Saturday, April 12, 2014

Claws (1977)

... aka: Devil Bear
... aka: Fauces (Jaws)
... aka: Grizzly 2
... aka: Grizzly: Ihmissyöjä karhu (Grizzly: Man-Eating Bear)

Directed by:
Richard Bansbach
Robert E. Pearson

It's impossible to discuss animal attack films of the mid-to-late 70s without at least giving a customary nod to the movie that started the whole craze: Jaws (1975). The Steven Spielberg-directed phenomenon not only created the hit summer blockbuster (adjusted for inflation it is currently the 7th highest grossing film of all time), but also spawned loads of other imitations in the nature strikes back mold. One of the most successful of all these was William Girdler's killer bear flick GRIZZLY (1976), which cloned the plot and characters of Spielberg's film so closely I'm shocked they were never sued for plagiarism. Grizzly ended up grossing an impressive 39 million dollars in theaters worldwide, which was enough to make it the most profitable independent genre film of all time up to that point; a record that would be shattered just two years later by John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN (1978). Following hot on the paws of Grizzly was Claws, yet another independently-financed killer bear movie. That puts it in the unfortunate position of not only being a rip-off, but a rip-off of a rip-off. Expectations? Set 'em low. Cause even though I'm no fan of Grizzly, even I have to admit it was made far more skill than this one.

In Admiralty, Alaska, a licensed guide and two poachers encounter a couple of grizzlies fighting and shoot at them a bunch of times. One dies. The other doesn't. The still-living one then goes buck wild and starts attacking and killing anyone it can sink its claws into. Jason Monroe (Jason Evers), who has the misfortune of his truck breaking down on a back road at the same time of the grizzly shooting, is the first to encounter the bear but manages to survive the attack. Others aren't so lucky. According to the teletype-over-a-black-screen that follows, we learn that a state surveying party was attacked soon after; leaving two dead and one seriously injured. A few months after that, a couple of hikers were killed. Five long years pass without incident (that's one long - and unexplained - hibernation!), but the bear for some reason decides to return to the small town for round two. It's befitting this very low budget production that we don't actually get to see any of that stuff, but instead get to read exciting wordings like "Wounded giant grizzly turns rogue killer!" and "Satan bear has returned to the community!"

We then return to Jason, who is still haunted by the bear attack all these years later. Consumed with bitterness and hate over losing function in one of his arms (which has caused him issues with his logging business), Jason's obsession with finding and killing the bear has wrecked his family life. His wife Chris (Carla Layton) has moved out and is now fucking their son's boy scout leader. Jason's grizzly rage is only intensified further when his boy Bucky (Buck Monroe) is attacked and seriously injured while out on a camping trip. Reporters show up to hassle put-upon forest commissioner Ben Chase (Leon Ames), a bunch of redneck yahoos organize a posse to try to hunt down the bear and the beast kills the sheriff (Myron Healey), the guide who originally shot at it and a couple of big city scientists who attempt to lure it into a cage with high tech infrared gadgets. There are lots of extremely hokey flashbacks from multiple characters thrown in, which are used primarily to show us the couple when they were still in love and the whole family when they were happier and are pretty pointless.

After a really bad and slow first half, the film finally settles into a muddled groove of sorts once Jason, his wise old Indian buddy Henry (Anthony Cardona), Ben and the aforementioned scout leader Howard (Glenn Sipes) head out on a long trip - from the forest to a snowy mountaintop - to hunt down the bear. A pilot friend (Buck Young) keeps tabs on their activities and drops them off some food and supplies from time to time. It is later revealed the beastly Boo Boo is not just your average bear, but an evil shape-shifting spirit called a Kustaka. The Kustaka (also spelled Kooshdakhaa) is actually part of native Alaskan Tlingit and Tsimshian mythology. To them, it's a cross between a man and an otter ("Kustaka" = "land otter man") that is either helpful or preys on the lost; tricking them to their death. The makers of this movie stick to the latter depiction of a malicious spirit and do actually stay faithful to the mythology for the most part (though it never actually changes its form). Henry is more in tune with the spirit and has hallucinations of "wailing women" and freaky stuffed animals, but all of that is really just a formality. The mythical aspects aren't given enough relevance in the plot to save this from being utterly routine. In fact, I had to research the topic myself to even learn about these myths since the movie doesn't adequately explain them. But hey, at least I learned something new today so I can at least thank Claws for that much.

The performances are a real mixed bag. Lots of inexperienced amateurs were used to fill most of the supporting roles and it shows. Evers' character is extremely unlikable, but thankfully a couple of other actors (namely Ames) provide good moments. Caruso is good too, even though he's stuck with cliché bad Native American speak like "I think I go drink whiskey" and "I think I go do me some work now." The whole film is heavily padded with nature footage. Often times a character will say a line and then the next shot is of something random and hilarious like a chipmunk eating a nut or beavers building a dam. These shots are sometimes even wedged in mid-conversation for no apparent reason, possibly because the makers weren't worried about continuity when they were filming and this was the easiest way out. We also get to see rams, deer, moose, a cat, salmon, birds and probably some other ones I'm forgetting. The locations are great to look at least, and there's some nice aerial photography in the second half.

"Killed 10 people... Oh, it was nothing!"

Claws hit theaters in 1977 under its original title. Some sources claim it was later reissued in Canada and Mexico as Grizzly 2 to cash in on Girdler's film, though I have yet to see a poster or ad to prove that. From what I can tell, the Finnish title (Grizzly: Ihmissyöjä karhu = "Grizzly: Man-Eating Bear") comes closest to making the direct connection. In Spain it was called Fauces ("Jaws"). After its theatrical release, it made its television debut on CBS in 1981 and then made its VHS debut on the Video Gems label before disappearing from view. There is no official DVD as of this writing.

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