Thursday, February 23, 2017

Retro Review: WILD BEASTS (1984)

(Italy - 1984; US release 1985)

Written and directed by Franco E. Prosperi. Cast: Lorraine De Selle, John Aldrich (Tony DeLeo), Ugo Bologna, Louisa Lloyd, John Stacy, Enzo Pizzu, Monica Nickel, Stefania Pinna, Frederico Volocia, Leslie Thomas. (Unrated, 92 mins)

Back in the day, Italian exploitation filmmakers were always quick to pounce on a Hollywood trend and milk it for all it was worth. Whether it was the torrent of exorcism movies that spewed forth following THE EXORCIST, the endless zombie gutmunchers that came after DAWN OF THE DEAD, the truckload of post-nukes after MAD MAX and THE ROAD WARRIOR, and the countless barbarian adventures that resulted from CONAN THE BARBARIAN, the Italians were the undisputed kings of the shameless ripoff. Though you could go back as far as FROGS and NIGHT OF THE LEPUS from 1972, the late 1970s saw a brief ecological, "nature-run-amok" craze with films like 1976's THE FOOD OF THE GODS, 1977's DAY OF THE ANIMALS, 1977's KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS, 1978's THE SWARM, and 1979's PROPHECY, among many others.There were a few stragglers over the years, like three different rat movies coming out from 1982-83 with DEADLY EYES, OF UNKNOWN ORIGIN, and the final segment of the anthology film NIGHTMARES, but generally the fad, arguably popularized by JAWS in 1975, quickly passed. The Italians were fashionably late to the party when it came to the nature-run-amok subgenre. 1982 saw the release of Enzo G. Castellari's JAWS ripoff GREAT WHITE and the Ovidio G. Assonitis-produced PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING, which debuting director and future King of the World James Cameron still insists is "the greatest flying piranha movie ever made," and in 1984, Bruno Mattei directed the incredible RATS: NIGHT OF TERROR, a bizarre fusion of post-nuke and nature-runs-amok made unforgettable by one of the most ridiculous closing shots in all of Italian exploitation. 1984 also gave us WILD BEASTS, directed by Franco E. Prosperi, one of two Franco Prosperis known to Italian exploitation enthusiasts. One was a journeyman genre-hopper (MEET HIM AND DIE, THE LAST HOUSE ON THE BEACH), while the WILD BEASTS Prosperi, along with Gualtiero Jacopetti, was one of the leading figures in the "Mondo" documentary scene that began with 1963's MONDO CANE. Prosperi and Jacopetti made several Mondo films over the next decade, ending with 1971's revolting ADDIO ZIO TOM, released in the US as FAREWELL, UNCLE TOM, an exploitative, shock value re-enactment of the slave trade in which the pair essentially function as the early 1970s drive-in equivalent of trolls in a comments section.

Other than 1975's MONDO CANDIDO, a Mondo spoof inspired by Voltaire's Candide that he co-directed with Jacopetti, WILD BEASTS remains this Franco Prosperi's only foray into both the horror genre and non-Mondo-related narrative. It's also the final work to date for the 88-year-old filmmaker, who's still with us and present for an interview on Severin's new Blu-ray release of the film. Though a narrative work of fiction, Prosperi uses his experience as a documentary filmmaker throughout WILD BEASTS, a ludicrous story of PCP-contaminated industrial waste polluting the water supply of "a northern European city" that's obviously Frankfurt judging from all the Frankfurt signs visible throughout. The contamination results in rapidly escalating aggression in animals, from a seeing-eye dog attacking a blind man to rats overtaking a parked car and devouring the canoodling couple inside to the animals in the zoo breaking out of their cages and pens and going on a city-wide rampage. The zoo's leading veterinarian Dr. Rupert Berner (Tony DeLeo, billed as "John Aldrich," and a discomforting mix of Christopher McDonald and Yanni) teams with constantly-snacking detective Braun (Ugo Bologna), following the trail of carnage as enraged animals run rampant throughout the city. There's a cheetah chasing down a driver (after she almost drives into them, Berner exclaims "She's not crazy! She's being chased by a cheetah!"), cows stampeding through an arcade, and elephants running through the streets, causing cars to pile up or go airborne, crashing into a places like a lamp and chandelier store in scenes of almost Blake Edwardsian destruction before they overtake an airport runway and cause a plane to crash (don't ask). Meanwhile, Berner's journalist girlfriend Laura Schwarz (CANNIBAL FEROX's Lorraine De Selle) is desperately trying to get to her daughter Suzy (Louisa Lloyd), who's trapped at dance class with other kids as a hungry polar bear wanders the halls.

Prosperi fumbles a bit in the middle with some pacing issues that a more experienced genre figure could've alleviated, but WILD BEASTS is an overall entertaining bit of batshit exploitation that doesn't skimp on the gore or other WTF? factors. The relationship between workaholic, absent mother Laura and sarcastic, self-reliant daughter Suzy has some passive-aggressive dysfunction that could use more exploration, and Lloyd is up there with Paige Conner in THE VISITOR, Veronica Zinny in MACABRE, the children in BEYOND THE DOOR, and Nicoletta Elmi in anything as one of the strangest and most off-putting kids in any Italian horror movie. And I haven't even mentioned the bizarre shift in the climax when things take a decidedly WHO CAN KILL A CHILD?-esque turn. Even with some staged sequences in the Mondo films, Prosperi is still a documentarian at heart and that's evident throughout WILD BEASTS in his sometimes distracting interest in extended shots of a newspaper going to press, firefighters and emergency responders on the job, animals attacking one another, and other mayhem presented in stock footage. He also captures some shots of the Frankfurt underbelly, from a trash-strewn street with a prominent Burger King bag to some CHRISTIANE F-inspired images of used needles along the steps exiting the Frankfurt U-Bahn.

Prosperi also careens into the arguably irresponsible, insisting on putting his actors in the same shots as dangerous animals (the reason non-acting circus performer DeLeo got the lead role--he had experience working with these animals and this remains his only film) or having streets closed off to accommodate elephants and bears running around (the cheetah vs. car sequence was actually shot in Johannesburg, South Africa). This commitment to realism is especially alarming late in the film when two child actors are clearly in the same shot as the polar bear chasing them down a school hallway. Prosperi kept a team of animal wranglers with tranquilizer guns and darts just out of camera view throughout shooting to prevent WILD BEASTS from becoming the second coming of ROAR, and it would seem that some of the animals might be slightly sedated at times (that polar bear in the school is moving, but he doesn't look like he's at 100%), but it's still representative of the kind of jaw-dropping risk-taking that no producer would sign off on today. Severin's new Blu-ray is packed with extras, including interviews with a still-vibrant Prosperi (who retired from directing after this film), an affable DeLeo, and editor Mario Morra. It's a nice package for such a relatively obscure film that was on the shelf of every video store in America back in the '80s (with a Lightning Video box that erroneously credited score composer Daniele Patucchi as the director), but has fallen off the radar in the decades since. It's a little clunky at times and the story calls for a Ruggero Deodato or an Umberto Lenzi to keep it focused, but flaws and all, it's Prosperi's, for better or worse, devotion to realism and his willingness to put his actors in harm's way that gives WILD BEASTS its cult appeal.

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