Given the state’s propensity for traffic congestion and unpredictable bouts of inclement weather, it’s a minor miracle that anything of consequence gets accomplished in Massachusetts, let alone a feature film without major studio support. (I say this as a native Bay Stater who had to stop writing this paragraph to go shovel). Started in 1985 and produced over multiple years – yet totaling barely one-fifth of the time it required to finish the Big Dig project – WINTERBEAST is the sort of regional horror film that’s charming enough to keep its audience indoors, toasty warm, and off slick roadways unfit for safe travel.
A lost hiker in the wilderness of rural Massachusetts during an especially bad storm prompts the local forest service to launch a search expedition. Overseeing the operation are Ranger Stillman (Mike Magri), Ranger Bradford (Lissa Breer), and Sergeant Bill Whitman (Tim R. Morgan), a personal friend of the missing. As the crew works the case and talks to locals on the mountain – Stillman mostly day-drinks and browses nudie magazines – other people go missing or turn up dead, and the searchers learn that a mysterious cluster of carved structures in the forest might be acting as a magnet for the madness. With the help of their friends Barbera (Dori May Kelly), and Charlie (Charles Majka), a local trading post merchant and self-taught student in the folklore of Native American tribes indigenous to the area, they must weather the elements, self-doubt, and a sassy but uncooperative mountain lodge owner named Mr. Sheldon (Bob Harlow) as they come into conflict with supernatural elements beyond their comprehension.
Not to be confused with the 1977 Bo Svenson made-for-TV, SNOWBEAST, or even the 2011 made-in-Canada, SNOW BEAST (featuring Jason London), WINTERBEAST was a labor of love born of the creative partnership between two Massachusetts natives, writer/director Christopher Thies, and producer and stop-motion animator Mark Frizzell. In spite of low budgets and few professional-grade film resources in the Bay State, their sole finished feature film succeeds on the efforts of its enthusiastic cast and Frizzell’s imaginative and admittedly rough-and-ready creature designs.
Some viewers may be inclined to lob bitter criticisms at the film’s cheap sets, green stable of actors, inconsistent tone, and almost total disregard for continuity, but my biggest gripe (if it even counts) is that nobody in the film shouts “GO FUCK YASELF, WINTAHBEAST!” in a thick Boston accent. The film is otherwise a rough gem of its time and place, with earnest energy and well-meaning production value (and budget-saving shortcuts) in nearly every scene. Some of the night-time exteriors are made up of nothing more than low lighting, painted wood, and potted evergreen plants. There is rarely any snow on the ground nor any other obvious signs of the winter season. During a close-up of a box of important ancient artifacts, there’s a blatant and unexpected dildo; nobody in the cast acknowledges it. The film stock noticeably switches between 8mm and 16mm during some scenes, and actor Tim Morgan’s mustache changes from bushy to wispy in others. Rough weather and high winds are simulated in window view by crew members shaking tree branches. During fatal encounters with WINTERBEAST’s incredible crew of strange monstrosities – from the tree creature to the demonic fowl – the hapless human victims are abruptly transformed into clay counterparts for easy dismemberment. The titular “final” wintry beast the protagonists battle in the climax looks a lot less like his stop-animated brethren and more like a cross between Vigo the Carpathian in GHOSTBUSTERS II and the grimy drifter behind Winkie’s Diner in MULHOLLAND DRIVE. It’s really kooky stuff, but if this corner of subgenre pleases your palette, this is kitchen-sink horror filmmaking at its kitschy best.
Apart from the spooky and lurid dream sequences and a murderer’s row of stop-animated fiends, the film’s ultimate special effect might be the performance of Bob Harlow, playing the eccentric lodge owner, Mr. Sheldon. He adorns his slim frame with blazers of every loud and heinous pattern imaginable while reacting to each and every polite request from the forest rangers (during a missing persons crisis) like he’s just been ordered to pay 12 years’ worth of back-taxes in cash. Thies was obviously riffing on the tense dynamic between Chief Brody and Amity Island’s stubborn Mayor Vaughn from JAWS in these scenes, but the director wisely adds his own flavor by placing his business-minded blowhard at the center of a major plot twist that also serves as the film’s most record-scratch, WTF moment. No words can do it justice, you’ll just have to see for yourself (note: WINTERBEAST is streaming but is also included in Home Grown Horrors: Volume One from Vinegar Syndrome).
With 154 consecutive minutes of leisure time, you can watch Ridley Scott’s GLADIATOR just once, or you can watch this film twice, which is the first step towards becoming a WINTERBEAST scholar. Choose wisely this winter!
I’m long overdue for a good ol’ Friday night of pizza and low-budget VHS-era madness, and this one is now on the list of what will be a double or triple feature. I see that it’s available to stream on Shudder, and there’s a Rifftrax version as well. I’m not sure which one to go with, or maybe I should just take the WINTERBEAST scholar route and get my 154 minutes of credits by watching both!
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