from Amazon, and settled on Crawl, the turbid tale of Haley, a dutiful daughter (Kaya Scodelario), who drives into the heart of a Florida hurricane to rescue her injured dad (Barry Pepper).

Complication One: Dad’s trapped in the cellar of their family home and it’s rapidly filling up with water.

Complication Two: The rising floodwaters are teeming with bloodthirsty alligators.

This is not an intricate narrative, and director Alexandre Aja (High Tension, Piranha 3D, The Hills Have Eyes) wisely keeps the focus on what’s going to pop out of the water next. There is some obligatory backstory about the bond between father and daughter, forged while the the latter trained to be a competitive swimming champion, but it’s just enough to make the audience understand that Haley has a fighting chance against the gators.

As the waters rise, Aja tightens the screws to the point where one can’t help shouting out words of encouragement to Haley and her pop, such as, “Get out of there, dummy!” or “Stop thinking about old swim meets and haul ass!”

There’s not much dialogue in Crawl. Seriously, the script is probably like 10 pages long, and both Scodelario and Pepper play their parts to the hilt while submerged in bloody water. Ultimately, the movie succeeds because Aja never allows us the leisure time to get bored with their plight.

It’s one crisis after another, and they’re usually hungry.

The Meg (2018)

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[To be read with Australian accent]

“That’s not a shark. (pause) Now that’s a shark!”

You win. The Meg stars the biggest shark in sea monster cinema history, so it’s got that going for it. There’s also oodles of action heroics by the reliably shirtless Jason Stathem, a laconic swab with the gumption to save a darling little Pekinese dog from a watery grave right before the end credits.

This is hardly a spoiler. The titular apex predator is indeed a massive beast, but it wreaks precious little carnage on the civilian population. The body count is supplied principally by members of an underwater research station bankrolled by slacker billionaire Morris, played by Rainn Wilson.

His gonzo turn is a standout among a cast that includes such standard plug-and-play characters as a sassy black scientist (Page Kennedy) who sure as hell can’t swim and never signed up for any of this shit.

Stathem is Jonas Taylor, a hard-drinking rescue diver still haunted by a few lives lost during a risky mission several years before. In need of redemption, Taylor returns to the briny deep when his ex-wife Lori (Jessica MacNamee), is marooned and besieged by a prehistoric killing machine at the most remote spot on the ocean floor.

Rather than rekindle with the ex, Taylor is more or less thrown into the arms of Suyin (Bingbing Li), a fetching single mom marine biologist whom he obligingly rescues on several subsequent occasions. For sheer volume of last-second escapes, The Meg is up there with Raiders of the Lost Ark.

But it’s an earlier Steven Spielberg blockbuster that fans still venerate as Lord of the Deep in the giant critter genre. At that point in his career (1975), young Spielberg hadn’t become commodified as the ultimate family friendly filmmaker.

In Jaws, the dog disappears. Remember the kid on the beach throwing the stick to a black lab named Pippet? You see the dog swimming and then the stick washes up on the shore. Spielberg’s movie is both bloodier and scarier, even 40 years later. Current audience research indicates a missing dog won’t cut it with a 21st century crowd.

There is certainly nothing as hair-raising as Ben Gardner’s floating head in The Meg. Instead, it’s a serviceable CGI popcorn flick content to elicit a few gasps—rather than a chorus of screams.

Grizzly (1976)

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One of the dangers of being a middle-aged horror fan, is never being able to quite remember where you heard something about a certain movie. I knew at one time, but now… that bit of data is gone forever, swallowed up by a sinkhole full of quicksand in my head that’s growing larger every day. (I would estimate it to be roughly the size of Rhode Island, at the moment.)

Anyway, I’d like to have a word with whomever advised me that Grizzly was “Jaws with a bear,” and “a classic gore-fest.” Sure, there’s blood and a respectable body count, but nothing that compares with Ben Gardner’s head floating out of a hole in the hull of his boat. Plus, Jaws had Spielberg, Richard Dreyfuss, Roy Schieder, and Robert Shaw. Grizzly has to make do with director William Girdler and a cast of ham-and-eggers.

So there’s this grizzly bear running amok in a Georgia state park and it’s up to a chain-smoking park ranger (Christopher George), a goofy naturalist who dresses in animal furs (Richard Jaeckel), and a cynical ‘Nam vet helicopter pilot (Andrew Prine) to stop the beast. This arduous task takes up the entire running time of the movie, which is stone-cold boring except for periodic bear maulings, and frankly, they’re no great shakes in the blood and guts department.

Despite the fact that I found Grizzly on Hulu Plus under the designation “Classics”, I would hesitate to put it into any special category other than “Ho-Hum & Hokey.” A much better film of this type is John Frankenheimer’s Prophecy, about a pollution-spawned mutant grizzly on the rampage. Go find that one, instead.

Mountain Monsters (2012)

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It’s not a movie, but if you’re lucky enough to have Channel 201, Destination America, you must watch this incredible show. Apparently the hills of West Virginia are teeming with all manner of cryptozoological fauna, including the Moth Man, the Grass Man, wolf men, dog men, devil dogs, wampus beasts, and every distant relative of Bigfoot known to mankind. So who you gonna call? John “Trapper” Tice and his AIMS (Appalachian Investigators of Mysterious Sightings) team, that’s who!

Trapper and his boys like nothing more than an excuse to go crashing through the woods at night in search of legendary beasts spotted by their hillbilly brethren. Besides Trapper, there’s Jeff, who’s in charge of research. In other words, he has a laptop and knows how to use it. Willy and Wild Bill build all sorts of outlandish traps, pits, and snares, in hopes of capturing a heretofore unknown specimen. They’ve never succeeded, but by god, it ain’t for lack of trying! Huckleberry (Woooot! Team Huckleberry!) is a hunter and tracker with a ready supply of guns, ammo, and thermal-imaging gear. (“Wait! There’s something there! *pause* Now it’s gone!”)

And then there’s Buck, the fat-guy comic relief, who once locked eyes with the Moth Man himself—and fell over hypnotized! On camera! At least once per episode, Buck will gaze in wonder at sketchy video evidence of their mythical quarry (usually a misshapen shadow or tree branch that moved) and exclaim, “That thing’s huge!”

Needless to say, AIMS has never brought home any appreciable evidence of wolf men, aliens, blue devils, or thunderbirds. But I sleep safely at night knowing that these fearless investigators… are really, really far away across the country and unlikely to mistake me for the Beast of Bray Road or the bloodsucking Devil Dog of Logan County and fill my hide with buckshot. Mountain Monsters is a hoot and it’s must-see TV. It’s also been renewed for a second season!

And whatever you do, don’t lump these beardos in with the Duck Dynasty dopes. Not all gun-toting hicks are bad people.

The Bay (2012)

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The director of one of my favorite non-horror movies (Diner) hangs out his genre shingle in the found-footage eco-thriller The Bay. Yep, Oscar-winning writer-director Barry Levinson, best-known for marquee attractions like Good Morning Vietnam, The Natural, and Rain Man, takes the no-name, low-budget road this time around, but still manages to scare the bejeebers out of me with a seemingly plausible environmental disaster scenario set in a small Chesapeake Bay community.

The story unfolds via video edited together from various sources, chiefly confiscated footage seized by government agents—after the fact. Former news station intern Donna Thompson (Kether Donohue) is interviewed on camera about a harrowing incident that has left her traumatized and paranoid. The year is 2009 and the picturesque town of Claridge, Maryland is preparing for a festive Fourth of July weekend. (Considering the number of horrible things that happen to small towns during annual tourist-trap wingdings, I say we outlaw all community celebrations—forever!)

The assembled footage reveals that the polluted waters of the Chesapeake Bay are infested with parasites, now whimsically grown to the size of collies from steroids in the chicken manure dumped in the water from unscrupulous neighboring factory farms. The nasty little critters infect the local water supply and cause the citizenry to boil over in gross, awful boils and blisters before the monstrous isopods grow to full size and chew themselves free of their human hosts. The lion’s share of the blame for this catastrophic turn of events goes to Mayor Stockman (Frank Deal), a crooked, money grubbing shitheel who willfully ignores environmental regulations and dooms his community. Needless to say, he will not be getting my vote come re-election time.

If you’ve seen The Blair Witch Project you’ll be fairly familiar with the dramatic structure. The stitched-together scenes evolve from mundane and curious bits of exposition to choppy, nightmarish fragments, that show an all-American town overrun by fast-moving alien predators. Fans of Discovery Channel fair like The Monsters Inside Me will no doubt be charmed and delighted as the hideous parasites soon have the run of the place requiring the feds to step in and hush up the whole affair. It’s no masterpiece, but Levinson and writer Michael Wallach definitely succeed in creating an intense, effective piece of enviro-horror that doesn’t waste any time, thanks to a minimum of preachiness and pretense with “the message.” Recommended.

Pig Hunt (2008)

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Now this is more like it! Plenty of weird shit as far as the eye can see. Writers Zack Anderson and Robert Mailer Anderson and director James Isaac are obviously genre geeks—observant viewers will spot references to Alien, Road Warrior, even Apocalypse Now—who understand exactly what elements will best play in Peoria.

Blood sure, but even more, carnage. There’s enough carnage in Pig Hunt to fill Carnagie Hall. Yeah, I know.

Rugged guy John (Travis Aaron Wade), his bonfire-hot girlfriend Brooks (Tina Huang), and John’s three dopey bro buds drive out to, whatever is the California equivalent of Appalachia, to go hunting for wild pigs on property owned by John’s uncle, who perished under mysterious circumstances. (But since the movie is named Pig Hunt, probably not all that mysterious. Look, just play along!)

They go through all the familiar check points (or plot points, if you prefer): They stop at a backwoods general store for directions—this one run by blues harmonica great Charlie Musselwhite, who gives them dire warnings—and encounter a clan of indiginous rurals, a rattlesnake, and a van containing a muscular black gentlemen with a hippie-chick entourage, part of a nearby weed-growing commune.

Somewhere in here, we discover that John grew up around these parts, and that he’s actually a skilled hunter and woodsman, unlike his three hopelessly doomed friends. Some hillbilly acquaintances of John come a-visiting, and they all decide to go hunting for “the Ripper”, a legendary 3,000 pound killer hog that most likely wasted John’s uncle—and the train goes off the rails, big time.

This sounds like it has all the makings of Troma Team farce, but somehow Pig Hunt avoids broad comedic pitfalls, and plays it somewhat straight. The Andersons actually have the guts to develop the characters beyond stereotype to the point that I actually felt sorry for John’s friend Quincy (Trevor Bullock), a gentle chef who accompanies his more macho comrades. He and his beloved dog Wolfgang come to a bad end that they really didn’t deserve (though, to be fair, Quincy has no more business being outside the urban landscape than Ned Beatty does). Collateral damage, as it turns out.

What the filmmakers demonstrate most effectively in Pig Hunt is that it’s the various human tribes (duh!) that wreak the most havoc, and that in order to survive, you have to become the biggest monster of all. Hell, the giant pig is almost an afterthought until almost the one-hour point in the film. Bonus: The music is by Primus bassist Les Claypool, who also doubles as Preacher, one of the bloodthirsty hillbillies. I love that shit.

Grizzly Park (2008)

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No sense beating around the bush: Grizzly Park flat-out sucks. But it’s a scrappy sort of crappy, that you can almost, sort of, grudgingly admire. Writer/director Tom Skull is obviously a rank amateur; I’ve seen children’s birthday party videos that were more professionally shot and edited. The acting, from top to bottom, is godawful. Plot points are gathered and randomly discarded without a second thought (e.g., why bother to give a character a gun if it’s never used?). To give credit where it’s due, the gore effects, when they finally appear, aren’t too shabby. Oh, and they use a real bear.

Eight young adults (who seem to range in age from 18-35) are assigned community service for various offenses and because they’re all grotesque examples of humanity. Vain, selfish, shallow, stupid, greedy, bigoted, you name it—there’s nary a deadly sin left unaccounted for in this bunch. The hateful dipshits are assigned to no-nonsense disciplinarian Ranger Bob (Glenn Morshower), who guides them deep into the wilderness of Grizzly Park, where they must pick up litter and (more importantly) serve as a snack tray for the wild critters of the forest. There’s also an escaped maniac running around, but he’s dispatched of so quickly by a ravenous bear that you wonder why Skull bothered to introduce him in the first place. Just another tossed plot point.

The tone of Grizzly Park careens from horny adolescent “humor” (it’s not in the least bit funny) to vague, weak-ass moralizing to guts and gore—and you won’t care one little bit.

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