AND YOU CALL YOURSELF A SCIENTIST!
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“If he hunt Devil Bear, he don’t come back. That bear is Kushtaka – the devil!”
Director: Richard Bansbach and R.E. Pierson
Starring: Jason Evers, Leon Ames, Anthony Caruso, Carla Layton, Glenn Sipes, Buck Young, Myron Healey, Wayne Lonacre, Bill Ratcliffe, Buck Monroe
Screenplay: Chuck D. Keen and Brian Russell
In the wilds
Comments: Claws is a film whose genealogy is almost biblical in its simplicity: Jaws begat Grizzly, Grizzly begat Claws.... The lineage could not be more obvious, and nor could the operation here of exploitation film’s fundamental law of diminishing returns. As shameless a rip-off of its inspiration as Grizzly is, it is also a professional work. It has no interest at all in trying to duplicate the serious dramatic and emotional content of its model, granted, but it does offer up a quality exploitation film cast, lots of bloodshed, and enough gestures towards its predecessor to keep an audience (or at least, a certain kind of audience) amused. Claws, on the other hand, plays like a shoddy photocopy of Grizzly; the entire production is beset by a consistent amateurism that very nearly kills it as an entertainment. Claws is only a few minutes longer than Grizzly in its running-time, but it feels an age so, thanks to a series of poor artistic choices.
Beware the pigeon-toes of death....
Of course, in many ways Claws is an amateur film, certainly on the production side; the majority of the people concerned in its making have few, if any, other credits, while the cast consists of a handful of hardened professionals surrounded by inexperienced support players cast locally (including the kids from an acting group based in Juneau as the scout troop). The problem is not that the film’s dialogue scenes are awkwardly staged and executed, which is to be expected; it’s that there are so many of them. The worst and most ill-judged part of Grizzly is the unnecessary romantic relationship it provides for its Martin Brody stand-in, in scenes that grind the action to a halt. Far from learning from this mistake, Claws goes to the other extreme, with about a third of its running-time (or what feels like a third of its running-time) spent dwelling on the Jason-Chris-Howard triangle, in which (given that we’re watching a killer bear movie, and all) I doubt anyone would be interested in even if the relationship(s) depicted weren’t a distillation of the most worn-out clichés from any one of a thousand made-for-TV movies or soap operas. I know from conversation that a fair percentage of people sitting down to watch Claws over the years have ended up shutting it off and giving up on it because of this stuff, and I can’t say that I blame them. Me? Well, I’m stubborn. And a masochist.
Another aspect of
that draws a lot of criticism is its numerous lingering inserts of
nature photography. The film was shot on location in
This film's saving grace.
Anyway, you can’t say that Claws wastes any time at the outset getting down to business. The credits run over footage of a bear’s feet walking, with the footage tinted red – ooh, ominous! We then cut to the wilderness, and two grizzlies fighting. This looks and sounds like a savage scene, but the fact that neither bear ends up with a mark on it, plus the smooth, well-groomed, high-gloss nature of the animals’ coats, gives away the fact that these are both stunt bears. The combat is being watched by three hunters and their guide (a gentlemen named “Virgil”, who is not identified in the film’s credits), the latter of whom actually is a “licensed guide”, as he likes to insist ad nauseum, but whose professional credentials are somewhat undermined by the fact that he favours what I can only describe as a “Daktari hat”. We will learn that Virgil gets most of his income either from poaching, or from facilitating the poaching of others; and now he and his three employers lift their rifles and open fire on the two grizzlies.
After certain recent viewing experiences, the patent faking of the animal killing here was, in an odd way, rather cheering. First we get a close-up of a squib effect, but the bear in question is only wounded, and runs off into the woods (noticeably sans bullet holes). The second bear then gives us a rare example of Darwinism in action by sitting up on its haunches chest-on to the hunters. They accept the tacit invitation, and the bear hits the ground in a flopping motion that could not be more obviously the result of an off-camera trainer saying, “Lie down, Teddy! Good bear!” (The “dead” bear can subsequently be seen settling itself more comfortably on the ground.) After a quick consultation, the hunters decline the task of following and finishing off the wounded bear, and decide to get the hell off the mountain instead. Which is just too bad for a logger named Jason Monroe, who is out on the mountain with his wife collecting wood for the coming winter.
"Say, honey, speaking of getting wood---" "Not now, Jason!"
Before we get to that, though, it should be pointed out that, like Grizzly, Claws tries to convince us that its killer bear is a freakishly large specimen of its species (although unlike Grizzly, it makes no exculpating mention of “the Pleistocene era”). Witness after witness will speak numbly of its enormous size, how it is bigger than any other bear they’ve ever seen. However, that opening fight is between two bears of exactly the same size....so I guess there were two freakishly large grizzlies up on the mountain, which just that moment, with a pack of hunters closing in, decided to have a fight. Quite the coincidence, huh?
So we meet Jason and Chris Monroe, who are BLISSFULLY HAPPY IN THEIR MARRIAGE. We know that they are BLISSFULLY HAPPY IN THEIR MARRIAGE because every single moment they kiss, and cuddle, and tease, and flirt, and laugh, and hold hands, and sing, and sing, and sing, and OH MERCIFUL GOD JUST STOP IT WILL YOU!!!!???? Fortunately, the radiator hose in their truck blows out (thank You, merciful God!), and Jason leaves Chris in the cabin while he hikes off to the next town. There is one nice moment here when the van carrying the guilty hunters belts past, ignoring Jason’s attempt to flag it down. So he walks on, until----
There’s a yawning sameness about the bear attacks in Claws. They all start with an ambush from the side, with the victim taken to ground with a single-armed hug. Then there’s a confusing humble of POV shots and inserts of a bear doing that gaping thing, or sitting on its haunches and waving a paw; the whole thing being dragged out with slow motion and freeze-frames. The attack on Jason is a bit better than most though, because it also has cut into it some footage of (presumably) a real bear wrestling with its trainer....and if it’s a black bear rather than a grizzly, well, the film’s just copying its inspiration there too, right? On the other hand, this footage does tend to emphasise the fact that this monstrous “Devil Bear” we’ll be hearing about for the next ninety minutes is hardly bigger than the humans it is killing and mauling.
A freakishly small Devil Bear, or a freakishly large victim? You decide.
Some teletype then fills us in on the bear’s body
count; the five-year hiatus in its activities; and its mysterious
reappearance. (No reason for that lengthy cessation is ever offered.
Personally, I get a horrid,
Revenge feeling that the bear is waiting
for a vulnerable
There: there’s a summary for you, of what this film takes endless scenes to convey to us; not just head on, but via flashbacks; and wavy-screen bookended flashbacks, at that; flashbacks that are, moreover, inserted in the oddest places, making them confusing as well as annoying. We also get flashbacks cut into Jason’s recurrent nightmares about his attack, just in case ALL THE OTHER ONES weren’t quite enough for us....
Anyway, Howard gets his way, to Jason’s anger and resentment. Me, I wouldn’t have thought that a camping trip that coincided with the reappearance of a monstrous killer “Devil Bear” was a particularly good idea, but that’s probably just my urban ignorance talking. Or maybe not, as the bear sets upon Howard and his troop; a scene that, I confess, caused me much evil glee. Buck Monroe is critically injured – duh – but considering he is last seen being dragged off in his bloody sleeping-bag by the bear, you can only wonder how he got out of the attack in something resembling one piece.
(Edited much later to add: it occurs to me belatedly that the attack on the scout troop might be “the return of the Devil Bear” referred to in that intervening teletype; the film is so weirdly structured it’s hard to tell what comes before what.)
So – You’ve Got To Let The Boy Grow Up 0, Clinging Motherhood 1, as Chris gives Howard big reproachful eyes and chokes, “You promised!”, sending Howard into a spiral of guilt-induced, wavy-edged flashbacks.
"Must not....look....into camera....so hard...."
The attack on the scout troop also introduces this film’s oddest touch, the suggestion that the bear is actually some kind of supernatural being. There are ominous mutterings about the lack of spoor in the bear’s wake, about trails of footprints that suddenly stop. Person after person empties their gun into it, only for the bear to shrug it off the way Jason Voorhees shrugs off fatal blows to the head.
Prior to the attack, one of the scouts refers to the bear as, “The Kushtaka!” According to this film, this is “a kind of evil spirit; a punisher” capable of taking on any form. Of course, with the introduction of “the Kushtaka” comes also the introduction of the Wise Old Indian and his Profoundly Unhelpful Visions. This would be Henry, Jason Monroe’s one remaining friend and companion who, in a mysterious piece of in-film re-writing, is later held to have rescued Jason when he was attacked, and angered his people in the process (even though they have been explicitly described to us as, “Raven Clan, not Bear Clan!”). “You see, Jason’s killed a lot of bears,” Ben later explains to Howard, “and they think it’s only right that a bear should kill him” – a line of reasoning I have quite a lot of sympathy with, frankly.
Anyway, the upshot of all this is that when Jason, Henry, Ben and Howard finally team up to go hunting the Devil Bear, Henry starts having visions featuring three natives (the “Wailing Women”, evidently a presage of death) and a riotous variety of stuffed animals, in a display rivalled only by the hilarious “animal attack” scene of Jess Franco’s El Conde Dracula.
Henry and his people were wise in the ways of taxidermy....
Now, the Kushtaka are indeed part of Alaskan native legend. They have nothing to do with bears, though: they are otter-people, shape-shifters who are occasionally kind (sometimes rescuing lost travellers) but most often malicious, being particularly given to luring children to a watery doom. Perhaps it was the threat to the scout troop that put this notion into someone’s head, but why would you take a real piece of local mythology and then misuse it so egregiously?
But there’s something even stranger about all this: the feeling that I should be adding to my exploitation film family tree – “....and Claws begat Prophecy....”
Game commissioner Ben Chase (played by Leon Ames, whose genre credits stretch back to the 1932 version of Murders In The Rue Morgue, and who gives this film’s closest approximation to a decent performance) decides on an unorthodox approach to the Devil Bear situation. Ben hires a couple of young scientists, Marshall and Gil, who have designed and built an infra-red-controlled cage system with which they have successfully trapped a variety of animals around the world. These two are smugly certain that they can solve the Devil Bear problem, as, “Man-eaters are alike wherever you go. Once they take a liking to humans, they never give up.” They do concede, though, that the Devil Bear is somewhat different: “It’s almost like he has a hatred, some kind of vengeance against people.”
Incredibly, these two in turn have hired Virgil as
their guide; and even more incredibly, five years on,
wearing that damn hat. Virgil squirms
Now, honestly, would you follow that hat into grizzly bear country?
Elsewhere, we get the traditional “morons on the loose” scene, as a group of hunters prepares to head into the woods against the orders of the sheriff and the common sense counter-arguments of a helicopter pilot called “Bud” Madden, who is roundly abused for his supposed cowardice in return. Sadly, none of the hunters meets up with the Devil Bear. On the other hand, the sheriff is driving back to town when he spots something moving in the undergrowth and gets out of his car to investigate. On his own. In the dark. Yeah, I know: who was I calling “moron”? The sheriff creeps along and then plunges towards his quarry, gun poised – only to see a bear cub gambolling with a moose calf in a clearing.
“Why, you dumb little papooses,” chuckles the sheriff, holstering his hand-gun and turning back towards his car – and of course is instantly taken down by the Devil Bear, in a perfectly executed side-arm crash-tackle.
Try watching this sequence and convincing yourself that the bear cub and the moose calf aren’t on the Devil Bear’s payroll.
While Buck lies in the hospital with “a specialist
Jason: “Are you happy?”
Chris: “A whole lot. And then some more!”
Jason: “You and me, baby! Forever, and all the time!”
There's never a killer bear around when you need one.
We then cut to Jason and Chris throwing bitter accusation at each other, which is a relief, if not exactly the dramatically ironic piece of artistry its creators were going for. Jason lays guilt trip after guilt trip on Chris, and finishes up by clutching his left forearm with his right hand as he flexes his fingers and mutters about how, with Bucky, “It didn’t make any difference about this.” Ah, yes, that “crippled” left arm. Later on, we will watch Jason tramping through the wilderness for about a week, camping out, climbing mountains, hauling others up mountains, abseiling, rescuing the injured, and swinging an axe with gusto, all without the slightest sign of physical incapacity. I’m torn between assuming that it’s a fake to increase Chris’s guilt and win Buck’s sympathy, and the suspicion that an insurance scam may have gotten out of hand.
Meanwhile, Gil, Marshall and Virgil are in a hired
cabin monitoring their high-tech, cutting edge surveillance equipment
Suddenly the alarm system goes off, and
Sure enough, the next instant, someone shoves a smallish stuffed bear through the cabin wind----sorry, I mean, the monstrous Devil Bear plunges into the cabin and slaughters the occupants with lots of slow motion and POV shots. This is one of Claws’ most blatant Grizzly riffs, particularly when the bear leaves a body cleverly arranged in the rafters, so that it will drop down at the most dramatically appropriate moment, when Ben and Jason arrive to investigate the sudden silence from the bear-trappers.
This follows from Chris confiding her various woes to her Uncle Ben. Ben encourages Chris to see the guilt-wracked Howard:
Ben: “He thinks you’re avoiding him because of what happened.”
Chris: “Well, of course I’m not! Not consciously. I just need more time. I can’t talk to Howard.”
But she’s not avoiding him. Let’s be quite clear about that.
Chris begs Ben to prevent Jason from hunting the
bear himself, but Ben replies that he wouldn’t if he could. A phone-call
This incident prompts Ben to insist that Jason take him along on the hunt for the Devil Bear, and to announce his further intention of bringing Howard along too. And so, for the next forty minutes, we will watch these four men wander through the wilderness; a gruelling test of endurance in which the only relief will be some lovely wildlife photography (at least, when our alleged heroes aren’t spoiling the view), Henry’s increasingly bizarro visions of stuffed animals, and the occasional out-of-left-field incident, such as the one where, in the middle of a discussion of Henry’s beliefs, Jason suddenly drops a bead on Howard, who reacts by blurting, “I love her and she loves me!”
"Be vewy, vewy quiet. I'm hunting Howard!"
We also get the occasional cut-away to Chris (which hardly counts as “relief”), as she hangs around the heliport to get updates from Bud Madden, who is trying to keep the hunting party under surveillance, but warns of a dangerous weather-front moving in. “It’s going to come in on top of us like a flock of broody elephants!” Wow, that colourful Alaskan vernacular, huh?
The hunting party’s progress is slowed somewhat when Henry’s visions cause him to stumble off the edge of sharp slope. Jason climbs down to him, and Henry is hauled back up (somehow: the film rather skips over that bit). In the middle of the following night, Henry wakes and, following a spirit call, wanders off into the woods. He has repeated visions of the Wailing Women, but when he calls out to them, “I’m coming!” and stretches out his arms, he gets a bear-hug in return.
Jason sets out alone and finds what’s left of Henry, which inspires him to shake his gun at the surrounding mountain peaks and bellow, “You filthy murdering devil! Where are you!? I’m going to kill you! You bloody murdering bastard!!” This in turn prompts an hilariously inappropriate insert shot of the bear – or rather, a bear – standing on two legs and waving a friendly paw, like, “Yeah, hi! Here I am! Yoo hoo!”
Three becomes two when Howard breaks from Jason and Ben, refusing to go any further towards the glacier, and instead climbing a tree just down the trail from Henry’s body. Naturally, he chooses the skinniest, least-branched tree he can find, and the bear knocks it over with little difficulty, thus resolving our extremely tedious love-triangle. Thank you, Devil Bear!
"Yoo hoo, Mr Hunter Man!"
Chris is called from the helicopter base where the hunting party is being fitfully monitored back to the hospital, where she learns that Buck will survive, but, “He’ll need all the help you can give him.” And just because Chris isn’t feeling lousy enough, Buck’s first words upon coming out of his coma are, “I want my daddy!”
Meanwhile, Jason and Ben are halfway up a mountain, where Jason comments, “When I come to the end of bear tracks, I like to see something standing in the last of them.” This in turn prompts Ben to wonder whether Henry wasn’t right after all. “Maybe it is the Kushtaka.” On cue, a bear rises up and growls. Jason fires one shot, the recoil from which somehow sends him and Ben plunging down the mountain. Jason survives intact (in fact, that crippled arm seems a whole lot better), but Ben is badly injured. Jason reclaims both men’s packs, and radios for help, bringing Bud Madden flying to the rescue, in spite of that flock of broody elephants we were hearing about.
Madden manages to find Jason and Ben, and to put the helicopter down. Jason refuses to give up his quest, however, as Chris learns to her dismay when Madden brings Ben back to the base. Hearing that Jason is still out there, Chris uses Buck’s longing for his daddy as a whip to force Madden back into the air, and herself along for the ride. Jason is by now at “the old lost Tascombe mine” (how can it be lost if (i) it has a name and (ii) everyone knows where it is?), where the bear suddenly launches out of ambush from behind some stacked up boards. Jason’s rifle goes flying, and he has to struggle out from under a wooden beam; the bear kindly sits there waiting for him to do it. (We get a lot of long shots of the bear here, which is a big mistake: it turns out that “monstrous savage killer” was somewhat out of its dramatic range.)
Jason puts three bullets into the animal with his hand-gun, but that does nothing. The two begin a game of cat-and-mouse (bear-and-fish?) down the length of an abandoned train, until Jason makes a run for an axe, lying in the opening of the mine. He then scrambles up onto the shelf over the mine, and he and the bear exchange swipes. (The use of a one-shot here does rather emphasise the whole “not really freakishly large” thing, although the stunt bear is a good-sized grizzly, which is something.) As the bear is trying unavailingly to claw something, it manages to puncture a metal drum, the contents of which pour all over it, causing it to retreat into the mine itself. Jason hesitates in the doorway, having an elaborate summation-style FLASHBACK (speaking of Jaws: The Revenge, he starts flashing on events he wasn’t present for, like Buck being wheeled into hospital). “You dirty bastard,” mutters Jason, and plunges into the darkness after it.
"For the last time, I don't want any Amway!"
Hmm. So I guess you can all call me Ishmael.
Anyway, we soon learn why the mine was abandoned in the first place: it turns out to be merely a tunnel that leads into another set of bushes, where Jason and the bear have a slow-motion fight, he swinging the axe at it, and it waving its paws around somewhat aimlessly. Jason finally takes a full-on blow to the side of the head, which drops him to the ground but otherwise fails to injure him in the slightest.
In the midst of this, Madden’s helicopter appears overhead. “Oh, my God!” exclaims Chris, seeing what’s going on, and starts shouting at Madden to put the helicopter down, as if he can just do that. While Madden is looking for a landing-spot, Chris seizes the helicopter’s flare-pistol.
Meanwhile, Jason is clinging to the edge of a cliff, where the bear (like all good villains) stops to do some taunting, rather than just reaching down and finishing him off, which allows Madden to land and Chris to come running up, brandishing that flare-gun – and for Jason Evers’ dubbed voice to inform us, just in case we’d all dozed off a scene or two earlier (a fair assumption), that, “It’s covered with gasoline!”
So the bear rears up, and Chris aims the pistol, point-blank. And nothing happens.
I’m not quite sure what this is meant to be, whether Chris freezes in terror, or can’t figure out how to work the flare, or whether someone just pointed out that all things considered, it probably should be Jason who finally kills the bear; but anyway, she doesn’t fire, and the bear knocks her down – failing to injure her in the slightest in the process.
You know, the Hero’s Death Battle Exemption is annoying enough when it rescues an actual hero; but these two - !? However, the scene is redeemed somewhat by the fact that Chris (or possibly Carla Layton) clearly mouths, “Shit!!” as the bear takes a swing at her.
This distraction allows Jason to haul himself back up onto solid ground and sprint across (in slow motion) to claim the flare-gun. The bear whacks him again, but this time doesn’t even knock him down. Jason levels the pistol, giving the bear the old steely-eyed, “Smile, you son of a---” glare, and then fires; and well, we know how this goes, right? Ursus arctotis inflammabilis.
So the bear goes up in flames. And then falls off the cliff. Despite being nowhere near it.
Now, where have we seen this before?
Jason and Chris stagger to their feet and hug; and Chris tells Jason that Buck will be all right. And this is The End, a fact that leaves me furiously angry, as I have just spent 100 minutes watching a rip-off of Grizzly that does not climax with the destruction of a helicopter!?
And okay, I accept that the budget of Claws never would have stretched to the real destruction of a real helicopter; but would it have killed them to blow up a model, or to push one over that cliff?
Feh. “Rip-off” is right.
And another odd thing here. I can only conclude that even the people who made this film didn’t think it would be successful enough to warrant a sequel (hey, remember when a sequel had to be warranted??), but they sure had the perfect set-up for one, since that burning bear lands in the water. I’m astonished that the film didn’t end with a shot of that bear hauling itself back onto shore, covered in burns and more vengeful than ever----
Claws 2: just when you thought it was safe to rejoin your scout troop....
Want a second opinion of Claws? Visit 1000 Misspent Hours – And Counting.