Monday, September 20, 2010

Attack of the Beast Creatures (1985): or, Night of the Oompa Loompa Fetish Dolls

All right, folks, I admit to not having what you would call an encyclopedic knowledge of the subject, and I'm quite willing to listen to contrary opinions and be proved wrong. But still, I'm going to go ahead, climb out on that proverbial limb, and make my underinformed but still strongly-held judgment:

Attack of the Beast Creatures is THE BEST independent monster movie EVER to come out of the state of Connecticut.

Granted, that's rated on the famous Vicar-ious sliding scale: the movie has problems, including but not limited to an extremely constrictive budget, amateur acting, deadpan unnatural dialog, and a marked lack of explanation for the various goings-on. But along with all that, it's got the endearing earnestness and unquenchable-if-misguided ambition that are the hallmarks of a glorious failure and a Mad Movie classic. And most importantly: always entertaining and never, but NEVER boring. In short: a winner.

More of a wedge, actually
In May of 1920, the ocean liner S.S. Obelisk meets an unspecified tragedy in the icy waters of the North Atlantic, leading all hands and passengers to abandon ship. Captain John Trieste (Robert Nolfi) and First Mate Case Quinn (Robert Lengyel) find themselves on a lifeboat along with several paying customers who are freaking (the fuck) out about the whole thing. They get caught in a strange rogue current (or do they? Dun-dun-DUN...) which speeds them away from the other lifeboats and finally dumps them on the cold pebble beach of an uncharted island. When asked where they are, a crew member shrugs, "Your guess is as good as mine. Greenland, maybe?"

Saddled with a badly injured shipmate, the Cap'n and Quinn quickly organize the other survivors in hopes of finding enough food and water to sustain them until help arrives. Crusty old rich dude and Hall of Fame Cinematic Asshole Mr. Morgan (John Vichiola) wastes no time informing everyone that a) the injured dude is done for, so they should conserve their energy and just leave him to die, and b) they're highly unlikely to get off the island alive anyway, for which Cap'n John deserves all their unending scorn and hatred. Despite their fellow passenger's stinkin' thinkin', however, the rest of the survivors decide to pitch in and do what they can to contribute to the whole "not dying" project.

Reason behind the nautical saying: "Never wear yer white pants when the seas be rough. (Arrrgh.)"

At this point the characters all wander into the Deciduous Forest of Backstory Exposition. Munching berries like a bunch of brown bears dangerously behind on their pre-hibernation fattening-up, the characters take a few minutes to quiz each other on who they are and why they're there. Turns out Morgan was taking his wife on a sea cruise for her health; whether the wife is on one of the other lifeboats or drowned is unclear. Middle-aged socialite Mrs. Gordon (Kay Bailey) was to meet her husband at the Obelisk's destination, and she is befriended by chubby veterinarian and possible hag-seeking-fag Philip (Frank Murgalo), the most  food-focused member of the group. Flapper chick Cathy (Julia Rust) is the designated "in-shock screamer" of the flick, and tougher-minded flapper Diane (Lisa Pak) makes it her duty to keep the girl together.

There's another crew member, Pat (Frans Kal), but don't worry too much about his backstory--a few minutes into the forest he finds a sparkling pool of what looks like delicious, life-giving water, and crouches down to get himself a face-full of savory wetness. It quickly becomes clear that we're not in Greenland anymore*, however, when the limpid pool turns out to be filled instead with fast-acting, face-eating acid!

Human Alka-Seltzer
*At least, I don't think Greenland is dotted with naturally occurring pools of sulfuric acid. Then again, you could forgive them if they decided to leave that out of the travel brochures.

The crew and survivors hold up admirably under the strain of this shocking (and surprisingly gory) turn of events, as Cap'n John shrugs it off with the pronouncement, "Well, we've gotta be a lot more careful of what we eat and drink now!" No point crying over liquefied friend-face, one assumes. Though to their credit, the crewmen do give the high-school biology class skeleton of their fallen comrade an IMMEDIATE Christian burial, which as we know is exactly what all the survival handbooks and B-movie guides insist upon in such circumstances.

After a LOT more berry picking and some ominous rustling in assorted ferns, Quinn gets thoughtful and opines, "I dunno, there's something about this place...something weird!" Something BESIDES the face-eating acid pools, you mean? Cap'n John and Quinn go back to the shore to check on their injured friend, whom they left unattended and bleeding on the beach (like you do). They find his body completely stripped to the bone (Biology Class Skeleton appearance #2) by some unseen scavengers.Also in keeping with the B-Movie Rulebook, Cap'n John swears Quinn to secrecy on the subject. "Whatever it was, we've GOT to keep it to ourselves! The others have enough to worry about!" Yeah, we definitely don't want to tell them they have to watch out for some man-eating monsters that might be stalking us! That would just make them antsy!

"Whoa! I don't remember eating THAT!"

The secret doesn't stay secret very long, however. That night around the campfire--which the Cap'n allows to be set up right out in the open, natch--the inhabitants of the island make their presence known in the film's one genuinely almost-creepy scene. After the Cap'n puts the moves on Diane with some smooth, worldly-wise dialog (Diane: "I guess you've been lots of places!" Cap'n John [deadpan]: "I've been lots of places."), his Lady Love takes a turn on watch. While she stares out into the darkness, she notices two small glowing eyes staring back. She strains to see them better, and notices three sets of eyes. A moment later, half a dozen--and after another cut, even more! The slow buildup of unknown monsters, with only the ambient light of the campfire (shades of Dogme 95?) is effectively done, imo. And then--finally!--THE BEAST CREATURES ATTACK!

The respectable filmmaking chops continue here, as the initial attack is all chaos and shadows and firelight. The creatures are clearly small in stature and very numerous, and we get only split-second glimpses of their faces as the screaming and thrashing reaches a crescendo. Granted, what we *do* see is rather guffaw inducing, but it's so ACTION PACKED that it's easy to forgive. Beast Creatures jump onto shoulders, swing in on vines, and scurry off into the darkness, shrieking like newborn Alien Chestbursters! One even gets thrown into the flames, leading to a combustible marionette sequence that is as exciting as it is entertaining.

Like everyone, he just wants a Pearl Necklace™

After the shipwreck victims fight off this first wave, they stop to do a damage report. Old man Morgan is the worst injured, as he now has a gaping wound on his leg. The rest of the group gets off with minor scratches and cuts. Cathy goes into shock, because that's her job, but everyone else seems pretty okay with the whole "being on an acid pool-riddled island that's also overrun with little orange land piranhas" thing. The Cap'n calmly decides they need to get to higher ground, as that way the Beast Creatures will be easier to fight off. So the next day, the group sets off on a cross-country trek to the island's lone peak.

Having showed somewhat remarkable restraint so far with his Beast Creature effects, director Michael Stanley decides it's time to give the people what they came for: the rest of the movie takes place in full daylight, and his diminutive stars take center stage, conducting guerrilla-style attacks on the humans as they walk slowly across the island. Beast Creatures pop up out of holes to gnaw on ankles, drop out of trees into the ladies' hair, and generally make serrated-tooth nuisances of themselves again and again. And once you get a good look at them, you'll be so glad for the Death of Restraint!


I mean, just LOOK at that beautiful little bastard! The comparisons to the Zuni Fetish Doll in Trilogy of Terror are apt, as would be a call to that movie's copyright lawyers--the Oompa Loompa Orange paint job and lack of pupils are really the only distinguishing marks. I tell you, parishioners, you don't know true Mad Movie Joy until you watch one of these little guys swinging from a vine into the camera lens, or better yet doing a bouncing, arm-pumping run across the screen accompanied by some of the best "pitter-patter of little feet" Foley effects this side of The Muppet Show. The rest of the movie is one attack and/or crazy character action after another, and I don't mind telling you I was grinning like Karen Black in freeze-frame the whole time.

Time for a Mad Movie Bullet List? I think so!

  • Despite all the strange happenings and dangers, the women of the group still giggle like they're on a Girl Scout outing between attacks, bonding over dress repair and laughing with orgasmic glee when they find a non-acidic pool of water to bathe in.
  • After a few of the aforementioned hit-and-run attacks, the Beast Creatures regroup for another all-out assault, leading to some of the greatest land-piranha attack footage ever committed to film. Obser-uv:

"We know you have granola bars! GIVE THEM TO US!"

  • Despite their ferocity and numbers, the Beast Creatures seem incapable of inflicting any real damage--despite being COVERED with the things, everyone comes away with only a few superficial scratches. Except for poor Mrs. Gordon, who perishes in the swimming hole, likely having drowned after gulping water thanks to the Beast Creature's relentless tickling.
  • Morgan goes insane from the stress, foaming at the mouth and dashing off into the woods. Despite his bum leg he easily outpaces both Quinn and Cap'n John, and finally takes a header into one of those pesky acid pools. (Biology Class Skeleton appearance #3)
  • More great dialog abounds. Cathy: "Do you think we'll make it?" Cap'n John (deadpan): "We'll make it."

Death from Above!

  • Quinn mentions the island "feels like the tropics," despite being in the North Atlantic. The Beast Creatures play jungle drums to unnerve the humans, and are later seen gathered motionless around a Tiki idol on top of Beast Creature Peak. Nothing else is ever made of this connection.
  • Both Quinn and Philip fall prey to some primitive traps set by the Beast Creatures--a trip-wire/impaling spike snare, and a shallow eating pit--both set right out in the open, not camouflaged, and easily avoidable.
  • Though it took them a day and a half to reach the peak, the whole group makes it back to the beach in 10 minutes at a brisk jog. They also cross a non-acidic river on the way, which apparently they didn't notice on their initial water search.

The Vicar, mid-viewing
  • In the FINAL WAVE attack, the creatures somehow manage to take a main character down, the one unexpected death of the movie.
  • Final line, from some flabbergasted rescuing sailors-cum-audience stand-ins: "What were THOSE things?"

A lot of people are going to hate Attack of the Beast Creatures, and I'm not going to claim it's perfect, by any means. But your reaction to the obvious flaws is going to determine how you feel about the movie as a whole. Are you going to harp on the fact that the 1920s setting is completely arbitrary and serves no narrative purpose, as there are no period settings or use of timely events, even in dialog? Are you going to rag on the totally period-inappropriate synth score, which sounds less like 20s jazz than some kid in his bedroom aping NPR's "Hearts of Space" on his Moog? Are you going to NOT be filled with joy by the fact that the opening titles go on for over 6 minutes in between action scenes, and include a credit for "Hairstyles by D J's Hair-Inn"? Well then, this movie is not for you.

You can tell I had a blast with Attack of the Beast Creatures. It's silly, it's badly made, and its creatures are laughable, but it is never boring and is full of the kind of enthusiasm and low-budget ambition that seem to be in such short supply these days. The Beast Creatures themselves--their origin and provenance, their connection to a Tiki culture thousands of nautical miles away, the idiosyncrasies of their inhospitable home island--are never explained, perhaps because like all Nature's greatest creations they are at root inexplicable. But they made me smile, laugh, and cheer, and for that I can only offer them my affection.

2.75 thumbs for this pinnacle of Connecticutensian filmmaking. Where's our DVD, Nutmeggers?


More images from Attack of the Beast Creatures (1985):

Flapper As Fuck

We Have You Surrounded

"Anybody seen Kyle?"

Forest of Doom

"We paid for it, we're gonna USE it!"

Quinn learns the hard way why you never accept a BJ from a Beast Creature



Samuel Wilson said...

Vicar, this title has intrigued me (and isn't "Beast Creatures" some kind of perfection of redundancy? what's the difference between these and Creature Beasts, I wonder?) ever since The Phantom of the Movies wrote it up in his first book. You describe a rather more dynamic movie than he did, and I at least want to track down some YouTube footage of the spectacle.

Temple of Schlock said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Temple of Schlock said...

We rented this back in the late '80s, drawn to it by the Joseph Brenner name (a sign of quality) and remember really enjoying it for a lot of the reasons you pointed out in your review.

JamiSings said...

@Samuel - you're in luck, there's a few clips on YouTube.

The Vicar of VHS said...

@Samuel--I readily admit that I can be easier to please than some of my fellow trash movie critics. There *is* a lot of walking back and forth through the deciduous forests, punctuated by guerrilla BC attacks and deadpan dialogue, which some will doubtless find hard to get through. But for me, I don't know, it just *works.* Everyone's mileage will vary, of course.

Seriously, though LOOK at those things!

@Temple of Schlock--Part of me feels that, if you're the sort of person who will see that cover art, read that title, and *still* rent the movie, then you are definitely the sort who will enjoy what lies within. :) Glad to know others have found the same reasons for celebration I did!

@Jami--admirable detective work! I encourage not only Samuel but all other interested readers to take a look at those clips. Then TELL ME IF I LIE! :)

JamiSings said...

It's my honor to help your minions, my dark masters.

Off topic but I saw something at a Michael's store that made me think of both of you because I saw it had The Gillman in it.

venoms5 said...

A friend of mine was pushing this one a few years ago and mentioned the Zuni Fetish Doll connection. I had seen a VHS of it once and thought it was a big joke. Apparently it is and a very funny one, too. I will assuredly check this one out at some point now!

Anonymous said...

A fun movie. Creatures on this island are related to the Zuni Fetish creatures! However, my choice as Connecticut's best independent movie is still Stamford Ct's HORROR OF PARTY BEACH.

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