Saturday, October 28, 2017

Hubrisween 2017 :: W is for Wild Beasts (1984)

As dozens of smokestacks belch high above a factory -- from which obviously contaminated water flows, a title card informs we’re in some smog-encrusted "northern European city"; and from there we follow the water’s winding path through this Whereeverweareville, picking up more pollutants, spying spent hypodermic needles piled up everywhere as the camera lingers on these depressing sights as the water races by on this very depressing tour until the liquid finally trickles out in several public venues in the form of park fountains and such, including the city zoo, where it fills ponds and watering troughs. 

Here, the viewer is then jolted out of their doldrums when we crash-cut to a very real decapitated horse head that is immediately cleaved in half by a zookeeper, who then merrily tosses the dismembered pieces to some awaiting tigers. Neat. And when I say ‘neat’ I mean *bleaugh*.

Meanwhile, the staff veterinarian, Dr. Rupert Berner (Aldrich), and resident zoologist, Dr. Laura Schwarz (De Selle), are trying to get to the bottom of a sudden outbreak of violent animal misbehavior at the zoo. And while their investigation plods along, luckily, no one’s really gotten hurt yet -- stress on the yet, but it’s getting so bad Schwarz fears they might have to start putting some of the more aggressive animals down over Berner’s protests.

But it’s not just the zoo animals misbehaving as an all-out animal revolt appears nigh as later that night on a darkened street, an army of rats swarm out of the sewer tunnels and take out a cat for an appetizer before moving onto the main course: a couple of horny teenagers having sex in a car, who are ambushed and summarily devoured. Elsewhere, a seeing-eye dog who drank from a fountain earlier in the day turns on his master and mauls him to death. And then things take a really dire and dangerous turn at the zoo, when a series of malfunctioning security gates and a two-punch combo of mass and gross incompetence by the night watchmen finds them all killed and partially eaten by several escaped big cats, which soon escalates into a full blown, zoo-wide breach as both predator and prey break out and stampede into an unsuspecting somnolent city that has no idea what’s about to hit them...

Back in October of 2011, the area around Zanesville, Ohio, became a tragic safari / killing field after Terry Thompson, the (to put it mildly) eccentric owner of the Muskingum County Animal Farm (-- founded in 1977), committed one of the most bizarre murder-suicides in history when he opened the gates to his private animal sanctuary, letting all but six of his animals loose, before killing himself. The 62-year old Thompson, a Vietnam vet, was a lifelong lover and collector of exotic animals. But in the last few years of his life leading to his suicide the man had served a federal prison sentence on gun charges, faced several mounting citations for inadequate and unsafe housing for his animals, as well as charges of neglect for insufficient water and food for his menagerie, was heavily in debt to the IRS, and his wife had left him while he was in prison. In the aftermath, fearing for public safety, some 49 animals were hunted down and killed by local law enforcement, including 18 Bengal tigers, 17 lions, six black bears, a pair of grizzlies, three mountain lions, two wolves and a baboon.

Now, this sad and harrowing scenario of art predating life seemed to be plucked straight out of one of Franco Prosperi’s Mondo movies; a series of documentaries -- or more appropriately, shockumentaries, which did little to educate but did a lot to turn stomachs and pique morbid curiosity by showcasing scenes of naked natives, third-world taboo customs, odd rituals and rites, and brutal animal cruelty and torture that jolted audiences back in the 1960s to much box-office success. And so, after the mondo returns of Mondo Cane (1962), Prosperi conspired with fellow Italian filmmakers, Gualtiero Jacopetti and Paolo Cavaro, to keep this new sub-genre going with such titles as Women of the World (1963), Mondo Cane No. 2 (1963), Goodbye, Uncle Tom (1971) -- which was a time-travel movie spotlighting the horrors of the American slave trade, and Africa Addio a/k/a Africa: Blood and Guts (1966). Myself, I’ve only seen the first one and the last one listed; and while a lot of footage was reused in later cannibal atrocity movies, most of what was watched is a blur -- or blotted out, except for some vivid memories of a doomed sea turtle and the horrific slaughter of a pregnant elephant and a family of hippos -- all staged for the camera.

I have very little patience for animal snuff, so, a revisit to those is not coming anytime soon. And when I say ‘anytime soon’, I mean never again. However, I have always been curious to see Prosperi’s Belve Feroci a/k/a Wild Beasts (1984), a rare, non-documentary outing for the notorious director, after reading a synopsis for it in some psychotronic film compendium of yore, which promised a bunch of zoo animals, whacked-out on PCP after it gets into the water supply, breaking loose and terrorizing a city. Now who could pass that up, am I right? And frankly, I didn’t really put all of it together -- that the Mondo Cane guy directed this, until his name popped up in the credits when I first tried to watch it.

In fact, I’ve tried to watch this film several times over the years since discovering it but essentially gave up on multiple occasions before finishing -- and not because of what I saw but what I couldn’t see, which was pretty much near everything once the rampage really kicks in as the VHS-rips I watched were probably sourced from the old Lightning Video release back in 1985, which was already a defensive driving course in pan and scan, all too dark and murky, and branded with a terrible English dub before it made its way onto the internet as a dub of a dub of a dub. I did find a pristine print on YouTube once about five years ago but it was in Italian with no subtitles. And so, I gave up again. And now, thanks to Severin Films, Wild Beasts has garnered a domestic release on Bluray with a beautiful print, a new dub, or the much-welcomed subtitled route, which appears to also be streaming on Amazon Prime, where I stumbled upon it earlier this year and finally watched the whole thing. Hooray.

Here, Prosperi is up to his old tricks of animal exploitation, mixed with a healthy dose of nature’s revenge in the plot pot, then marinated in some kind of disaster porn sauce as the enraged, escaped animals make their way into the city. Attacks include a cheetah chasing a woman in a convertible VW Bug until she loses control, crashes, and is immolated in the resulting fire; a tiger makes it’s way into the subway tunnels to terrorize some stranded urbanites, including Dr. Laura; a herd of elephants raise all kinds of havoc on a highway, attacking one car in particular, strangling the male driver to death via a trunk while his female passenger gets her head stomped flat.

Next, what can only be described as a crass attempt as social commentary, we cut to a slaughterhouse where pens of animals -- cows, pigs and horses, await their fate only to be attacked by several big cats and pack of hyenas, which rattle the prey animals so badly they manage to knock several gates open, resulting in a stampede of cattle that run roughshod over several city blocks, trampling citizens and destroying several storefronts and an arcade. 

And then, that same herd of elephants, still on the move, knock down a fence and thunder onto an airport runway, causing a landing plane to lose control and crash into an electrical substation, plunging the whole city into darkness -- as if things weren’t dangerously bad enough already.

Meanwhile, Berner, who finally found what’s been causing this rash behavior, coordinates his efforts to tranquilize and recapture his errant charges with a police inspector, Nat Braun (Bologna), who prefers a more direct approach; like the flamethrower he used against those swarming rats (-- a pretty horrid scene we’ll be addressing in a second). Laura, meantime, manages to survive her encounter with that tiger and then presses on with her efforts to find her adolescent daughter, Suzy (Lloyd), who, before all of this started, was introduced in a skeevy sequence that featured her going topless, which lingered a little too long -- in a Victor Silva sense, meaning Prosperi’s perversions most probably go beyond animal cruelty. (And *bleaugh* again.)

And that is one of the worst aspects of Wild Beasts; how Prosperi keeps trying to establish some kind of moral high-ground to justify all of this nonsense; like with the scenes at the slaughterhouse, excusing his actions by stating, well, they were gonna die anyway, right? *sheesh*. But then the director saves his big trump card for the abrupt left-turn climax, which first sees a polar bear attack Suzy’s dance class, which seeks refuge deeper in the school while a reasonable facsimile of the bear eats one of her instructors. 

And while they wait for help to arrive, several of the children suck up a copious amount of water -- and raise your hand if you can guess what happens next. E’yup, soon enough the majority of the children have also lost their minds and hack their teacher to death right before the two worst protagonist of ever bust on the scene to save Suzy, proving, once again, in Prosperi’s eyes at least, that humans are the real monsters as only they have the innate ability to kill each other unlike the animal brethren, who were only doing what animals do. Sure, everyone and everything was whacked out on the hallucinogen phencyclidine, one of the major ingredients of PCP -- or Angel Dust, due to industrial runoff contaminating the city’s water supply, but, hey! Social Commentary! *pfft*

Of course, another thing we humans are obviously capable of is torturing and terrorizing animals for our own amusement. And while Wild Beasts delivered on everything read in that blurb many a moon ago I should’ve known better as to what I was really getting myself into. I mean, it’s an Italian animal attack movie made in the days of Umberto Lenzi and Ruggero Deodato marching off into the jungle to commit all kinds of atrocities in the name of cinema. 

Yes, the film is pretty nucking futs, and you often find yourself engaged in the action as the animals revolt and attack -- until you hearken back to the scene where Prosperi was burning a lot of rats alive and then lingered as the engulfed vermin tried to flee only to get blasted with napalm again. Or when you laugh as an elephant messily squishes a fake head, you also have to look forward to lions and hyenas attacking trapped and defenseless prey in that slaughterhouse. *sigh*

Not helping at all are the two leads, who have about as much chemistry as two pieces of wet-turkey slapped together. De Selle will be a familiar face to those well-versed in European exploitation movies, having starred in Emanuelle in America (1977), The House on the Edge of the Park (1980), and Lenzi’s notorious Cannibal Ferox (1981). And Aldrich wasn’t even an actor but a former circus performer, who was hired due to his ability to handle the bigger animals on screen -- and on screen, despite his pleas for tolerance and understanding, he treats them all rather shittily. Everyone else is a mere footnote: fodder to be squished or eaten.

And while all animals were apparently harmed during filmmaking, there were a few close calls for those behind the camera as well. Seems the film was originally slated to be shot in South Africa but the production was halted and moved to Germany after a terrorist attack. And while Prosperi allegedly had at least three trained marksmen armed with tranquilizer guns for every scene shot a tiger still managed to escape containment in the subway, hiding out in a bathroom, shutting the line down for hours until the critter was finally caught. And perhaps in a bit of poetic justice, while filming at the airport, an elephant stepped on Prosperi’s foot, crushing it.

And what’s really sad is the film didn’t really need any of that crap to still be effective. Cut out the burning rats and stage the scene at the slaughterhouse a little better would go along way in alleviating any lingering guilt while one watches this atrocious mess. And then it would just be a slightly more gonzo version of The Beasts are on the Streets (1978), a made for TV movie whose plot is eerily similar to Wild Beasts -- minus the PCP, of course, as a conglomeration of accidents sees several animals escaping from a wildlife preserve in Texas. Or even better yet, making it something more akin with the completely whackadoodle and definitely better intended Roar (1981), which is insane but relatively harmless as a family inadvertently ventures into harm's way on a big cat preserve, where the humans, not the animals, sustain all the damage.

As is, the irresponsible Prosperi does muster up a few sequences in Wild Beasts that won’t make you cringe too much. But again, any kind of enjoyment is fleeting due to the ongoing treatment of his “stars”. It’s pure hucksterism on a geek-show level. And while in theory this kind of movie sounds amazing, to be honest, the animal attack premise is very repetitive and wears thin pretty quick; and when you throw all the animal abuse on top of that -- and animal snuff in some cases, the whole thing is rather abominable. Again, I should’ve known better. Watch at your own risk. 

What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween. And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage to keep track of the whole conglomeration of reviews for Hubrisween right here. Or you can always follow we collective head of knuckle on Letterboxd. That's 23 down with only three more to go! Up next: X marks the moving radioactive spot!

Wild Beasts (1984) Shumba International Corporation :: Lightning Video / P: Frederico Prosperi / D: Franco Prosperi / W: Franco Prosperi / C: Guglielmo Mancori / E: Mario Morra / M: Daniele Patucchi / S: Lorraine De Selle, John Aldrich, Ugo Bologna, Louisa Lloyd, Stefania Pinna

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