Thursday, February 02, 2017

Cult-TV Movie Review: Snowbeast (April 28, 1977)



As the 50th annual winter carnival nears at the Rill Ski Lodge, a skier named Heidi reports that her friend Jennifer has been attacked by a monster out by the North Slope.

Rill (Sylvia Sidney), the first Winter Carnival Queen and owner of the lodge wants the disappearance kept quiet until after the seasonal festivities, lest there be a severe economic impact. Her grandson, Tony (Robert Logan), manages the lodge and refuses to keep the disappearance a secret, especially after discovering Heidi’s bloody ski jacket.

Sheriff Paraday (Clint Walker) gets involved when Jennifer’s body is discovered at the old Fairchild place. The corpse’s face has been torn off.

As Tony deals with these concerns, an old friend, Olympic Gold Medalist Gar Seberg (Bo Svenson) shows up at the lodge with his wife, a TV journalist, Ellen (Yvette Mimieux). Their marriage is in trouble because Gar feels he is a “has been,” and needs a job. 

Tony hires Gar to help hunt down the monster they fear is responsible for the attacks.  Gar thinks it may be a Big Foot, and that most Big Foot creatures are reportedly peaceful. When he sees Jennifer’s corpse, however, he changes his tune.

The creature continues to encroach on the Lodge, attacking during the crowning of the Winter Carnival Queen.

Later, it hunts Ellen on the slopes, and Gar skis to her rescue.

Finally, Tony, Gar, Paraday and Ellen hunt the beast in the wild on snowmobiles, and have one final confrontation with it.


This amusing and occasionally intense tele-film from the spring of 1977 (right before the release of Star Wars) is brimming with menacing first person subjective shots, otherwise known as P.O.V. shots, and at each commercial break, the film fades to bloody red for macabre effect following a freeze frame.

These transitional shots are disturbing and effective in a way. One freeze frame reveals a Red Cross rescue worker’s head grabbed by the burly claws of the snow-beast. Another freeze-frame before fade-to-red is an extreme close-up of Clint Walker’s terror as the snow-beast moves in for the kill.

Noticeably -- and totally in keeping with the aesthetic of these cheap jack TV movies of the 1970s, -- there are no real special effects to speak of in Snowbeast.  The monster suit is mostly (and wisely) kept hidden, except for the one time it presses its grisly face against the window of the Rill Lodge.


Every now and then, a furry arm and gnarled paw breaks into the frame to enliven the proceedings too, but mostly the monster is notable for NOT attacking. 

Instead, the snowbeast does a lot of stalking from behind tree branches, and so the P.O.V. subjective shot gets a huge work out. 

The visual approach is a double-edged sword in some ways. Snowbeast is filled with beautiful exterior tracking shots of skiers in the wild, but the P.O.V. stalk shot recurs so frequently that it creates ennui rather than terror.  I would be hard-pressed to remember a horror movie -- slasher or otherwise -- that so flagrantly over-uses this visual technique.


The great Joseph Stefano is the author of Snowbeast’s screenplay, but it likely wouldn’t rank as one of his greatest achievements. I do appreciate that his teleplay repeatedly makes the point that most Big Foot creatures are reputedly peaceful. 

That’s a good thing to remember, and is consistent with the literature on the creature. Yet in contrast, this beast is entirely malevolent. It decapitates victims on a whim, and stores the corpses in a barn for the long cold winter.  If it is a bigfoot, it's an angry one.

Directed by Herb Wallerstein and written by Joe Stefano and Roger Patterson, Snowbeast plays like a cheap-jack version of Jaws (1975). Basically, the movie is a reiteration of “The Beaches Stay Open” paradigm that the Spielberg film made famous.

Consider: the film is set in an area of scenic beauty and tourism (not a beach, but mountain ski slopes). Consider too, that the local economy is based on seasonal tourism (summer/winter), and dependent on participation in athletic, outdoor activities.  In Jaws we see swimmers and regatta races. Here, we are told about all the festivities: dog-sled racing, snowmobiling, alpine skiing, and the like. 

And in Snowbeast, the owner of the Rill Lodge steps in for the mayor of Amity in Jaws, attempting to enforce a conspiracy of silence.

Both productions also focus on P.O.V. shots, and feature intermittent attacks on those who wander out  into a dangerous domain (into the ocean, or on the slopes) alone. 

Finally, in the latter half of each story, a troika of men head out into the “monster’s” home turf (sea or snow) to challenge and kill it. 

Jaws gave us Brody-Hooper-Quint. Snowbeast gives us Rill-Seberg-Paraday, and also includes Seberg’s wife, Ellen, in the mix.


Snowbeast’s subplot about the Seberg marriage, ironically, feels more like a subplot from Peter Benchley’s novel, Jaws, than it does the Spielberg movie. Basically, Ellen admits to having (sexual) fantasies about Tony Rill because she can no longer respect her husband. At the end of the film, Seberg thrusts his ski pole into the snowbeast, killing the monster and earning his wife’s respect again.

The Jaws riffs are obvious, frequent, and easy to note, and yet Snowbeast never fails to entertain, and truth be told, remains a bit frightening, or at the very least, unnerving in spots.  The film has never been the beneficiary of good reviews, and I can understand that, given the repetitious P.O.V. visuals. 

Criticism of visual distinction aside, Snowbeast is just the kind of unassuming, enjoyable monster movie I love to watch on a cold winter night, while huddled under a blanket, drinking hot chocolate. I can practically feel the chill already...
  

3 comments:

  1. Saw it at age 6 and it scared the hell out of me. Recently rewatched it and was amazed at how mean spirited it was, especially for the medium and the time period. The bit about having to identify the one body via clothes as the face is missing, the shot of the Carnival Queen finding what remains of her mother, just nasty stuff. I feel sorry for the current generation, they have no idea what good, scary, television movies are.

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  2. John, perfect review of this telefim. I still remember watching this with my family as a young boy in '77. Excellent comparison of Snowbeast and Jaws. It is a fun horror film.

    SGB

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  3. In the review of this movie on the "And You Call Yourself A Scientist!" website Lyz makes an interesting point:

    "Time the Snowbeast (or a portion thereof) is on-screen: 31 seconds = 0.60% = 22 seconds shorter than the Patterson-Gimlin footage...."

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