As a child of the decade I was raised within, I can claim longstanding affection and devotion to the “nature strikes back” genre of eco-horror, these days more commonly referred to in crass terms as “animal attack films” (which change in nomenclature in and of itself speaks volumes to the devolution of culture in our society).
While films in this genre run the gamut from mystical/philosophical head trips like Nightwing to Irwin Allen nonsense like Food of the Gods, from the early 70’s to the early 80’s (Prophecy, Wolfen), the shining pinnacle of such films has always been the AIP classic Frogs. With its crumbling southern mansion and grumpy master of his domain serving as both allegory for the fall of empire (given its release date, the direct point of reference was likely Vietnam and Kent State and somewhat prescient of the impending Watergate scandal, though there is a clear and obvious statement about the Old South to be discussed herein) and a warning of ecological disaster. As most films of the genre postulate and ultimately force the viewer to address, what would (will) happen if (when) our planet and the forces of nature (be they flora or fauna) are no longer subject to the vagaries of human industrial whim?
From the insects (including but not limited to such entries as Giant Spider Invasion, Kingdom of the Spiders, Phase IV, Ants, The Swarm and Squirm) to the birds (Beaks, Killing Birds, even Hitchcock’s The Birds) to the beasts (Grizzly, Day of the Animals, even Night of the Lepus), the story is always the same: man’s encroachment on their natural habitat and poisoning of the water, land and skies with industrial runoff leads to a wholesale revolt and reprisal from the animal kingdom. While there are many more titles than I’ve listed here, suffice to say that I’ve seen most if not all of ’em, and to one extent or another, enjoyed them all, some quite profusely.
Thus it is with surprise and amusement that I have discovered the first and only challenger to the coveted crown of “greatest eco-horror film ever put to celluloid”. After four decades of absolutely no competition, Ray Milland and company have a rival. And that rival comes from Italy, from the hand of a man best known for (of all things) the generally distasteful if mildly amusing mondo film genre: the one and only Franco Prosperi.
The Wild Beasts may in fact be one of the last of the eco-horrors made (only Rene Cardona’s Beaks aka Birds of Prey comes of more recent vintage), but it is very possibly the most entertaining of the batch. Leaving higher minded social concerns aside, it borrows the plot without the purpose, resulting in a sugary junk food confection that has little or no value in terms of edification, but sure does taste good, don’t it?
We are told at the start of the picture that “no animals were harmed in the making of this film”, but there are numerous scenes and instances that call any such assertion into question. While some of the “special effects” are obvious, it’s kind of hard to fake rats being set on fire, domestic cats tossed amidst a huge pileup of rats and left to fend for themselves, mountain lions with their fangs in the neck of unsuspecting cattle, and so forth. So the mondo tradition of bullsh*tting the general public Prosperi inaugurated with his erstwhile cinematographic partner Gualtieri Jacopetti way back in 1962 continues…
Haughty cult cinema standby Lorraine De Selle (Cannibal Ferox, House at the Edge of the Park) appears, and while we’re told that she’s ostensibly some sort of a doctor or researcher, she spends 99% of the running time as a hanger on and/or fretting over her obnoxious brat of a daughter. I think we’re supposed to sympathize with the plight of a working single mother and her latchkey daughter’s desperately shrill cries for attention, but the end result is flat and at best humorous. Keep an eye out for that stupid frog puppet that quacks into the phone, which de Selle later steps on (resulting in yet another loud and grating quack) and then carries around for 10 minutes, before abandoning it forever – to hell with my daughter and her toys! Yep, it’s that kind of a movie.
Set for some unknown reason in Frankfurt, Germany, what sets The Wild Beasts apart from its ostensible eco-horror kin is twofold – first, it’s set in its entirety in a cold and sterile modern cityscape, the whole of the action during the course of one evening. With its nigh-abandoned streets, the city becomes a character in and of itself, and makes the one attempt at metaphor Prosperi is able or willing to deliver, with the drab precision terraforming of man set against the rebellion of the natural and vibrant – and it’s perfectly obvious who loses in that equation.
The second thing that sets the film apart is in that beyond the very point I just made, and unlike just about any ecological horror film ever created during the heyday of the genre, there is no point. In other words, it’s not industrial runoff. It’s not manmade pollution. It’s not even nuclear tampering or waste. You know what sets the animals off? Get this: drugs.
Yes, in the first scenes of the film, we’re shown a subway escalator where quite improbably, a collection of used needles is piled up next to the handrail. If that didn’t already have you scratching your head in bewilderment at the delusional nature of the screenwriting here, somehow (and it’s never even hinted at how) the water supply has been inundated with a high concentration of Angel Dust. Seriously, PCP is the culprit here. Go figure.
So the animals go nuts, and let the terrorization of the (rather sparse) citizenry commence: the zoo’s night watchmen, a couple making out in their car (right out in the open on a random street corner, mind you!), and eventually (and quite conveniently) De Selle’s daughter’s dance class.
There are some frankly hilarious scenes, like the fast moving elephants who plunge the city into an impromptu blackout, the polar bear attack (doubled by a trophy rug and a stuffed animal arm at various points) or the cheetah who races a hysterical girl in an open roofed VW bug, causing all manner of amusing mayhem. But the best part is the final scene, wherein we discover that the animals weren’t the only ones drinking the tainted water…and it shifts gears into a killer kids movie in the final reel!
The untranslated Italian text informs us, in true copout fashion, that our “heroes” (inclusive of De Selle) and the kids apparently survived and recovered without killing each other (never mind the woman they already massacred – she doesn’t count, I guess, she’s just the hired help), and that the nightmare isn’t quite over, as apparently cities as far away as Tokyo have gotten “dusted”…
While I understand there was a somewhat improved release from German label Camera Obscura, their self-imposed restrictions (making all releases “limiited release”, only selling through a handful of sites, asking a high starting price, and shipping from overseas) led me to go for the more reasonable route and get the Swedish Another World release (which I found more or less comparable, based on my Camera Obscura label DVD of Paganini Horror, and easily half the expense). The print was a bit darker than I’d like, and there were no extras, but it was a perfectly acceptable alternative until and unless a reasonable reseller comes along.
Overall, I’d give The Wild Beasts a strong recommendation.