Monday, May 1, 2017

"The Place That Sells Worms and Eggs" - Winterbeast (1992)


American colonialism and the exploitation of Native American culture in Massachusetts inform the dreamlike supernatural horror of the classic Winterbeast (1992).

Not all critics recognize the brilliance on display in this film, however. On IMDB, EyeAskance writes, "An amateur misconjecture devoid of anything recognizable as production values." Also on IMDB, A-Ron-2 writes, "This is quite simply the most terrible film I have ever seen in my life." Finally, again on IMDB, Michael Wehr writes, "This movie has opened my eyes to how horrible a movie can be.... It makes no sense, the villain is a gay Jewish guy, they all wear flannels, the acting is so bad, there is no plot, the bad guys are terrible claymation products, we don't even understand who actually IS the Winterbeast...it's just bad!!!!!"

No.


Winterbeast, in fact, is an ambitious combination of rapid-fire comedy, experimental animation, and social relevance.

The film opens with an indelible sequence. A forest ranger asks his partner if he is all right. The partner, Tello, leans into the light and shows his horribly scarred face. Then a stop-motion monster appears out of nowhere. Finally, the partner, grinning profusely, starts pulling flesh from a bleeding wound in his stomach.

   

Suddenly, the security guard wakes up in bed. Was this all a dream? Probably.

The guard, Bill Whitman, goes to what appears to be a ski lodge/ranger station, where he finds out his partner has disappeared. He goes to speak with a woman named Bradford.

Next occurs a one-of-a-kind comedic skit between a man incongruously wearing sunglasses and a mysterious man named Dick Sargent. The sunglasses-wearing man, Stillman, is reading a pornographic magazine, and he makes a joke about "searching for a rugged and sensitive guy like yourself."

Dick Sargent says, "You're one of those...homosexuals or something."

Stillman retorts, "I'm no homosexual, pal! But I did know a lesbian at one time who had tattoos very similar to yours. You didn't happen to go by the moniker of Olga at one time, did you?"

Meanwhile, Bill Whitman sits uncomfortably close to Sally Bradford, who was on the mountain when his partner disappeared, and interrogates her. She says nothing happened up there. (It should be noted that the intimacy and claustrophobia of the film are emphasized by scenes in which two characters speak, as both characters are always in the shot together, their faces only inches apart.)


Whitman then interrogates Dick Sargent about finding Sally. He points to a map, showing Whitman that he found her at the old, abandoned ski lodge.

Stillman and Sargent agree to meet at dawn to investigate further. "Do you know where the bait and breakfast shop is?" asks Sargent.

"Yeah, that's the place that sells worms and eggs, right?" says Stillman. "If I got lost, I'll follow some hungry fisherman." (The comedic impact of the joke is mitigated only somewhat by the fact that Stillman steps on Sargent's previous line.)

Whitman and Stillman, having nothing to do while a winter storm passes through, sit around flipping through more pornographic magazines from the 1950s. Whitman explains that everything on the mountain--cabins, lodges, a whole ski area--was left to deteriorate years ago. But there is a place on the mountain that is still open: Wild Goose Lodge. Whitman realizes he should notify them about his partner's disappearance.

While the rangers banter, the film offers another of its spectacular stop-motion set pieces. This one involves a topless woman in a cabin and a beautifully modelled tree monster.


Whitman and Stillman drive up to the Wild Goose Lodge to investigate Tello's disappearance. They find a large crowd in the lounge, where the owner of the lodge regales the visitors with presumably funny stories.

When they see the owner, Mr. Sheldon, who wears a red and black plaid jacket, Stillman utters the immortal line, "Man, check out those crazy threads." Mr. Sheldon bears a strong resemblance to a Lost in Space-era Jonathan Harris.


After a humorous mixup in which Mr. Sheldon believes the rangers are visiting him because he didn't register a toaster given as a raffle gift, and another humorous situation in which Stillman cons beers from an elderly couple, a fight erupts out of nowhere. The rangers learn nothing.

Next follows a montage of sightseeing in the little mountain town, the attractions of which include a big wooden Indian and an even bigger alien/skeleton sculpture, described as some kind of sacrifice, and also described occasionally as a totem pole.

   

Bill Whitman says he saw something similar to the alien/monster/skeleton in a dream.

Whitman and Stillman are joined by rangers Sally Bradford and Charlie--who bears a remarkable resemblance to WKRP-era Gary Sandy--as they search for the missing Ranger Tello. Bradford tells Whitman about disappearances on Chakura Mountain dating back many years. "Oh come on," says Whitman. "You don't expect me to believe people still believe in that Chakura stuff, do you? I mean, those days of Indian legends are long gone."

At a restaurant that displays heads of Indians on the wall, Charlie shows Whitman and Bradford a box of artifacts from his friend Burning Wolf.


In the box is a charm made by an ancient medicine man to ward off Chakura, a name which has been repeated several times but never explained. Burning Wolf gave it to Charlie because he knew Charlie might need it someday.

Out on the mountain, two backpackers experience an earthquake and are startled by the vision of a furry, beaked creature with Sleestak eyes emerging from the ground. The creature drags the two hikers into the forest.

   

The film then explores the classic conflict between the safety of the citizens and commercial profit. Whitman tries to convince Mr. Sheldon, the owner of the Wild Goose Lodge, to shut down the lodge so his patrons are not put in danger, but Mr. Sheldon of course refuses.

Near the half-way point, the film begins to explain what is occurring through the time-honored cinematic tradition of reading from a book. Charlie peruses a picture book, then explains that the skeleton sculpture is the Indian gateway to hell.

The stop-motion monster attacks continue, as a mountain climber is beheaded over a waterfall by a giant four-armed beast.

   

Whitman confronts Mr. Sheldon again, but Sheldon doesn't believe the place is dangerous. "There aren't any demons in this town except assholes who try to create them!"

(It should be noted that this scene ratchets up the tension not only through the confrontation between capitalism and the public interest, but in the status of Whitman's mustache, which fluctuates between bushy and wispy in the same scene.)

   

Ranger Sally Bradford is attacked on the mountain by a traditional blue zombie. She attempts to fight back with her service revolver, but the zombie shockingly kills her.

Whitman confronts Mr. Sheldon yet again at the lodge, saying, "You don't care about anything but your lodge and your precious foliage festivals, do you?" Mr. Sheldon kicks him out with an evil grin.

After the confrontation, Whitman discusses his life trajectory with Charlie, and how he was reduced to being a lowly forest ranger. "It's tough when you realize that you don't have what it takes, that you're not cut out for a life of excitement, and that life really is just a regular job with the forest service, and all you get is a lot of TV dinners." Profound words indeed.

At the lodge, the increasingly sinister Mr. Sheldon gleefully puts a plan into action. Against the backdrop of a huge painting of an Indian's face, Sheldon pulls a rope and reveals he has collected the body of Ranger Sally Bradford and put it behind the reception desk of his lodge.


This is perhaps an unusual act for a man who wishes to attract more guests to the lodge, but it appears Mr. Sheldon has gone quite insane. His insanity is clearly displayed as he puts on a record of the children's song "Oh Dear! What Can the Matter Be?" and lip-syncs to the words. Finally, he puts on a creepy mask.

   


Charlie walks in on the masked Mr. Sheldon in the lobby of the lodge. The older man is preening, dancing, and adjusting the clothing on a collection of preserved corpses that we have never seen before.


Charlie walks away, and then Whitman startles him. Whitman wants to show him a note that he found elsewhere in the lodge. Charlie neglects to mention Sheldon and the corpses.

It is revealed that Mr. Sheldon is not just the symbolic capitalist villain, but also the literal villain of the film. He intends to bring more and more demons through the Indian gateway.

"But why?" Charlie asks. "Why would you want to do it?"

Mr. Sheldon just laughs.

And then his face explodes in flames.


There is no reaction to these events. Whitman and Charlie go back to their regular jobs.

The next day, Whitman calls Charlie to tell him he plans have Stillman tear down the skeleton sculpture. Charlie, for unknown reasons, believes this is a bad idea.

At night, Stillman approaches the sculpture with a hatchet. When he attempts to cut it down, the thing starts moving.


It lifts Stillman off the ground, then tosses him away. Stillman runs into the forest.

Again, there are no repercussions to this encounter with a monster. The next day, Whitman and Stillman walk around the abandoned cabins in the mountains. Stillman is attacked by a dragon and his head is unceremoniously bitten off, while Whitman falls into a sandy hole in the ground.


Back in town, Charlie for no apparent reason investigates a chicken farm and is attacked by a giant chicken monster.


When the chicken monster suddenly vanishes, Charlie runs to the skeleton sculpture and blows it up with a firecracker.

Although the gateway to hell has been destroyed, or at least singed, the demons are still rampaging across the mountain. A horned devil on stilts chases Whitman through the forest.


Fortunately, Whitman is armed with a flare gun. Just when it seems the demon is about to kill Whitman and Charlie, they fire the flare gun at a small totem pole head on the ground, the effect of which is to destroy the demon.

Whitman and Charlie walk out of the forest, joking and laughing.



As I stated at the beginning of this review, Winterbeast is an ambitious combination of rapid-fire comedy, experimental animation, and social relevance. The comedy is most evident at the beginning, particularly in the hilarious interchanges between Ranger Stallman and Dick Sargent. The verbal jokes fly quickly, one after the other, and they are made even more breathlessly funny because the actors appear to believe they are delivering these jokes by themselves rather than in response to the lines of the other actor in the scene.

The stop-motion animation must also be highlighted as one of this film’s many unique charms. The giant monsters on display include a tree monster, a slippery lizard monster, a dragon, a four-armed totem pole, and not one but two chicken monsters. The admirably ambitious animation of these frightening creatures is a wonder to behold.

But the film’s biggest strength lies in the layers of commentary it delivers about white culture co-opting and destroying the culture of Native Americans. Bastardized images of Indians are shown throughout the film: heads mounted on the walls of the general store, cigar store Indians, tourist-trap merchandise, tacky oil paintings. The human characters, all white, view the native spirits of the area as deadly threats, when they are not being ignored as primitive superstitions. Further, the white characters behave remarkably cluelessly: Whenever the monsters attack, the characters go back to what they were doing previously as if nothing had happened. The aimlessness of European colonialism is further exemplified by the fact that the forest rangers, despite making plans to search the mountain and close the gateway to hell, never actually do anything except walk around town and pester the lodge owner.

The last brilliant detail I would like to mention is the decision to make the lodge owner, Mr. Sheldon, a monstrous villain as well as the representative of heartless capitalism. How much better would Jaws have been if the mayor of Amity and the shark were in fact the same character? Much better, I'm sure you would agree.

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