By Eric Polk-
For years, I'd been dying to see this. In Danse Macabre, author Stephen King mentions this 1979 John Frankenheimer film as one of his favorite 'bad' movies he'd seen. Who am I to argue with the master of horror?
Tracking two lost lumberjacks through the night, a rescue team nearly follows the trail over a cliff causing one hound to fall. Two men rappel down to retrieve the fallen hound, but they are mysteriously killed. The third, who hears screams down below, rappels down to investigate, where he finds his team mates dead, killed by a mysterious creature.
Dr. Robert Verne(Robert Foxworth) is fed up with dealing with the squalor of city tenements. He does not feel he is making a difference. He accepts a job from the EPA to write a report on a logging operation near Androscoggin in Maine.The loggers are in dispute with the local American Indians who are the Opies (O.P.s), the original people.
Dr. Verne's wife, Adrian...errr...Connie...errr... Maggie (Talia Shire) accompanies him on the trip. She is pregnant but is apprehensive to tell her husband as he is set against having children. When they fly in, they meet a man, Travis Nelson and his two children Paul and Kathleen who are embarking on a trek into the wilderness. They also meet Bethel Isely, the director of the paper mill, who is to be their host. He tells them about his missing rescue team and lays the blame at the feet of the Opies. They have their own explanation:Manbearpig...errr... Katahdin, a vengeful spirit of the forest that has been awakened by the activities of the loggers. Isely describes Katahdin as "larger than a dragon with the eyes of a cat".
While fishing, Verne sees a huge salmon devour a duck. Later, after he and Maggie have eaten his catch, they are attacked in their cabin by a deranged raccoon. Verne kills it and sends a tissue sample to be tested.
The next day Hawks and his wife Ramona approach Dr. Verne to put over their side of the story. If Verne is concerned about the environment then he should include the people in his assessment. Something is making the people ill: still births, mental illness and birth defects are rife. Hawks takes Verne and Maggie to the home of Hector M'Rai, Ramona's grandfather. Hector claims to have seen Katahdin and describes him as "part of everything in God's creation". Verne sees plant roots growing on the surface that should be underground; Hawk nets a bullfrog-sized tadpole from the water to show Verne; Hector has cigarette burns on his hand but feels no pain. As the evidence mounts the idyllic setting gradually takes on a sinister hue.
Verne and Maggie tour the paper mill to look for incriminating evidence but the chemicals used in the processing are demonstrated to never leave the plant. Isely tells them that the water is routinely tested for purity. As they leave, however, Verne notices mercury deposits on Maggie's boots. It is a mutagen that causes birth defects and progressive nerve damage. It has long been used in logging as a fungicide because it is cheap. It will not show up in Isely's water purity tests because it sinks to the bottom. Verne needs more evidence and determines to take blood tests from the Opies.
That night, the Nelson family, who have set up a camp in the woods, are suddenly assaulted by a ferocious mutated bear. The horrified Paul tries to flee, but Katahdin swats him to a rock, killing him. The next day as Verne and Maggie are taking blood samples, Isely and Sheriff Bartholomew Pilgrim arrive to arrest Hawks and his men whom they mistakenly believe to be the ones who killed the Nelson family. Hawks, however, escapes. Verne, Maggie and Ramona take a helicopter to the campsite to investigate the killings. Verne and Ramona find huge scratch marks on the trees while Maggie finds two mutated bear cubs trapped in a salmon poacher's net. One of the cubs is still alive and Verne is determined to save it so it can serve as empirical evidence of the contamination. However, the weather has turned and the pilot, Huntoon refuses to take off in the high wind.
They make for Hector's home and Verne sends Hawks to fetch Isely and the sheriff. Verne sets up an emergency room in one of Hector's tepees and helps the cub survive. Maggie is clearly distressed by the ordeal so Verne takes her aside and assures her that it will all be over soon. She tells him that their nightmare is just beginning: she is pregnant and she has eaten contaminated fish like the mother of the cubs.
Isely and Sheriff Pilgrim arrive and see the mutant cub. Isely is contrite, knowing that Hawks and his men weren't the killers. Hector arrives. Then all hell breaks loose as the horribly mutated bear attacks the camp in search of her cubs and kills everyone in sight. The animal earns the name of Katahdin after the Native myth Everyone seeks shelter in tunnels beneath Hector's home. All goes quiet so Pilgrim decides to check it out. He pokes his head up out of the tunnel and Katahdin kills him.
The next day, the survivors make their way out of the forest. The helicopter is not an option as Huntoon was severely mauled in the beast's initial attack. Isely heads up to Mount Emery to try to reach a radio tower and call for help. Isley finds the radio tower but the monster immediately finds him and before Isley is able to call help, Katahdin kills him as well. The others find the Opie village mysteriously isolated and the Opie people gone, but take a truck and try to drive out along the winding forest road. Katahdin turns the truck over and finishes Huntoon off by devouring his head. The others run off through the forest with the beast in pursuit.
I don't know if this is a throwback to the bad scifi/mutant monster movies of the 50's or a serious 'we are screwing up the environment' berserk animals-type of film. Given that Frankenheimer was in the midst of some heavy drinking during production, it's hard to tell. I'm not going to bash this film too much because it didn't expect anything.
I am disappointed that Talia Shire basically phoned in this performance, I mean you could tell she was doing this just for the check. Considering her performances in the Rocky and Godfather movies, I expected better. Robert Foxworth is over-the-top with his cornball dialogue and the monster....it's more laughable than scary. You can tell how bad the alcohol was affecting Frankenheimer as judged by the poor editing and even poorer effects. Still, it's palpable to watch given the wonderful Vancouver scenery and those adorable skinned baby bears.