Monday, July 22, 2019

"These Things Happen When They Happen" - Night Claws (2012) - Film #144

Having explored the artistic wonders of Sledge Hammer (1983), Aerobi-Cide (1987), and Deadly Prey (1987), we shall now catch up with one of the later projects of prolific director David A. Prior, who tragically died in 2015. Night Claws (2012) is an example of one of the most revered film genres, the killer bigfoot movie (see also the classics Night of the Demon, Demonwarp, Curse of Bigfoot, and The Capture of Bigfoot).

Not all of your universe's critics appreciate the simplicity and suspense of Night Claws. For example, reviewer davannacarter writes, "It's clear everyone involved with this movie knew this movie would suck. And if you watch this movie, you'll know it's gonna suck within the first 10 minutes." Reviewer brian-royer-286-857305 writes, "The writing is awful. Everything else is pretty much awful too." And reviewer bear22771 writes, "I can safely say this is the worst film i have ever had the misfortune to watch, in fact it was that bad i had to turn it off an hour into it."

Please read on for a full appreciation of late-period David A. Prior...

The film begins with two young adults making out in a vintage car in the woods near Mobile, Alabama. Something outside roars, but before the man can check it out, a hairy bigfoot gorily grabs him and beheads him, and then it advances on the woman.

The next morning, Sheriff’s Detective Roberta explains the crime scene to the sheriff. “Coroner said it must have been some kind of animal,” she says. “From what I’ve seen, I have to agree.”

The sheriff, played by charming action star Reb Brown, replies, “What kind of animal does that to their prey, and then does it again?”

“Only one kind I can think of. The human kind.”

“Bingo,” says the sheriff.

Assuming a serial killer is on the loose, they decide to shut down the park and campgrounds. Unbeknownst to the police, however, the entire scene is being watched by a group of men dressed in black. Their white-haired leader (played by David Campbell, the villain of 1987's Deadly Prey) orders his men to wait for the police to leave, and then they will “pick up the trail.”

One black-clad man asks, “Why don’t we just cap the whole mess of them and go about our business?”

The boss replies, perhaps because he is enamored with the word “mess,” “Because that would make a mess, and I don’t like messes.”

Nearby, two couples and team leader Sharon are heading into the forest for a two-day trip to test their survival skills. Solidifying the film as a David A. Prior masterwork, the two men (the older of them, Charlie Parker, played by Ted Prior) immediately get into a fight for no reason, almost resorting to fisticuffs.

Elsewhere, Professor Sarah Evans of the National Museum of Anthropology tells her research assistant Thomas about the bigfoot attack. “An attack? That’s odd, isn’t it?” asks the assistant.

The professor replies, in a convoluted manner, “Yeah, it’s different. But it’s happened before. But this will be the first time we get to be there just after it happened.”

The filmmakers cut back to the sheriff in the little town of Morningside as he speaks with a city councilman who fears for the safety of the town. “It’s real bad timing for something like this to happen in our town. It’s summertime, Joe. We have the Pumpkin Festival coming up and other things, and the last thing we need is this kind of publicity.” (The Pumpkin Festival is never mentioned again.)

The sheriff, a practical man, replies, “These things happen when they happen.”

After the councilman leaves, Professor Evans speaks with the sheriff, who allows her to tag along during his investigation. The professor hands the sheriff her yellow business card, which coincidentally doubles as a Monopoly “Get Out of Jail Free” card.

They visit the awkward, stuttering coroner, who is performing an autopsy for some reason in his wood-paneled office. The coroner explains that no human could have killed the man because his feet were literally torn off his legs.

Sheriff Reb Brown says that Deputy Roberta found animal hairs at the crime scene. Professor Evans asks, “Were they long, very thick, uh, coarse hairs with a foul odor to them?”

“Yes, exactly,” Mr. Brown says. “How would you know that?”

She says, “Sasquatch.”

“Ooooh,” says the coroner. “Sasquatch.”

The absent-minded coroner then shows them a cast made of a footprint—a big footprint.

Professor Evans and Thomas next visit a bar to interview a local resident named Cooter who is a bigfoot expert. Coincidentally, the song playing in the background at the bar is about someone named Cooter Brown, just like the bigfoot expert. Cooter tells Thomas eloquently, “I bet you I’m a drunk who knows what you want to know, boy.”

After Professor Evans buys Cooter a round of beers, contributing to his certain alcohol poisoning, Cotter tells them that there are many bigfoots in the woods. He also tells them that the name of his dog, who was presumably eaten by a bigfoot, was also Cooter. “Well, what else would it be?” he asks incredulously.

At night, the survival retreat couples (not to mention the audience) are surprised when a furry arm appears and their team leader Sharon disappears right in front of them. Ted Prior, being Ted Prior, pulls a handgun out of his backpack. Soon, only Ted Prior and his wife remain.

In the morning, Deputy Roberta tells Sheriff Reb Brown about Sharon’s survival retreat in the woods. Mr. Brown says, “That’s not good. Any more good news?”

In the forest, Ted Prior and his wife are found by the black-clad bigfoot hunters, who force them at gunpoint to continue walking through the woods. At one point, Mr. Prior goads one of the hunters into a fight, and he crushes the man’s windpipe, killing him, which earns him a pistol-whipping from the boss.

Elsewhere, Sheriff Reb Brown instructs his deputies to search for the survival retreat group. He tells them to move through the woods twenty feet apart, though the search party clusters together, marching about three feet away from each other.

During the fateful night, three storylines intertwine in the forest. The hunters tie Mr. Prior and his wife to a tree as bigfoot bait. Two brothers throw an ill-advised beer party in the woods. And Sheriff Reb Brown and Professor Evans search for bigfoot.

A bigfoot attacks the brothers’ party and kills all the partners quickly, though one girl escapes and runs into the sheriff’s search party.

The hunters grow jumpy in the woods. When the boss sneaks up on his underling, the underling says, “Jesus, Boss, you almost gave me a heart attack.”

The boss replies, a little unclearly, “I sometimes wish that were possible.”

After the boss goes off into the woods for unknown reasons, Mr. Prior’s wife uses her feminine wiles to seduce the remaining underling, allowing Mr. Prior to kill the man. When his wife asks him to untie her, however, Mr. Prior refuses. He forces her to stay in the forest alone. “It’s a lot cheaper than a divorce,” he explains, walking away—only to be shot and killed by the boss.

In the climactic sequence, everybody chases everybody else, including the bigfoot. When Sheriff Reb Brown finds Mr. Prior’s wife, the woman explains what happened. The sheriff says, quite appropriately, “I’m confused. Did a creature do this, or is there some raving maniac running around the woods killing people.”

“Both,” replies Mr. Prior’s wife.

A few minutes later, Sheriff Brown reiterates the same theory as he trudges through the woods with Professor Evans, though no new evidence has been gathered: “It’s seeming more and more that this creature thing is a coverup for some nutcase maniac running around the woods to kill people.”

Weirdly, the film reveals its twist in a flashback from the professor: She killed her research assistant with a knife in the throat. She has been covering up murder with the bigfoot story, though the bigfoot is also real. Having privately remembered that she is a killer, she continues walking with the sheriff until they find a hunter’s cabin.

The hunter boss is in the cabin. While he and the sheriff fight, Professor Evans radios that she has found her target. When Reb Brown is held at gunpoint by the boss, she says, “Let him go.”

“Not a chance, bitch.”

“Oh,” she replies eloquently, “you just called me the wrong thing.” She shoots him in the leg.

Strangely, Professor Evans walks up behind Sheriff Reb Brown and lightly twists his head, breaking the sheriff's neck and killing him. “And I kind of liked him,” she says.

She reveals she is a bounty hunter who was chasing the bigfoot hunters. Apparently, there is more money in hunting men than bigfoots. Who knew?

Meanwhile, the bigfoot kills the rest of the cast. Ted Prior’s wife is the last to die as she runs through the woods, but she is no match for the creature’s sharp (night) claws and big (night?) teeth.

In the finale, Frank Stallone appears as the man collecting the bigfoot hunter. It turns out Mr. Stallone is the father of Mike Danton, whom the hunter killed for disobeying an order while they were in the Army. (Fans of the Prior brothers will recall that Mike Danton was the hero of Deadly Prey, played by Ted Prior, and the evil colonel in Deadly Prey was played by the same actor playing the evil bigfoot hunter in Night Claws, though confusingly they have different names and Mike Danton survived Deadly Prey.)

Mr. Stallone plans to avenge the death of Mike Danton by torturing the hunter with a razor, or by feeding him to the bigfoot; it is unclear. We do not see his revenge, as the filmmakers cut to Professor Evans walking through the forest, where she stumbles upon an entire clan of bigfoots.

“The End” flashes on the screen.

At the end of the credits, the song written and performed by Ted Prior finishes the film. I will hereby transcribe the lyrics for future generations:

“Heard they had some trouble just east of old Mobile.
Had themselves a problem in that town.
If you don’t believe it and you think it can’t be real
They say just talk to Old Cooter Brown.
He’ll tell you ‘bout the night he got chased around his shack
By something big and hairy on two feet.
He wasn’t sure what it was, but he ain’t going back
Cause something told him this thing wants to eat!”

There are many factors that make Night Claws a superior piece of filmmaking, even by the standards set by David A. Prior's earlier work. For example, its references to Deadly Prey (1987) show the rich tapestry of Mr. Prior's filmography, and the film could even be described as Deadly Prey with bigfoots. Additionally, the film does not suffer from the lack of day-for-night tinting that affects The Crater Lake Monster (1977); in fact, the day-for-night shooting in Night Claws is quite heavily tinted, thank you very much.

But perhaps the finest aspect of Night Claws is the refreshing presence of Reb Brown as the sheriff. Mr. Brown smiles throughout the film, and his palpable joy at serving as the sheriff of a county plagued with bigfoot murders shines through, infecting the audience. The fact that the tightly plotted story requires Mr. Brown's character to die at the hands of someone he trusted is truly a tragedy. But we can always remember Mr. Brown's tireless dedication to duty and, more importantly, his constant, charming smile.