Friday, May 22, 2015

Carnosaur (1993)

I've already told this story because I have no respect for chronological order when reviewing a series, but in 1992 it was pretty clear that a certain dinosaur movie coming out the following year was going to be big business. You may have heard about it, a little yarn about a theme park run by a guy who is awful at running background checks on employees and thus gets a lot of people killed.

[I was in the third grade, myself, and I geared up for the movie by reading the book. It would be the first time I truly encountered the feeling of "the book was better," but that doesn't mean I hated the film, of course. How could I? I was 9 years old and dinosaurs!]

Well, Roger Corman was never one to let an opportunity to rip off a more successful film go by, as I've demonstrated here before. Usually, though, he was doing so after the fact. After all, until around the time of Jurassic Park's release, it wasn't all that common for anyone to know that a film was going to be a smash hit with any guarantee. Jaws and Star Wars were both expected to be major box office disasters, remember, and almost nobody could have predicted how astronomically successful a low-budget film like Halloween would end up being.

Well, Jurassic Park was different. It was a project with a lot of early press expecting it to revolutionize the industry and Steven Spielberg was by this point a name synonymous with "ka-ching!" Maybe nobody predicted just how successful it would be, but everybody expected it would be. Especially those in the trade, and Corman had already been in the trade a long time.

So Corman paved the way for all those Asylum "mockbusters" we came to love/hate--before that studio decided to drop those in favor of making a franchise out of a giant shark fighting other giant monsters and made a new Sharknado film into an annual event--when he managed to get Carnosaur into theaters a month before Jurassic Park was released: Carnosaur opened May 21st, while Jurassic Park opened June 11th. A limited release, to be sure, but that's nothing to sneeze at.

Even more impressive is that Corman didn't just go, "Give me a movie about genetically engineered dinosaurs eating people." He bought the rights to Harry Adam Knight's novel Carnosaur, which was actually published six years before Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park. So, like the movie he was casing in on, it had "literary" roots. But more impressive than that, Corman hired Diane Ladd to be his name star. Ladd being the mother of Jurassic Park's Laura Dern.

I wonder if that made for awkward family conversation?

Well, I say that Carnosaur is based on the novel, but it's about as faithful an adaptation as World War Z. I won't go into a huge compare and contrast, but I highly recommend that anyone who sees a copy of the book in a used book store grab it immediately. It's a delightful pulp novel about an eccentric British lord using chickens to genetically engineer dinosaurs with the intent to release them into the wild to repopulate the world. His plan is discovered after a Deinonychus escapes and goes on a killing spree in the English countryside. Your typical asshole reporter hero ends up following the story and eventually finds out that the lord has successfully bred Deinonychus, Tarbosaurus, Megalosaurus, Dilophosaurus (the best dinosaur), Brachiosaurus, Tyrannosaurus, Scolosaurus, and a Plesiosaur. And no, I have no idea how the Plesiosaur was reverse-engineered from chickens since it isn't a dinosaur. Eventually the lord's demented nymphomaniac wife--because issues with women in this franchise started at the source--lets all the dinosaurs loose to terrorize England. It's beautiful.

The film and the novel, however, share only the barest of similarities. The film is kickstarted by a Deinonychus getting loose and going on a killing spree, the dinosaurs were engineered from chickens by someone who wants them to retake the world, and at the climax a Tyrannosaurid gets loose to go on a rampage--in the novel it's a Tarbosaurus, but the film never names its dinosaur species so it's safe to assume it's a T-Rex. That's the end of the similarities, however. The only dinosaurs present are the Deinonychus and the T-Rex, which is not surprising given that the budget on this film can barely handle that many dinosaurs, but it's a damn shame that Dilophosaurus wasn't also featured as this would have been the last time my favorite dinosaur of all time would be featured in popular culture without being a rip-off of its depiction in Jurassic Park. When it's featured at all, that is.

Those of you with some knowledge of dinosaurs may have realized that this film marks the first time that a movie with a Deinonychus in it has actually been featured on a site named after it. Sadly, this will also be the last time, unless I review any of the Jurassic Park films. You see, you've been lied to for the past twenty-two years: the "Velociraptors" in Jurassic Park are not Velociraptors at all. They're Deinonychus. Actual velociraptors were knee-high to the average adult, while Deinonychus about the size of the "raptors" you're used to seeing in film since 1993.

No one can agree if it was a deliberate choice by Spielberg to make the raptors "scary" enough or Crichton getting confused because Deinonychus was called "Velociraptor" by at least one paleontologist at the time of the novel's writing. However, it's still a bit like Gorosaurus getting to level Paris in Destroy All Monsters, only for Baragon to get all the credit.

Enough stalling, let's talk about the movie.

The film decides to start off on an unpleasant note as the credits roll over black and white footage of chickens in a poultry factory being carried along on a conveyor, killed, plucked, and being beheaded. I fully realize this is how I get my chicken dinner, but that doesn't mean I enjoy watching it. Each credit is also accompanied by a graphic, showing chicken DNA compared to that of other species like pelicans and crocodiles. The last shot is all the detritus from the chicken slaughter being washed down a drain. We then cut to some sort of board room, which is a bit anticlimactic.

At the head of the boardroom, which looks like it got spliced with a war room set, sits a man the credits identify as Fallon (Ned Bellamy, a definite "hey it's that guy" actor) but I don't recall hearing his name. Fallon is currently talking about Dr. Jane Tiptree, a brilliant geneticist whose work on alternatives to pesticides successfully eradicated an entire species of pest insect, (They don't say what species, but the specimen Fallon is poking at looks like a locust) Unfortunately, Tiptree has apparently disappeared and Fallon--who is either part of the government or head of a corporation with a significant government contract--has called the meeting to find out if any of the CEOs present knows where she is.

Well, the CEO of Eunice Corporation, Vogel (Myron Simon), knows where she is. She's been working with them for the past two years to breed a better chicken. Her contract required absolute secrecy, though, as well as no interference. As you may have already guessed, this is because Dr. Tiptree wasn't actually working to make a better chicken at all. We cut to a poultry plant belonging to Eunice in Climax, Nevada, we are introduced to Dr, Tiptree (Diane Ladd, as previously mentioned) watching a bank of security monitors with interest. As a side note, here you'll note the appearance of a recurring onscreen caption that delivers information that seems relevant, but isn't at all. For instance, "Infected cells per 1 million = 0%," a figure that increases over the course of the film every time the caption appears.

This is especially meaningless because "per million" can't be rendered as a percentage!

What Tiptree is watching are two goons, under her orders, investigating a chicken coop for any abnormal eggs or "extraneous organic matter." Naturally, they find both. Near one chicken cage where the occupant appears to have been torn apart is a huge egg that promptly hatches--whatever is inside slashes the face of one of the goons with its reptilian claws and escapes.

Tiptree orders the poultry plant locked down. However, she takes her sweet time in doing so, and in the meantime "Slim" Friar (Clint Howard!) finishes loading up a poultry truck full of chickens. Chickens that Slim observes are unusually nervous. The driver shrugs it off and the order to seal off the plant from the head of security, Jesse Paloma (Frank Novak), comes through just as the truck is leaving. The guard at the gate proves incredibly easy to persuade when the driver complains that he has to get on the road, and so the guard lets the truck go through and promises to say he had already left. Bad idea.

For amongst the chickens is something that sees via a green night vision POV cam. And the sound of it seemingly exploding a chicken gets the driver's attention when he's only a few miles down the road. He makes the mistake of pulling over and then opening the back gate of the truck to find out how all the chickens got out of their cages. The green POV cam launches itself at him, and in an "auteur" moment we see his demise reflected in the mirrored naked lady silhouette on his mudflaps. The POV cam belongs to a bug-eyed dinosaur hand puppet roughly the same size as the chickens it was terrorizing, which happily pulls the driver's intestines out with a gusto not usually seen outside of a zombie movie.

Meanwhile, at a construction site a few miles down the road the night guard, "Doc" Smith (Raphael Sbarge, whom Mass Effect fans will possibly recognize as the vice of Kaidan Alenko), is sprawled out on his couch drinking straight from a whiskey bottle while watching TV. He's also wearing sun glasses, at night, so if the alcohol doesn't make him useless at his job then those ought to do the trick. At any rate, he's disturbed by a noise that turns out to be a bunch of hippy types vandalizing the site. His hollered warning, "I've got a gun and I can't shoot for shit," fails to persuade them to stick around. Well, except for the blonde woman he finds hiding in one of the bulldozers (Jennifer Runyon), whom we'll later discover calls herself "Thrush."

Doc radios Sheriff Fowler (Harrison Page) to let him know that he has apprehended a criminal, but the Sheriff is a bit too busy dealing with the discovery of a disemboweled truck driver to bother rushing over to pick up a hippy. Speculating over what could have killed the driver, Fowler suggests it might have been a bobcat (?!), which the local sawbones/coroner, Dr. Sterling Raven (EdWilliams) understandably dismisses as there haven't been bobcats in the area since he was a kid. Of course even if there were, bobcats rarely attack humans--so maybe the writer/director is confusing them with a puma. At any rate, if you were to develop a drinking game around this movie where you drank every time a bobcat was referenced, you'd be drunk by the end credits.

Well, Doc passes out drunk so Thrush just leaves. Dr. Raven, meanwhile, cuts a hunk of flesh off the dead driver and sends it to a friend in a state facility for analysis of the "wound sample." And Dr. Tiptree is busy chastising Paloma for letting the creature escape. He tries to explain that she never told them it could hatch that quickly, which she waves off as the creature being an aberration. When Paloma asks what exactly his men should be looking for, she unhelpfully replies, "They'll know it when they see it."

Look, is it really that hard to just say "dinosaur"? I mean, they're going to have to eventually see it to capture it and they'll figure it out at that point. So while, yes, they will definitely know a dinosaur when they see it, it seems like it would save time to just tell them.

Well, Fowler eventually picks Doc up in the morning and takes him over to the local hippy commune to see if he can pick out the girl who ran out on him. Naturally, though, as soon as Doc sees Thrush he decides to claim that the girl isn't among them, to Fowler's great annoyance. Of course, Doc and Thrush exchange significant glances as Doc gets back into the Sheriff's car.

Paloma, meanwhile, is at home arguing on the phone with somebody, so he doesn't notice his teenage daughter sneaking out to meet her long-haired boyfriend and their third wheel friend in the jeep outside. The three go driving through the desert, swilling beer, driving erratically, and generally being Obvious Dead Meat in a horror film.

Meanwhile, Thrush finds Doc at the construction site. She thanks him for not narcing on him and they introduce themselves to each other. He's called "Doc" because of "something else I didn't do," and she's actually named Ann but calls herself Thrush. It could be worse, she could be called "Dwan." She argues with him that he's tearing up a precious natural site, while he counters that A) he's just the watchman and isn't tearing up anything and B) nobody would miss the bare, rocky area that's being developed. She protests that it used to be a "dinosaur highway," a migration route 60 million years in the past. I'm sure that won't be significant later.

At any rate, Thrush ultimately storms off in disgust at Doc's inability to appreciate the innate beauty of the natural world. We then return to the dead meat trio tearing through the desert. Their joyride ends when the boyfriend nearly drives them off a cliff. Figuring it's as good a place as any, they park, and third wheel hops out to write his name in the sand while the couple decides that this will somehow allow them enough time to get busy in the jeep. Well, unfortunately, the Deinonychus hand puppet has found them. It slashes the third wheel's stomach open and when he slams against the jeep's window, he succeeds in getting the couple's attention just in time for the now dog-sized dinosaur to tear through the cloth covering of the jeep, which made my 9 year old self declare I was never owning a jeep. The Deinonychus proceeds to gut-munch the couple to death while the mortally wounded third wheel weakly calls for help, and blood dribbles down over the ironic "May Peace Prevail On Earth" bumper sticker.

As the sun sets, the Deinonychus rises up in silhouette and roars like a coyote howling. This would be kind of a ridiculous visual even if the roar sound effect wasn't so terribly synthesized.

"...I'm working on my roar!"
Meanwhile, at Shadowy Evil Corporate Genetics HQ, Fallon is arguing over the phone with a senator about how if it's legal to sell turnips and legal to sell cows, what's wrong with selling cows with turnip genes? It's nice to see that the panic over how "evil" and "shady" GMOs are hasn't changed in 20 years. After he hangs up, his underling Miss Kroghe (Martha Hackett) arrives with some interesting news. it seems that when the dead poultry truck driver's wounds were analyzed, it was discovered that the saliva of the creature that killed him contained a genetic marker trademarked to the Eunice Corporation. A marker designed for chickens, so either he was killed by something that ate Eunice chickens or it was a chicken. "Right," Fallon replies sardonically, "attack of the killer poultry."

You laugh, but that title is no doubt sitting on a video store shelf right now. Or would be, if video stores still existed.

The two goons from earlier are driving around, searching for the Deinonychus. The one driving is gnawing on a drumstick and advising his companion to have some chicken, but his companion is glowering the passenger seat with his now-scarred face and replies, "The only chicken I want is the one who did this to my face." Cut to the Deinonychus puppet ambling along the road like a muppet--seemingly the same road that Thrush is walking along now. However, it turns out that she's not being followed by a Deinonychus but Doc in his truck. With the lights off, so he can dramatically turn them on like a creepy stalker. He guilts her into getting into the truck by claiming if she doesn't, then he'll just drive around aimlessly and burn up gasoline and pollute the atmosphere while running over small animals.

Luckily she doesn't have to drive too far with a guy swilling whiskey and smoking like a chimney, because they quickly happen upon a man in the middle of the road whose torso has been torn open. He's still alive, though, and babbling in Spanish. Thrush figures out that he's saying "it's eating him," but then says, "I guess he must mean the pain." Don't worry about the wounded guy's fate, we won't see him again. We do cut to the Eunice goons still driving around in their van. Scarface has decided to ignore orders to tranq the Deinonychus and is planning to shoot to kill, which the other guy doesn't object all that strenuously to. Tiptree is watching and listening to them through security cameras that appear to be in the van, so either they're not aware of the cameras or are idiots.

Of course, Tiptree will seemingly forget about the cameras as well. For even as she is watching, Scarface misses a shot at the Deinonychus--and the dinosaur responds by charging straight at the windshield. Somehow this strategy allows it to smash through the windshield without being shot, yank Scarface out, and tear the other guy's throat out. Granted, the Deinonychus attack somehow scrambles the camera feed, but I'm pretty sure Tiptree should have been able to fill in the blanks. And boy that Deinonychus sure looks happy as it chomps on a chunk of flesh that I'm guessing used to be Scarface. (As obvious as the puppets are, the close-ups of the Deinonychus are actually really good--the puppet is very expressive)

Meanwhile, Fallon is--in a bizarrely staged bit--lying seductively on the boardroom table talking to a senator who is enjoying a blueberry pie. Fallon talks about how amazing the blueberries are and how they will never go bad on the shelf because they are coated in a thin layer of "goat embryonic fluid." The senator chokes at that, so Fallon's seductive pitch apparently didn't take. So he's annoyed when Kroghe reappears to advise that the animal could not have absorbed the genetic marker from eating chickens. Fallon advises her to keep it quiet.

Tiptree gets an unexpected visit from an angry Paloma, who angrily addresses her over the video feed from the outside of her office. He has somehow heard about his daughter's death and is distraught and furious with her for letting the beast kill his only child. Yet he is perfectly willing to believe Tiptree when she tells him that they secretly brought his daughter to the facility and she's actually alive and going to be fine. So, I'm guessing that he wasn't asked to identify her body.

Well, Tiptree is lying, obviously. She comforts Paloma over the PA system as he follows her guidance to a corridor that leads to an area that is apparently being used for a laser light show. She then admits she can't bring back his daughter, but he can feed the next generation--just as Paloma realizes those lasers hurt when you touch them, and at their center is a Tyrannosaur. And Tiptree turns off the lasers that hold the T-Rex in place. Paloma's attempt to escape through the lasers just results in is hand being sliced off before the T-Rex drags him away and shakes him like a...well, a doll.

Just like in the sequel, the T-Rex here is rendered via full-scale puppet and a miniature one. They look almost, but not quite, absolutely nothing alike. While both the puppets have the eyes too far back on the head, the shape of the head is completely different. Both have an alarmingly anorexic rat-like tail, though, which is a really weird choice when the creature also has an adorable pot belly.
Dinosaurs hate laser light shows.
Doc, meanwhile, discovers to his annoyance that Thrush and her fellow hippies have decided to chain themselves to all the construction equipment. His attempts to threaten them with his rifle results in one woman taunting him with the nonsensical, "What are you going to do, Tarzan, kill us?" Yeah, no Tarzan wasn't overly likely to be found wielding a rifle. Seeing that they aren't budging, he decides to go have dinner, sarcastically asking if he can bring them any vegan bullshit food, and advises that if they're still there in the morning he's cutting them out with blowtorches. His last word is a warning to look out for bobcats, so take a drink.

At the diner, Slim is sitting at the counter complaining about the food getting cold with no gravy. When the cook, who sneezes into the gravy, sees Doc he mentions that he heard the kid Doc found was all carved up like a turkey. When Slim pipes up that he heard it was a "psycho cannibal job," the waitress chastises him for watching "too many of them Eye-talian zombie flicks." Certainly an interesting reference to make in a dinosaur movie. Discussion then turns to other horrifying deaths in the area, which not only brings up more references to bobcats (Chug! Chug! Chug!) but also offends the sensibilities of a couple in the corner booth. The wife is pregnant, see, which causes Slim to drive them out of the diner by telling a story about a baby born with antlers.

Back to the construction site, where everyone has fallen asleep just before the Deinonychus wanders up. The shot of this is hilariously woeful--one of the hippies is seated on a bulldozer in the background and in the foreground the Deinonychus puppet "walks" into view. I'm guessing this effect was achieved in camera. Although it turns out the "whirring" mechanical noises that I remembered the puppet making when I saw this movie as a kid were merely my imagination reacting to the patently artificial movements of the puppet.

"Mmm: Patchouli burger!"

Well, the nearest hippy waking up and greeting the Deinonychus with a peace sign and, "Greetings, green brother," doesn't convince the beast that the hippy isn't a delicious piece of meat. So everyone else is awakened by him being mauled to death. He is yanked off the bulldozer, his severed hand left behind in the chains, as the Deinonychus pins him down with one foot and tears open his throat with its teeth and then finishes him off by eating his face. Now, I will give credit here that the Deinoychus puppet looks decent in the shot of it eating him, which is set from Thrush's POV in the cab of the bulldozer. It's clearly attacking a human puppet but the human puppet is shot from an angle that disguises this and the dinosaur is scaled more or less correctly-if a bit on the large side.

I mention this because then the Deinonychus turns to attack the woman chained to a wheel nearby and the effects become absolutely, hilariously bad. The girl desperately kicks at the Deinonychus, which results in it grabbing her left leg in its jaws. Now, the Deinonychus was portrayed by both puppets and a guy in a suit, but for some reason the latter--which would show up in Carnosaur 2 with a new head to become a Velociraptor--was barely used. Well, both are used in this attack and the editing is a disaster. For one thing, even though we only briefly glimpse the Deinonychus suit tugging on her foot, it's more or less in the proper scale. The puppet version is interacting with a terrible puppet of her lower torso and is scaled so inaccurately it looks Allosaurus-sized. Worst of all, in a random Deinonychus (heh) green-tinted POV shot, you can plainly see a human hand tugging on her foot.

Eventually, the Deinonychus tears her leg off above the knee and contentedly chews on it as she watches in horror.

Gollum finally gets his revenge on those Nasty Hobbitses.

Back at the diner, Doc actually does ask for some salad to go, which surprises everyone. However, he returns to the construction site just in time to find the Denonychus chowing down on the last hippy. Another few hilariously muppet-like shots follow as he chases t away with his rifle. Every hippy at the site has been killed, except for Thrush who was safely in the bulldozer cab and is in a state of shock. Next thing we know, Dr. Raven and Sheriff Fowler are examining the body of one of the hippies. Raven explains that in every killing the victim was pinned to the ground and turn open with a blade-like claw. That's a pretty great description of the accepted M.O. of a Deinonychus, but naturally doesn't describe any of the attacks we've been shown. The Deinonychus in this movie just uses its teeth to tear people open. At any rate, it's clearly the same animal but each successive killing has been done by a larger claw, which suggests a frightening rate of growth.

Thrush wakes up alone in Doc's trailer. While looking around, she finds his sketchbook full of watercolors of the landscapes and things he's seen--an essential hobby for any "gruff but emotionally deep" loser character--but her affectionate smile fades as she gets to the one representing the kid they found on the road. And then the Random Deinonychus attacks! Yes, for some reason, the Deinonychus chooses right then to smash through the trailer's window. Thrush grabs Doc's rifle and scares the creature off with one shot, which causes it to scream like a hawk and disappear--taking the tense music with it, no less.

Where is Doc in all this? Why, riding up to the Eunice van belonging to the two dead goons on his motorcycle that we never saw him ride before. What Doc was looking for is beyond me, but I'm guessing the script has decided to let him make one of those leaps in logic that allows him to figure out that Eunice is connected to the dinosaur killing people. And that's before he discovers that someone is, hilariously, still trying to radio the two goons to see if they found the Deinonychus. This despite the fact it's surely been out of contact for 24 hours at the very least--those captions that don't really deliver any information showed Doc arriving at the diner just before the Deinonychus hippy buffet at 4AM and before that showed Dr. Tiptree feeding Paloma to the T-Rex at 2PM, which happened after the Deinonychus ate her goons at night so that means an entire day has passed since then.

So even though Tiptree was watching the camera feed when that happened more than a day earlier, when her secretary, Susan (Lisa Moncure), advises her that one of the goons has returned claiming he has the animal, she believes it. In the elevator her security monitor shows her Doc in one of the dead men's uniforms with a body bag on a gurney, and she responds by angrily asking if he killed it. Doc protests that they drugged it with exactly the dose she suggested. Yet, surprise, when Tiptree meets Doc outside her office the body bag contains one of the dead goons and Doc pulls a gun on her.

Tiptree is rather amusingly unfazed by this turn of events. She comments that Doc doesn't look like a killer, to which he responds, "According to the Sheriff I've already got a half dozen murders on my head. So what's one more?" Um, what? I have to wonder if this was a subplot that got deleted, because at no point has there been any inkling that the Deinonychus's predations were being blamed on Doc and it makes no sense that they would be, anyway!

Now, up to this point Diane Ladd's performance Tiptree has been rather dry and almost indifferent, but from here on she seemingly realized the hilarious potential of her mad scientist character. She notices Doc is sweating and cheerfully observes, while spinning in her office chair, that he's got "the fever." When he asks what she knows abut it, she leans forward and proudly replies, "Everything. I designed it."

Get ready for more badly edited time passage, because now we cut to Sheriff Fowler's kitchen as is wife Rowena (Michele Harrell) is preparing to make breakfast. There's sunlight coming in the windows so it is now at least mid-morning. Fowler comes in and as they greet each other lovingly, Fowler updates her that Thrush is doing fine aside from shock but had a touch of the fever that seems to be really be going around--Dr. Raven's clinic is full, in fact. When Rowena mentions that she and their children have come down with a touch of it as well, he shoos her out of the kitchen so she can go lie down and he'll make breakfast. Except, the eggs he cracks are all black inside. And then one falls off the counter and when it cracks it disgorges a dinosaur embryo. Fowler picks it up and pokes at it, wondering aloud what the squirming creature is.

And suddenly it is full night as Slim enters the chicken coop at the poultry factory to see why all the chickens are sounding agitated. He's eating from a bucket of chicken while he does so, of course. well, in the middle of the chicken coop is a dismembered chicken--when Slim goes to investigate, the Deinonychus swings down from the rafters (?!) with another hawk scream and bites Slim's head off. Goodbye, Clint Howard. Now, Tiptree was watching this happen on a monitor apparently connected a camera that was conveniently pointed at the exact spot where Slim was standing. She quickly turns off the TV before Doc can see.

Now, stop for a moment and consider the fact that we saw Doc arriving at Tiptree's office while it was still dark outside. (Her office is perpetually dark, yes, but he met her in an atrium with windows before they returned to her lab) a scene in obvious daylight happened between then and Clint Howard getting eaten. So Doc has apparently just been holding Tiptree at gunpoint for around 12 hours and is only now asking her what she is doing in her lab. Tiptree, having already set her plot in motion, is fully willing to explain--but when Susan calls in to explain that she's not feeling well, Tiptree asks Susan to come to the lab before she leaves so she can show rather than tell. (And how long has Susan been at her post at this point?!)

Dr. Raven and Fowler are currently examining the dinosaur embryo, which Fowler points out has grown three-fold since he found it in the morning--and also emphasizes the whole "it hatched from a chicken egg" aspect. Oh, and there's sunlight in the window when we see that the waiting room outside the office is full of sick people. If there was a script girl on this movie, I suspect she threw up her arms in defeat early on and walked off the set. So when we cut back to Tiptree examining Susan, either it's the next day or the poultry plant exists in an area of constant localized darkness. Tiptree observes that the infection is proceeding as schedule and leads Susan to the couch in the office. Doc observes, with some alarm, that Susan is going into labor.

Doc assists Tiptree with Susan's delivery--except that final push results in a tearing, squishing sound and Susan dies. Then Tiptree removes something bloody from between the woman's legs and disappears into a vault that emits dry ice fog. After confirming that Susan is dead, Doc follows and discovers that the room is full of eggs of various sizes hooked up to glass orbs full of bubbling liquid via tubes--including one large, bloody one that Tiptree is currently placing amongst them. That's right, Susan just died pushing out a dinosaur egg. Doc demands answers or he'll start making omelets.

Meanwhile, because this movie can't freaking focus, Fallon and Kroghe are in a mobile command tent surrounded by military guys in hazmat suits, where Fallon is chastizing Vogel for not figuring out that all the stuff Tiptree was collecting for use in her efforts to "make a better chicken" was a bit fishy. (Note that the captions tell us it is now 9AM, so time has lost all meaning) Fallon is interrupted when Lt. Colonel Wren (Jeff Foster) enters and demands to know why a "Code Blue" was called. Fallon explains about the truck river and the genetic marker, and explains it is a virus and with the power invested in him by FEMA--which is both more sinister and less sinister than it was in 1993 considering Hurrican Katrina--they intend to do everything necessary to stop it.

That everything necessary is illustrated when a man driving down the road (at night, screams the script girl while beating the editor about the head with her clipboard) with a sick woman in his backseat encounters a roadblock manned by soldiers in hazmat suits. He is bizarrely happy to see them and hand the sick woman off to their care, but I'm sure you're shocked that after taking her they then make him march off to the side of the road before riddling him with bullets. Note that, even though this is shot from far away, it is blatantly obvious that there aren't any muzzle flashes from their guns. Now, I think that the man is the diner's cook and the woman is the waitress, but I can't be sure.

Anyways, now that Tiptree and Doc have apparently being staring each other down for two whole days, Tiptree explains that the Earth belongs to the dinosaurs and it was built for them. (Well, yes, 65 million years ago, sure, but not now) She is therefore just trying to return the Earth to them. Doc sarcastically replies, "That's really fabulous. It'd make a great theme park." Ooh, in your face, Spielberg! Naturally, when Doc asks why, she goes for the old standby that humans are ruining the world so it's time to put another species in charge. Of course, the hitch in her plan seems to be that she's only engineering carnivorous dinosaurs--good luck repopulating the world with only predators.

Fowler, meanwhile, can't raise anybody on the radio, and in the mobile command tent Fallon, Vogel, Wren, and Kroghe are all standing around the woman from earlier--who is, indeed, the waitress from the diner--and none of them are wearing anything more protective than gloves as she screams at them to, "Get it out of me!" Her belly expands as she begins spitting up black ichor (yeah, red fake blood seems to have been beyond this film's capabilities) and then something gooey explodes out from between her legs and splatters on the floor. Fallon, a bit too gleefully, picks up the wriggling baby dinosaur puppet in the midst of the viscera on the floor and realizes it's he same method Tiptree used to eradicate that pest insect: "Eliminate the female and the male is incapable of carrying on the species."

Meanwhile, Tiptree is torturing Doc by asking him about the chicken and the egg. When Doc challenges her decision to eradicate humanity by pulling the human exceptionalism crap that makes me want to side with the mad scientist causing baby dinosaurs to burst out of women, she explains that actually she encoded genes in her dinosaurs that gives them the best of human potential. She then wearily responds to his outburst of, "For God's sake," with, "My God is an acronym. G-O-D.: Generator Of Diversity." Um. Sure. She also mentions "my mentor, Dr. Moreau," and I don't even know at this point if she's referring to an actual person in the film's reality or the mad scientist who turned animals into people.

Cut to the Deinonychus passing by a pet shop and asking, "How delicious is that puppy in the window?" Apparently the answer is "very", because the sound of it smashing the window to eat a cocker spaniel interrupts Sheriff Fowler reading Goodnight, Moon to his daughters. Tiptree rants some more about at Doc about how dinosaurs are so freaking cool, you guys and then Sheriff Fowler pulls up in his squad car to the pet shop. He gets out, wielding a shotgun, and hollers to world, "I know you're here, come out! I'm'a waiting for you, right here, come on! Got nothing to lose!" Um, apparently he doesn't mind if he leaves his daughters fatherless. Well, after a false set up where he thinks the Deinonychus is inside the pet shop, it attacks from behind--but he whirls in time and shoots it in the chest.

Fowler steps over the fallen creature, placing the terrible claw it's named for behind him as he stands over it. Rather than finishing the creature off right away, he stands over it as it lifts its foot, pulls back, and...well, the shots from in front of Fowler imply that it impales him through the back until its claw protrudes from his stomach, but the close-ups of the foot coming at him shows the creature slicing up through his groin. Either way, Fowler blows its head off and then falls to the ground. It's almost beautiful, if not for the fact that Fowler could have easily avoided his death.

Meanwhile, in the command tent (day!) Fallon and company rip off Dr. Strangelove as they deliver the statistics on how soon the virus will wipe out humanity, but Vogel offers that Eunice has been working on artificial wombs for years and could "breed a new generation of females." Fallon talks about the social engineering that it would require to make things, before we see some hazmat suit soldiers marching outside (night!) and again the time stamps lose all meaning. Remember when I said Tiptree fed Paloma to her T-Rex at 2PM? Well, the time stamps are actually in military time so, it was basically 14:32:33 or numbers to that effect. Well, the soldiers are marching at "11:18:23" in the dark, which would be 11AM.

Time has no meaning.

Doc, having held Tiptree at gunpoint for at least three days by now, finally asks her where the viral serum is. He shoots one of her eggs before she gives in and lets him have it. Even so, he flees through the bowels of Tiptree's lab and finds himself in the laser light show T-Rex pen. However, he is able to shoot out the lasers and flee as the T-Rex gives chase. Tiptree for her part, is busy giving birth to a baby dinosaur, Alien-style. Doc ends up at a dead end, but just barely escapes via a convenient ladder and access pipe; the shot of the full-scale T-Rex looming up behind him as he crawls to safety is legitimately cool, I must say. Of course, the T-Rex decides to slam headfirst into the concrete wall over and over, and as Doc reaches the roof he sees that the wall is giving way just before he flees. As the baby dinosaur rips out of Tiptree's belly, the T-Rex successfully tears out of the building's wall. Art!

Attention Pet Owners: If your T-Rex is doing this, take it to a vet immediately!

Doc reaches the trailer and finds Thrush, overcome with fever. Daylight is coming in through the windows, so either another day has passed or everyone in Climax, Nevada has some seriously spotlights outside their windows. Back in the area of perpetual night, the T-Rex walks down a main street and is angered by a phone booth ringing. The puppetry in this sequence implies that everyone had just given up, as despite all the booming footstep sound effects and decent miniatures, the puppet moves so obviously like a miniature that no one could ever buy it as anything else.

After Doc hears someone on his CB radio report being stopped by soldiers at a roadblock and another person report seeing a T-Rex, he remembers the earlier conversation about "dinosaur highway." He realizes the dinosaur must be coming to them. The hazmat crew finds Dr. Tiptree's lab, in a scene that goes nowhere, and then Doc injects Thrush with the viral serum, warning it might kill her. Thrush doesn't care because she knows she's dead with or without it. And, in case we were still unclear on "government bad", we see hazmat soldiers enter Dr. Raven's clinics and gun down all his patients and the doctor before taking pictures (?!) of the bodies. Why would you want proof of that?! Oh, and the captions tell us is is happening at "14:09:45" but it's clearly night. I am going to hurt whomever wrote those damn captions.
And now we come to the film's big set piece, as the T-Rex walks past Doc's trailer. Doc and Thrush rush outside to face the creature, even though it has already walked past them. And what, in a huge construction site do you suppose Doc is planing to face a T-Rex with? A bulldozer, ala The Crater Lake Monster? An excavator, ala Dinosaurus! perhaps? Nope: a pair of Bobcat skidsteers. Yes, he's bringing a Bobcat to a T-Rex fight. I guess this means you can take another drink, because this appears to be the culmination of the film's obsession with bobcats.

"Did you just call me 'rat tail'?! I'm gonna eat you so hard!"

The fight is actually pretty well edited. I mean, you can always tell the difference between the miniature T-Rex puppet and the full-scale one, but it's well-edited. Although somehow Doc, the one who knows how to drive the Bobcat, ends up getting his vehicle knocked over and barely dodges the T-Rex's lethargic attempts to grab him as he climbs out. Thrush distracts the T-Rex, but either the shock of her vehicle hitting the dinosaur or the effects of the fever render er unconscious and Doc has to hop in to take over her controls. He guts the Rex and, after quipping, "I hate wildlife," he pushes the wounded animal over, and it succumbs to its wounds.

Doc carries the unconscious Thrush back into his trailer and answers the radio when he hears the soldiers calling. This turns out to be a mistake, as the soldiers quickly arrive. They walk in, guns raised, and rather than shouting, "Wait, I have a viral serum," Doc stands there glaring at them until they shoot him full of holes, photograph his corpse and Thrush's, and then set fire to the trailer with flamethrowers. The serum jar explodes in the flames and the last thing we see is a framed photo of Alfre E. Neuman, MAD Magazine's mascot with his, "What. Me Worry?" slogan being consumed by flames as the credits roll down from the top of the screen.

Oh, and time of death for our protagonists was at 1500 hours and it was still fucking dark out.

Random Deinonychus just wants a hug! [Editor's Note: Do not hug Random Deinonychus]

And yes, you read that right: a movie about killer dinosaurs cloned from chickens decided to end on a Night of the Living Dead-style downer. That was a mistake on several levels. For one thing, Doc and Thrush were neither sympathetic enough for their deaths to mean something, nor were they so thoroughly unlikeable that I wanted to see them die. They just existed. I couldn't care either way.

And honestly, the ending is indicative a problem with the movie as a whole. This movie should have been cheesy fun--which is what its sequels excelled at, even while continuing the issues with women that define the franchise as much as John Carl Buechler's charmingly dopey dinosaurs--but writer/director Adam Simon insists on trying to make the movie serious. While he does occasionally succeed, like with the death of the waitress, overall it just feels like the movie has no idea what it wants to be.

This carries over into the fact that the sinister government agency plot doesn't even interact with the main plot until about 2/3rds of the movie is over. And it's about that point in the narrative that the movie completely loses any sense of narrative cohesion that it actually had up until then. I mean, seriously, try to make sense of the amount of time Doc and Tiptree talk to each other. Based on the movie around them, their confrontation takes--at minimum--an entire day.

And, of course, then you have the dinosaurs. It's true that John Carl Buechler was working with a limited budget and a short shooting schedule, but the dinosaurs he delivers are adorable. It's impossible to be scared of his dinosaurs because they look so cuddly. Don't get me wrong, though, I'll take Buechler's rubbery puppets over SyFy Channel CGI any day of the week.

John Carl Buecheler and his Deinonychus friend.
And if you want to be really pedantic, the title of the film (and, for that matter, the original novel) is inaccurate. Carnosaurs are a specific group of dinosaurs that include Allosaurus and its relatives. Tyrannosaurids and Dromeosaurids (which include Deinonychus and Velociraptor) are not actually Carnosaurs. I doubt anybody but dinosaur nerds really cares, and even I didn't know that until fairly recently, but it's still kind of funny.

In the end, the only real distinguishing aspect of Carnosaur (aside from actually featuring a Deinonychus) is its reputation as the ultimate shameless cash-in and possibly the originator of the "mockbuster" business model. If you want to see a fun, cheesy dinosaur movie full of silly puppets you can watch the sequels. This film is neither good enough to be enjoyable as intended nor quite awful enough to be enjoyable for its failures: it's just bad.

Damn waste of a Deinonychus hand puppet, too.

[In case you're curious why I reviewed this today: Jurassic World comes out June 12th, so I felt it only fitting to review Carnosaur the same number of days before it as it hit theaters before Jurassic Park]

Friday, May 1, 2015

Wicker Man, The (1973)

It's difficult to define exactly what a "cult classic" is because the term has been applied and misapplied so often. Usually, though, a cult classic is defined by two common traits: first, it tends to have an obsessive and devoted fanbase, hence the "cult" qualifier; and second, it was not a financial success at the time of its release.

Some cult films go beyond merely being box office bombs that found loyal followings years after the fact. Some cult films barely got the chance to be failures and were even sabotaged by the studios that supposedly wanted to make money off of them. And few can claim that honor quite like The Wicker Man.

I won't go into the whole sordid story here, but The Wicker Man was unfortunately a victim of that bane of filmmakers everywhere: the distributors who "just don't get it." Reportedly the film originally ran 99 minutes, then was released to cinemas with a runtime of 87 minutes. No one knows where that lost footage went, but urban legend holds that it ended up among materials used to pave the M4 motorway.

A restored version made from a telecine transfer--and therefore a lower quality source, similar to VHS--was released in a limited edition DVD in 2001, which reportedly runs around 99 minutes. (I, having only adopted the format at the end of that year, never got a chance to obtain a copy) And then the telecine copy vanished. Luckily, in 2013 at least some of the footage was recovered and the "Final Cut" version of the film was released to theaters and Blu-ray/DVD.

The "Final Cut" runs about 92 minutes.

Now, given what I've just said about how many different versions are available, you might think that The Wicker Man is a mess. And if you're only familiar with the inexplicable remake with Nicolas Cage punching women while wearing a bear suit and screaming about bees and burned dolls, you're equally likely to think that. However, it doesn't matter what version you watch: the film still holds up.

For the sake of ease, I'll be reviewing the "Final Cut", however.

To begin with, we are introduced to Sgt. Howie (Edward Woodward) of the West Highland Police. He's not in uniform at present, for he is at church with his fiancee. This introduction ends with Howie delivering the benediction. You know, where the congregation eats the wafers and drinks the wine that are to stand in for the flesh and blood of Jesus. Already the film is introducing us to the concept of sacrifice and just how many religions are based around it.

Now, there's a few more scenes here in the 99 minute cut, but for our part we cut to the credits as Howie pilots an amphibious plane through the gorgeous Scottish countryside, while a wonderfully affecting rendition of "The Highland Widow's Lament" plays. Howie's destination is the island community of Summerisle, which he buzzes over on his way in so we can see the various orchards and crops that call the island home.

When Howie lands and addresses the crowd gathered at the docks to request a dinghy be sent to ferry him to shore, the greeting he gets is openly suspicious and the locals seem reluctant. He gets his dinghy after explaining that he received a letter about a missing girl, and is there on official police business. When he comes ashore he explains he is there to find the girl in the photograph he shows around, Rowan Morrison (Geraldine Cowper). The locals at the docks all claim to not recognize the girl, but when he explains the letter came from the girl's mother, one May Morrison (Irene Sunter), the locals cheerfully that they do have a May Morrison, who runs the post office--but that's not May's daughter.

Indeed, Howie finds that May, an eccentric woman with March hares all about her shop, has a daughter named Myrtle (Jennifer Martin). Myrtle isn't missing and May has no memory of ever having another daughter. As Howie helps Myrtle paint a drawing of a hare, he discovers that Myrtle knows a Rowan, though. It's pretty far from a lead, though, for Myrtle's Rowan is a hare.

So Howie checks into the local inn, The Green Man. And here Howie begins to make notice of the fact that Summerisle may not be the place for him, as a righteous Christian prick--er, gentleman. First, the landlord, Alder MacGregor (Lindsay Kemp) introduces Howie to his voluptuous daughter, Willow (Britt Ekland, though dubbed by someone who sounds Scottish), and the whole inn breaks into a ribald tune about her. Stranger, both Alder and Willow are gleeful about this turn of events. And when Howie goes outside, he sees couples fornicating openly on the inn's lawn, a naked woman crying on a gravestone, and other unusual sights.

Stranger than that, for supper the only food that Willow can offer him comes from cans. She can't even offer him one of Summerisle's famed apples. And her attempts to distract him with innuendo can't change the fact that it strikes Howie as peculiar that none of the island's produce was held back from exportation.

"Cheer up, Sergeant. Food isn't everything in life, you know?" 
Howie's evening prayers are interrupted by the sound of someone outside his window calling to Willow. Howie watches as Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee!) presents Willow with "an offering for Aphrodite," which is a joking reference to the young man at Lord Summerisle's side. The young man really is an offering for Willow, however, apparently as a rite of sexual passage. In the tavern below, the locals sing gentle songs to cheer the young lovers on, Lord Summerisle cheekily recites poetry to copulating snails, and poor Howie tries to shut out the sounds of what he can only deem madness.

The madness continues the next morning. The whole community is gearing up for May Day, and that includes a school of young boys dancing around a Maypole to a jaunty tune (which will burrow into your brain for days) about the cycle of life that has way more frank references to sexuality than Howie likes. He's even less enamored of the schoolmarm, Miss Rose (Diane Cilento), explaining to her class of young girls that the Maypole in religions such as theirs symbolizes the penis.

Oh, yes, this is an island of Pagans, in case you hadn't figured it out. And for someone as nonreligious--and anti-Christian, at least in the context of the way the organized religion has presented itself for many scores of years--the community is highly appealing. They're fun and free, and Howie is an intolerant and boorish prude who reacts to their nonconformity to his beliefs with indignation and blustering.

However, Howie's not wrong that something about these islanders is amiss. None of Miss Rose's students claims to know Rowan, but there is an empty desk and the register proves to have one Rowan Morrison listed. Howie's opinion of the little girls as liars is quickly amended to include them as little sadists, for the empty desk proves to have nothing inside but a beetle tied to a bit of string that is attached to a nail on the other end. As one girl explains, the game is that the beetle continues around the nail in circles, never changing direction until it finds itself right up against the nail.

Miss Rose explains to Howie that it's actually a miscommunication based on their belief system. The girls claimed to not know Rowan because, well, they don't know her any more. Rowan is dead. But when Howie visits the Librarian (Ingrid Pitt!), the woman can produce no death certificate and claims to know nothing about the circumstances of Rowan's demise. So Howie goes to visit Lord Summerisle for permission to exhume the body.

And Christopher Lee has gone on record as saying that Lord Summmerisle was his favorite role. It's not hard to see that here, as Lee has a blast playing off of Howie's horror at their Pagan traditions, such as having teenage girls jumping naked over a fire as part of a fertility ritual. "Well, naturally, it's much too dangerous to jump through the fire with your clothes on!"

"Sit down, won't you, Sergeant? Shocks are so much easier to absorb with the knees bent."
Lord Summerisle explains how his grandfather came to the island in the 19th Century and brought with him new methods of horticulture and the Old Ways of religion, The people eagerly accepted both and Christianity has never darkened their doorstep since until Howie's arrival. Howie insults Lord Summerisle's beliefs, naturally, but Summerisle still grants him permission to exhume Rowan's grave.

Oh, that grave? It contains a dead hare.

Howie has just about had it. His rage at the dead hare falls on unconcerned ears when he confronts Summerisle and Rose, interrupting them as they are singing a bawdy duet about nails and kettles. Rowan loved the hares, they insist, and this is just a sort of transfiguration that is to be expected. Summerisle expresses sympathy to Howie, but suggests that maybe it would be best for him to depart.

"You wouldn't want to be here on May Day," he intones.

Even stranger than that, when Howie retires to his room, exhausted, a naked Willow sings a seductive song to him from her room. This is the closest the film gets to suggesting any kind of actual supernatural influence from the islanders, as it sure seems like Howie struggles to resist the call of her song.

"Please come, say 'How do?'
The things I'll show to you.
But resist her he does. And an observance he made earlier leads him to finding a huge piece of the puzzle. In the inn, the pictures of each year's harvest are shown, with the young girl chosen as the Queen of the May surrounded by the harvest. Last year's is missing, and no one has given Howie a clear answer as to why. When Howie follows up on this suspicion and breaks into the photographer's studio and develops the negative, he discovers the Queen that year was Rowan Morrison and the crops were dismal.

Howie thinks he has the answer at last. Everyone wants him out by May Day, which is only scant hours away, because Rowan is to be sacrificed to the Gods of the Harvest. Well, Howie isn't going to let that happen on his watch! Of course, it's not really as simple as that--remember the beetle?

"You'll simply never understand the true nature of sacrifice."
The Wicker Man is not exactly what anyone thinks of when you talk about horror movies. There aren't any jump scares, nor really any attempt to scare the audience. Except, perhaps, for the ending, where ultimately nothing can stop the sacrifice from making their appointment with The Wicker Man. Up to that point, the movie is more of a mystery of sorts.

Is Rowan Morrison missing? Does she exist? Is she dead? Is she going to be dead?

Even its villains are not what you would expect. Pagans are often used interchangeably with Satanists as antagonists in horror, but regardless of what they are they are it is usually clear that they are in some way sinister. Sure, they may start out nice, but in the end you'll see them as evil. The residents of Summerisle are still amiable, cheerful people even when we know they are engaged in human sacrifice. They don't do this out of sadism or a thirst for blood. They are just following their religious convictions. To that end, they're little different than Howie.

In fact, the islanders make it quite clear that they believe their "dreadful sacrifice" is actually a win for all involved including the sacrificial victim. They're also genuinely Pagan, as the filmmakers put actual research into Pagan traditions and customs. I'm sure some of it is embellished or a bit off the mark, but nothing as thuddingly obvious as someone mispronouncing "Samhain." That attention to detail really sells the authenticity of the island community.

(Amusingly, the first time I ever saw the film, in its truncated version, it began with a title card thanking the residents of Summerisle for their cooperation, as if it were a real community that had happily helped the production out)

The film also has a whimsical tone that you don't usually see in horror films. The soundtrack is full of traditional folk songs and newer ones, none of which are used in the "some innocuous tune made sinister" manner of most horror films that use old standards, It's also legitimately funny in many places, for the Summerisle folks are jovial and charming. In a way, that adds to the horror of what they are willing to do for the sake of their crops.

It's hard to find words to effectively describe The Wicker Man. If you're reading this then chances are excellent that A) you've already seen the film or B) you've seen it written about at great length. It's transcended cult classic status to pretty much stand as a classic. Even the ill-conceived remake in 2006 couldn't topple its legacy in that arena. Referring to it as "the Citizen Kane of horror films" might be a bit hyperbolic, but it's actually pretty apt.

After all, Citizen Kane may be frequently called "the greatest movie ever made," but it's also arguably a cult classic. Many contemporary critics loved it, but in its original release it lost money. (Having the media mogul it was loosely based on attempting to destroy it didn't help) Both this film and Citizen Kane only truly attained their current reputation as examples of the heights of cinema in the years following their release.

I also see nothing all that excessive about praising The Wicker Man so highly. I don't know that I would ever rank the best horror films--I tend to prefer not to rank movies at all, honestly--but if I did, The Wicker Man would definitely have a spot near the top.

If you haven't seen it, you simply must. Especially on Mayday.