Now it is time to look at the underbelly of the ‘when nature attacks’ horror film, the worst of the lot. These are the films that tried (or in some cases didn’t bother to try) and failed…miserably. What happened? The reasons are legion. We’ve got big budgets gone out of control, dreary social commentary, laughable special effects, overwrought acting, deadly pacing and, in more than one instance, just basic plot ideas that are so monumentally miscalculated that the mind boggles. What were they thinking, indeed.
Before we get to the list, here are a few notable turkeys that just barely missed making the cut: Tentacles (1977)- giant octopus takes down sailboats and sunbathers as Shelley Winters and Henry Fonda try to maintain some shred of dignity; Primeval (2007)- stupid news team tries to find giant crocodile in Africa (this film’s misleading ad campaign promoted this as a serial killer movie, and audiences reacted with deserved derision); Bug (1975)- mutant cockroaches that start fires (?) overrun a small desert town; Nightwing (1979)- Indian reservation plagued by rubbery-looking bats; Link (1986)- violent orangutan traps and torments Elisabeth Shue; Ben (1972)- dull boy-rat love story sequel to Willard; In the Shadow of Kilimanjaro (1986)- drought-crazed baboons devour African villages; Killer Fish (1979)- what can you say about a movie that aspires to be Piranha?; Black Sheep (2007)- killer sheep, ‘nuf said; Deadly Eyes (1982)- mutant rats (dachsunds dressed up in rat costumes) eat Toronto.
There are two more rather notoriously awful films in this genre that probably would’ve made the list, but I’ve never had the opportunity to see them. The first is zero-budget The Killer Shrews (1959) which many have seen via “Mystery Science Theater 3000”, which had even worse looking dogs dressed up as rodents than Deadly Eyes. The other is the infamous Great White (1981), an Italian-produced nearly, scene by scene ripoff of Jaws, whose plagiarism was so egregious that Universal Pictures sued the film makers and won, and after having been released for a few days, was pulled from theaters. So, with that, let’s begin.
#10 Man’s Best Friend (1993)
It takes a very skillful hand to be able to mix horror and comedy into a successful entertainment, but writer/director John Lafia doesn’t have it. This trainwreck of tone whipsaws from wannabe horrific bloodshed to heavy-handed moralizing to stupifyingly uncomfortable attempts at slapstick humor. No one escapes from this mess untainted. It pretty much ended Lafia’s big screen career and star Ally Sheedy licked her wounds until getting a sort-of career resurrection in High Art. For other star, Lance Henriksen, this was just more of the same.
As you could guess, this one is about a dog. But not just any dog. No, this one has been created in the laboratory using robotics and DNA splicing to be used as the ultimate military weapon. This pooch is massively strong, has computer enhances senses and can climb trees and eat cats whole, and let’s not forget the abilitiy to urinate acid. How all these things would help the military is just one of the big questions the film neglects to answer. Sheedy plays a journalist (badly) out to expose the lab for inhumane animal testing and decides to rescue this seemingly normal dog, now named Max, and take him home; Hendriksen, of course, is the scientist trying to recover it.
The whole film moves in fits and starts and never gains traction. Are we supposed to be afraid of Max? Sympathize with Max? Is Hendriksen the bad guy or the hero? Is Sheedy’s character really supposed to be as stupid as she seems? The viewer is expected to pick all sides of all the issues and that just leaves a feeling of inertia and abject boredom. The crude attempts at physical humor (such as the ‘seduction’ scene with Max trying to bed a female poodle) just feel out of place.
Man’s Best Friend is one of those films that you have to question the motives of the film makers. It’s obvious they didn’t consider what sort of audience they were making this movie for, and by trying to please everybody they only pleased no one.
#9 Prophecy (1979)
We won’t got into too much detail about this fiasco, since I’ve already written in length about it. That article can be found here.
Mercury poisoning of the waterways of the Maine wilderness is the culprit in John Frankenheimer’s Prophecy, a complete miscalculation by a once great director. Robert Foxworth and Talia Shire are the city folks who are called in to the aflicted area and run afoul of the mutating wildlife. It seems the fish have gotten so big they swallow ducks whole and the bears have now grown to enormous sizes and look as if they’ve been turned inside-out.
The lousy creature make-up job is just one of the many problems here. Frankenheimer was just not the right director to make a horror film; the scare scenes end up as unintentional comedy, the pacing is deadly slow and the poorly written characters always seem to do the most stupid thing they could do at the very worst moments.
Prophecy is less noteworthy as a horror film as it is an interesting examination of the exact point where a director’s career went to the dogs. Before this, Frankenheimer helmed such masterpieces as The Manchurian Candidate, The Fixer, Birdman of Alcatraz and Seconds; after it, he was responsible for such turkeys as Dead-Bang, Year of the Gun, Reindeer Games and 52 Pick-Up. How easy it is for the mighty to fall.
Next time we’ll look to the sea and to the air for the next crop of lousy nature films. Any guesses?