December 16, 2012

Don't Go in the Snow!

DVD cover for Snowbeast (1977)
Now Playing: Snowbeast (1977)

Pros: Interesting veteran cast; Good outdoor photography
Cons: Flat direction and script; Fleeting shots of the monster not enough of a pay-off

After an unseasonably warm and dry November and first part of December, glorious and copious snow has returned to my little neck of the woods, the northern Arizona high country. We've had about a foot and half of the stuff in the past 48 hours, which should make the skiers and assorted winter sports enthusiasts here giddy with delight. (Yes Virginia, there is skiing in Arizona -- nothing to compare with the better resorts in Colorado and Utah -- but it exists nonetheless.)

Even with such robust winter storms, this part of northern Arizona -- an area that experiences all four seasons, and that in a good winter will get upwards of 120" of snow -- has been in a serious drought for over a decade. The folks who run the Arizona Snowbowl ski resort, which mainly attracts skiers from the Phoenix area, are moving ahead with a system to make snow from reclaimed wastewater in order to survive the dry winters that have become so common of late. Getting the go-ahead from the Forest Service and a commitment from the city of Flagstaff for the wastewater was the easy part. After years of legal opposition from local Native American tribes (who consider the San Francisco Peaks where the resort is located to be sacred), in 2009 the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a lower court's ruling that the project did not infringe on the tribes' religious freedom, allowing it to proceed.

Undeterred, opponents have filed a new lawsuit that, among other things, argues that the snowmaking threatens an endangered native plant. For its part, the resort is ready to start utilizing "recycled poop water" this year if necessary.  The snowmaking controversy seems to me to be a smaller act in the larger, bitter, "take no prisoners" running melodrama that has come to define U.S. politics and society at large. After years of expensive legal wrangling and acrimony, neither side will relent. The moment the Supreme Court turned the tribes away, the Snowbowl people started right in laying pipes. And of course opponents responded by filing the new lawsuit and chaining themselves to trees and construction equipment to prevent the work from going forward.

It's probably for the best that I'm not a skier, since sloshing down the slopes in frozen poop water does not sound like a good time to me. Heck, let's just be honest -- I'm something of a wimp. Back in the day, when we were new to the area and Mother Nature was still blanketing it with enough of the white stuff to sustain a ski resort, I enthusiastically signed up the whole family for beginner's ski lessons. The sun was shining, the snow was fresh, the lessons were free -- and we lasted maybe an hour. While snotty-nosed little 5-year-olds in the group were taking to it like they had been born on skis, I was finding that no matter how enthusiastic I was or how carefully I observed, I could not for the life of me stop without falling over, and I could not possibly get back up without help once I was down. It was one of the supremely humbling experiences of my life, and to this day I can't bring myself to make fun of the Life Alert "I've fallen and I can't get up!" (TM) commercials.

The San Francisco Peaks north of Flagstaff, Arizona
The awesomely beautiful San Francisco Peaks
in Northern Arizona
Yes, I was a quitter. But then, knowing when to quit is a good thing. Take the tribes, for instance. Let's see, there's been skiing up on the "sacred" Peaks since 1938, and only now they've decided to fight to the bitter end over some wastewater snow? I shudder to think how much snot and spit and yes, pee, from all those skiers has been desecrating the area over the years. Note: when the animals are all gone, closing the barn door is not going to help. All that time, money and energy might have been better spent on jobs and health services for the Navajo and Hopi nations. And then there's the Snowbowl owners. Maybe it's just me, but if I had to go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to stay in business, I think I'd find another line of business. I know for some people skiing is close to a religion, but this is ridiculous. (And frankly, with the Grand Canyon and other natural wonders within close proximity, skiing is really a minor part of northern Arizona's outdoor recreational scene.)

Both sides exemplify that time-honored saying, "If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging!" But then, that's not the American way, is it? We'd rather exhaust and bankrupt ourselves and everyone around us rather than let the other guy win. The irony is, for all of humanity's fussing and fighting, ultimately Mother Nature holds all the cards. Blow enough frozen wastewater and carbon dioxide at her, and she might just turn your nice little ski resort into a high-altitude, rock-strewn desert. Even calling her works "sacred" is no guarantee that she'll grace them with life-giving rain and snow. She's large and in charge, and she just loves to mess with the best-laid plans of both tree-huggers and crass businessmen alike.

Speaking of best-laid plans, the owners of the ski resort in Snowbeast quickly learn there are even worse obstacles than disappointing snowfall totals or pissed-off environmentalists (how's that for a segue?). It seems a very large, shaggy creature has crashed the ski resort's 50th anniversary winter festival, and is dragging off skiers. When a frightened young woman reports that a huge, hairy creature kidnapped her friend, Tony Rill (Robert Logan), resort manager and grandson of owner Carrie (Sylvia Sidney), grapples with his own skepticism and concern that rumors of a monstrous creature will put a damper on the carnival. Tony and right-hand man Buster Smith (Thomas Babson) ski out to the area where the abduction took place. Tony finds a bloody ski vest, and spots a large humanoid thing skulking around the edge of the woods.

Buster (Thomas Babson) meets up with the Snowbeast
The Snowbeast is about to lend ski resort employee
Buster (Thomas Babson) a big, furry hand.
Back at the lodge, grandma seems more interested in preventing a panic that will spoil the carnival than finding out what happened to the girl. In spite of the bloody evidence and Tony's sighting, she tells him to keep mum and to put up "restricted area" signs where the creature was last seen. Tony's life suddenly gets even more complicated with the arrival another large humanoid-- Olympic gold medalist skier Gar Seberg (Bo Svenson) has shown up along with his beautiful wife (and TV reporter) Ellen (Yvette Mimieux). Long ago Tony and Gar had competed for Ellen's affections, but the blonde Nordic hunk ended up winning her. However, since his Olympic glory, Gar's had a run of bad luck, and he's come to ask for a job. Bygones being bygones, Tony hires him on the spot.

Just as avalanches roll down hill, Buster gets stuck with the sign duty. After completing the task, he inexplicably takes a header on the edge of a ravine. As he struggles to pull himself up, a giant, white-furred arm reaches out and grabs his head (no, it's not Zsa Zsa with her latest expensive fur coat). Cut to a remote mountain ranch, where a young boy stumbles on what remains of the missing woman in a ramshackle barn. Sheriff Paraday (Clint Walker) immediately realizes he's going to need help, so he summons Tony out to the murder scene. When Tony and Bo arrive, the Sheriff asks Tony if he can help identify the body. "Maybe if I see the girl's face," Tony responds. The Sheriff hesitates before saying, "She doesn't have one."

Ellen Seberg (Yvette Mimieux) is tracking the Snowbeast
Ellen (Yvette Mimieux) hears the call of
the wild Snowbeast.
Meanwhile, Ellen, in full TV reporter mode, gets wind of the story, skis out to the farm and discover's the creature's tracks. She finds the blood-stained site where Buster was grabbed, and hears the creature's chilling roar. As Tony and Bo try to convince the Sheriff that they've got more than a grumpy grizzly on their hands, out in the woods Ellen wipes out on her skis as the snowbeast lurks nearby…

Later, after another snowbeast attack, a couple of sheriff's deputies inadvertently echo the interior dialog that I imagine plays in many a reviewer's head when confronted with a less-than-stellar cinematic effort:
1st deputy: What a mess!
2nd deputy: How are we going to write this up?
1st deputy: I dunno.
While Snowbeast is not a mess per se, there's nothing particularly special about it, and it comes off rather flat. More than a couple of reviewers have noted the thematic similarity with Jaws, which came out just a couple of years earlier-- unsuspecting tourists start falling prey to an unseen creature, and the local businesspeople try to pretend that nothing's happening to keep the tourists and their money coming. (Even the snowbeast's low, menacing tonal music theme as he sneaks up on the ski tourists is reminiscent of Jaws.) Of course, this TV movie is no Jaws, and I doubt that anyone canceled their ski vacation plans after seeing it (on the other hand, who knows how many folks skipped the beach after seeing Bruce the shark?).

The snowbeast keeps busy through the movie's 86 minute running time -- picking off skiers and resort employees here and there; crashing the crowning ceremony of the winter carnival snow queen; trapping the protagonists first in a barn, then a camper -- but unfortunately generates little suspense or shivers. There are lots of POV shots of the creature stalking his prey through the snowy woods, and quick shots of its huge hairy arm and gnarled hand trying to grab someone. While I'm usually a "less-is-more" kind of guy and all for judicious use of special effects and letting the viewer's imagination fill in the blanks of what you don't show, Snowbeast could have benefited from a few more shots of the beast himself, and fewer shots from his perspective. The little we do see of him makes me think the producers were not very confident of the beast suit, so left most of him on the cutting room floor.

The ski resort people and the Sheriff talk things over after the first body is found.
Gar (Bo Svenson) and Tony (Robert Logan) try to convince the
Sheriff (Clint Walker) that he's got more than just a grumpy
grizzly on his hands.
In between action sequences, the love triangle between Tony, Gar and Ellen also fizzles. Gar's self-esteem has hit a low point, and his marriage has nosedived along with it. Ellen confides in Tony that after winning the gold medal, Gar quit skiing altogether. "Marriage can survive many things," she tells him, "but it can't survive lack of respect." Ouch! Later, we learn that there's no particularly dramatic story or dark secret behind the the hero's fall. It's just that he was so afraid of becoming a has-been, he became a has-been. Okay, moving on…  (Hint: if you're thinking that hunting down bigfoot might be just the thing to restore the big guy's self-respect and save his marriage, then I'd say you've seen your fair share of TV movies!)

Although Snowbeast is no classic, it at least assembles an interesting, eclectic cast that gives it the good ol' college try. Yvette Mimieux's big break came in another sci-fi movie, George Pal's classic The Time Machine (1960). If anything, the intervening 17 years only added to her attractiveness and sex appeal.

Bo Svenson is one of those amiable big lugs who to this day keeps popping up in low-budget movies and TV (not to mention small parts in big movies like Inglourious Basterds and Kill Bill, Part 2.) With his doughy, everyman face and unassuming demeanor, he's like a Swedish John C. Reilly.

Early in Clint Walker's career, he starred in the hugely popular TV western Cheyenne (1955-1962). In the mid-'60s he tangled with another big, hairy beast in one of Disney's better man-against-nature pictures (and one of my personal favorites), The Night of the Grizzly (1966).

Glamorous Sylvia Sidney started acting in movies at the dawn of the sound era, and appeared in films and TV shows right up until her death in 1999. In the '30s, she shared screen time with such Hollywood tough guys as Bogart and George Raft. By the 1950s, almost all of her work was in television, where she appeared in such diverse series as Route 66, Starsky and Hutch, The Love Boat, and Fantasy Island.

The one big letdown in the acting department is Robert Logan (Tony), who appears out of his depth next to the other veteran cast members. But man, does he sport a big head of '70s hair!

The other interesting name in Snowbeast's credits is writer Joseph Stefano. Stefano's biggest claims to fame are his screenplay for Hitchcock's Psycho (1960; wherein he came up with the brilliant and disorienting idea of introducing the attractive Janet Leigh character and then suddenly killing her off), and as a producer and writer for the original The Outer Limits TV series (1963-64).

The Snowbeast makes a very rare and brief appearance.
An alpine Bigfoot, a transplanted Yeti, or something else?
You make the call!
This beast is something of a lightweight as far as thrills and suspense are concerned, but let's face it, if you're a bigfoot fan (and you know you are), you have to check it out. With its convenient online availability (see below), at least it's not as hard to find as a real bigfoot. (Or, if you're interested in a more cerebral treatment of Bigfoot's cousin the Yeti, check out the write up of The Abominable Snowman elsewhere on this blog.)

And if you do track the Snowbeast down, maybe you can clear something up for me. Is he a Sasquatch that happened to adapt itself to an alpine climate, or a transplanted Yeti, or the offspring of a Sasquatch and a Yeti, or something else entirely? Feel free to use the comment box, that's what it's there for.


Where to find it:
Available on DVD

Oldies.com

Available online

Amazon Instant Video

Whatever you do, don't go in the snow!

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